Opening a window on Norwich’s Victorian yesterdays

John Huggins, of Davey Place, Norwich, took this photograph of a local woman in her very striking cr

John Huggins, of Davey Place, Norwich, took this photograph of a local woman in her very striking crinoline. His studio ran from 1857 to 1871. - Credit: Archant

More than 150 years ago a photographic revolution swept through our towns and cities. Trevor Heaton opens the shutter on a world of top hats, crinolines and cartes-de-visite which is explored in a new local book.

The colourful business details of C J Thompson, whose studio existed from 1863 to 1888.

The colourful business details of C J Thompson, whose studio existed from 1863 to 1888. - Credit: Archant

They look out at us from a lost age, dressed in their Sunday best and full of that air of confidence and respectability that is so distinctive of the Victorian age.

These are the good folk of Norwich – and they want their place in posterity.

And granting them that were the city's photographic studios, set up to catch the crest of a wave of an exciting new technology which changed their perceptions of the world.

Those 1850s and the 1860s days are explored in a new book, Norwich Victorian Photographers, which is full of examples of some of such city folk – and the stories of the people who 'captured' them.

The cover of Michael Shingfield's book.

The cover of Michael Shingfield's book. - Credit: Archant

The first surprise comes with just how many businesses there were. You might think there were a dozen or so. The actual answer is around 120 – but probably a lot more. Author Michael Shingfield lists 118 but acknowledges that the real number will probably never be known. 'You have to realise that there were a lot of travelling photographers – they'd turn up at a fair,' he said.

It is hard to imagine now just how remarkable all this would have seemed to people of that era. For the first time in history, ordinary people had a way of memorialising themselves, something that for centuries had been the sole preserve of the genteel who could afford portrait painters.

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And for us, looking back

from the selfie-crammed 21st century it gives us the chance to look on the faces of our ancestors, people who would have otherwise been just a line in a parish record or a name on a gravestone. The family photographic album had been born.

As with new technology of any era (photography was only a few decades old), the early adopters tended to be the well-heeled. In this case, the gentry keen to have cartes-de-visite – ie calling cards, but it sounded posher in French - to press on their counterparts during their endless round of country house parties and social engagements.

As photography became more accessible, businesspeople

did the same, and then, finally, ordinary folk.

That said, it was still a special-occasion purchase. 'They would have been a shilling a copy – probably two days' pay for a normal person,' Mr Shingfield, who lives in Heacham, said. 'So you'd have them done for your wedding, engagement, 21st birthday, and you'd get up in your best bib-and-tucker.'

Turn the pages and we have plenty of that. The fire-risk crinolines of the 1850s and 1860s gradually give way to the more practical tailored jackets and

high collars of the 1890s. The gents, meanwhile, move from frock coats to blazers.

They are often pictured leaning nonchalantly on a 'ruined Greek column', or against a painted bucolic backdrop, with the photographers deliberately aiming to re-create within a city centre studio something of the air of a country estate.

Inevitably, as with any fad, businesses came and went, but those that endured tended to have a bit of pedigree behind them. 'The ones who seemed to survive were the ones who already had a business background – where the father already had another business. Sawyers of London Street [in business from 1853] seemed to have been the biggest and best.

'I think John Huggins was actually a much better photographer, but he eventually found himself working for the Sawyers.

'Another success was the Boswells – the family had been furniture making in Norwich since the early 1700s and decided to diversify into photography. They had the means to buy and set up a proper studio.'

One well-known name which is still with us is Barrett & Coe, which has survived and thrived through the generations thanks to innovations such as one-hour print shops and being one of the earliest companies to use colour wedding photography.

The company can trace its roots back to Albert Coe, who worked as a photographer for Sawyer & Bird before taking 'careful superintendence' of the business in 1871 and becoming a junior partner the following year. Albert, who set up on his own in 1883, was, we can safely say, a man with a sharp eye for a commercial opportunity – he was also an optician and offered a sideline in 'refined conjuring and ventriloquial entertainments'.

At least his sideline was respectable. Not so with other, less reputable, studios. In May 1881 police raided the studio of George Taney and arrested him for selling lewd and obscene photographs. For 'contaminating and corrupting' the morals of local folk he was sentenced to a year's hard labour.

Although Mr Shingfield has managed to research the photographers in depth, the vast majority of their subjects remain elusive. 'Sadly, we don't have too many names or addresses on the back,' he explained. 'It would be nice to find out more about them.'

But some Michael has been able to discover more about include W J Chaney, a livery stable keeper. His photograph is one of the most striking in the book, a top-hatted Mr Chaney posing in his poshest outfit, riding boots polished, and riding crop to hand.

'He worked for the Rampant Horse Hotel, which rented out the stables side of its premises to other people.' The hotel – which gives its name to the Norwich street - was eventually bought out, alongside businesses nearby, and cleared to make away for the Curls department store (the site is now Debenham's).

Another subject was Mr Culley, a chemist. 'I've been looking into his family history – his father was a Wesleyan preacher,' he added.

A retired National Trust craftsman, Mr Shingfield and his late wife Jacqueline caught the collecting book when they started looking out for woodworking tools made in Norwich. The city had a worldwide reputation for them – 'They were exported to

America, all over the place'. That resulted in his first book, published in 2014.

His latest book was put

together with the help of their daughter Jennie. And another book project is already on the go. 'I'm doing research on city chemists at the moments' – there were lots of them too – 'I have collected just under 1,000 19th-century invoices.' Each of them is a mini-work of art, full of elegant typefaces and packed with social history.

A man who clearly likes a challenge, Michael is also looking at recording every change of shop in London Street since the 1800s. 'The idea is to have a billboard for every shop with its history on it. I'd like to have it ready in time for the Heritage Open Days, but I'll have to see how I get on!'

As for the golden era of carte-de-visite photography, that gradually came to an end as the 19th century wore on. One of the reasons was the huge popularity in picture postcards from the 1890s. 'They were much more interesting to people – you could have lots made, and post them round to your friends,' Mr Shingfield said.

Another game-changer was Eastman Kodak's Brownie camera, introduced in 1900 and which put photography into the hands – literally – of millions of working-class folk.

But thousands of cartes-de-visite are still out there, ripe for collecting, in car boot sales, junk shops and second-hand bookshops. And each and every one of them is a perfect little slice of social history in a 2.5in by 4in format.

Norwich Victorian Photographers, by Michael Shingfield, is available from the City Bookshop, Davey Place, Norwich, at £19.99