A version of this blog about Historic England Archive collections first featured on the Photo Collections Network blog. It is part of a series of posts on the theme of Women’s History in the lead up to History Day 2018.
To mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the Historic England Archive has made five collections of photographs available online. These were created by women during the 19th to the 21st centuries, from skilled amateurs to professional staff photographers, including Alice Marcon, Margaret Harker, Eileen ‘Dusty’ Deste, Ursula Clark and our featured photographer, Margaret Tomlinson.
The Margaret Tomlinson Collection comprises nearly 3,500 photographic negatives taken between 1942 and 1963. The vast majority were taken when Margaret worked for the National Buildings Record, which was established in 1941 to record historic buildings threatened by destruction during the Second World War.
The skilled amateur in desperate circumstances
Margaret Tomlinson was born on 20 September 1905. She was educated at The Perse School and Newnham College in Cambridge, and trained as an architect. Margaret married her tutor in 1926 and had two children. When her marriage ended, she moved with her children from Cambridgeshire to set up home at Branscombe in Devon, where there were connections with her mother’s family.
Margaret had been photographing architecture since around 1930, supplying photographs to a number of architecture and design journals, photographing for architects and working for an advertising agency. In late 1941, she contacted Edward ‘Bobby’ Carter, librarian at the Royal Institute of British Architects, looking for suitable work. He recommended her to John Summerson, the deputy director of the National Buildings Record (NBR), as a ‘good photographer’ and ‘v. nice competent person in rather desperate circumstances.’ Summerson consequently asked Margaret to photograph buildings for the NBR.
Margaret accepted Summerson’s offer. Armed with her cameras, photographer’s permit, a supporting letter addressed to the local police, petrol coupons for her 1936 Austin Seven and lists of buildings to photograph, she set out on fieldwork in January 1942.
A difficult start
Margaret’s initial forays into recording for the NBR did not run particularly smoothly. ‘Flu and a septic ear kept her housebound, and when she did manage to get out, the prospect of photographing scores of monuments in Exeter Cathedral, with limited winter daylight and restricted access due to continuing daily services, knocked her confidence. It was not until early April that she was able to make a new start photographing in Axminster, Exmouth and Exeter. In a letter of 4 May 1942 Summerson wrote reassuringly:
It is important in our job never to be in the slightest degree ruffled by the destruction of unrecorded buildings. The only thing to do is to plod along regardless of what happens.
Baedeker and Exeter
A night raid by the Royal Air Force on the German Baltic port of Lübeck in March 1942 led to a new, retaliatory bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe. The consequences of which resulted in some of Margaret Tomlinson’s most memorable photographs.
The raid on Lübeck destroyed much of the town’s centre, tightly-packed with medieval buildings of historic significance. The Germans responded by launching air raids against similar, relatively undefended cities in England, bringing terror to their civilian populations. The cathedral city of Exeter, some twenty miles west of Margaret’s home in Branscombe, was one of the victims of these ‘Baedeker raids’, named after the German Baedeker guidebooks.
Photographer and Investigator
In the summer of 1943, the NBR employed investigators to prepare lists of sites to be photographed. Because of her architectural experience, Margaret was asked if she would become an investigator for Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, and to combine this new role with that of photographer.
After the war
In January 1946 Margaret was offered a post as Temporary Investigator with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, creating lists of historic buildings. She was unsure whether to accept as she had concerns about the salary and the loss of the flexible working conditions afforded by the NBR, as well as doubting her own suitability for the post. Margaret was also concerned about the depressing nature of the monotony of the work and the negative psychological effect of witnessing so much destruction. After seeking guidance from Summerson, Margaret took up the position with a salary of £500. She continued to finish writing her NBR investigator reports, and mopped up her remaining photographic jobs on Sundays and during periods of unpaid leave.
In the summer of 1950, Margaret returned to photograph extensively for the NBR in Devon. However, cutbacks resulted in little more than requests for photographing buildings in imminent danger of demolition.
In 1954 Margaret moved from Devon to Little Easton in Essex, conveniently located between her Ministry office in London and her parents’ home in Grantchester, near Cambridge. She remained at Little Easton during her retirement and published a history of her Devon family’s involvement in the lace industry in 1983. Margaret died on 9 October 1997, aged 92.
The Margaret Tomlinson Collection can be viewed online at the Historic England Archive. Find out more about the conservation of Margaret’s work in Part 2. Follow us on Twitter for more images from our collections.
Gary Winter – Exhibitions and Images Officer, Historic England.
Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s spectacular historic environment.