Sussex dustman saved rare WW1 photographs

Bob Smethurst Bob Smethurst collected thousands of photos and letters which were being thrown away

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A former dustman who used to rescue old photographs from landfill sites has revealed his collection of World War One pictures.

Bob Smethurst, from Burgess Hill, Sussex, began working as a dustman in the 1970s in Lindfield.

During this time many former WW1 soldiers were dying and their possessions were cleared away.

As bin bags had not been introduced, Mr Smethurst noticed the photos and medals being thrown out and saved them.

Over the years Mr Smethurst collected hundreds of items.

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Some of my colleagues thought I was totally mad”

End Quote Bob Smethurst

He said: "I just couldn't understand someone throwing a bravery medal away.

"In over 36 years 'on the dust' some of the stuff I found thrown away I just couldn't understand."

He said: "Some of my colleagues thought I was totally mad but I said that about a colleague who collected fishing tackle and I thought he was mad."

Mr Smethurst, who said he was only a "custodian", added: "In them days you used to carry the rubbish on your shoulders. Therefore, when we emptied the bins you used to see the paperwork coming out, and the photographs.

Photograph rescued from rubbish Mr Smethurst said he found many photos from WW1 veterans in landfills sites
Poppy Mr Smethurst collected the items over a period of almost 40 years

"You didn't find them all the time because the only time you were aware of some was when they started to be mashed up."

He has collected about 5,000 photos, often depicting more informal shots than the images kept in archives.

There are also letters from the battlefield, a handkerchief with a bullet hole in it, and a brooch made out of shrapnel.

As his interest in the memorabilia grew, he would knock on the doors of the houses of those who discarded the artefacts to find out about their history and to ask for more unwanted gems for his collection.

He said the treasure of his collection was a series of photographs of the London Scottish regiment, which fought a battle at Messines in 1914.

No other photos of the regiment were previously known to exist.

Letters from the battlefield Letters from the battlefields mentioned missing friends and comrades
Photographs of the London Scottish regiment Mr Smethurst found rare photographs of the London Scottish regiment

Mr Smethurst also described finding his first letter.

"I looked at it, I thought it was interesting - this was the first world war," he said.

"Once I've undone it, I found out the chap was killed in action.

"This was his last letter. I thought well hang on a minute, you can't throw that sort of stuff away."

His story appeared on a BBC4 documentary, Hidden Histories: WW1's Forgotten Photographs, at 21:00 GMT on Thursday and is available on the BBC iPlayer.

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