How do I find historic aerial photographs of my local area?


30 June 2020
Liverpool in WW2
Did you know you can access historic aerial photography for most UK locations from the comfort of your home? Mike Bedford explains how in our latest guide.

Today, thanks to online resources such as Google Maps, we’re used to seamless aerial photography being offered as an alternative to a more conventional map. This being the case, it makes sense to take a look at historic aerial photography in our investigation of mapping for family history researchers. 

Britain From Above

An excellent source of aerial photography of England, Scotland and Wales, plus limited coverage of several other countries, is Britain From Above. This provides access to 95,000 photos dating from 1919 to 1953, most of which are black & white.

The coverage appears to be fairly widespread, even though the density is much greater in the major urban areas. Having clicked on a map icon that indicates a photo, you’ll be shown a small thumbnail and a brief description, and you can click on this to see it at a larger scale. 

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Aerial photos of Scotland

Scotland has many historic vertical images available at NLS Maps. Coverage is by no means complete, although the Central Band is well catered for. 

Historic images at Google Earth

Note also, that Google Earth (as opposed to Google Maps) also has some historic aerial photography. The availability differs around the globe but, for areas of high population density, you might find a good selection. 

For central London, for example, there’s photography for 1945 plus many dates from 1999 to the present day. Other populous parts of the UK plus many cities in mainland Europe, also have photography dating back to 1945 or even earlier. To see this, select ‘historical imagery’ from the ‘view’ menu and then select a date using the slider control which will appear.

Extract taken from an in-depth exploration of using maps in local and family history in the August issue of Family Tree magazine. Get your copy here.

About the author

Mike Bedford first remembers being fascinated with maps on childhood holidays in Cornwall in pre-sat nav days. Following every bend in the road on an Ordnance Survey map seemed almost magical. When he later took up hill walking, those OS maps took on an even greater significance. No wonder, then, that historical maps, both on-screen and on paper, are an enduring source of wonder.