Skip to main content

Reach for the sky: public invited to create a post-war aerial view of London


Layers of London, a website bringing together the historic maps of London, is calling on Londoners to lend a hand to piece together aerial photographs of the capital taken by the Royal Air Force after World War II. The outcome is to create a single aerial image that has never been seen before.

Layers of London - Layermaker

Historic England’s archive in Swindon houses 24,000 original negatives that capture the entirety of greater London in remarkable detail at a critical moment in its history. They record allotments, bomb damaged areas, war defences, prefabricated houses, and other hallmarks of the war.  In some photos, sensitive military installations were hidden by clouds, added to the photos using a manual cut-and-paste process that ensured that sensitive information did not fall into enemy hands.

The project is led by the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research in partnership with a number other institutions. They include the London Metropolitan Archives, The Museum of London Archaeology, The British Library, Birkbeck, Historic England, The National Archives, the National Library of Scotland and London School of Economics.

“The RAF aerial photographs are a fascinating resource for those interested in how London developed through the second half of the 20th century, providing a unique snapshot of the ravages wrought upon the city by aerial bombardment during the Blitz,” explained Matt Bristow, landscape archaeologist and adviser on the Layers of London Project.

“Once complete, it will be possible to view the composite aerial view against the bomb damage maps compiled by the London County Council and other boroughs, providing fascinating new insights into the physical cost of war on the capital.”

Ian Savage, archive resources manager of the Historic England Archive, said, “Being a partner in Layers of London has allowed us the opportunity to undertake a major digitisation programme of 24,000 aerial images of London, ensuring the safety of these, often fragile, negatives.

“It is exciting to see our images stitched together for the first time to make up an important element of this fascinating project. We are delighted this outstanding collection of RAF aerial photographs will be brought to life in this way. The project will enable the public to see and understand more about the development of our city after the destruction of the Second World War, and engage in London’s history in an exciting new way through the project’s online geo-referencing tool. We are interested to see the project develop.”

How members of the public can get involved

Interested members of the public can remotely piece together one or more aerial photos using an online tool that locates each photo to a place on a map. Like an online jigsaw puzzle, users have to match features on each photo to those on a corresponding historic map, enabling the photograph to be stretched and stuck to its exact location. It takes around 15 minutes per photograph. Users can access the website through:

About the Layers of London Project

The Layers of London Project comprises an ambitious website that makes key historic maps available online and a dynamic engagement programme to encourage schools, community groups, archives and individuals to share information about the people, places and communities they know. It is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, The Institute of Historical Research Trust, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.