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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee