Flash bang wallop – I’ve just broken my back.
Photography these days has become easy. With the advanced technology available to anyone who can afford it, pointing and pressing a shutter normally results in a perfect picture. Thanks to many intelligent auto settings on the camera doing all the work, even I can get a semi-decent shot of my chosen subject.
And when one of my pictures does accidentally come out frustratingly blurred, I’ll pretend that I meant it and enter it into the Turner Prize. So far, I’ve been beaten to the award by a dead cow, a used bed and an empty room, so I need to concentrate on worsening my work considerably before I’m successful.
But back in the Victorian era, photographers couldn’t just go around taking happy snaps wherever and whenever they liked. The time it took to expose the photographic plate and then develop it certainly wasn’t instant, as it is today. Photographers were skilled technicians and chemists who didn’t waste their precious negatives on images of twerking chimney sweeps or the workhouse Master’s avocado lunch.
The size and amount of equipment involved to take a photograph was also a prohibitive factor. The sheer quantity of bulky paraphernalia needed to take a single image was similar to lugging the voluminous contents of Queen Victoria’s wardrobe around, so staged photos were far more popular. This meant that the photographer only had to break their back once by lifting and moving the equipment in a fairly forgiving environment of a country house, and then break it a little bit more when packing away.
In the parish of Amberley in the mid 1800’s, The Reverend Edward Blackwell had wanted to take photographs of the parishioners that attended his church services. But fearing that he may end up with multiple fractures of the spine from carting the heavy photographic equipment to many different houses, he set the camera up in one location, presumably the rectory, and asked the villagers to come to him.
And what emerged from these photographic sessions is a visual record of a Gloucestershire village’s inhabitants in the 1860’s. [Ref. P13/IN/4/6/3-5]
Each thick album, and there are three of them, are entitled ‘My Parish and Congregation’ and they contain around two hundred portraits of the people living and working in the parish of Amberley.
Each photograph has the name of the person written underneath, but occasionally there are other little pieces of information noted too. Some have a date of marriage or death, a house name, or sometimes a profession or military title.
It’s fascinating to look through and see all the faces that occupied Amberley back in the 1860’s. With these photographs, we can see exactly what people were like, albeit all dressed in their Sunday best, from over one hundred and fifty years ago.
There are plenty of interesting looking villagers. There is John Evans, who has a classic wooden leg. He is pictured with a sharp knife in one hand, whittling a small piece of wood on his one remaining good knee and possibly about to give himself another wooden leg if he’s not careful. George Harris, a porter for the Great Western Railway, is proudly wearing a tall top hat, whilst Miss Mary Dunn, who might have been a keen gardener, is pictured with plenty of pot plants around her, and brass musician Joseph Browning is pictured with his tuba in his hands.
There is also George Adey, who in 1867 is recorded as being 89 years old, and Becky Beard, aged 87. This means that we have an accurate image of two people who were both alive two hundred and thirty seven years ago, in 1780, and that is an astonishing thought.
And although it might be stretching it a bit, it’s just about conceivable that when these two people were young in 1780, they might have known or spoken to an elder who had been alive during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), over three hundred and thirty two years ago.
It’s wonderful to think that whilst I am looking at the photographs in these books, there is (almost) a direct link between me and the English Civil War. All I have to do now is figure out if I’m a Roundhead or a Cavalier. I think I shall be on the side of whichever did the least amount of dying.
Theoretically though, if anyone is reading these words in three hundred and thirty two years time in the year 2349, then there is now (almost) a direct link between you, future readers, and the English Civil War, a period spanning six hundred and sixty four years.
And it’s all down to Reverend Edward Blackwell breaking his back for the benefit of future generations.
Anthony Phillips, Archives Support Officer