Old photo albums unlock a hidden heritage at Norfolk Heritage Centre

From intimate family memories to traumatic disasters, a collection of old family albums went on show this weekend which catalogued a history of Norfolk by its early photographers.

Visitors to the Forum in Norwich were given the chance to browse through the albums held by the Norfolk Heritage Centre, and to learn more about their own photographic ancestry.

The evocative archive of cartes des visites, cabinet prints, roll film images and postcards includes family portraits from wealthy Norfolk families – dating from the era when only the rich could afford a formal studio portrait.

The earliest photos from the 1850s onwards were posed in studios, reflecting the formality of the day and the unwieldy cameras which captured families including the Norwich banking pioneers, the Gurneys, and the Sheringham Park landowners, the Upchers.

But as cameras became more portable and the subjects more candid, the archive reveals the changes in attitude, culture and photographic fashion across all sections of society.

Clare Agate, community librarian at Norwich's Millennium Library said: 'We have got lots of these old photo albums and this was a brilliant opportunity for us to let people have a look at these treasures. You can learn about how people related to each other.

'We think about a family photo album being a real link with people and their stories.'

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Among the historic events catalogued by Norfolk's early photographers were the flood disasters affecting Norwich in 1912 and the east coast around Great Yarmouth in 1938.

The 1938 album, taken by a man named S.S. Morton, includes a photo of two horses, with a handwritten commentary: 'The mare on the right was rescued after swimming through flood water (10 feet deep) for eight hours. The colt was born prematurely on the next day. Seven horses from the same grazing ground, near Horsey, were drowned.'

Other ornately-decorated albums show hunting and fishing expeditions, a family holidaying in Brancaster in 1916 while the first world war raged across the channel and a collection of portraits of the teachers of the Octagon Chapel Boys Sunday School, presented to superintendent Mr C F Stevens on his retirement in 1893.

During Saturday's event, Liz Elmore and Lisa Little, of the costume and textile study centre at Norfolk Museums Service, helped people to date their own photographs by assessing factors such as the changing style of bonnets and bodices – and the length of a lady's hemline.

Mrs Little said: 'There was ceremony about these early photos, and they have so much detail in them.

'We had one with a pregnant lady who was wearing a shawl, trying to hide her bump. It could be a social commentary on a hidden pregnancy – not that she was hiding it, but she was trying not to advertise it. I don't think you would see that these days.

'My favourites are the ones where they used a fake background and pretended they were in the Alps or somewhere like that, but you could see a carpet rolled up in the foreground.'

Miss Elmore said: 'The pictures are from the 1850s onwards, and you really had to prepare for a photo in those days. You had to look your best for the photo and the photographer would advise you on what you should wear, and what fabrics would be picked up on camera.

'It is partly down to the technology. In Victorian photographs the cameras meant the pictures had to be posed in a studio. In the 20th century, everyone had their own cameras so they became less formal.'