How Francis Frith's Archive was saved and preserved for the future
About Francis Frith and our Company
Save the Archive!
Francis Frith’s legacy to us is an archive without equal, a remarkable
and unique photographic record of Britain – and yet this wonderful
treasure trove of historical imagery was almost lost forever...
In the late 1960s most other postcard publishers had progressed to
using high quality colour photographs, but Frithwas slow to change
and in 1969 when Frederick and Trevor Sergeant came to retire the
decision was made to close down the company. By that time, the Frith
archive contained photographs of around 8,000 British cities, towns
and villages and the company had published over 300,000 different
images of Britain.
The Frith images bring the past to life like a photographic time
machine, yet this national treasure was very nearly lost to us. One
of Britain’s first historians of photography, Bill Jay (1940-2009),
then Director of Photography at the Institute of Contemporary Art in
London, was alerted to the imminent closure of the company and
informed that the Frith premises was soon to be demolished, and
everything in it would be destroyed.
Bill Jay immediately recognised the importance of the Frith
archive, both in the history of photography and as a record of
social change, and was determined to save this historic
collection from destruction. He began a high profile campaign
to find a purchaser for it and enlisted the help of a London
"The Frith archive is unique and priceless ... the most
extensive, important and well-preserved collection of early
British documentary photography to have survived intact."
Time to rescue this precious, irreplaceable photographic collection
was running out fast, but at last Bill Jay’s efforts were rewarded at
the eleventh hour when Rothmans, the cigarette company, agreed to buy
and save the archive. Rothmans moved the archive – hundreds of
thousands of precious glass negatives and prints, ledgers and
company records - and rescued it for the nation. They were only just
in time, as a week later the bulldozers arrived and the Frith
premises was flattened.
Five years after Bill Jay persuaded Rothmans to buy and save the Frith
photographic archive, a Rothmans executive, John Buck, persuaded the
company to allow him to create a new business based on the Frith
images. John Buck realised that every photograph in the archive was
potentially fascinating to people who had not just been on holiday
in that location, but who also had a personal connection to the
scene depicted in the photograph – it might show where they had been
born, or grew up, or been to school, or been married. In other words,
the Frith archive documented hundreds of thousands of places that
have helped create and shape our lives, and each photograph
potentially represented an invaluable record of someone’s life. John
saw that there was a huge untapped commercial market for the hundreds
of thousands of photographs in the Frith archive that went far beyond
what F Frith & Co had done with them, and he began to develop
ideas to make the images available to the public in new and
In August 1977, following a change of policy at Rothmans, John Buck
bought the Frith archive and embryonic business from the company, and
started running it as his own independent business under the trading
name of ‘The Francis Frith Collection’.
Immensely successful in Francis Frith’s own era in the 19th century,
in its new incarnation as ‘The Francis Frith Collection’ the
photographic archive has entered a new phase of popularity in the
modern ‘internet age’. Digital technology has made the vast Frith
archive of historical photographs available to everyone to see,
thanks to the Frith website www.francisfrith.com. The photographs are
more accessible today than they have ever been since Francis Frith
founded his business back in the 1860s, and can now be viewed by
website visitors all over the world.
Thanks to Bill Jay’s determination to save the archive, the Frith
photographs are now bringing pleasure to millions of people,
offering each of us a powerful and nostalgic link with our own past
as well as that of our forebears.