Dustman Bob Smethurst knows that where there’s muck there’s often brass. But the dumped booty he salvaged from bins on his south-coast round is priceless for reasons other than any cash value.
For Bob has rescued thousands of photographs taken during the First World War – snapshots of a key chapter in our history that would otherwise have ended up as landfill. (His story is featured in Hidden Histories tonight.)
“The families who put them out for collection were presumably disposing of the possessions of a dead relative and clearly didn’t think they were worth keeping, but for me they’re invaluable,” says Bob, who was a dustman for 36 years. “They tell an important part of our history.”
His first photographic find was in 1973, a year into the job with Burgess Hill Council in Mid Sussex: with a heavy heart he consigned it to the dustcart. “Taking someone’s photographs seemed a bit personal but I still regret letting it go. Later on, I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, if everybody keeps throwing them away, there’ll be no record of amateur photographs.’ So any that were found from then on, I kept.”
He believes that his instinct to salvage the photographs developed as the result of a family drama when he was seven. His family received a telegram to say his aunt had passed away. By the time they arrived at her home later that day, her husband had already made a bonfire in the back garden and burnt his late wife’s albums – including photos of Bob’s grandfather who died in the First World War. “It’s probably why we never saw my uncle again. My dad knocked seven bells out of him!”
Decades later, Bob regularly encountered such short-sightedness – like the time he chanced upon a medal awarded for bravery. “I knocked on the door and said, ‘You’ve made a mistake here – you’re throwing your grandfather’s medal away.’ They closed the door on me. I found out later the chap is on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing [in France]. It’s tragic.”
He found one of his rarest prizes in a cardboard box that had been discarded. Inside he noticed a bulging blue envelope with military lettering. It contained the call-up papers for 4 August 1914 – the day reserve troops were drafted – and a large number of pictures taken by a sergeant in the London Scottish regiment: the only known ones before the battalion’s first action in October that year. “You weren’t supposed to have cameras in the trenches but this chap did.”
Another time he dived in front of a bulldozer at the refuse tip after spotting some photographs about to be scooped up. Did his fellow dustmen think him crazy? “We were all made on the crew! There were some collecting furniture, others wanted car parts or fishing tackle.”
As well as over 5,000 photos – mostly of the First World War, although a handful date back to the Boer conflict – he’s found dozens of military badges, medals, insignia, trench maps and nurses’ autograph books inscribed with poems written by their patient-soldiers. Everything is meticulously filed in his home, with albums dedicated to Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and American divisions.
Fortunately for Bob, Sussex was one of the last county councils to introduce bin bags, which then made it much more difficult to spot this wartime treasure trove. When wheelie bins and automatically loading lorries were introduced, it was all but impossible and he took voluntary redundancy. “I thought: ‘Well, that’s the end of it’.”
These days, he keeps busy attending postcard fairs, antiques markets and the occasional auction. Whereas military photographs were sold for 5p apiece when he started collecting, they now fetch between £5 and £10 – more if there’s a tank or aircraft. Not that he’d ever consider selling.
“I treasure them all. They’re all important in their own way. As I look at it, all I am is a custodian for future generations.”
Retrace the events of the Great War on a four-day battlefields tour with Radio Times Travel, visit radiotimes.com/ww1travel
Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs, Thursday 9:00pm, BBC4