For the last year, we have been working on digitising our extensive photographic archives alongside our partners in the local U3A. 

This work has been a labour of love, with tens of thousands of images from hundreds of albums being scanned in, catalogued and conserved. The Abbey’s collections cover the history of the Downside site, with images of the school, abbey, monastery, pupils, monks and the local area all featuring heavily. 

The oldest image in the archives dates to 1857, a photograph of the monastic community, rumoured to have been taken by Fox-Talbot. Unfortunately, we have yet to find any evidence to substantiate this claim. Dominant in the collections are images of pupils from the first image of the school in 1858 up to more modern times. Documenting life in an English public school during the early 20th century, the plethora of photos show the development of Downside as the site grew and expanded to fit both enlarging monastery and school. 

Fascinating among the photos are the images of the buildings. The construction of the Abbey Church is heavily documented, showing the pride the monastic community had in the ever-growing building from the late 1870s to its completion in the late 1930s when the top of the abbey tower was added. 

Poignancy is also a key element of the work on the collections. Images of boys who went on to lose their lives in both world wars have left a feeling of lives unfulfilled amongst the volunteers who are working on the collections. Some photos, particularly of the Downside OTC (Officer Training Corps), feature groups of boys who would all go on to lose their lives.

As you would expect, the key moments in Downside’s history are also included. The visit of the OTC to London, the Downside air crash, the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1923, the consecration of the Abbey Church in 1935, the opening of the nave in 1925 – the list is endless. 

Work continues on the archives, as there are still many photographs to be scanned. When all the toil is finished, we will have an online catalogue of the superb archive as well as an updated version of the Downside Pictorial History. 

Below is a selection of some of the tens of thousands of images. 

To read more about the U3A’s work on our archives click here.