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Haunted Glass and Hidden History – details from our photographic collections

Learn more about the Parliamentary Archives photograph collection and the secrets hidden in them.

This blog was written by Simon Barnes and Tim Banting, Heritage Photographers in the Parliamentary Archives

The UK Parliament recently shared a photograph from our collections, of the House of Lords chamber, and a keen-eyed viewer spotted some white ghostly figures by the thrones. We would like to assure our readers that this is not a record of a ghostly apparition but the result of real people passing through the chamber whilst the photographer was exposing a plate (i.e. taking a photograph).

Spurred on by the interest shown in this unusual image, we thought we would scour our collections for the interesting and unusual details we’ve spotted whilst digitising our early 20th Century photographic items.

Firstly, we should note that the Parliamentary Archives has only two photographic collections of the Palace of Westminster from the late Victorian/early Edwardian era.

One was created by MP and photographer Benjamin Stone and the second (the Farmer collection) was produced for a book called “Parliament, Past and Present” in 1905. This era predates 35mm film with photographers ‘exposing’ a thin glass plate coated in a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion, a process which produced superior quality photographs. We think it’s this exposure process, which may have required a longer exposure time in the darker rooms of the Palace, and a busy working building full of staff and visitors that accounts for the number of ‘ghostly’ appearances in these photographs.

Here’s some examples…

Three black and white photographs of the interior of the Palace of Westminster
Images from the Farmer collection c. 1905

There are also some great pictures of the staff at work. Here are two examples…

Two black and white photographs. One shows the exterior of the palace and two men in uniforms. The second photograph is of a busy kitchen with lots of men featured in it.
Images of Parliamentary staff at work, from the Farmer collection c.1905

With good quality glass plate negatives and modern digitisation techniques we are able to explore and pick-out details from these photographic collections. The palace itself has changed relatively little in the century since its construction but the surrounding land, especially along the Thames waterfront, has changed significantly. During the 19th century the area was considerably more industrialised than today, and we can see some interesting details. Victorian advertising hoardings are a big help here…

On the site of the London County Hall today was once the Crosse & Blackwell jam and pickle factory, comprising warehouses, manufacturing premises and offices. By 1887 Crosse & Blackwell was described as “probably the largest employer of labour in London” and was one of the largest food manufacturers in the world by 1898. Further downriver at Vauxhall it also had a lemon squeezing factory!

Black and white photograph of the roof of the Palace of Westminster. The image includes a zoomed in detail of the London skyline..
A detail of the Crosse & Blackwell factory from the Farmer collection c.1905

Down the river beyond Lambeth Bridge were Tuck & Co., listed in the 1882 Trades Directory as Indian rubber manufacturers. They produced India-rubber valves and also hose pipes for the fire brigade!

Black and white photograph of the Victoria tower. There is a zoomed in image that shows the detail of a factory across the River Thames.
A detail of Tuck & Co. from the Farmer collection c.1905

The Central Lobby tower was intended as an integral part of the ventilation system of the Palace. It functions as a stack through which the hot air in the Palace could be vented. Here’s a little-known picture of its interior.

Black and white photograph showing the interior of a tower. There is an insert photo showing the exterior of the tower
Interior of the Central Lobby tower from the Farmer collection c.1905 and exterior of the Palace of Westminster taken by the authors

Finally, the photographers themselves, and their equipment, caught in shot…

Black and white photograph of a coach. There is a zoomed in section showing the detail around the window.
Detail from the Speakers State Coach from the Farmer collection c.1905


Black and white photograph of the House of Lords Chamber. There is an inset that shows the detail of camera equipment.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief look at the unusual details found in our collections. You can find out more about the Farmer glass plate negative collection here.

Promotional image showing a framed black and white photo above a sofa.

You can purchase a selection of our Farmer prints from Parliament online shop, link to shop.

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