To Harold Wingham, aerial photography was ‘an essential technique for modern archaeology’ and, seven decades after he first took to the skies to document the monuments and buildings of south and south-west England, it remains hard to disagree with him. Born on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire, Wingham was a passionate early proponent of this form of archaeological survey, but his contribution to the field is often overlooked today. Now, though, a year after his death, Historic England have collaborated with some of his friends and colleagues to curate three online galleries of his striking black-and-white photographs to highlight the range and significance of his work.
Wingham’s enthusiasm for flying began long before he started photographing archaeological subjects: he was just 18 when he joined the RAF in 1942, and during the Second World War he qualified as a wireless operator and also trained as a navigator, though illness meant that he did not achieve this latter ambition. After leaving the Air Force in 1947, he compiled weather reports for the Ministry of Civil Aviation and then joined the Gloster Aircraft Company, where he worked with large-format cameras – and inspiration struck. Come the end of the decade, Wingham had gained his private pilot’s licence, and had launched into what would prove to be over a decade of involvement in aerial photography.
A key champion in these endeavours was O G S Crawford, a prehistorian who also took part in the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo, but who for most of his career was the Ordnance Survey’s archaeological officer. He was a keen advocate of aerial photography in archaeology, having used images taken by the RAF to aid his own investigations during the 1920s, and he enthusiastically encouraged Wingham in his work. Wingham was able to make use of surplus government camera equipment and film during his photographic excursions, though his flights were mainly self-funded, and in the 1950s and 1960s he captured thousands of images of ancient monuments, historic buildings, and much more modern subjects, including industrial sites and urban vistas.
Wingham’s photographs were all taken from light aircraft flying at very low altitudes. He did not take the controls of the craft himself, but wielded his hand-held camera while the pilot banked to provide an angled view of his chosen subject – no mean feat, as communication within the plane was difficult (the window had to be open for a clear shot, meaning that it was very noisy inside) and the pilot himself often could not see the features that were to be photographed, due to the required perspective. The cameras that Wingham used were specially designed for aerial photography: strong and well-balanced, with hand grips, to help compensate for any wind, turbulence, or vibrations that might result in a shaky image. For this reason he favoured cameras that were as heavy as could still be comfortably held in his hands – in particular, the Williamson F24 (weighing in at 24lbs) and the Fairchild K-20 (12lbs), both of which had originally been developed for military reconnaissance. These cameras could produce images with excellent resolution, and Wingham’s photographs are superbly detailed, making them invaluable to archaeological research today.
While Wingham was a keen aviator, he was even more passionate about other modes of flight, particularly hot-air balloons and airships, which he thought would provide more stable and cost-effective platforms for archaeological survey. In the 1960s, he even worked on his own design for a two-man craft, the Gloster Airship, though that project was ultimately wound up without bearing fruit.
Wingham’s aerial career came to an abrupt end in 1963 after he witnessed an air crash that killed his pilot and close friend. He did not take to the skies again to record archaeological sites, but instead busied himself with more earthbound fieldwork, participating in excavations in his local Gloucestershire, co-founding the Gloucester and District Archaeological Research Group (later Gloucestershire Archaeology), and contributing to its journal, Glevensis. Those who remember him from this time describe Wingham as a shy, softly spoken man, but one who was always generous with his time and expertise (see box right).
Harold Wingham died in November 2021, but during his lifetime, many of his images had already entered archaeological archives. Some were acquired by the National Buildings Record in 1957, and more were taken on by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (which had merged with the National Buildings Record in 1963) in the 1970s and the 1990s. These resources were not easily accessible to the public, however, and now, the Historic England Archive – which was born out of the Royal Commission’s collections – has made almost 2,000 of Wingham’s images available online for the first time. They stem from 86 flights undertaken between April 1951 and July 1963, and cover a wide geographical sweep spanning Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Wiltshire.
Each trip produced over 100 images of one or more subjects, and from these Historic England have created three virtual ‘galleries’ on Google Arts & Culture (see ‘Further information’ below). These each follow a broad theme representing the main topics covered by Wingham. One selection showcases his contribution to landscape archaeology, depicting sites ranging from prehistoric settlements to funerary monuments, hillforts to stone circles, as well as Roman villas and deserted medieval villages – often making use of low raking light to capture banks, ditches, and earthworks in contrasting light and shadow. Wingham also documented a wealth of historic structures, particularly religious ones, and a second gallery features photographs of abbeys, cathedrals, and churches, as well as castles, country houses, and royal residences.
His photographic interests were not limited to centuries-old sites, however; Wingham photographed modern sites, too, with great enthusiasm and attention to detail, and the third gallery is themed around industry and transport, featuring images of dockyards and factories, railway bridges and canals, military sites and prisons. This last selection highlights how his archive is today a great source of information on infrastructure in the post-war years, of industries that have since declined and of feats of engineering now long since demolished: a repository of the not-so-distant past just as vivid and valuable as his images of much more ancient human constructions.
Harold’s friend Richard Savage shares some of his memories:
I first met Harold in 1970, at the second season of excavations at Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire. He came to the site hut, in traditional country walking tweeds, and said, in the light, quiet voice all his friends will remember, ‘I wonder whether these might be of any interest to you?’. He was holding out prints of his classic air photographs of the site. We were indeed very interested, and they were immediately and always important to our work, enabling us to set the excavation results year by year in the context of the unexcavated remainder of the site. I came to learn that this quiet, generous approach with important material was characteristic of his kindness and scholarship.
His flying, with a pilot colleague whose death in an air crash brought an end to Harold’s air photography, was largely self-funded, and relied on his economical way of life. He lived alone and had many friends. For a time, he lived at the Brockworth Residential Club, where in the 1970s he happily showed me his room. He was in his 50s, and the room, scrupulously neat, with many of his worldly possessions under the bed, would have been thought unacceptably small by most students of today.
When this closed, he moved, ultimately to a cottage in Cranham, where he was deeply involved with local archaeology on the ground and well-liked by his neighbours, whom he was always ready to help. He had a wonderful sense of humour and was a brilliant (though never harmful) practical joker. During his hospital stays in his last years, he was very popular with his nurses, and after his death a wake was held at the Black Horse in Cranham.’
Further information Visit Historic England’s website to search the Harold Wingham Collection: https://historic england.org.uk/images-books/archive/collections/photographs/harold-wingham-collection/. The themed displays on Google Arts & Culture are: Part I: Landscape Archaeology: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/ywVBGWkkVuQZhQ Part II: Buildings: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/1gUR3qTFcZjjBQ Part III: Industry & Transport: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/2QUBHx3gJvpkHA For more aerial photography from Historic England, visit https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/archive/collections/aerial-photos.
All Images: © Historic England Archive. Harold Wingham Collection