Crime Scene Photography in England: 1895-1960
If I asked you to imagine a crime scene photograph, chances are that you would have a clear idea of what it should look like: a disarranged room, visual clues to the crime, sometimes blood or a body. Thanks to procedural police television shows, courtroom dramas and true crime books, we’ve been exposed to many historical and fictional examples. But they didn’t always look this way. My research traces how crime scene photographs in England evolved over time, like other forensic technologies, in response to the needs of police forces and the courts.
The first set of interior crime scene photographs at the National Archives in Kew are from a 1904 case at a farm in Tarrington, Herefordshire. A depressed farmer, recovering from influenza shot and killed his older female cousin, who lived with him and his wife. There was no clear motive or family disagreement. One of the five photographs which accompany the depositions shows the chairs rearranged neatly around the table, numbered on the print to show where each person had sat for breakfast an hour before the shooting. (Figure 1: TNA, ASSI 6/39/6). This early crime scene photograph is nothing like we would expect: the room has been cleaned, and there is no visual evidence of the crime. The farmer had admitted the shooting, and there is no reference to any evidence shown by the photographs in the depositions. The photographs were also taken not by a police detective, but by a local man listed by the 1901 census as an “artist: photographic.”
Compare this to a photograph taken fifty years later, in Ilford, North London. By this time, all major English police forces had police photographers and sometimes whole photographic departments. Camera technology had evolved to allow lighter, more portable cameras with a deeper focus and flash technology. In this photograph, a tidy front garden with carefully set flowers and lace curtains at the window has a dead body crumpled up on his side on the lawn (Figure 2: TNA, ASSI 6/39/6). The three uncollected newspapers and the open door hint at the disruptions in the household that led up to this moment. The couple living here were unhappily married; the husband had gone to Brighton to commit suicide, but had changed his mind and returned to find his wife’s bags packed. When her lover arrived to collect her, the husband stabbed him in the head. While this image is much closer to what we picture as a modern crime scene photograph, the police photographer has also been careful not to show the victim’s face, a reticence which characterized English crime scene photographs until the 1960s.
These photographs are excellent examples of the evolution of crime scene photography as an evidentiary tool. I also find them evocative because of the things they don’t tell us. As historians, we can look at what is pictured, and in these particular examples, we can also read the depositions and police reports, yet we can never be entirely sure what happened outside of the frame. Just as with any historical source, we can’t step back in time and fully solve the mystery; beneath the surface of the photograph are layers of emotion, intent and motivation that we can only partially recover.
You can access Dr. Amy Bell’s article and the complete issue (Volume 57 – Issue 1) for free through March 31, 2018 here.
 The National Archives, Kew [TNA], ASSI 6/39/6.
 TNA, ASSI 6/39/6.