The George Washington Wilson Photographic Archive: a Postscript

by R.V. Pringle (March 2008 - rev. January 2011)

This 'postscript' is based on an article that was published with the proceedings of the George Washington Wilson Centenary Conference held at the University of Aberdeen in March 1993.

See  By royal appointment: Aberdeen's pioneer photographer, George Washington Wilson, 1823-1893.   Aberdeen: AUL Publishing in association with the Centre for Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, 1997 (ISBN 1-874078-08-4 : 39pp., 54 plates).


"Yesterday evening a serious fire occurred in Aberdeen, by which part of the works of Messrs G.W. Wilson & Co., artists and photographers to the Queen ... were destroyed."

So begins the newspaper account of an incident in June 1882 which cost Wilson 'a number of valuable transparencies which it will be impossible to replace', together with much of his stock of photographic prints.1

"The Fire Brigade, under Inspector Anderson, arrived about a quarter-past seven, and in a few minutes had five hose pipes playing on the burning building.   By this time, however, the fire [which started in the attic] had spread to the rooms underneath, and before the brigade succeeded in overcoming the flames the roof had fallen in, and the whole of the second storey, as well as the attic, were totally gutted."

Happily the prompt arrival of the fire brigade, aided by the design of the St Swithin Street premises – this separated the publishing offices facing the street from the printing works at the rear – saved the firm's stock of glass plate negatives, estimated at 'upwards of 60,000' in number.

Today more than a century later the University can count itself truly fortunate that so many of Mr Wilson's 'treasures on glass' (the phrase is Heather Lyall's)2 have survived.   They came to the University in 1954 from A.J.B. (Archie) Strachan, one of Aberdeen's leading commercial and industrial photographers – via, it is thought, a staff photographer, Fred W. Hardie, to whom Strachan was apprenticed in his youth.   The University's collection of around 39,000 plates (including 'duplicates')16 equates to perhaps sixty-five per cent of the working stock of the company when it was wound up at auction in 1908.   In that year the firm still had over 60,000 negatives: not an enormous figure considering that, at the height of its activities in the 1880s and 1890s, it was able to offer around 20,000 different views3 in two, three or even four print sizes;  but certainly enough to emphasise the firm's pre-eminence over a long period in the world of photographic publishing.4

The negatives now in the care of the University's Historic Collections date from the late 1850s down to the early years of the twentieth century.   They cover not only Aberdeen and the North East but the whole of Scotland and most of England, as well as parts of Wales and Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, Morocco including Tangier, the South of Spain, and (especially) colonial South Africa and Australia.5

A common misconception – and it applies as much to the many negatives in the University's care as to the smaller collections of prints, slides, albums and negatives held elsewhere – is that a 'GWW' photograph must have been taken by the great man himself.   The truth is that as time went by, and especially in the 1870s and 1880s, Wilson relied on others to add to his stock.   Thus all of the Mediterranean views and many of the English and Scottish series are the work of staff photographers, or were commissioned by the company from photographic firms elsewhere in the UK.

In fact many of the negatives were created long after Wilson had handed over the business to his sons, Charles, Louis and John Hay Wilson, in 1888.   The spectacular Australian and South African images, illustrating 'the land and people of the British Colonies, old and new' and including 'the chief native races and mining industries', were added to the firm's stock in the 1890s as a result of the activities of Charles Wilson and of staff photographers such as Fred Hardie following Wilson's death in 1893;  and it is to Charles Wilson, who had accompanied his father on many a photographic trip and evidently learned much from him about the photographer's art, that the University owes many of its best London street scenes.

It was Fred Hardie who set himself up after the closure of the firm in 1908 as a portrait photographer in Union Street, with photographic printing premises in Justice Mill Lane.6   He appears to have acquired most of the working stock of negatives around that time and to have continued to make postcards for the tourist market until about 1920, using both original GWW plates and his own accumulating stock.7   He retired in or around 1935 and sold the photographic business including the premises at 416 Union Street to J.J. Farquhar who, however, died very soon after taking over.   Archie Strachan, still only 20, then bought the business from Farquhar's widow.8

By all recent accounts Hardie acquired the bulk of the G.W. Wilson &  Co. working stock in July 1908 when some 65,000 negatives were offered for auction at the firm's printing works in St Swithin Street.   This simply cannot be true.   The negatives were offered in 68 lots, amounting to just over 20,000 'subjects', county by county, area by area;  16 lots representing around a quarter (5,211) of the 20,387 'subjects' remained unsold including all of the early stereoscopic negatives – though most appear to have found a buyer at a second, knock-down sale in September.9 Heather Lyall states that the 'unsold lots passed to Fred Hardie who ... had also purchased some negatives of local interest'.   Others go so far as to suggest that he bought up to 45,000 negatives.10   The auctioneer's records make it clear, however, that Hardie did not buy any except the 1,143 Australian pictures (lot 260) which he had probably taken or commissioned himself;  and the 'local interest' material to which Lyall refers – presumably Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire – was bought not by Hardie but by the Aberdeen printing firm of Bailie Middleton and an Elgin bookseller, Yeadon.11

It is of course possible that what Hardie actually acquired was a very considerable quantity of negatives duplicating those offered for sale.12 Another, at first sight credible, hypothesis is that Hardie obtained most of his negatives, not from the sale(s) in 1908 but from the stock with which, until 1913, Charles Wilson kept the small but separate Wilson Bros. lantern slide business going.   According to Charles Wilson, however, interviewed by Helmut Gernsheim in 1952, the 'pick' of the landscape negatives were sold in 1913 for 'a mere trifle' to Newton &  Co., London, while the bulk of the portrait negatives were buried in the garden (now part of Westburn Park, Aberdeen) of the firm's premises at Loch-head House.13

What we do know for certain is that when Hardie's successor-but-one, Archie Strachan, moved to new premises in 1953, he had to decide what to do with a large quantity of glass plate negatives lying unused and all but forgotten in a darkened basement at 416 Union Street.   With interest in Victorian photography at a low ebb, he might have been forgiven for simply consigning the glass plate – all five tons of it – to the nearest dustcart.   Instead, he made the imaginative decision to gift the negatives to Aberdeen University where they now form one of the University's most valued collections.

The University thought it was getting about 10,000 negatives of mainly local interest, and so it was reported in the press.14 By 1959 the collection size was estimated at around 20,000 but by 1964, when preliminary sorting and listing was complete, it was found to contain nearly 27,000 separate images15 – excluding a sizeable quantity of so-called 'duplicates'16 – extending well beyond the confines of the North East of Scotland.

Heather Lyall, who has written the most comprehensive account thus far of the collection and its origins, tells us that much of the early unpacking and sorting was done using student help during the summer vacations.17 The negatives were 'stored in individual sleeves, arranged by plate size, and so far as possible identified from the original Wilson catalogues'.   Because of pressures on space the negatives were kept at first in Marischal College and then transferred some ten years later to Library storage in Old Aberdeen in the shape of a former shooting gallery (the Elphinstone undercroft) at King's College.

The Librarian, Douglas Simpson, a North East scholar of some note, was concerned that this 'unique archive' be stored in the best possible conditions, with adequate temperature and humidity controls.   With support from successive Convenors of his Library Committee (notably, the distinguished geographer, Professor A.C.O'Dell) he pressed for the creation, first, of a central photographic unit under Library management to serve teaching departments in Old Aberdeen;  then for suitable premises and equipment to store the negatives;  and finally for the appointment of a full-time photographic curator.18

In fact it was to take more than a quarter of century for the University fully to get to grips with what it had acquired almost by accident, and with what had not yet been recognised by many outside the Library as the major acquisition it undoubtedly was – one of the most important photographic archives in the whole of the UK.   For the negatives to become truly accessible they had to be properly catalogued and indexed, by topic or feature as well as place;  and since browsing amongst several tons of glass was hardly practicable they had to be copied in some way onto paper or film.

Following the creation of a Photographic Department in 1956-57, steady progress was made on sorting and identifying the negatives.   By the mid-1960s it was possible to undertake selective printing in support of research – in, for example, Professor O' Dell's own field of transport history.   At the same time work began on a subject index of Scottish material (completed in 1967-68) and on the systematic printing of negatives of Scottish interest, though because of pressure of work this had to be suspended in 1970-71.19

Twenty years on, better progress began to be made.   Spurred on by a growing interest from south of the Border in the person of Roger Taylor,20 then teaching at Sheffield Polytechnic,21 the University embarked during the 1970s on a project to copy the entire set of negatives onto 'aperture card' microfilm, in order to allow a comprehensive catalogue to be compiled;  and at the end of 1979, a further important step forward came with the British Library agreeing to fund a three-year indexing project.22

The Library's Annual Report for 1979-80 records some of the problems which the new Research Assistant, Elizabeth Bennett, identified at the outset.   While copy film had by this time been made for each of the negatives, the arrangements for storing such a large quantity of glass plate were less than satisfactory.   There were also difficulties in meeting the growing requirement for prints because of other demands on the time of the Library's photographic technicians;  and a continuing concern that over-handling could result in damage to or deterioration of the negatives.

The Library did however accept that it had a responsibility to show material from the collection to a wider public, and a number of exhibitions were arranged including one which toured the Western Isles in 1977-78.   In addition the Library embarked in 1983 on a series of booklets (still ongoing) illustrating its holdings of Scottish material;  and following the arrival of the present writer as Librarian in 1988, several new publishing and promotional ventures were undertaken with the enthusiastic participation of the newly designated Photographic Curator, Michael Craig and his assistant Caroline Gilbert (now Caroline Craig).

By the time of Elizabeth Bennett's departure in February 1983, around half of the collection had been fully catalogued but much of the work of identification and description had been completed.   Thereafter arrangements were made to continue the project under the general direction of staff in the Department of Special Collections &  Archives;23 and following the creation of a photographic suite in the newly extended Queen Mother Library, the negatives were transferred there in stages between 1983 and 1988 for greater security and improved environmental control.

In the early days of cataloguing, simple thematic or place-name lists had been compiled.   Under Bennett's direction, from 1979 to 1983, a much more thorough approach was adopted.   First, 4" x 6" 'main entry' cards were made for each negative in turn.   These recorded not only geographical location and details of scenic and other features, but also information about the size and state of the negative, whether it was 'duplicated' in some way (many so-called duplicates have since turned out on closer inspection to be significantly different re-takes) and when and by whom the photograph was first registered at Stationers' Hall or when it first appeared in one of the firm's catalogues.   Additional index cards were then made to guide readers from topical, topographical or geographical terms to the 'main entry'.   A drawback to the system, recognised early on by Bennett, was that the microfilm aperture card could not be found directly from any of the various types of index heading and indeed did not carry any of the details present on the main catalogue card;  and she notes in her final report that for greater efficiency in searching 'the catalogue card and visual image should be united in one format'.24

What Bennett saw in 1983 as an ideal to be aimed at and what, indeed, Taylor partly envisaged as long ago as 1974 became a reality in the early 1990s with the advent of computer-based technology. The first phase involved 'fractal imaging' and its application to the GWW Archive (or rather to the 39,000 microfilm images already created) by a local company, DDS (Aberdeen) Ltd.25   This allowed some five tons of glass to be captured on an optical disk weighing no more than five ounces. It also provided something approaching the power of a modern infomation retrieval system with access to place names, dates, catalogue numbers, negative size and other features derived from the old catalogue records, now digitised.26

In my original published 'postscript' in 1993 I suggested that there was a need to refine and adapt the indexing terminology to take full advantage of free-text searching capabilities, and to investigate other forms of digitisation that could be applied to the glass plate negatives themselves.   The vision then was to bring out features that are as yet hardly visible to the naked eye, and perhaps to sequence the pictures in such a way that we create the illusion of actually walking along some of the streets in the cities, towns and villages that were once captured on glass by GWW and his assistants.

Fifteen years on there is encouraging evidence – as a glance at the University's web site will show – that this indeed is now beginning to happen.   The GWW Archive is used and appreciated more than ever as a fount of socio-historical information.   It gives constant delight to ordinary members of the public as a source of clear, beautifully composed images from the past – a truly memorable window on the Victorian world.   Professor O'Dell in the 1960s saw the value of the collection from a predominantly academic perspective, as preserving the visual record of altered landscapes.   Today we tend to focus more on the human and aesthetic interest which so many of these images have: not just the places themselves, attractive though these are, but the people, both ordinary and exotic, who inhabit a real world brought alive by the magic of photography.


  1. Aberdeen Journal, 15 June 1882, cited by Taylor, 152 and 167 (note 221).
  2. Heather F. C. Lyall, Treasures on glass, Leopard Magazine, January 1989, 6-10.
  3. Taylor, 150, on the evidence of the firm's 1893 catalogue, states that 'by the 1890s they were offering over twenty-five thousand views of English and Scottish subjects alone'.   In fact there is no evidence that the company ever offered significantly more than 20,000 separate topographical views including areas outside the UK.   In their 1905 Lantern Slides catalogue the firm claimed to have '30,000 landscape and architectural views' including Welsh, Irish, Mediterranean, Australian and South African subjects, but this figure, like the previous one, seems to be based on a system of numbering which had many gaps in it;  by 1908, when the firm's 'whole stock-in-trade' was auctioned, its Scottish and English topographical series excluding collotype enlargements and carbon negatives amounted to only 17,268 subjects out of a total of 20,387.
  4. Alastair J Durie, Tourism and commercial photography in Victorian Scotland: the rise and fall of G W Wilson & Co., 1853-1908, Northern Scotland, vol.12, 1992, 89: 'In its heyday the firm could be challenged in terms of the scale and scope of its operations only by James Valentine & Co of Dundee, and south of the border by the enterprises of Francis Frith or Samuel Bedford'.
  5. For a fuller description see Lyall, op. cit., and Elizabeth Bennett, Photographic treasures in the George Washington Wilson Collection. Aberdeen University Review, no. 167, 1982, 168-170.
  6. The source for most of what the University know about Hardie is George Washington Wilson's son, Charles A Wilson, who published an amusing account of his own and his famous father's photographic adventures in Aberdeen of Auld Lang Syne: a pictorial retrospect (Aberdeen, 1948).
  7. Lyall, 9, notes that 'most of the postcards of Aberdeen prior to the Great War come from this source'.   Hardie seems to have continued in business as a photographic printer at Justice Mill Lane until around 1935, when his son, Sydney, may have taken over (see the Aberdeen Directory for 1933/34 -1936/37: I am indebted to Myrtle Anderson- Smith for this information).
  8. For an account of Strachan' s career see Diane Morgan, Archie Strachan – Photographer, Leopard Magazine, November 1985,8-9.   He was born in Aberdeen in 1915 and educated at King Street and Frederick Street schools.   After a short spell at Harpers, the engineering firm, he joined Fred Hardie at his Union Street premises in 1931.   He died in 1982.
  9. Taylor, 160, refers to the July 1908 auction but not the September 1908 sale.
  10. Morgan, 8, follows Payne in Taylor, viii and Alastair Durie, George Washington Wilson, photographic innovator and entrepreneur, Cencrastus, no. 23, June-Aug 1986,22, who states: 'the main collection of negatives was purchased by an employee of the Company for a trivial sum'.   Oral tradition on the other hand asserts that Hardie 'rescued' many of the negatives (notably the Stereoscopic views and the 12 x 10 and 10 x 7 plates) at the time they were being 'disposed of' in 1908, and that he stored them 'in a dark cellar where they lay for many years till he died' (see Christine Little and Diane Wilson, Descendants of George Wilson & Elspet Herd of Banffshire, Scotland, 1989, section on George Washington Wilson).
  11. In fact the 51 lots sold to purchasers other than Hardie in July 1908 appear to represent more than two thirds of the collection of 65,000 negatives – that is 14,033 out of a total of 20,387 'subjects' offered for sale in up to 4 different sizes.   The 1,143 Australian views together with the unsold lots (some or all of which may have been bought by Hardie in September 1908) amount to only 6,354 'subjects' – say 20,000 negatives.   For Hardie to have acquired anything like the 45,000 negatives it is necessary to suppose either a) that each purchaser took only one size for each view and that Hardie managed to buy or acquire most of the other sizes;  or b) that he bought back most of the negatives from the original purchasers.   Both suggestions are inherently improbable.
  12. Heather Lyall has suggested (private communication) that the 'subjects' sold in 1908 may have been the most recent, contemporaneous, views and that Hardie acquired the 'old' stock.
  13. Helmut Gernsheim, Wilson's of Aberdeen, Functional Photography, Sept. 1952, 15 (cited by Durie, 1992, 96).
  14. University of Aberdeen. Minutes of the University Court, 13 October 1954.   Strachan's gift is referred to as 'some 10,000 negatives made by the late Mr G.W. Wilson during the latter part of the nineteenth century, illustrating the north-east of Scotland... '.
  15. University of Aberdeen. Report of the Library Committee. Session 1958-59, 10; Session 1959-60, 5; and Session 1963-64, 10.   The figure quoted in 1964 was 26,631.   A later calculation (October 1993) put it at 27,469 but this figure included several hundred negatives which had been acquired for the collection in the early 1980s (University of Aberdeen. Report of the Library Committee. Session 1979-80, 19)
  16. The sale catalogue of July 1908 refers to four main sizes, 12 x 10,12 x 8,10 x 8 and 10 x 7 inches, together with, 'in a number of cases, duplicate plates and reproduced smaller negatives, 7 x 5 and 5 x 4 size.'   All of these are represented in the University Library's collection, together with a large number of 8 x 6 and 8 x 5 plates which may or may not have formed part of the sale stock.   Given the nature of the photographic process followed at the time (see, for example, Taylor, 104-107) it is not really possible to use the word 'duplicate' in the sense in which it would be used today.
  17. Lyall, 9, using both 'insider' information from a former student (her husband!) and evidence from Aberdeen University Library Committee Minutes and Reports.
  18. University of Aberdeen. Report of the Library Committee. Session 1958-59, 10.
  19. Ibid., 1965-66 and 1970-71.
  20. Taylor had proposed an ambitious computer-based indexing project which, though eventually accepted by the University (University of Aberdeen. Minutes of the University Court. 31 October 1974), was ultimately abandoned by him in favour of something even more useful: a full-scale biographical, technical and artistic study of Wilson using in the main, for reasons which are explained in the work itself, sources other than the University Library' s collection.   See Taylor, viii (Foreword by Professor Peter L. Payne), and the Author's Acknowledgements, ix.
  21. It gave this writer particular pleasure, as University Librarian, to welcome Roger Taylor back to Aberdeen in March 1993 on the occasion of the GWW Centenary.  Taylor's paper forms part of the published proceedings of the Centenary Conference.
  22. University of Aberdeen. Report of the Library Committee. Session 1978-79, 15 and Session 1979-80, 19.
  23. Mrs Karen Cunningham (nee Middleton) worked on the project from 1983 to 1987 and Mrs Mary Murray from 1988 to 1991 under the general direction of Mrs Myrtle Anderson-Smith.   From 1986 to 1987 Mrs Heather Lyall was employed as a University-funded Research Assistant working in the Department of Economic History under Dr Alastair Durie' s supervision to 'date and explain' the visual record for a number of areas of Scotland.
  24. E. Bennett & J.M. Smethurst, Final report on progress of cataloguing of the George Washington Wilson Collection. [Aberdeen University Library: report to the British Library dated 25.10.83]. (MS 3125).
  25. See Stephen F. Walker, Fractal imaging technology, Library Review, vol. 42:2, 1993, 35 38.
  26. On a technical note: the images were compressed using a fractal compression board (an Intel I960 RISC chip controller for 8 parallel fractal transputers) and software decompressed for viewing.   The entire set of 38,000+ images, index-linked using the TextWare retrieval system, was held in December 1995 on one side of one 5.25" optical disk, equivalent to around 450 MB of disk space.
  27. Roger Taylor, George Washington Wilson, artist and photographer, 1823-93, Aberdeen, 1981.
  28. See Negatives and transparencies of landscape and architectural views sold by auction at 2 St Swithin Street, Aberdeen on Thursday 9 July 1908  Aberdeen University Library, 1993.  This is an expanded transcript of part of the auctioneer's sale catalogue, with details of buyers and prices provided courtesy of Mrs Frances Milne of John Milne, Auctioneers (Aberdeen) Ltd.  See also note following.
  29. Following the main auction in July 1908 there was a second, knock-down sale in September that year, advertised by John Milne Ltd as the 'remainder of the plant and stock-in-trade of G.W. Wilson & Co. ... at a fraction of cost'.