THEY are a fascinating glimpse into one man’s mission to document a slice of Edinburgh history – and they were nearly lost forever.
Hundreds of black and white negatives of photographs were discovered by chance in a biscuit tin being sold at a collectors’ fair in Portobello.
The seller didn’t know anything about them – he was trying to flog the ornamental tin – but retired history teacher Archie Foley was intrigued enough to immediately snap them up and develop the unseen pictures.
What he found was a treasure trove of the city’s history painstakingly captured. Many of the pictures focus on the rail industry at a time when steam was making way for diesel, while others show general views of the city and presumably family snaps.
But other than some brief notes on the envelope containing the negatives, nothing more is known about the mystery photographer.
Now Mr Foley is hoping that putting a selection on display this month will help provide some answers.
The 79-year-old, who lives in Portobello, says: “It is very frustrating not to be able to name and give him the credit he deserves for preserving such a wonderful record, not only of work on the railways at a time of great change but scenes of Edinburgh, family life and leisure.”
It is thought the collection may have been packed away during a house-clearing several years ago and forgotten about until Mr Foley’s
fortuitous find. It is believed that the photographer, who appears in some of the negatives, may have been an engine driver because of the detail with some of the pictures.
Alongside these were also images of family members, including a young child named Anne, who may hold the key to his identity.
Mr Foley says: “She would be in her 70s now and we believe her to be a grandchild because of the number of times she appears in shots of the family.”
The images will be shown as part of the From Steam to Diesel exhibition which will open in Portobello Library on Monday, October 20 and run until Friday, November 7.
It will focus very much on the railway element of the collection, but organisers say there is scope for many more future exhibitions. The free event will show hundreds of railway-related pictures from the mid 1950s and early 60s, including drivers, shunters and signalmen.
The idea of putting the pictures on display came about after a chance meeting with video director and producer Peter E Ross on a bus going to Edinburgh.
Mr Ross, 54, and also from Portobello, says: “When I saw them I knew he had something special.
“I really wanted to get involved and spend my own time getting these pictures out to as many people as possible.”
Both men have stressed
that they are not experts on railways and have invited those who come to see the exhibition to make comments and suggestions in a visitor book.
They are particularly keen for people to suggest possible locations, and visitors are being encouraged to suggest amendments to any incorrect captions.
So good are the pictures that Mr Ross has likened the photographer’s style to that of renowned portrait photographer August Sander.
Mr Ross, who worked as a freelance photographer for 15 years, says: “Some of these pictures stand up to the very best that I have seen in the first half of the 20th century.
“He didn’t edit the pictures as professional photographer would. But he has a good eye and a very large percentage are excellent. He wasn’t just a snapper, and it would be amazing to find out who he really was.”