Highlights of the British Collection:

Aerial Photographs - Major Allen's Life and Work (1891-1940)

Born on 12 January 1891, Major George W. Allen was the eldest son of John Allen (1857-1934). John Allen came from Northern Ireland, and after serving an apprenticeship and working for Eddison, eventually joined the Eddison and Nodding company, which he subsequently purchased in 1897. He expanded the company, later re-naming it the Oxford Steam Plough Company, then again re-naming the company to John Allen and Sons. George Allen was a director.

John Allen purchased Wootten House in 1889, and George and James Allen were both born there. John purchased The Elms the following year. George Allen remained a bachelor living with his family at The Elms in Iffley. A large garage in the grounds housed Major Allen's renovated vintage cars, just one of his many enterprises. The Elms was eventually turned into the Hawkwell House Hotel which is still there today. Other members of the family lived nearby at Wootten House. The last member of the Allen family to live in Iffley was Captain James Cullimore Allen, George's brother, who died in 1970. John Allen retired to Bournemouth in 1934 which may account for the photographs George took of Bournemouth.

Allen was educated at Boxgrove School in Guildford and at Clifton College. When he left school he passed into the Royal Military College at Woolwich and was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant in The Royal Artillery. However, he abandoned his commission because he had hoped to go into the Royal Engineers.

Following this brief period in the military, George Allen became a pupil in the offices of Messrs. Howard Humphreys and Sons, consulting engineers. He was a waterworks engineer on the East Coast of Africa, engaged by the Crown Agents. He then became a manager of his father's company. He served again in the military during the First World War and was awarded the Military Cross, re-joining his father's company after the war.

Major Allen was interested in almost anything, and put his heart and soul into everything he was involved in. He was a pioneer motorist; one of his cars was a 1898 Daimler 10 H.P., which he bequeathed to the Science Museum in South Kensington. He was also a pioneer pilot, learning to fly in 1929 and buying a red De Havilland Puss Moth, called Maid of the Mist. He possessed the first privately owned aeroplane in Oxford, and had his own airfield at Clifton Hampden.

After office hours, he spent his evenings and weekends flying over various counties, taking photographs of known, and previously unknown, unrecorded sites, mainly archaeological. His photographs were mostly oblique, taken from between 1,000-1,500 feet. He could not find a suitable camera and built his own to take these obliques. After his death, his camera and photographs were given to the Ashmolean Museum. A vertical camera was built into the aeroplane and stayed with it when it was given by Major Allen for use in the Second World War.

If the weather was not good enough for photographs, he flew backwards and forwards over the counties to locate sites to return to when the weather improved, assessing when the shadows or crop growth was just right for the best photographs. He took about 2000 photographs in total, and calculated that 600 photographs took around 12,000 miles to fly. His contribution proved invaluable to the interpretation of archaeological sites in Wiltshire, Hampshire, Kent, Somerset, Hertfordshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire, but most especially in Oxfordshire.

Allen was also interested in the features he photographed. He field-walked many sites to see what they looked like on the ground and took a small part in some excavations. In 1936 Allen was elected as a fellow of Society of Antiquaries of London. He also gave lectures to local societies and at the Ashmolean Museum. The manuscripts of several lectures are now in the Ashmolean Museum Allen archive.

Major Allen's life was cut tragically short in a motorcycle accident on 24 November 1940.

Major Allen with his aeroplane (Album ref 20,1)

Major Allen with his aeroplane (Album Ref 20,1)

Boxgrove School, Guildford 1934 (Album Ref 18, 65)

Boxgrove School, Guildford taken 12 May 1934 (Album Ref 18, 65)

George & Cullimore Allen 1937 (Ashmolean Allen Archive)

George and Cullimore Allen on the Brighton Run in 1937 (Ashmolean Museum Archive)

Major Allen's Camera

George Allen's Camera (Ashmolean Museum)

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Christine Edbury
January 2012