Salvaged: The extraordinary family album that turned wrecks into art

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

More than 200 stricken vessels were captured over a 125-year period off the Isles of Scilly, David Keys gazes in wonder at a unique maritime archive

The world's most important archive of original shipwreck photographs has been saved for the nation by the National Maritime Museum.

Virtually all 1700 mainly 19th and early 20th century glass plate negatives, conventional film  negatives and silver print positive photographs were taken  by successive generations of a family of photographers based on the Isles of Scilly.

From 1869 onwards, members of the family systematically recorded most of the great shipwreck disasters that occurred around the islands and off the coast of Cornwall.

Click here to see more images from the archive

But the archive is not simply important from a shipping perspective. For the family of photographers, the Gibsons, recorded much of the social history aspect of the disasters - the reactions of local people and survivors, the desperate rescue efforts, the digging of mass graves and the attempts at salvage. In total, over a period of 125 years, four generations of the family succeeded in photographing more than 200 wrecks, many of them just a few hours after vessels had hit rocks, collided with cliffs or run aground in horrendous weather and sea conditions. In order to obtain their images, they often had to trek across country or travel in small open boats in rough seas, while laden down with a portable darkroom, heavy equipment and large glass negative plates.

Not only did they take photographs, but they also gathered information which they used to write news reports for both local and national newspapers.

In the late 19th century, the Illustrated London News used to transform their photographs into engravings  which would then be published along with their news reportage.

In that sense the Gibsons were at the forefront of photo-journalism in an age before newspapers could actually print photographs.

The family's photography business, which was mostly involved in photographing weddings and other events rather than just shipwrecks, was established by John Gibson. Born in 1827, he was originally a merchant seaman, but by 1860 he had established himself as a professional photographer, initially based in Penzance, Cornwall.

From the 1870s, his two sons, Herbert and Alexander also became photographers in the firm. Alexander's son, James, then eventually became a key photographer in the business, as did his son Frank.

The founder of this photographic dynasty, John Gibson, took his first photograph of a wreck in  or shortly after 1869, the year that the Scilly Isles were connected by telegraph to the mainland.

It was courtesy of this relatively new technology that he was able to learn about wrecks in Cornwall and also send reports to newspapers in London and elsewhere.  Among the disasters the family recorded  were the wreck of the German steamer, Schiller, in 1876 when over 300 people lost their lives, the 1898 wreck of the Mohegan, a British  passenger steamer in which 106 died, the wreck of the Khyber in 1905 in which 23 perished - and the wreck in 1907 of the American seven-masted schooner the Thomas W. Lawson, one of the largest sailing vessels in the world,  in which most of the crew drowned.

Royal Museums Greenwich, of which the National Maritime Museum is a part, purchased the archive from  Gibsons of Scilly  photography at a Sotheby's auction in London on Tuesday for £122,500.

“This archive is one of the most important photographic collections we have acquired in recent years”, said Jeremy Michell, Curator of the National Maritime Museum's Historic Photographs Collection.

The National Maritime Museum will now conserve, digitize and study the photographs and will then use them to create a series of travelling exhibitions. At some stage there will also be an exhibition of the photographs at the National Maritime Museum itself.

“We're absolutely delighted that the archive has gone to such a good home. It was always important to the family to share these wonderful shipwreck images with the public,” said Sandra Gibson of the photography firm, Gibsons of Scilly.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman, Peter Capaldi and Nick Frost star in the Doctor Who Christmas Special, Last Christmas
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran