Image: © Saira Awan – family lives of residents on the Gascoigne Estate taken for London’s Open Estate Festival
Want to see what your street was like 300 years ago, or discover the location of ancient remains in places you pass through every day? What about sharing the stories of people and places you know?
Layers of London is an exciting new mapping project and interactive website that will create an open platform for members of the public – in other words, ‘you’ – and community groups to add information about the London they know.
Currently under development, this ambitious venture aims to also make available many of the most important historic London maps, images of London buildings and local firms. It will cover all 32 of the capital’s boroughs, and contributors can share their memories and knowledge of thousands of local places through photos, audio recordings, films, and written accounts – creating a rich mosaic of information that has never previously been collected in one space.
It’s the place to do something useful with those boxes of photos stashed in the attic, old film clips you may have, or a trail you may have developed about an aspect of London that means something to you. The contents can be anything from pubs to art deco architecture and conscientious objectors. The site already contains a journey in search of a rare 70 year-old London fig tree.
This huge multi-partner initiative is being led by the Institute of Historical Research at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, along with the British Library, The National Archives, The London Metropolitan Archives, Historic England and the Museum of London Archaeology. The team behind the initiative, which is working with community groups, residents’ associations, local libraries, amateur historians, arts groups and everyone else with a good story to tell, hopes the site will act as a hub for new and existing heritage projects across the city.
The project began with a pilot last May which focused on Barking and Dagenham. It was made possible by support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and funding for the full project is currently being sought, with a decision expected in September.
One great layer that will become part of the website is a collection of 24,000 aerial photos of London taken by the RAF immediately after WWII. Carefully stored in Historic England’s archive in Swindon, they provide a unique record of the preparations that took place for the war. For example, tank defences known as ‘dragons’ teeth’, reveal the physical impact the war actually had. Online tools will show you how to recognise the clues and see for yourself where bombs fell, or identify the rows of prefabricated houses constructed at a time when building materials were scarce.
This layer presents a challenge though. We need lots of volunteers to help create the 1940s aerial photo layer by piecing together the 24,000 images we have in just three years. It’s like doing a jigsaw, except that it is done online, using special software called a geo-referencer, which enables you to place each photo where it belongs on a map.
We will work with schools all over London to get this done, but if you like jigsaws, you can do it too and help us bring historic maps to life in completely new ways, transforming them from flat physical objects to multi-layered containers of historical information.
We’re also a digitising a collection of maps of London from 1910 to 1911 held at The National Archives in Kew. These were used to collect information for the Inland Revenue Survey – ie taxes – and a follow-up trip to Kew can tell you all sorts of things about the house where you live: whether it was once a soup kitchen, a slum or had a ‘strangers’ billiard room’ on the second floor.
There are several ways you could to get involved in Layers of London. One is to contribute information, and, if you’re really keen, to find others that you think ought to share their slice of London’s history with others. We’re looking for volunteer coordinators in every borough.
So far, we’ve found many hidden gems such as DABD, an organisation that started out in Barking 60 years ago and has been providing services to the disabled nationwide since then. It has valuable records chronicling what they’ve done. And there is Eric Feasey, a passionate amateur historian whose old fig tree search is mentioned earlier.
Finally, not everyone with interesting stories to share knows how to use a computer, and we need volunteers to work with older people, to enable them to take part, learn new skills with the project partners, including digital techniques for studying historic buildings and places. If any of this interests you, please get in touch through firstname.lastname@example.org, and do check out our budding website at http://alpha.layersoflondon.org.