Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Dustman saves 5,000 rare First World War photos from rubbish dumps


Dustman saves 5,000 rare First World War photos from rubbish dumps

As if to prove the point in my previous post regarding the treatment historical documents are sometimes subjected to, the way they are often rediscovered and saved from the brink of destruction, this post features the story of over 5,000 photographs of the First World War that were rescued over the course of 30 years by a Sussex dustman.

Bob Smethurst's wonderful attitude towards these incredible records of a past conflict is only tempered somewhat by the thought of how little they must have been valued by others and how many more fascinating documents were not saved from the incinerator in all those years.  It's desperately sad to think of a family cold-bloodily disposing of an individual's life history, not stopping to think that it in fact contributes to the history of our whole society.

Thankfully these days more and more people are thinking like Mr Smethurst, as his comment about the increased value of the photos suggests!  Whether that is merely due to the centenary of the First World War, or other factors as well, I wouldn't like to guess (although I certainly hope it's more than that).  I do get the feeling that people are becoming more suitably reverential about our past - but of course it has always been so for us nostalgists!

Former dustman's salvaged WW1 archive

Even so there is still far too much evidence of a disregard for historical items and records such as photographs or letters, not just in Britain but elsewhere.  How many times have we seen and commented on stories such as this, of treasure troves being found in skips and the like?  I would hope that things will be better for Second World War veterans and not, as Mr Smethurst thinks, the same again but the evidence is sadly still there.  In my own [fairly recent] experience it was seeing the little bungalow - unchanged for 60 years and complete with 1950s MG saloon still parked outside - the home of an elderly local lady, who had either died or moved into care, stripped of its contents (piled up in the front garden) and eventually demolished to make way for 4 houses.  I've said before that I'm all for progress, but not at the expense of our history.

In this happy case however a huge number of important photographs and records of the First World War have been saved for future generations.  I would like to think that any museum would give their eye teeth to have them in their collection, especially in this centenary year, but either way their future safety seems assured.  I hope that whatever Mr Smethurst decides to do with them they will continue to be highly valued and once again it begs the question "what else is still out there?"


  1. Fantastic! Thank you for this post and the link. Those are wonderful photos. The subject of war is not wonderful nor is human suffering in any way, but it is history and should be preserved.

    I hate when I see old photos and books being destroyed, especially by libraries, schools and other institutions that should be saving and preserving our past.

    Mrs. M and I were just discussing Sunday as to how people disregard histroy and ignore it. The tossing of these photos in the dust bin is just one example of society's disregard for history and lack of learning from it. Then unfortunately we repeat it.

  2. It's wonderful that Mr Smethurst saved those photos. You can't get things like that back once they're gone.

    I make copies of family photos that are given to me and pass them on to other relatives, hoping to ensure their survival for people who will be interested in them.

  3. I am so pleased these photos were saved!! How awful that they were put in the bin in the first place. At a local car boot sale there's a house clearance service that treats old crockery and antiques with disdain - basically, if it doesn't get sold on the day, they sweep it all into a giant box to put in the bin! I've retrieved items out of it before now, but it always makes me want to cry when I hear the smashing sound of a perfectly lovely 1930s teacup and saucer or a Victorian oil lamp.

    My mum is into family history and has drawers and drawers of old family photographs, all with copies made of them. Things to cherish, I think. P x

  4. I saw that and I wanted to shake his hand for saving that stuff!
    It horrifies me when I see historical items being destroyed, I just can't fathom out why anyone would be so ignorant or uncaring.

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