Historypin: windows through time

Many years ago, in the 1930s, my wife's family decided to buy a house for their chauffeur. They lived in Hampstead, a prosperous district in north London, but believed that Bennett might be satisfied with a place in nearby Childs Hill, where many people took in washing for better-off neighbours.

One street they considered, off Cricklewood Lane, comprised a terrace of modest houses built in the late 1800s. On paper, it held some promise. But after taking a look at it my wife's great-grandmother said no — the street was far too rough.

By an extraordinary twist of fate, that same street is now home to my wife. And to me, and our young daughter. I've often wondered what my wife's great-grandmother objected to. A couple of years ago, using online census records, I got a clue. I learnt that my house was occupied 100 years ago by a navvy, his wife, seven children and two lodgers — long before the loft was converted or the conservatory added at the back.

Until fairly recently, I was unlikely to have made such an elementary discovery, but the internet has made archives easily accessible, and as a result popular history has boomed.

Using websites such as Genes Reunited, millions have briskly pieced together information that could previously only be obtained by travelling across the country to inspect parish registers.

On TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? — or Extraordinary Ancestors, Antiques Ghost Show and Gene Detectives — the rich and famous have journeyed into the past to discover hard truths about their forebears.

Several were reduced to tears: who can forget the sight of Jeremy Paxman welling up as he contemplated the tough life of poor Glaswegian ancestors? As this hints, there has been a significant shift in the very idea of history, towards a belief that the humdrum routines of ordinary people possess the most terrific historical significance and away from the idea that the only things worth studying are the actions of a handful of usually dead white males, namely William the Conqueror, Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell.

In June, several thousand otherwise ordinary people travelled to Belgium to take part in a historical re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo; others went only to watch. The idea wasn't to dwell on Wellington's deepest thoughts or Napoleon's haemorrhoids, but among other things, according to the official Belgian website for this five-yearly event, to “discover the soldiers' everyday life”, before the pretend-fighting began.

Meanwhile, factual series on mainstream channels allow us to glimpse day-to-day existence in peacetime: last year I actually paid to stay on the Victorian farm that featured in the TV series of that name, and discovered for myself what a palaver it was, back then, merely to wash: first you pump the water from a well, then pour it, jug by jug, into a vast cauldron, beneath which you must then light a coal fire. Five of us took turns in the tin bath: I was last into the filthy water.

The history that interests us isn't just on battlefields and in remote farms but right under our feet. A few years ago, an artist named Bill Longshaw put on an exhibition devoted to a particular road in Manchester. He had visited Every Street — its real name — as a child and 20 years later found it transformed by new buildings. “It was nothing like I remembered,” he told me recently.

Longshaw dug into local-newspaper archives, then went on the road to meet hundreds of people who had links to Every Street. He found a massive appetite for nostalgia about a street that was fundamentally unremarkable, but thrillingly interesting to the people who knew it.

“What struck me was the passion people had for the area. They'd been scattered all over Manchester but still identified with the street. One guy did me a really accurate map in Biro, from memory, with all the shops that were there and so on.”

The novelist Maggie O'Farrell exploits similar ideas in her latest novel. The Hand That First Held Mine cuts between two timelines, the 1950s and '60s and the present day. O'Farrell has won wide praise for the alterations she inflicts on her setting: Soho offices turn into latte-and-panini joints, while houses are chopped up into flats then rebuilt into family homes.

“Impermanence is something that has always interested me,” O'Farrell told me. As a child in Scotland she walked to school through fields where now there are housing estates. When she bought her current house, she learnt that it had had five different owners since 1910. “We knocked something down and found five layers of wallpaper. It was quite moving to think that they had all once been in the same room as me.”

The thrill of being on the same physical spot as something historic is brilliantly captured in the Museum of London's advertising campaign, which combines vivid historical images, such as suffragettes protesting at Buckingham Palace, with the caption “You are here”.

The museum has developed an app for iPhones, Streetmuseum, that allows users to tap in their location as they wander the capital and call up a historical image from nearby. When the phone is held up against the same scene in the present day, the museum boasts, it becomes a “window through time”. One picture, on Queen Victoria Street, captures the moment the facade fell off the Salvation Army HQ after a bomb hit it. It's hard not to feel that you should stand back, if not actually run away.

The Russian artist Sergey Larenkov created a global sensation last year by combining the past with the present in photographic images that showed streets in his native St Petersburg overlaid with disturbing photos from Hitler's siege of Leningrad (as the city used to be called).

One of the most chilling depicted a family dragging a small corpse down the middle of what is now a smart shopping street. After seeing it, walking thoughtlessly over those particular paving stones ceases to be an option.

Now anyone can create the same kind of montage thanks to a specimen of new technology described by its creators as a “digital time machine”. Historypin.com is a website that allows anybody, anywhere, to upload old photos and “attach” them in exactly the right position to Google's present-day Street View — in effect, it enables us to see the ghosts that walk our pavements.

Having uploaded a picture, you can also attach a story — “this is my mum laying flowers for Diana outside Kensington Palace”, “Muhammad Ali, the boxer, visiting South Shields mosque”, or “the pub used to be an undertaker's”. Subsequent visitors can add comments, clarifying (or indeed muddling) what has already been written.

Many pictures and stories were put up before the site launched, by companies, groups and individuals with their own archives, including Marks & Spencer, Arsenal FC, the Albert Hall, the Arthur Lloyd theatrical archive — and Mike Strange, a retired engineer who runs the amateur historical society in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

Strange's group, typical of many around the country, has 150 members and has almost outgrown the local venues for public talks. It possesses 6,000 scanned and indexed photos, and something like 400 artefacts — going right back to dinosaur poo, known as coprolite, which the Victorians used to mine and grind up as fertiliser — but nowhere to store it all. “We do displays in the local library, in a small display cabinet,” says Strange. “We have tried for a local museum, but each time the motion has been defeated by the local council.”

In places with a more sensational history — Hungerford, Dunblane, Whitehaven — the local authorities might conceivably yield to demands for a built memorial. For places like Biggleswade, Historypin offers a pretty good alternative: a chance to share the heritage online. “We're not the owners,” says Strange, “only custodians.”

Professional historians are thrilled by the possibilities. “Wow, that's amazing!” said Dr Anne-Marie Kramer, of Warwick University, when I explained Historypin to her. But how valuable could the pictures and stories be? In the late 1930s, an anthropologist returned from studying cannibals in the South Pacific only to conclude that the inhabitants of Bolton, where he lived, were just as interesting (even if they didn't eat each other).

What was needed was an “anthropology of ourselves”, a study of everyday people's lives: Mass Observation was formed, and people all over the country sent answers to questionnaires and copies of their diaries each month.

The data were invaluable and had enormous influence: a study of savings habits was used by John Maynard Keynes to argue successfully for tax-policy changes.

They also revealed insights, splutter-making at the time, into people's sex lives. Might Historypin eventually provide something similarly valuable?

I called Simon Garfield, author of successful books based on Mass Observation materials.

He thought it sounded fun, but noted an important difference: Mass Observation recorded immediate impressions, whereas stories on Historypin may not be uploaded till years after the pictured events.

“You might get a truer, less edited version by looking at the photos on Facebook of people getting drunk at parties.”

Historypin was set up by a non-profit organisation, We Are What We Do, devoted to smuggling worthy projects into the public domain without anybody noticing — to get people to Do the Right Thing without ever preaching.

Hitherto the group's greatest success was the Anya Hindmarch fabric tote bag. In 2007, people queued in vast numbers outside Sainsbury's for a designer bag that had been shown on newspaper front pages and cost only £5. They may not have noticed or cared that, partly as a result of that campaign, the use of polluting, throwaway plastic bags at Sainsbury's fell by 46%.

“We need to stop telling people how to behave and just give them something they want and will enjoy using and has a good effect almost incidentally,” said the managing director, Nick Stanhope, when I met him.

For his next trick, Stanhope decided that We Are What We Do should get young people and old people talking to each other. Millions of pensioners don't have access to the internet, while estimates suggest that as much as 90% of communication by teenagers is digital.

In other words, the two groups rarely communicate. As a result, a lot of wisdom is being lost, and mutual indifference — even hostility — increases.

“We did a lot of research into this,” says Stanhope gravely, “and found that when people try to do something about it they do so out of duty and obligation. Young kids are sent to retirement homes and they don't want to go and it can end up reinforcing the stereotypes.

So we did some tests and found that photographs have great power because they bring out stories, and that helps young people realise that old people were young once too. It has a humanising effect.”

So far as this went, it was good. But looking at old photos was one-sided. What could the young people contribute? Somebody had an idea: they could use their abundant digital skills to help the older people upload pictures and stories onto the internet.

And that's when Google got involved: the company is keen to help get the elderly online, and quickly recognised the effect old pictures could have if patched onto Google's own Street View.

Developers worked hard to make that possible, but despite having formally launched, Historypin is by no means fully functional.

The first few times I tried it I had a lot of problems and couldn't upload anything. Teething problems? “There are bugs,” conceded Google's PR Laura Scott. “It's good that people have tried it out, but we had more hits than we expected.”

Should they have delayed the launch? “We Are What We Do wanted it out there as soon as possible.”

When Google first launched Street View, it caused a storm of protest from people worried about their privacy. Some people suspect that Historypin is a kind of charm offensive to make up for that. Others fear that it may make things even worse — an attempt to take ownership of people's family photos, research and even memories.

Matthew Lloyd, owner of the Arthur Lloyd theatre archive, was concerned about that before he accepted the invitation to upload his pictures onto Historypin. But he was assured that the copyright remained entirely his, and that he could remove the pictures whenever he liked. “Neither Google nor We Are What We Do will own the pictures,” insisted Scott. “It's just a platform, like YouTube.” All the same, Lloyd only uploaded pictures with a watermark and in relatively low resolution.

Impressed, I looked at some of his images, then looked at others. I searched for a particular image that had stuck in my mind when I was first dreaming of becoming a journalist. It had been shot in Trafalgar Square during the poll-tax riots 20 years ago, and was printed in the Independent on Sunday (IoS). It showed a prosperous woman (I think she wore a Barbour) seeming to scold a rioter. But a week later the woman in the picture wrote to the paper and said she wasn't scolding him, she was yelling support, or encouragement, or a warning (I don't remember which). The letter made clear that the significance of a photograph is only drawn out by somebody's interpretation — in effect, a caption, and that captions can be wrong.

Unsurprisingly, the picture has yet to be found on Historypin. Hoping to put it up there myself, with the whole story, I phoned Ian Jack, who used to edit the IoS. Alas, he couldn't remember it. So I phoned Rosie Waterhouse, now teaching journalism at City University, whose byline appeared on stories about the riot. She went home, checked her cuttings — nothing.

Then I phoned David Rose, who photographed the riot for the IoS but couldn't recall the image, and had no idea where it might be found because the IoS archive had been sold on, and his own archive consisted of prints dumped into boxes labelled only by year. “It's the kind of job you set aside for when you break your leg,” Rose said.

Rose's boxes put me in mind of the Bettmann Archive of images collected by a Jewish refugee from the Nazis and gradually built up with the addition of other archives. It was eventually acquired by Bill Gates, who wanted to digitise it all, then realised that each of the millions of prints would need to be inspected first by an expert to write appropriate captions, because if you don't know who Winston Churchill is, for example, a photograph of him has no meaning: he's just a round, bald man in peculiar clothes. Gates's plan was a non-starter: instead of being digitised the photos have been moved from Manhattan to underground storage in a a controlled environment, deep inside a mountain in Pennsylvania.

Does the past exist if it hasn’t been recorded? People sometimes complain that important events aren’t reported on TV news if nobody happened to film them.

Also that events of no great significance — like somebody driving the wrong way down a motorway — are called “news” only because they happen to have been filmed.

Lacking any kind of photo, I began to wonder if the woman in the Barbour was all that historically significant after all.

I decided to trawl my own photo collection. In an old album, I found a print of friends outside the student union at Bristol University.

How might they like it if I posted their youthful likenesses online? Not much, probably, so I didn’t.

Turning to my computer, I found that I possess a mere 9,211 images. Most had been taken either indoors or in parks or gardens, and therefore wouldn’t patch successfully onto Street View, so were of little use to Historypin.

I pitied the woman who boasted to me that she has 32,000 photos on her computer: if she examined them all it would take nearly 18 hours.

As for non-digital photos, Kodak (a name you don’t hear often these days) has estimated that there are some 12 billion non-digital prints lying in boxes in attics all over the world.

Lacking the oomph to sort through my own share of that vast total, I made up a pretext to get my six-year-old out of the house and dragged her up the street, knocking on the doors of anybody who had been living in the street longer than us.

It was a long shot, but perhaps our neighbours might have treasure in their attics: pictures of somebody famous, or infamous, who once lived on our street. After all, somebody, somewhere, had to live above a spy ring, or had Paul Gascoigne practising free kicks against their back wall, or the Rolling Stones making a racket as they rehearsed next door.

Brendan, across the road, on whom we called first, looked as if he may have been asleep and said he couldn’t remember having any old photos. His neighbour, Hilary, whose family have been here for at least a century (according to the census) was out but answered her mobile. She thought she might possibly have some pictures but couldn’t think where, or what of. Michael and Viv, our immediate neighbours, had only lived in the street for 28 years but we tried them all the same. They, too, couldn’t imagine where their old snaps might be found. It seemed that everybody dreaded sorting through their archives just as much as me and David Rose.

Michael and Viv were happy to reminisce, but this socially significant process had no great humanising effect: my daughter merely swung on their gate and patted their dog. Still, there was no increase in mutual indifference or hostility.

Before we left, Viv kindly dug up a couple of local-history books and found a phone number for Daisy Walford, born 90 years ago at No 34 but recently moved to Devon to be close to her son.

I asked my daughter if she’d mind coming with me to knock on Jim and Josie at No 13, but she indicated that, on balance, she’d rather not. So we went back inside the house we share with all those ghosts to study the books Michael and Viv had given us.

One picture from 1903 showed bare fields where Golders Green Tube and coach station would soon be built. Another had horse-drawn carts going past the end of our road. A third featured children playing in the middle of Cricklewood Lane, in front of houses that would later be flattened by German bombs. I was shocked, not so much at the sight of the long-gone houses but by children playing where, today, they would quickly be flattened by traffic.

I took the book to Golders Green Tube and photographed it as it is now. I decided to do my own montage, on the kitchen table, using scissors and paste. After all, you don’t absolutely need the internet to delve into the past, as Longshaw had already told me. People who had lived in Every Street were energised by his exhibition, leaving messages for each other in the visitors’ book and arranging get-togethers. “I’m fascinated by the use and potential uses of the much-maligned emotion of nostalgia,” he said. “It’s often quite aimless, but it can be harnessed and put to some use. Reminiscence groups can bring people together.”

The point was brought home, a couple of days after I visited my retired neighbours, when Michael actually ran down the pavement after me, in a scene reminiscent of Dad’s Army, to suggest urgently that I ask the vicar for local-history pictures; it seemed that there had been an exhibition in the church recently. I was grateful for Michael’s enthusiasm. Back home, I decided to phone Daisy Walford, who’d been born here 90 years ago. I wasn’t sure she remembered me, but she remembered pretty well everything else.

Since moving to Devon to be near her son, she’d been back twice to visit the lady who bought (and gutted, then totally rebuilt) her house. But Daisy was too polite to criticise the works, and I kept things jolly by not telling her that the street where she grew up was considered “too rough” by my wife’s antecedents.

We talked about the old cobbled road surface, the advent of streetlights, and a number of street parties. I asked her what was the single most amazing thing that ever happened to the street. “It was the bomb,” Daisy said. It blew out the windows and doors at the back of houses on my side, and at the front of the houses on hers.

Still thinking of Historypin, I asked where I might get hold of a picture of this carnage. “Oh, we were all too busy trying to survive. Nobody had time to take pictures.”

3499 words. First published 18 July 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.