Archives Outside

For people who love, use and manage archives

Archives Outside - For people who love, use and manage archives

Uncovering Hidden Treasures – NRS4481 The Government Printing Office Collection

Jenny Sloggett is an Archivist working in the Archives Control and Management section of State Records NSW.

Macquarie Lighthouse, Sydney

I love the image of the old and new South Head lighthouses standing together, circa 1883.

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.

Kent Street butcher, Sydney

Prompts questions – why is the other photographer interested in the sewer scaffolding in the right of the picture while the PWD photographer is interested in Huntley’s building with its damaged verandah. Does this image relate to the death of sewer miner Thomas McLean on 1 August 1887 following an explosion on 29 July? (SMH 2 August 1887 p7 – )

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.

  • pellethepoet says:

    Thanks for the background to this truly great series, especially the information on the known photographers. And thanks for acknowledging and appreciating our detective work. It’s the interactivity with State Records on Flickr that keeps us going (special nod to AB). Our research is always responded to. You guys lead the pack by a looooooooooooooooooooong way in that respect.

    Here’s some identifications for you I just realized I haven’t yet passed on. They have equivalents in the State Library of NSW’s plague album ‘Views taken during Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Area, Sydney, 1900, Vol. VI / under the supervision of Mr George McCredie, F.I.A., N.S.W.’

    4481_a026_000605 = 372. Corner of Gilbert and Eustace streets, Manly
    4481_a026_000906 = 374. Manly Council Property, Manly
    4481_a026_000609 = 376. Rear of No. 44 Campbell-street

    June 27, 2011 at 11:25 pm
  • beachcomberaustralia says:

    Seconded! Yay for 4481!

    The more you look the more you discover with NRS4481, which is really its fascination and charm – it is not all organized, named properly, and neatly filed away. I have a long mental list of corrections, additions etc, necessary to make the images searchable or ‘findable’ by Google and/or Trove. Many of the images are connected with others – you literally have to think outside the square (or rectangle). All those b….. panoramas. I hope the rest of the series gets on to Photo Investigator (and Flickr) soon.

    I am particularly interested to read the history of photographers (the unattributed artists, particularly John Degotardi Junior, my favourite). I have been trying to find out more about Joseph Bischoff. There are many great photos taken before 1883 (eg the Callan Park / Gladesville series) which deserve more recognition. I don’t think John Rae was the only one whose stuff ended up in the series. Possibly John Degotardi (Senior) is responsible for a few, who knows (yet)? –
    and (beware large file) –

    Thanks State Records NSW, and keep posting on Flickr so we can scribble all over the photos some more …

    June 28, 2011 at 9:46 am
  • Jenny Sloggett says:

    To pellethepoet, thank you for the comment and the information on the Plague or Cleansing Operation images. Yes we now realise that some of the images we have digitised are also in either the Plague Albums at the State Library of New South Wales
    or the Public Works Department albums of ‘Old Rocks’ and ‘Sydney Rocks’ images also at the State Library of New South Wales (PXE 921 Vols 1 to 3). We will be working on adding this information and the date of 1901 to the Photo Investigator and Flickr images.

    To beachcomberaustralia, we appreciate that you find the organisation or lack thereof one of the charms of NRS4481 rather than a source of total frustration.

    Once again thank you.


    June 28, 2011 at 11:37 am
  • Iain Stuart says:

    I am in awe of the work put in to help identify the pictures.

    I am sure if you had a few railway related items needing identification the railfans would help through their specialised knowledge of rolling stock and infrastructure. To date I don’t think anything has been posted on the railfan sites about identifying images.


    June 29, 2011 at 5:59 pm
  • Anthea Brown says:

    @pellethepoet Thank you! We feel the same way from this end.

    @beachcomberaustralia I feel you might be starting to dream in panorama vision ;-)

    @IainStuart, great idea about railway info, we’ll look into that.

    June 30, 2011 at 12:05 pm
  • Gael Newton says:

    I am doing a little research into colonial photographer Joseph P Bischoff 1832?-1903 (died Concord NSW, possibly German or Swiss) first photographer for the PWD but who seems to have continued to work from his studio in Sydney until retirement in 1901. He appears to have married Isabella M Lincoln in 1868 and was well established by 1874 but where he came from is as yet unknown. Might there be more information in the archives on staff ie did he need to be naturalised to work for the archives which would mean he was either born here or had become naturalised. Gael Newton

    November 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm
  • Megan Martin says:

    According to the death certificate, Joseph Philip Bischoff, Photographer, died 18th May 1903, Brunswick Parade, Concord, of heart failure. The informant was his wife Isabel Bischoff who declared that he was born in Athaldensleben [?] Germany, son of Frederick Bischoff, tailor, and Elizabeth, surname unknown and had been about 40 years in NSW. There were no children of the marriage.
    On his marriage certificate to Isabella Lincoln (24 August 1868 Sydney) he give his birthplace as Prussia, says that he is 35, and that his parents are Friedrich Bischoff and Elizabeth Haber. He says he was father was a farmer and he gives his own occupation as ‘stable keeper’. He got a certificate of naturalization on 18 November 1875 and there is also a deceased estate file at State Records. I’ve not looked at either as yet.
    My interest in Bischoff was sparked by cataloguing a series of carte-de-visite format photographs of a house called Palmerston in Waverley.These are pasted into an album but are attributable to Bischoff and datable to 1874/1875 based on an article in the Town and Country Journal.
    Megan Martin

    November 20, 2012 at 8:57 am
  • Jenny Sloggett says:

    Thank you Gael and Megan for this exciting new information. Using the clues you have provided we have done some further research on Joseph Bischoff (and also John Degotardi Junior) and this will be posted to Archives Outside in the new year. To whet your appetite we have posted on Flickr Bischoff’s Memorial applying for Naturalisation dated 8 November 1875. Note that when he arrived on the barque ‘Alfred’ on 26 November 1862 he is listed as Hermann Bischoff.

    December 12, 2012 at 2:57 pm
  • pellethepoet says:

    Oh Jenny, don’t tell beachcomber about your research on his hero John Degotardi Junior just yet. He won’t be able to wait until the new year!

    December 13, 2012 at 2:03 am
  • Jenny Sloggett says:

    Santa has come early. Just for you pellethepoet and for beachcomberaustralia we have posted John Degotardi junior’s staff record card from the Public Works Department on flickr. Check page 2 re the payment of overtime!
    We will still post the article on Bischoff and the supporting documents in the new year.

    December 13, 2012 at 11:07 am
  • pellethepoet says:

    Working overtime on the Plague photos – brilliant! Thanks for the prezzie Jenny, we’ll have to think of something for you …

    December 13, 2012 at 3:18 pm
  • beachcomberaustralia says:

    Yes, big thank you!

    December 13, 2012 at 7:14 pm
  • Pingback/Trackback

    A Degotardi album?

  • pellethepoet says:

    @ Gael Newton FYI: Bischoff photo just posted on Flickr by the Blue Mountains City Library Local Studies collection, from an 1875 album –

    September 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm
  • Jenny Sloggett says:

    Thank you, pelle.

    Incidentally the second image (from NRS 4481) on the same Flickr page was published in the NSW Department of Public Works Annual Report 1897-98 (after page 127). It follows an image of the rebuilt hotel accommodation at Jenolan Caves. The caption for the Soldier’s Gap image is ‘”Soldier’s Gap”, Mount Victoria Pass. On the road (Great Western) to Jenolan caves. One of the earliest engineering works in the Colony.’ The annual report mentions the Jenolan Caves hotel on pages 9 and 54 and on page 11 refers to improvements now being carried out on the road from Mount Victoria to Jenolan. Public Works annual reports are available on the OpenGov NSW website (

    September 17, 2013 at 2:14 pm
  • sylvia bowden (raye) says:

    My late husband’s cousin is still alive. he is 102 and his father was Robert Bowden. He has recently donated photos….

    October 30, 2013 at 4:56 pm
  • pellethepoet says:

    @ sylvia bowden (raye): Thanks for letting us know about the Road and Maritime Services digitisation of Robert Bowden’s photos of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Construction. It’s always nice to see the work of these often uncredited government photographers recognised.

    @ Jenny Sloggett: Isn’t bureaucratic duplication wonderful! The RTA could have requested copies of State Records image files and saved all that scanning. :) At least now the photos in your collection can be properly attributed to Robert Bowden. Although perhaps not? My understanding is that although they were all done under the supervision of Bowden, they were often technically taken by various assistants.

    October 31, 2013 at 12:43 am