IN a little over a year, the Old Belfast Photographs page on Facebook has become a viral hit, racking up over 25,000 followers from all over Ireland, America, Australia, Europe, and Russia.
Founder and local historian Joe Baker is rightly proud of the page’s success, acknowledging that manning the page has become akin to a full-time job.
“It’s hard work,” he adds – but valuable, as in that short time, Joe has presided over the largest collection of Belfast photographs on the internet.
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The thousands of photos on the page, and their illuminating descriptions – mostly written by Joe himself – tell the story of a city which is much changed over the last 150 years.
Every aspect of its turbulent history is represented, from the linen mills and shipbuilding of the late 19th century, to the destruction wrought on the city during the Blitz, the heightened security and constant threat of Troubles and the changes – not always for the better – brought by late-20th century developers. “They did more damage than the Provos and the Germans put together,” notes Joe.
Scroll down to see a slideshow of some of the best photos…
Since 1991, Joe has worked for the Glenravel Local History Project in north Belfast, which publishes books and pamphlets and organises walking tours but the rise of Facebook presented a new opportunity.
“We decided to do a page where people can go, and if there are any photographs they want [to download], just let them,” says Joe.
Many of the photographs come from the archives of the defunct newspaper The Northern Whig, many more from private collections – making it a truly collaborative project.
Joe says that photos from the 1960s tend to get the best reaction, for a simple reason – nostalgia. “The ballrooms, the dancehalls, the advertisements – they are the most popular,” says Joe. “The people of the 60s are pensioners now, so they’re the ones with more time to look at it.”
Aside from righting historical wrongs, there have been some lovely personal stories, such as the man who got in touch to say that the photos were helping his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, to regain her memories.
“Doesn’t that make it all worthwhile?” Joe smiles. “It’s not for any financial [gain], it’s just to make people happy. It makes us happy too because we’re gathering this massive collection of photographs, and it’s going to be on the internet forever, for people to enjoy.”