Sometimes the story behind a series of records can be as interesting as the records themselves. This is certainly the case with our series of photographs of WWI soldiers, sailors and nurses (SRSA Ref: GRG 26/5/4).
It is now over a hundred years since the beginning of the then-Great War and State Records embarked on a project to rehouse, catalogue and digitise these photos to ensure their longevity and to make them as accessible as possible to the public. These photos were previously stored in heavy boxes and each enclosed in an acidic brown paper bag. As you can see in the photo to the left, the photos were in good condition but were very delicate and needed to be handled with nitrile gloves. Archivists and volunteers at State Records have rehoused these in standard archival (“Type 1”) boxes and they are now enclosed in acid-free folders and protected in a plastic sleeve .
To commemorate 100 years since the Gallipoli landings, State Records are launching a further 100 images from this series on our Flickr site, and here is a very brief history of the collection and why it is such a unique record.
This series was established in November 1918 – the month the War ended – and was the first series collected by what is now State Records of South Australia. Photos were initially collected, and the series advertised, by the Board of Governors of the Public Library, Museum, and Art Gallery in November 1918 because there was no dedicated archives department until 1919 (although the forms they issued were titled ‘State Archives of South Australia’). By December 1918, the collection had been advertised through posters in offices, businesses and government departments throughout the city; posters in Municipal Tramways Trust tramcars; newspaper articles; circulars to Ministers of churches in the city and country to urge their congregations to donate photos; lantern slides screened in ‘Picture Shows’ in the city; and library, museum and gallery staff members personally asking soldiers and their families for photos (letter dated 20 December 1918 to the General Secretary, Public Library, Museum, and Art Gallery of South Australia, in GRG26/5/7).
These circulars included an explanation of why the series was important and why people should donate to it. One such circular appeared in The Victor Harbor Times and Encounter Bay and Lower Murray Pilot (page 5) on 15 November 1918 and also included an offer from The Studios Limited, to photograph all soldiers in uniform free of charge “so that a faithful likeness of each volunteer may be for all time preserved in the State records”. No record of the Library’s General Secretary or the archivists arranging this could be found, so we can only guess it was a kind gesture from The Studios. If any information was missing from the form attached to the photo, a firm letter was written to the sender requesting the soldier’s full details. Some were anxious to get the details completely correct, including 70-year-old Emma Loughhead-Edis:
"As this may be indistinct (the enclosed form I mean) if you will kindly let me have another my neighbour will copy it for me. I have dislocated my right shoulder & my hand shakes, and I am in my 70th year but I should like my sons [sic] record to be perfectly clear so please excuse this.” (GRG26/5/7)
The form Mrs. Loughhead-Edis submitted was for her son, Archibald James Loughhead (Packet 111), and it was accepted in her handwriting for the permanent record.
The intention of the archives was to preserve the photos for future generations, so each was placed in a brown paper bag and then arranged in a drawer to keep them away from light (General Secretary to Mrs. G. A. Arthur, 26 December 1918, in GRG26/5/7). Light was recognised as detrimental to the longevity of the photos, so they were not put on public display. They also anticipated a huge collection of thousands of photographs and simply did not have the room for a display. Some donors were not pleased with this, with one woman accusing the Library of ‘hiding’ the brave men in cabinets (Acting General Secretary to Mrs. G. A. Thorn, 1 February 1919, in GRG26/5/7).
The concept of an archive was very new in South Australia and correspondence from the time suggests people were confused as to what the archive was going to do with the photos. There was also confusion as to which organisation (the Public Library, Museum, or Art Gallery) would have the photos, with letters from various people donating photos to all three (SRSA Ref: GRG26/5/7). Some thought the collection was destined for the Australian War Museum, with Mrs. E. G. Wright (9 March 1919) sending her photos to the Keswick Barracks for this purpose. W. Thredgold of Dulwich requested that the photo of Raymond Main be included in the large photo of all soldiers (27 March 1919).
Some were also understandably reluctant to give their photos to complete strangers, however noble their intentions of long-term preservation, because they only had one single photo, as letters from A. Allen (Honourable Secretary of the Bute branch of the Loyal League of Women) show.
[11 February 1919] Do you return the photo sent as some folks have only the one copy of their boys in uniform & would not like to lose it altogether.
[25 March 1919] I have not been as successful as I wished in collecting [photos], as I hoped to have got many more but most of the out district folk only have the one photo & do not like parting with that yet. Maybe I can send more later.
However, the series continued to grow even beyond the Second World War with nearly 3000 individuals represented.
Archival practices have not changed considerably since the photos were originally collected: they were given an identification number based on order of receipt and diligently recorded in a ledger (SRSA Ref: GRG26/5/6) and also recorded separately on index cards (SRSA Ref: GRG26/5/5). This is not dissimilar to how we arrange records today, only we now have computers and a searchable online catalogue, which has reduced the need for handwritten index cards! The information from those painstakingly handwritten forms has been entered in our archival database and those details are available on our online catalogue, ArchivesSearch.
The photos take up 26.6 linear metres of some 85,000 linear metres of records held by State Records and, although a small percentage of our total collection, it is still difficult to find physical space to display them all. And we still need to keep them away from light. We are fortunate in 2015 to have a way of displaying the photos for all to see without damaging them, exposing them, and with very little physical space by having them on Flickr . The original photographs are also available to view, now that they are nicely preserved in their new folders, and can be ordered for viewing through ArchivesSearch.
Note on the author: I’m Amy and I’m an archivist in Collection Management Services (the team, funnily enough, that manages the collection at State Records). I worked on the rehousing project for nearly two years and it’s my handwriting that appears on most of the later folders – I apologise for my rounded capital ‘E’s and fives that look like ‘S’s. I arrange and describe a lot of records, but this series really is something special. I’m incredibly grateful not only for the opportunity to work with these fantastic photos, but also to the families and the archivists of 1919 who had the foresight to recognise that pictures really do tell a thousand words, and for ensuring that the photos were properly identified and described for future generations to truly appreciate them.