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The Mary Evans Picture Library - an inspiration for family historians


Luci Gosling of the Mary Evans Picture Library explains how this collection of more than one million historic images can help bring your family history research to life.

Founded in 1964, Mary Evans Picture Library was borne out of Mary and her husband Hilary Evans’ shared love of images, manifested in their growing collection of antiquarian books, periodicals, prints and ephemera. But more than that, the focus of their collecting centred on pictures that told a story, recorded history and brought the past to life

The core of the library remains the archive Mary and Hilary amassed during their lifetime, housed in a converted parish hall in Blackheath village, south east London. In addition, we also represent hundreds of contributors, ranging from national museums to privately owned specialist collections, many of which focus on niche areas of history.    


By pulling these disparate collections together under one roof, our aim is to offer not only the widest possible range of historical subjects, but also to tackle those subjects in real depth and detail.  For example, on the theme of domestic servants, we will have images taken from books and magazines of the period, but augmenting this are trade cards and advertisements for cleaning and laundry products, cookery and household management books, cartoons, humorous postcards, and even Happy Families cards all giving a well-rounded view on a particular theme. 

For anyone researching the Titanic, we offer postcards and diagrams, photographs of the Harland and Wolff shipyard (via our representation of the National Museums of Northern Ireland), objects and artefacts from the ship (via Onslow’s Auctioneers), brochures, sheet music, commemorative ephemera, film and movie posters and stills not to mention some fascinating contemporary reports taken from the weekly illustrated publications we have lining the shelves here.

It’s worth mentioning that our collection of 19th and 20th century magazines, including the Illustrated London News archive is an invaluable source for unearthing hard-to-find or forgotten places, events and people. Our preservation of these publications means we can offer an off-line research service to our clients; finding an obscure author or long-forgotten piano factory within their pages can sometimes feel akin to uncovering treasure. 

Although we now have well over one million images on our website, there are still surprising discoveries to make in the archive, such as a rather lovely collection of historic restaurant menus I found in a file last month – an intriguing insight into what diners were enjoying through the decades. 


Interest and engagement in family history has exploded in recent years which means collections such as those of Peter Higginbotham, which specialises in asylums and workhouses, or the Thomas Cook archive of brochures and posters, have proved essential in telling the stories of ordinary people. Topographical images from collections such as Francis Frith or Historic England, give a sense of place. 

Equally, we’ve worked hard to bring together photographs, cartoons, art and ephemera to reflect the myriad aspects of World War I & World War II, the fight for female suffrage, employment, family life, housing, holidays, entertainment and transport. 

Some collections defy categorisation. The Maurice Collins Collection of gadgets and inventions contains pictures of thousands of weird and wonderful objects from black-out bulbs to ballroom powder, typewriter brushes to tie knot makers, giving a fascinating perspective on how our ancestors lived their lives. It fits right in at Mary Evans, where we’ve earned a reputation for bringing the past to life, often in the most unexpected ways. 

Discover the Mary Evans Picture Library collections and visit the Prints Online website.

Image details from top: Thomas Cook Brochure Cover - Prestatyn Holiday Camp. ©Thomas Cook Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library; WW2 greetings card, To Daddy. ©The March of the Women Collection/Mary Evans Picture Library; Boys at work with saws and planes in the carpentry workshop at St John's Home, Ipswich. Mary Evans/Peter Higginbotham Collection.

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17/01/2017 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

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