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Capturing images of the West Bromwich faces from the past

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 27, 2014

By Mike Fenton

  • The studios of Horace H. Dudley, at 165 High Street, West Bromwich, around 1911

  • RIGHT: Sidney Darby, Studios in New Street

  • Ryland Memorial School of Art

  • These photographic images were captured by, from the left, George P Walker, Henri Gascon, Timmins Bros, Horace Dudley, Herbert Mason Whitlock (two photos), Sidney Darby and Joseph Hughes

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THE links to our past are fragile; they are genealogical egg shells upon which we have to tread lightly lest we eradicate them for ever.

Written records and other archival deposits recount stories and events that lighten up our respective family histories and bring smiles to our faces when we perhaps find ourselves amidst bouts of melancholy.

A pocket watch, a wedding ring or other valuable 'trinkets' will perform similarly. From my own experience however, if there is one thing that truly illuminates the lives of our Great Grandfathers, Uncles or distant cousins, it is when a photograph emerges from the dark, hidden for generations in some dusty, forgotten drawer or cupboard.

It is fortunate for us that a century or more ago there were a multitude of photographers in our region who were only too eager to capture these images. If one town could boast its share of these camera clicking concerns, it was West Bromwich and it is from there that we commence our photographic journey.

Our first port of call is at the premises of George P Walker who from available records appears to have escaped the archival radar as there is not a definitive trace from where we can pinpoint his studios.

The only clue we have at our disposal is that of a likewise named West Bromwich inhabitant who in 1881 was listed as a 'commercial traveller – wholesale provision'. Such a tentative link allows us to only speculate; perhaps this Margate born 'traveller' split his work between photographing our regions' ancestors and his other business further afield. Either way George P Walker, like his contemporaries who we will encounter later, produced a wealth of images, mostly of young Victorian men.

On the reverse of one photograph, potential customers are urged on by his 'specialite machinery', a truly Victorian and eccentric description employed to weaken the opposition's hold in this increasingly cut throat business.

Our second 'happy snapper' is a Mr Joseph Hughes, whose studio was on the High Street, at the corner of what was Scotland Passage in the town. His clientele would be enticed by his 'Art Studio of Photography', an attempt to present his establishment as something more than that proffered by his rivals.

As with his competitor George Walker, Joseph's seemingly itinerant movements have muddied the official and historical waters, the only reference to a Joseph Hughes and one listed as a photographer is that of a boarder residing at No. 8 Dagger Lane. On the reverse of one of Joseph's portraiture works is the name of Harry Olden, presumably the name of the sitter. What makes these images so fascinating is the uncertainty of the camera's subjects. Who were they, which occupation filled their daily lives and what was their ultimate fate?

Our next devotee of the camera, lens and shutter is Timmins, a name synonymous with any study of West Bromwich history. This, however, presents the researcher with an investigative nightmare and one of epic proportions. The proliferation of this surname requires us to be quite specific about whom we are referring to.

Timmins Brothers appeared to have had an established business in the town and gave their studios the archaic epithet of 'Albion', harking back to more poetic and romantic times as well no doubt to their local sporting heroes.

Our relic of the past, however, provides no clue to the first names of these photographic brethren. What we do see with the Timmins Brothers is the effort to encapsulate their studios with an impression of neo-classical imagery as is evidenced on the reverse of the image featured.

There's not some Victorian nor indeed Edwardian master of his art capturing the sitter's pose but a winged cherub-like figure, its subject similarly with wings and grasping an upright staff, a cloak draped unassumingly over one arm but its posture firm and assured. In the corner stands a stone pillar atop which sits an aspidistra type plant.

Inexorably we move on and encounter the pose of our first female subject. Our unknown lady stands calmly and with a slight sideward's glance, her attire suitably modest and forever respectful, the social attitudes of the day being duly adhered to. We find her in the studios of Horace H Dudley, again situated on the town centre's High Street. Horace Henry Dudley is the first of our studies who provides some tangible historical data. He was born in Dudley in 1877 and at the age of 24 was already engaged in his love of photography at his home in Queens Cross just outside Dudley town centre.

He was resident in West Bromwich in Birmingham Road by 1911, his family just starting out as witnessed by his wife Elizabeth and their two-year-old daughter Edna.

Horace was not prepared to let the grass grow under his feet and quickly established studios in five other towns, mostly Midlands based.

An allusion to Horace's studio wanderlust is hinted at on the reverse of this particular photographic card by the loosely drawn figure of a young woman draped in robes supporting what appears to be a cornucopia filled with coins of the realm tumbling to the ground.

Another aficionado of this blossoming new fashion in capturing one's 'warts and all' was the Warwickshire born Herbert Mason Whitlock. He too undertook portraiture assignments as our next sitter bore witness. On this occasion a man of some indeterminate age is to be found supporting a huntsman's outfit, seated on a studio contrived stone wall, the subject's riding crop fixed assuredly to one of his leather clad boots.

Herbert, however, wouldn't be content at solely snapping sitters in purely artificial circumstances. He would be responsible for capturing some of the most revered and iconic of buildings and characters forever associated with turn of the century West Bromwich. For example in 1904 he captured the aesthetic essence of the entrance of the Ryland Memorial School of Art in Lodge Road. Some years later he could be found in the grounds of Christchurch, saving for our collective posterity the war memorial, a predictive act maybe as the church was to be ravaged by fire in 1979, another landmark erased from our streets but thanks to Herbert not from our memory.

Our penultimate 'shutterbug' is someone older readers will recall fondly as his photographic studio is from a much more recent time. This was the inimitable Mr Sidney Darby of New Street, whose business was certainly ongoing in the early 1950s, the Queen's visit to West Bromwich being captured by Sidney during the event.

He was born in 1882 and by 1910 was an 'engineer's pattern maker'. During the 1920s Sidney captured a particularly enigmatic pose of a West Bromwich ambulance man. The unknown sitter is the epitome of smartness, his uniform conspicuous by its absence of wrinkles and creases, his insignia sparkling, supported by the symmetry of seven highly polished buttons.

The final of our camera enthusiasts is someone who appears in our study almost by default due to his pre-eminence in this field. This 'high office' belongs to Henri Charles Membrey Gascon, an individual whose immediate roots are somewhat if not sadly hidden from our collective lens. It is believed he was born around 1870 in England despite the Gallic nature of his given names.

The early 1890s saw Henri in Wolverhampton and shortly after his marriage a move to Walsall occurred where he established his first business.

In 1896 he is also listed as having a 'branch' studio at 284 High Street, West Bromwich, joining that ever increasing circle of like minded camera zealots in the town. Henri's family was growing stealthily and by 1899 a third child arrived, this time a daughter and with more mouths to feed his work load increased proportionately as is evidenced by the towns his empire now covered; Walsall, Birmingham, Bilston and West Bromwich.

A common thread throughout these photographic artists is the 'carte visites' they produced which were paper thin photographs mounted on a thicker paper card. Like many of his rivals Henri ensured these were decorously presented, his name inscribed at the bottom of each completed frame in gold leaf and stylishly printed in the mode of a calligrapher's pen.

Despite such ostentatiousness, Henri's spirit of curiosity to explore fresher fields engendered him to move out of the profitable Midlands region, 1904 observing his residency in the sunnier coastal climes of Brighton. This too was short lived as Henri concluded his work in the United States some time around 1905/06.

While the records of our West Bromwich subjects remain stubbornly vague, secreted somewhere in a dark room, we may still salute their contribution to the preservation of the characters who frequented their many studios.

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