The Archivist’s first month PART 2: Insights and Impressions from the St Mark’s Photographic Collection

Shortly after St Mark’s Hospital moved to Northwick Park a collection of photographs and slides were transferred by the Medical Photography Department to St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archive. Filling two shelves in the archive store room, the collection comprised over four thousand print images (some with the accompanying negatives), nearly five hundred 35mm slides and about six hundred and forty 3¼x3¼ inch glass lantern slides. Much of my time over the last six weeks has been spent sifting through and cataloguing this material.

The images fall into four main categories:

1) portraits of staff, often done for annual reports and other hospital publications

2) official or formal visits, events and meetings, such as the Annual General Meeting, the opening of a new unit or ward

3) informal staff social events, such as leaving or retirement parties and staff Christmas cabaret shows

4) clinical images, mainly histology specimens and diagrams and surgical procedures (the bulk of them slides)

There are smaller categories of ‘historical’ images of the hospital and staff in the 19th and 20th century, such as those featured in Lindsay Granshaw’s history of the hospital published 1985 to mark the 150th Anniversary; building interiors and exteriors; and ‘publicity’ shots inside the hospital, for example, of out-patient waiting rooms or staff in wards. It is a substantial collection particularly rich in images from the 1960s through to 1995.

SBHK-HP-68 Eminent staff

One of the best group portraits, above. Eminent surgeons of St Mark’s Hospital 1958 (also published in Granshaw’s history of the hospital between p.368/9). Front row left-right: Dukes, Milligan, Naunton Morgan, Gabriel, Lloyd-Davis, Evans. Back row left-right: Thompson, Lockhart-Mummery, Goligher, Todd, Morson, Parks, Bateman.

With a collection of this size a degree of weeding was required and it has been reduced down to approximately 2500 print images (retention decisions are pending on the slides). So what was weeded out? Duplicate sets of prints and duplicate single images which turned up in several different boxes were extracted. Some sets of images were pared down, particularly those of the annual staff cabarets. My role as Project Archivist is to preserve an overall record of the hospital for future research use, one which provides pertinent evidence of St Mark’s corporate culture.

This professional rationale for weeding the photographs was supplemented by a practice we all have experience of in our personal lives, i.e. when we decide what digital photographs to delete or not to put on Facebook or, if you were born in the last century, when we used to decide which images to include in the holiday photo album and which to exclude or discard. Out go the badly framed, under lit, bleached out, poor contrast, out of focus images, the shots where key people have their eyes closed, everyone’s back is to the camera, images that are closely similar (e.g. there is no need to keep ten shots of the Taj Mahal all taken from the same spot with minor variations of tourists heads in the frame), shots that do not add anything to the existing record of the scene and its participants. This is not to imply that St Mark’s photographers had poor technical skills, in fact often the contrary, thus requiring carefully considered weeding on my part. Yes, weeding is arguably a subjective exercise, but only to an extent because the essence of the occasion, key figures and locations are retained. Further reading on why archivists don’t keep everything can be perused – here

Assessing this number of images requires perseverance and concentration – remembering where you saw that same shot a few boxes back, identifying people, occasions and dates when prints are often unlabelled, providing succinct intelligible descriptions and including key names or words that will be useful to a spectrum of researchers. A magnifying glass also comes in handy, especially for reading the name badge of an unidentified portrait, to confirm an unknown event if someone is holding the conference brochure, or to view slides when you don’t have quick access to an enlarging light box.

What I did have access to was another world. Opening box after box of prints depicting St Mark’s people, events and places was a truly immersive experience. I felt that I got to know the people in the pictures, gained an insight into their characters, saw them out of context (those Christmas cabarets), watched them change and age over the years. It is a privilege and responsibility to preserve their memory, achievements and mark upon this world. It will be interesting to compare what is conveyed in the paper records with the world and atmosphere my mind has conjured from the image collection (however illusory they may be!).

The impression I have formed of St Mark’s over the last 60 years is of a closely knit, inclusive team of dedicated staff and specialists. People clearly liked, and still like, working at St Mark’s. Many stayed for years, building up vast experience and expertise, pioneering and developing techniques and providing a sense of continuity and stability for patients. The photographs convey a great sense of pride in St Mark’s Hospital. This is notably visceral in images of the numerous events held in 1985 to celebrate the hospital’s 150th Anniversary, which included a major conference at the Barbican, St Mark’s Day Service of Thanksgiving and a visit to the hospital by HRH Princess Alexandra.

SBHK-HP-11-St Marks day flag raising
Hoisting the flag to mark the start of the Anniversary year 1985. Left to right: Dr Basil Morson, Lady Juliet Bingley, Professor John Lennard-Jones, Mr James Thomson and Mr Len Premdas.
SBHK-HP-15 P Alex meets nurses outside RESIZED
HRH Princess Alexandra meeting members of the nursing staff outside St Mark’s 13th May 1985

 

Above: scenes from the 150th Anniversary International Conference FRONTIERS IN COLORECTAL DISEASE, 29-31 May 1985. Top right Ian Todd and James Thomson.

 

The Annual General Meeting held in summer was always a major event involving visiting VIPs, presentation of awards and a ‘garden party’ at the back of the hospital where food and drink flowed abundantly.

SBHK-HP-109 AGM 1990
St Mark’s Hospital Annual General Meeting 1990
SBHK-HP-155 AGM 94 mayor on ward
St Mark’s Hospital Annual General Meeting 1994. The AGM always included VIP visitors, normally the Lord Mayor or Lady Mayoress, who met staff and patients.

A sense of camaraderie and genuine friendship comes across in the images of numerous informal parties at the hospital involving staff from chefs to senior surgeons. The phrase ‘any excuse for a party’ comes to mind – someone leaving, a retirement, a long-service anniversary, a significant birthday….

Above top: H R Thompson’s retirement party 1974; Miss Coins tries on her leaving gift, 1960s.
Above bottom: Ian Todd’s last operating day May 1986; Nurse Esther Greene’s leaving party Jan 1995.

 

There is abundant evidence of a very healthy sense of humour among staff. The opening image of a carefully put together black photograph album from the 1960s speaks volumes:

Black album MD seat2 SMALLER
The title page photograph of a St Mark’s Hospital staff photo album compiled in the 1960s

 

Copious photographs of the staff Christmas cabarets in the 1980s and mid-1990s depict an irreverent sense of fun. (I am yet to research how far the annual cabaret tradition dates back to and the are no cabaret photographs in the photographic collection up to the 1970s). The range of costumes, sketches and participants made me yearn to have sight of the scripts and watch video recordings but alas there is no sign of filming ever having taken place. I could almost hear the piano tinkling away as a consultant surgeon pirouettes in a tutu accompanied by a very off-key chorus… Many members of staff took part including pathology technicians, theatre staff, secretaries, administrators, social workers and consultants. A few images of the cabaret were sometimes included in the hospital Annual Report. A selection from some 1980s performances below:

Laughter was clearly the best way to counter-balance stressful and distressing day-to-day work and celebrate another year’s colorectal achievements.

 

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