As the popular online history group celebrates its first birthday, co-founder Richard Brigham looks back – and ahead

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Members of York Past And Present outside the Guildhall. Photographs: York Past And Present

It’s been a strange year. Going from nothing to something at 1,000 miles an hour is a very weird feeling.

To begin at the beginning. My wife and I love the history of York. We discovered some great Facebook pages about the city where people posted images and talked about its past and the latest happenings.

Joining one such site I posted photographs and discussed the city’s history and the memories I had from being a child growing up in York. To my joy I was asked to become a group administrator.

Sadly things went downhill. Pointless posts and arguments led to many people complaining that this “history” page was far from what it should have been.

After weeks of trying to pull the site around, the page admin and I realised we were fighting a losing battle. There was more arguing and pointless posts about buses, football and food appearing daily.

So a few weeks later Ed Arkhurst, Lianne Brigham (aka FZ Lunix) and myself, Richard Brigham (aka Nikon Lumix), met in a quiet riverside pub to discuss what could be done.

After an hour we had agreed that a new group should be formed and that’s what it would be – a group (not a page). So instead of people just liking and then leaving it alone people would join as members.

That way we would attract people who were not only interested in York and its history but would participate more.

New site launched

york-past-present-then-nowYork Past And Present was launched as a Facebook group on October 18, 2013.

We all agreed that if the group lasted a year, we would be more than happy if we reached 1,000 members.

But after advertising the site in various other groups the “member counter” soon started rising – 10, 50, 100, 300 – and it kept going. By the end of the first day we had more than 650 members.

We soon started posting images from the past. Whole albums were carefully organised by location: Woodthorpe, Dringhouses, Acomb. For each album we created a video.

Numbers started to rise steadily but slowly, however this is something we had expected and so after six months and just over 3,000 members we designed and created the York Past And Present website.

This proved popular to people who were not on Facebook and soon the numbers started to rise again. At one point we were getting 250 members a month.

Now we have just celebrated our first birthday and the 1,000 members we had originally hoped to get when we first started is now more than 6,200.

Sharing stories

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Another plaque goes up to mark a forgotten moment in York history

The group and its members are more like a community than a Facebook group. We share our images, history and stories and memories of the past.

We are proud to work with some great people. We owe a lot to our members for their support and Helen Graham of York Living With History.

Working alongside Helen has been great. We have participated in various projects such as Plaque Day – we went round the city placing temporary plaques on places of historical interest that the council, Civic Trust and the Museums Trust didn’t seem to recognise.

We also took part in the Stonebow Inquiry and the discussion on the Eye of York.

We hosted “live drop-Ins” where people could pop in and have a chat about what we were doing and suggest ideas, or just sit and have a coffee with us. It was at one of these meetings that John Oxley, the city archaeologist, popped in and started to have a chat.

A people’s archive

The “access all areas” tours of Guildhall are a big draw, and joining the AOC Archaeology dig at the Hutments. Click to see bigger images

We talked to John about how members of the public could document York buildings which had been changed or were to be demolished, with images stored on an archive for the future. John said he would look into it, and months later to our surprise he set up a meeting.

Our idea was to make sure that the history was preserved before a building was altered or pulled down. We wanted to be more involved in the process and have more say – after all it’s our city and our history under threat.

How to get involved

  Facebook group

  Website

  Email

Since then we have been able to go to the Hutments that were at the side of the Guildhall and photograph them. We also got to do a day by day account of the AOC Archaeology Group dig at that site (thanks to John Oxley and Mitch Pollington).

More recently we have been able to do a tour every Saturday of the Guildhall. We wanted the tour to include as much as we could, so we were given rare access to places like the cellars, room 1 and its hidden passages, and even the roof.

The Guildhall tours continue every week and I must thank Richard Pollitt for all his help.

So our public documentation idea has gone from the drawing board into something workable in six months. We continue to work on it.

The great thing is that York Past And Present members often add images that are exclusive to them, images that are now been shared thanks to the community.

This means more images, and (when permission is given) that these memories are also added to the archive.

York past, present – and future

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Locating the past

So what’s next? Well we have ambitions and there is (as always) work to be done.

The documentation will always be at the forefront of what we do. It’s important to us to have a more modern archive. We don’t just want images, we want people’s memories, people’s stories and people’s feelings.

History is so much more than old pictures, it’s a story of life.

That’s why we are now planning a new event : Meet and Scan. We want people to bring in their pictures, photographs, documents – whatever they like – and we will digitally scan them and put them on a DVD free of charge.

At the same time we will ask permission to add their images to the archive. That way they have the originals and a copy safely stored on DVD and we get a growing archive created by members of the public.

We are also hoping to secure more access to places of interest. We’d love to get businesses involved – there are some great shops and pubs in York that are brimming with history.

To be able to get their past catalogued and their memories stored would be great.

I started by saying “It’s been a strange year” – but a wonderful one. We find ourselves overwhelmed by the support we have had.