Aerial view 1946

Thousands of photos of Cranfield University’s early days in aviation are set to be digitised thanks to a new grant – and archivists are now seeking additional funding to make the whole collection digital and move it online.

Cranfield’s grant means 20,000 of some 100,000 negatives will soon be available for the public to view on the university’s website. Photos include aircraft of international significance during the early years of Cranfield. Cranfield was founded in 1946 and the collection of images begins from 1957.

The £3,000 grant - provided by Archives Revealed, a partnership programme between The National Archives, The Pilgrim Trust and the Wolfson Foundation – will enable the University to seek expert advice on how to maximise the collection’s impact and enable further digitisation.

Royal visits and famous honorary graduates

The collection captures Cranfield’s research and teaching facilities, royal visits and Honorary Graduations including those of Neil Armstrong, Sir Frank Whittle, and Freddie Laker. It also contains unique photographs of rare aircraft based at Cranfield more than fifty years ago. These aircraft were used for teaching or were exhibited in the air museum during the 1950s.

Archivist Karyn Meaden-Pratt said: “It has been an absolute joy to unlock the collection and finally see images that have been lost for the last 65 years.

“It really is a unique collection of educational value and has both national and international significance within the aviation sector. We can’t wait to be able to share more images and let people find out more about the stories behind them!”

Cranfield - which opened as the UK’s College of Aeronautics on the site of the former RAF Cranfield and has its own airport - was in a unique position to record early photos of towns such as Milton Keynes, Bedford, and Welwyn Garden City being built. There are also images incorporating nearby places such as Flitwick Manor and Shuttleworth House.

Images of some of the collection have already been shared on social media. You can find these by searching for #cranfieldphotoarchive on Twitter and Instagram.

Appeal for more funding

Karyn added: “20,000 negatives had already been digitised thanks to previous funding in 2020. We've still got another 80,000 which we haven’t digitised.  

“Some of the negatives are starting to deteriorate because of their age, so have been placed in cold storage. This means they are now inaccessible to us and we can’t use or see them unless we get further funding to digitise them.

“In terms of the photos now available to view, we have already had lots of interest from aviation historians, and look forward to being able to share more pictures in the future.”

Asked which photos stood out for her, Karyn added: “There's a photo of a really early flight simulator – it looked like a man sitting in an armchair! There are also photos of some of pranks students played on each other, and one particular image shows a whole room filled with computers –which would fit on a tiny device today! How times have changed.”