'Historical Google Earth' project captures a changing Britain

By Aamna Mohdin

A “historical Google Earth” featuring aerial photographs of Britain going back to 1945 has been made freely available by Cambridge University.

The vast archive captures 70 years of change across urban and rural landscapes, from the bomb-scarred postwar period to the emergence of motorways and skyscrapers.

The aerial photographs, showing Britain from the air from the 1940s up to 2009, were taken by former wartime RAF pilots at the instruction of the Cambridge archaeologist Kenneth St Joseph.

The first 1,500 photographs, covering almost every corner of the UK, were published on Friday, the first batch from an archive of almost 500,000.

Aerial photograph of London from 1986
Aerial photograph of London from 1986. Photograph: University of Cambridge Digital Library/PA

“This is sort of like a historical Google Earth,” said Cambridge archaeology professor Martin Millett. “You’re seeing fascinating changes in the city and the landscape in the period the photographs were taken. There’s a social modern history about industrialisation and agricultural change.”

Millett said the material had been sitting in an archive before researchers decided to make it available online. “Half a million photos in boxes isn’t useful to anyone else,” he said.

The earliest photographs, numbering in the hundreds, date back to 1945, but it was not until 1947 that the project took off in earnest. In that year alone, more than 2,000 aerial images were captured.

“When you want to look up somewhere you go to Google Earth and you can see what the landscape is like now. What I want people to do is to be able to explore what the landscape looked like in the last 50 or 60 years and see how you’re home and territory has changed,” Millet said.

Though the photos date to the mid-1940s, the landscape shows a much deeper history, he said. The photos capture remarkable archaeological detail from the air, with the project transforming academics’ understanding of thousands of years of UK history.

“You can see the whole of history through the photos. It’s like medieval manuscripts where people have written on it and it’s been partly erased and you get layer and layer of writing – that’s what the landscape is like,” Millet said.

Lulworth Cove, Dorset, in 1948
Lulworth Cove, Dorset, in 1948. Photograph: University of Cambridge Digital Library/PA

The university asked RAF pilots to take photographs until 1965, when it bought its own plane, a Cessna Skymaster. The plane, based at Cambridge airport, travelled across Britain taking high-resolution photos.

The Oxford academic Dr Robert Bewley, a leading expert on aerial archaeology, said: “This is an internationally important photographic collection that is now available to anyone with access to the internet. St Joseph became a pioneer of air archaeology after his work analysing RAF reconnaissance photos during world war two and came to realise there was a huge opportunity to use similar photos in archaeology and geology.”

Cambridge University Library and the university’s department of geography are exploring plans to digitise the remaining hundreds of thousands of photographs and negatives in the archive.

The first images are available on Cambridge University’s digital library at cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk.