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Lockdown lifted by photo project to identify mystery churches

06 January 2023

Andy Vaines has been researching the buildings shown in a set of old glass negatives

ANDY VAINES

St Michael and Our Lady, Wragby

St Michael and Our Lady, Wragby

A PHOTOGRAPHER’s project to avoid lockdown boredom has turned into a year-long search to identify a series of churches and other prominent buildings depicted in a set of old glass negatives.

Andy Vaines had to use all the tricks of 21st-century technology to put a name to each of the buildings caught on 25 Victorian plates that he bought on a whim from eBay in 2020. “There were no notes to identify where they were taken, beyond one being of York Minster,” Mr Vaines said. “The seller told me he’d bought them at least a decade ago from a shop near to where he lives in Hertfordshire. He knew nothing beyond that.”

Using online tools, including Google Image Search, Earth, and Streetview, he was able to name York Minster, the cathedrals of Carlisle and Wakefield, and one Roman Catholic and five Anglican churches in Yorkshire: St Michael and Our Lady, Wragby; St Mary Magdalene’s, Campsall; All Saints’, Ledsham; St Peter the Apostle, Warmfield; All Saints’, Normanton; and St John the Baptist RC Church, Normanton.

“Part of attempting to identify where a building or place is is to look for what are known as ‘significant clues’, such as spire, tower, or window shapes,” he said. “All these become search phrases, but without Google and related websites — of which there are an awful lot — this would be an impossible task. Hours are spent poring over closely resembling images. I’m not an expert in churches, but I’m fast becoming one.”

His first success was St Michael and Our Lady, Wragby, near Wakefield. By enlarging the images, he found two legible gravestone inscriptions. “I Googled both the deceased names and their birthplace,” he said. “Miraculously, I found a website that tells you about people buried in graveyards. Both names came up as Wragby.”

ANDY VAINESThe mystery Norman doorway

Searches for the tall spire of his next target proved fruitless, until he found a website that he describes as “a godsend”, which lists nearly every stained-glass window in the country. There, he found a shape at All Saints’, Ledsham, similar to his negative. A visit to the village confirmed the match.

He identified the RC church at Normanton when an interior shot revealed illustrations of the Stations of the Cross. A Google check of RC churches in the Wakefield area led to St John the Baptist.

All Saints’, Normanton, was identified after Mr Vaines zoomed in on a wall plaque to find that it was in memory of a local landowner, Sir Edward Dodsworth; and St Mary Magdalene’s, Campsall, was revealed though its crenellated tower and elaborate Gothic pinnacles and clock face. St Peter’s, Warmfield, was singled out by its nave extension to the rear and to the side.

Carlisle Cathedral eluded him, until he put out an appeal on social media. “A geek chum of mine used Google’s right-click Image Search to locate it within milliseconds.”

Similarly, the identity of a window eventually located in Wakefield Cathedral also eluded him. “I looked at every church across the land for this bloody window, and it took weeks; so I was more than surprised to find it right on my doorstep,” he said. “The cathedral has 23 windows, and all bar one have five lights that are of equal height. The one that I’ve been looking for is one that is rarely photographed, where the centre light is taller than the other four.”

He believes that the glass negatives, 4.25 by 6.5 inches, were taken for the National Photographic Record Association, formed in 1897 to create a national memory bank. Much of the collection is today in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

After more than a year, two images are still unidentified. One is a Norman doorway, richly decorated with columns and arches, which could be an internal or porched entrance. The other is a pond by a derelict wall. “The thing is,” Mr Vaines said, “that could be just anywhere.”

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