Historical Photography. Swan Inn, Woods Corner.
Introduction : Historical Photographs
In 2003 my Aunt Bessie Hayward (nee Field) died at the grand old age of 98. Many of her possessions passed to my mother, my siblings and some indeed to me. Among these was a large collection of old photographs, approximately 850, and I decided that I should assemble, catalogue and preserve them in my aunt's memory.
The photographs were mainly black and white dating from 1905 to the early 1960s. Many were seaside holiday snapshots or family picnics but I was fascinated to see what was captured in each image. This included not only the subject matter but also the inadvertant detail in the background. I was determined to find out as much as I could about each frame.
The main difficulty I encountered was that my aunt often left the photographs blank with no indication of who or what was in the image. So with the few notes that she did leave, with the help of a cousin and finally my own knowledge, I started the long task of identification in 2014.
This is the story of one photgraph and how I was able to identify the image.
Bessie's Holiday to East Sussex 1928
One line of inquiry was a holiday my aunt took in 1928 to Eastbourne Sussex. I had several photos of the pier and the Queens hotel and they were some of the first photos that I was able to readily identify.
Included in this group of about 25 images there were photos of the surrounding areas, day trips whilst staying in Eastbourne perhaps. One image (see above) included a house to the left, one to the right, a road with a signpost and several rustic locals walking down the street. There are actually three photos all taken from roughly the same spot. This was my first real investigation. The location really could have been anywhere. It is also the image that really kick started my passion for photograph investigation.
Reading the Historical Photograph
One of the amazing abilities of the human brain is to recognise patterns or words from very limited information. A good example is the ability to decipher a word where the spelling is incorrect or the letters are blurred. In the top one of the three photos that I had, there is a signpost that includes some writing. This was presumably the name of the next village down that road. After staring at this sign for what seemed like an eternity, I finally thought I recognised two words, namely Brightling and Robertsbridge.
These two villages are both north east of Eastbourne, so I made an assumption that my location lay to the west and I was looking eastwards. I needed a junction that had a road leading to Brightling (the upper name on the signpost) and right angle road in the direction of Eastbourne.
Reading the Historical Map
The next stage was lots of fun. I am fortunate to own a Readers Digest atlas of Britain and it dates from the 1960's when motorways and A road dual carriageways were few and far between. The map is full of old English A and B roads. I made the assumption that I should be searching west of Brightling and that I was looking east with the land falling away to the right towards the south coast. Using a magnifying glass I looked for any junction that resembled the one that I had in the photograph.
After a short while, I found Woods Corner near Dallington. The rest is really history. I used google maps to zoom in on the area and the Swan Inn and the building with the unusual glass windows were both extant and while the scenery had changed, much of what was there in 1928 was still the same today.
The Swan Inn, Woods Corner, Dallington
My Holiday to East Sussex 2018
My excitement at this piece of detective work to put meat back on the bones of an old photograph was wonderful. I determined that I should visit the area, take in Eastbourne for the views Bessie had taken and visit the Swan for lunch. I do not know Sussex very well and looked forward to a few days on the South Downs.
I stayed in Eastbourne and had a great time taking photos that matched the ones Bessie had taken. The following day I headed north and parked in the Swan Inn parking lot about 11 am. I spent some time walking around taking photos from different angles including the spot where I think Bessie must have stood.
At noon the Inn opened and I ordered lunch. I chatted to the proprietor and explained what had transpired. She was more than happy for me to take photos inside the inn. There were also additional photos on the wall that I photographed to enhance my collection.
I had a very surreal moment as I sat eating my fish and chips and a pint of fine Kent ale at a table in the Swan Inn at Wood's Corner Dallington. In the 1920's I am sure Bessie would also have had a meal here possibly sitting where I was now enjoying mine. I raised a glass in her honour and felt a real connection to that time 90 years ago.
Historical Photography as a hobby
I once spoke to a gentleman who spends a lot of time researching old photos of his home town. He told me that the hobby can be very addictive especially after you have had a few successes. The Swan Inn was my first major success, I had identified other photographs like the Eifel Tower and places local to where I live but this was the first of a place completely unknown to me.
I have since gone on to identify many of Bessie's photos, some by my own recognition, some by words on signs or shop fronts, some by doggedly searching a suspected locale and some by sheer good luck and inspiration. I have also gone on to identify some of my father's old slides which includes places I visited when young but the name has changed.
It is indeed a fascinating and addictive hobby. I wonder if it has a proper name like philately is to stamp collecting. I am open to suggestions........