West Newcastle Picture History Collection marks 30th anniversary

A collection of 17,000 pictures of Newcastle's West End is marking its 30th anniversary this month

A shop in Cookson Street, Benwell circa 1900
A shop in Cookson Street, Benwell circa 1900

When people for whom family snaps were treasured possessions are no longer around, the pictures often fall by the wayside.

Most times the photographs are seen as being of little relevance to distant relatives or strangers.

But such images are increasingly being seen as valuable social history - frozen moments in time.

There are more than 17,000 examples in the West Newcastle Picture History Collection, which this month marks its 30th anniversary.

Most of the pictures have been donated over the years by individuals as awareness of the archive spread by word of mouth.

The grassroots collection has its origins with Desmond Walton, who retired after 45 years of service as a Newcastle librarian.

Desmond, who died in 2011, worked in libraries in High Heaton, Fenham, and Jesmond, before becoming area librarian for the West End of the city.

He built up his own archive of local history material, and came across a batch of old photographs of Newburn in library storage.

“He took the photographs under his wing,” says Picture History Collection secretary Ian Farrier.

“The collection grew and grew, largely from donations by people of images of buildings, shops, churches, pubs, schools, weddings, streets and events.”

The collection mostly covers Scotswood, Elswick, Benwell, Arthur’s Hill, Denton Burn, Westerhope, Walbottle, Newburn, Lemington, Throckley and Kenton, and dates from the 1890s.

It is now based at the city council’s Customer Service Centre in Condercum Road, Benwell, where it is funded and staffed by volunteers.

“I don’t think there is another equivalent local volunteer archive like this in the country,” says Ian.

Collection chairman Michael Young says: “The collection is available to scholars, family historians, and anyone who is interested in finding a picture of that street they lived in, that school they attended, that pub they drank in, that church they worshipped at or that building that used to be there but was demolished years ago.

“We had a lady who came in looking for, and found, a picture of the Moulders Arms pub on Scotswood Road because she was born above it. We are still taking pictures because they will be of interest in 20 years’ time.”

Fred Millican, 87, who has been collection treasurer for 25 years, said: “ It is an important collection and its value lies in how accessible it is.”

Volunteers use the images to give slide shows and stage exhibitions.

The collection includes a number of photographs by Jimmy Forsyth, who wandered the streets of the West End from the 1950s, taking pictures.

The images that he captured – of an area and a way of life now gone – have become justly celebrated.

Desmond Walton knew Jimmy from the 1950s. Jimmy approached Desmond in 1974 and asked him to keep his albums of contact negatives because he was worried that if something happened to him, the pictures would be thrown away.

Desmond realised the value of Jimmy’s work, printed photographs and staged exhibitions. It put Jimmy on the road to recognition.

The volunteers are available to help with enquiries on Mondays between 9am-4pm and Thursdays from 2pm-4pm.

Outside of these times the collection can be accessed via the centre’s library staff.

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