Aerial photographs can be an invaluable source for studying changing landscapes and evolving communities. At the smallest level, they can be used to trace changes to individual properties and gardens, whilst at the greatest level they can show the development of roads and railways, urban expansion and industrial decline. In many cases, aerial photography provides the only visual record of vanished buildings and other features considered to be of little interest at the time. The images can also be useful for tracing archaeological features (such as field layouts and earthworks) which cannot be easily distinguished at ground level.
Aerial photography is a relatively recent documentary medium. With advances in both photography and aviation, aerial reconnaissance became a key tool during World War II (1939-1945). After the war aerial surveys continued to be made for administrative and planning purposes, but their value for historical and archaeological research was also recognised. Today, satellite technology continues to provide aerial surveys through resources such as Google Earth.
Staffordshire Record Office holds a series of aerial surveys of the county, the earliest of which is 1948 and the latest 1999/2000. The aerial photographs are all vertical surveys, at an approximate scale of 1:10,000; the images before the 1991 survey are black and white.
Although referred to as the 1948 series, a few images date back to 1945 and some as late 1950. The survey was undertaken by the Ministry of Defence, and is particularly useful for studying the county in the immediate aftermath of World War II (remains of wartime activity, such as airfields and Prisoner of War camps can clearly be seen) and before urban expansion in later decades. In some cases, archaeological evidence eradicated by later agricultural activity has been captured. Additionally to the vertical survey main series, there is a small series of low-level oblique surveys from 1948 centring on Stafford and Lichfield.
Later aerial surveys in the collection were undertaken by private firms. These run as follows:
1963 (complete county)
1968 (partial coverage – mainly coalfields in north and south Staffordshire)
1971 (complete county)
1981 (complete county)
1991 (majority of the county except the Staffordshire Moorlands area)
1999/2000 (complete county)
In each survey there are occasional gaps, but overall coverage is generally good. Images from the surveys can be copied with the exception of those from 1968 and 1999/2000.
The surveys are divided into runs, films and frames, and key grids are available in the Reading Room at Staffordshire Record Office to enable readers to identify particular frames. Binocular magnifying lenses and a Video Light document magnifier are also available to study details more closely.