17 best film archives for family historians

By Guest, 24 May 2017 - 12:53pm

Amanda Randall lists the best local and national film archives for finding out how your ancestors lived


Lady Violet Astor and the Earl of Minto take a film of a foxhunting meeting, 1927. Credit: Kirby/ Topical Press Agency/ Getty Images

The value of a film archive to your family history may not be immediately obvious, but just a few minutes delving into the catalogue of such an institution will be enough to persuade you what an enlightening resource film can be.

Britain has a rich film heritage dating back to 1896 and the surviving footage brings history to life in a way that other documents simply cannot.

It’s quite a magical (and often emotional) experience to stumble upon film footage of the village or town where we grew up, or that our grandparents inhabited. If you’re very lucky you may even see your long-gone relatives on screen. 

1. BFI National Film Archive 

The BFI’s Britain On Film project launched in 2015; this ever-increasing online resource is a good first step into the world of archive film.

Easy to search by region, time frame or subject; begin by exploring the map function. Many of the films here are also accessible via regional film archive websites but Britain On Film offers a novel way of discovering material from a wider area than that covered by the local archives.  

2. Irish Film Institute 

The Irish Film Institute’s iplayer has a growing collection of films for online viewing. Search the catalogue, choose ‘Archive’ then the ‘Public access’ option.  

3. National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive

The former Scottish Screen Archive, founded in 1976 is held in Kelvin Hall, Glasgow. The website provides access to 1,900 clips and full-length films about Scotland. 

4. National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales

Easter Rising Dublin

Housed within the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Search the main library catalogue using terms such as ‘wool film’ or ‘mining film’. Appointments to view must be made in advance, details on the website. Seven hundred digitised titles from this collection can be viewed via BFI Player. Select Wales on the digital map.

5. Northern Ireland Screen 

From the landing page select ‘Film Culture’. Search the Digital Film Archive collections or go here and select Northern Ireland on the map.

6. East Anglian Film Archive 

EAFA was the first regional film archive. Founded in 1976, it holds material relating to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. EAFA currently has 1,200 films for you to explore.

7. Lincolnshire Film Archive

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A small collection of 700 films dating back to 1901, situated in Boston and accessible by appointment only.

8. Media Archive Central England

MACE, located at the University of Lincoln, holds film about the Midlands. The Midlands On Film series is available to buy on DVD through the online shop.

9. North West Film Archive 

This archive at Manchester Metropolitan University holds 40,000 items of film.

10. Screen Archive South East

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Located at Brighton University, in a region that witnessed the birth of British cinema. The SASE project to digitise Second World War films, Films from the Home Front, is available to view here.

11. South West Film & Television Archive

Covers Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and the Isles of Scilly.

12. Wessex Film & Sound Archive

Based at Hampshire Record Office in Winchester. Films in the collection cover Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

13. Yorkshire Film Archive (YFA)

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YFA merged with North East Film Archive (NEFA) in 2012. YFA manages both collections, which total more than 50,000 items focusing on the identities of the two regions. YFA is housed at York St John University, while NEFA is based at the University of Teeside, Middlesborough.

14. British PathĂ© Newsreels 

These newsreels kept people informed about news events from 1910 until the 1970s. The collection is available online.

15. Centre of South Asian Studies 

For those interested in South Asia, the entire collection held by the Centre of South Asian Studies in Cambridge is online.

16. The British Council

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The British Council’s film collection comprises 120 short films made in the 1940s about different aspects of British life covering work, entertainment, culture and sport. Watch the 1945 ‘Coughs and Sneezes’ campaign, among others. All have commentary and some are in Technicolor.

17. The Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum’s film collection remains a key repository for war-related footage. Access the online catalogue then select ‘Collections’. Without typing in the box, click ‘search’ to access the filter function. Choose ‘Category’, select ‘Film’ then ‘Subject period’.

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