Former Garbage Man Has Saved Over 5,000 Photos Taken on the Front Lines of WWI


After 36 years of collecting images from landfills while on the job as a Sussex dustman (that’s a garbage collector to us American English speakers), Bob Smethurst has one of the largest single collections of images from World War I of anyone in the world.

Smethurst gathered most of the more than 5,000 photographs and pieces of history he’s now in possession of throughout the 1970s and 80s. Unable to stand the thought that these moments would be destroyed, Smethurst started collecting the photographs and memorabilia as soldiers from the war grew old and passed away, their belongings often being thrown out.

From letters sent to the front lines to horrific photographs of the horror seen in the trenches, Smethurst’s collection is vast, depicting first-hand accounts of the war.


In regards to what he expects to do with the collection, Smethurst told the Daily Mail:

I have not given a great deal of thought about what will happen to my collection, but I do have children and grandchildren. Not to mention several collecting friends who keep dropping hints. The trouble is, if it is donated to a museum most things will never be seen again, just stored and forgotten and no joy to anyone.

There is the possibility for much money to be made from the collection, with the Daily Mail noting that collectors who are determined to get their hands on images from the first world war will often pay upwards of £30 per picture.

Smethurst, however, isn’t at all interested in the monetary value of the collection, explaining that he much prefers the value in knowing he’s saving an important piece of history that would otherwise never be seen again.

Head over to the Daily Mail to see a great selection of images from Smethurst’s collection and learn more about its origins.

(via Daily Mail)

Image credits: Photographs courtesy of Mercury Press & Media

  • Jonno Wade

    Wonderful story. I was enraged when my own grandfather passed a few years ago, and my Uncles had just thrown away many of his war mementos, and letters he had written to my grandmother during his time in battle.
    Thankfully, I discovered them when taking the bags of trash from his home after my uncles had cleaned out the house of everything they wanted. Sad how very few people treasure their family’s past.

  • Jeff Cowan

    He raises a good point about collections disappearing behind museum doors. I believe that public and private museums have a moral and ethical obligation to curate such collections with an eye toward free or low cost public access. Given technology, there’s no reason the public should have open access to such works. Although some institutions are working toward this goal, sadly it seems to be more an exception than a rule.

  • josh80

    Wow, what the hell is wrong with your uncle!!?

  • asdf

    Generally speaking, I agree with you. But you have to consider that (1) museum collections are huge and there’s only so much that they can display. And (2) I would presume it’s not a lack of desire, but a lack of ability / man-power. Just this one collection is over 5,000 images plus other things. That would take one person hundreds of hours just to catalog, never mind everything else that would be involved in creating a display. Scanning images, curating a display. I’m sure most museums would completely agree with you that these images should be on display and accessible. But there’s way more to it than just buying a few frames and putting them up on the wall.

  • Cinekpol

    Just gather volunteers. Perhaps talk with Wikipedia – they’d most gladly organize group of people to catalogue, scan, and publish everything online for future generations.

    That’s the problem with Museums: They lack in creativity and completely underestimate the will of “new generations” to save memory about previous.

  • Earl Brooks

    Raise money through kickstarter and digitze the images. Make an online museum. Will not be that pricey, just needs a lot of work.

  • Seimon Pugh Jones

    We run a little museum in Laugharne South Wales called the Tin Shed and make every effort to show what we have by rotating. It’s hard work of the best kind..and it’s a full time job basically..but we don’t get paid..Why do we do it?..because it’s important that we don’t forget.. Great foresight saving these images..Well done!!!

    Come and see us if you visit Laugharne…Dylan Thomas’ country..

  • Collection Manager

    Museum cataloguing is a specialized activity that requires a lot of training, IT support and money (collections management systems and custom thesauri are expensive to buy and operate,). People go to graduate school to develop these skills.

    Scanning is also no small undertaking, requiring the objects to undergo a lot of physical manipulation that risks damage (not something you want done by volunteers). Not to mention the amount of planning that would have to go into file formats, storage solutions, Digital Asset Management system, and so on.

    Plus, when a museum takes on a collection it has to be rehoused to archival standards, costing even more money (mat board, century boxes, mylar, etc.).

    Then, to set up and run an online database presents a whole new slew of costs to the institution such as webdesign and bandwidth costs.

    From acquisition, planning, digitization, cataloguing, and online exhibition it would cost thousands of dollars and take month, potentially years, to come to fruition.

    But hey, that’s the problem with internet commentators: they lack in knowledge about their subject and completely underestimate the amount of work it takes to save memory about previous generation.

  • d9veNI

    But for all your bluster you don’t address the central issue that these vast collections often never seeing the light of day for anyone. Your “solution” appears to be a shrug of the shoulders and saying that’s just how it is. Top solution!

    And that’s the problem with comments from the people within the establishment, they rarely provide solutions, just excuses for why nothing can ever be changed. I’m pretty sure your response could have been virtually cut and pasted from the staff at Encyclopaedia Britannia …. and we all know where that ended up.

  • Collections Manager

    I never proposed a solution, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s hopeless. Many institutions are using the internet as a means to provide access to their collections beyond what their physical space allows for. What I am trying to say is that it’s not a case of throwing together some volunteers with some scanners and thinking you’ll be able to do anything other than create a mess. These things take more time and money than most people realize.