Jenny Sloggett is an Archivist working in the Archives Control and Management section of State Records NSW.
The series NRS4481 Glass Negatives [Government Printing Office] is one of the jewels in the crown in State Records’ collection. It is a treasure trove of images that cover a broad range of subjects including public buildings, lighthouses, railways and tramways, roads and bridges, military works before 1901, public watering places, buildings damaged by Government construction or on land resumed by the Government, and more. The images span a more than 50 year period in the development of the State of NSW (c.1870s to 1929). The collection has a particularly complex history and an equally complicated relationship with its various finding aids which does lead to some difficulties with identification. I know that there are a lot of NRS4481 fans out there who have been giving us a great deal of help on Flickr and here at Archives Outside sorting out titling and date issues. I’ve put together a brief history of the collection and its background to provide some insight.There are three ways that Government Printing Office (GPO) images have come into the custody of State Records.
Firstly, from other Government departments who were clients of the GPO. These are not part of Series 4481 but may be duplicated within it. The GPO took photographs on behalf of its clients, retaining the negatives whilst supplying them with prints. Often these images come to State Records from those other departments with little identification or source information. One such example is the image of the Rozelle Tram Depot gardens from NRS 17420 State Rail Authority Archives Photographic Reference Print Collection (Digital ID: 17420_a014_a0140001131) which beachcomberaustralia dated as March 1929 for us by connecting it to its original in that part of the GPO collection which is available digitally from the State Library of New South Wales (Negative St 13249). Thank you, beachcomberaustralia for making the connection.
Secondly, there is the part of the GPO Collection (Series 4481) referred to above. This is a superbly organised collection benefitting from the GPO’s good record keeping practices. The negatives are arranged in a number of sequences. Within each sequence every image was given an individual number (written on the negative) and recorded in a register along with the client department’s name, a title and, for the majority, a date. As well as the registers, the GPO also kept a card index by subject across all sequences. These negatives were transferred to State Records in 1990 from the GPO as it was closing. The GPO had already begun a Bicentennial Project to digitise the images and this project was completed and made available to the public by the State Library of New South Wales. To avoid duplication, State Records has not knowingly digitised any of these negatives.
There are still problems in using this part of the collection. The titles come from the registers and reflect the client’s needs rather than what we can see in the image. Hence there are numerous images of street corners and roads taken for the Department of Main Roads with a very general title such as State Highway 70 or Corner of this street and that street. These titles do not provide information on all that can be identified within the image by those with local and/or specialised knowledge, such as exact location, topography, buildings, trams, cars, telegraph poles etc. Pellethepoets efforts identifying a Sydney canal is a great example of this.
Thirdly, there are the negatives in Series 4481 received by the then State Archives Department of the State Library of New South Wales in 1956 from the GPO’s Liverpool Street Stores. They include negatives from the Department of Public Works (PWD) which were relocated to the GPO circa 1929, when Public Works closed its photographic section presumably for economic reasons. These negatives are organised in a number of sequences and not all sequences have a listing created by the Department. Unfortunately even identification of those negatives which have a listing is difficult. Two of the four lists refer only to boxes, rather than providing titles for individual negatives, and appear to refer to the original storage locations such as Inside, Outside and Miscellaneous Corridor. Hence we know that the Outside collection includes a box of images of ‘Post offices suburban’. But which post office relies on our Flickr and Photo Investigator detectives. The other lists do provide titles but not dates.
A handful of these images were used by the Department of Public Works in its annual reports from 1892 to 1929. These can be accessed online at the Publications.nsw website.
I have been thinking about why the records kept by the Government Printing Office and by the photographic section of the Department of Public Works are so different. I think it relates to their size. The GPO had many photographers and needed to control the filing and retrieval of negatives by different staff. The photographic section of the PWD, on the other hand, was for most of its life a one person operation. The Public Service Lists contain the names of some of these people. The first photographer we can find is Joseph Bischoff, from 1 May 1883 to at least 1894. From 6 January 1897 to 1919 the photographer was John Degotardi Junior (21 Feb 1860-14 Feb 1937). He had previously worked at the Government Printing Office. The next photographer was Robert Arthur Bowden (28 Oct 1886- c.1971) who was appointed assistant to the photographer at the PWD on 1 July 1912 and appointed photographer on 22 Feb 1919 until 1929.
There may have been another photographer before Bischoff began in 1883, but we have not yet been able to confirm this or the suggestion of beachcomberaustralia that this was John Rae. Rae was a well-known photographer who was Under-secretary for Public Works and Commissioner of Railways (1861-1878), Chairman of the Board for Public Tenders (Works) (1880-1889) and a member of the Civil Service Board (1889-1893). However, Rae may well have been the reason why this Government Department had such an interest in photography.
Please continue to advise us of inaccurate descriptions, misspellings and obvious errors, as well as additional information about what is in the image. We will confirm these and then adjust the information both in Flickr and in our own listings on Photo Investigator.