- Date Established:
- Date Trading Ceased:
During the first half of the 20th century, London Transport and its predecessors employed Topical Press to take photographs of the company's daily routine. The Topical Press Agency took almost a third, or 65,000, of the black and white photographs in the London's Transport Museum collection.
Many of the photographs record the construction of stations and the developing transport infrastructure. Topical Press was commissioned to take these when a station was to be remodelled or a new bus route was being considered.
Images also show staff relaxing in canteens after their shifts or enjoying during one of the many staff sports days. The public are also shown, for example riding on horse buses or sitting in tube carriages. Some of the street scenes, especially from the early years, show a wealth of incidental social historic detail.
Country scenes also feature largely in the collection. Topical Press documented areas of London that were soon to change with the advent of the new bus and tram routes and Underground system. The agency also took photographs of places Londoners could enjoy in their leisure time. These photos were often used to advertise off-peak services.
Topical Press provided an invaluable record of transport activities during two world wars. The First World War saw women working in men's jobs for the first time. During the Second World War, London Transport property was extensively damaged during the Blitz, and this too is carefully documented.
Although these photographs were taken to show the workings of a large transport company, many of the images are beautiful or striking as well as being wonderful social documents. The names of the photographers who took them, however, have not been recorded.
Topical Press photographers used cameras with large-format glass plate negatives, many of them until well into the 1950s. By this time, 35-millimetre cameras were popular with other photojournalists.
The company was established in 1903 when J B Helsby, a press photographer, met Walter J Edwards, a travelling salesman. They called the company the Topical Press Photographic Agency, and it was later known as 'Topical'. They set up in Helsby's bathroom before moving to Fleet Street in 1907. Fleet Street during this time was the centre of the newspaper trade, so would have been full of potential clients for the new company. In 1910, it settled at Red Lion Court, just off Fleet Street, where it was to stay for many years.
Soon after the establishment of the Topical Press, around 1906, The Underground Electric Railways Company (U.E.R.L) commissioned the company to take photographs. This relationship continued with the U.E.R.L. and its successor, London Transport (L.T), for the next 50 years, until the agency went bankrupt.
Topical Press also worked for many other clients. It claimed to supply 'anything from anywhere at any time'. In 1914, it acquired an interest in the Commercial and Educational Film Company, which produced propaganda and documentary films. The Commercial Department also specialised in railways and motor and mechanical photography, such as they were undertaking for the Underground group at that time.
By 1929, Topical Press had 1,450 agents and representatives based all over the world as well as staff photographers in its London headquarters.
In 1957 when the company went bankrupt, London Transport made an important decision to buy all the negatives and the copyright for most of the L.T. photographs. The negatives had been stored by Topical up to this point, while the prints had been kept in the L.T. archives. Hulton Getty now owns the rest of the Topical archive. Reasons for the eventual demise of the company included competition from the new medium of television, and from independent photojournalists.
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