The British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives

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Fig. 1. Bank of Bengal, Kolkota, India, circa 1890

By Nicky Sugar - The British Empire and Commonwealth Collection is a unique archive documenting the social history of countries in the former Empire from the late 19th century to recent times. Through photographs, films, sound recordings, objects and papers, the collection provides insights into diverse lives and landscapes during a challenging and controversial period of history.

The collection’s value lies in its focus on the everyday life experiences of travellers to the Colonies, and the people and environments they encountered. It contains amateur films and photographs, oral histories, personal belongings, diaries and correspondence, in most cases donated by people who experienced the Empire as farmers, colonial servants, traders, soldiers or missionaries before returning home. It is also rich in its geographical scope encompassing items from almost all Commonwealth countries from Aden to Zanzibar!

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Fig. 2. Cambridge Railway Station, circa 1895

We hold many manuscripts and images which document aspects of the Commonwealth’s heritage at key moments, such as the construction of buildings, VIP visits, and the aftermath of war damage. These range from official press photographs to snapshots which might provide evidence of lesser known aspects of a building or monument’s past. They also reinforce the connection between heritage and the political landscape: statues which have been relocated, ceremonies at war memorials long since torn down, modernist buildings erected in the run-up to independence. The collection also covers a wealth of material on infrastructure such as railways across the Commonwealth, for some of which the physical evidence remains unchanged, while others have vanished without trace.

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Fig. 3. Government House, Wad Madani, Sudan, circa 1906

Our extensive photographic and film collections, although largely created by British people, depict diverse aspects of the lives of indigenous communities rarely captured at that time and thus largely missing from the archival record. Our mission is to make these sources available to help people and communities worldwide to explore difficult, forgotten or hidden histories from their own perspectives. Digitisation is therefore one of our highest priorities with over 12,000 images currently available online. In 2019, we launched the Building Shared Futures project, a pilot collaboration between heritage professionals and academics in Bristol and Nairobi to digitally repatriate images from the colonial era. The project’s aim is to help increase social justice by enabling citizens to better understand the past of their locality and therefore take a more active role in imagining its future. This ties in with the Commonwealth Heritage at Risk project currently being developed by the Commonwealth Heritage Forum.

We welcome enquiries from CHF members and supporters. Under normal circumstances, our searchroom at Bristol Archives is open Tuesday-Friday and entry is free to all. We regularly hold our own displays of material as well as contributing contextual material to larger exhibitions at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. We will shortly be launching our new online catalogue, providing enhanced access to thousands of images and film clips as well as catalogue details. We are able to answer remote enquiries and can provide high resolution copies of images and films through our licensing partners. Please keep an eye on our website for our latest updates, including details of visiting procedures following our COVID-19 enforced shutdown, and sign up to our online newsletter. We look forward to hearing from you!

Nicky Sugar, Archivist (archives@bristol.gov.uk)