EARLY DAYS (1884-1914)
Towards the latter part of last century a small number of camera enthusiast members of the Birkenhead YMCA, which at that time had premises in Grange Road, Birkenhead, formed themselves into a group to discuss and practise the newly found interest of photography.
As far as early records reveal, this group was set up in 1884 and continued for the following ten years purely as a subsidiary section of the YMCA. It was then decided to seek wider recognition, and the group became known as the YMCA Camera Club. This name was not to last long, however, for it soon became evident, with the constantly widening scope of photography, that the title “Camera Club” was too limited in its terminology; a broader based title was needed. And so it was that in the following year, 1895, the club assumed the title “Birkenhead Photographic Association” (BPA for short) under which banner it has operated without a break up to the present day.
It may seem strange that between the years 1884 and 1894 the Group, as we have called it, was not separately identified by any specific name or title. The fact is that this section of the YMCA combined musical entertainment with its photographic interests and, as a result, probably found it difficult to coin a name to embrace its dual role. There is no doubt, however, that the photographic side was firmly established in 1884, as evidenced by the “Amateur Photographer” reports referred to later in this Chapter. In effect, therefore, the BPA has been in existence for the full hundred years since 1884.
Before continuing with the detailed history of the BPA it is perhaps worth while to look back for a moment and trace the growth of photography in general terms, and to consider its acceptability as an interest and hobby for the artistic and technically minded. Two significant facts emerge, firstly, it was not very long after Fox Talbot pioneered the early development of photography in the 1840s that the photographic process `took off’ commercially, particularly in regard to portraiture. Whereas previously it was only the wealthy who could afford a family portrait painted by an artist – for that was the only method of portrayal then available – photography very quickly opened the door to portraiture and other subjects on a wide scale and at a price everyone could afford. The rapid increase in the number of professional photographers provided ample evidence of this new development. Family photographs ranged along the mantel piece soon became commonplace in almost every household. It seemed inevitable that this upsurge in professional photography should eventually influence the amateur field and so, club life.
The second point we have to bear in mind is that towards the end of the Industrial Revolution many of those who had struggled for much of their lives in factories, workshops and elsewhere inevitably felt the need for some uplift or interest outside the daily routine. Goethe, the German writer, once declared “Everything alive strives for beauty and colour”, and so it is with us humans irrespective of our birth or background. Photography was in many ways able to fill this need, and conspicuous in this respect were the industrial areas of Merseyside and Lancashire. The fact that Birkenhead – and Liverpool – were among the first of the many towns in the Country to set up photographic societies is of the utmost significance.
An unusual coincidence concerning the YMCA photographic group previously referred to was that its formation in 1884 occurred at approximately the same time that the first edition of the weekly publication “The Amateur Photographer” appeared on the bookstalls. An-early issue of the AP (as we have come to know it) dated 28th November 1884, gave details of the new photographic group just formed with the following announcement: “The preliminary meeting of the above society was held on Thursday evening, 20th November, at Berry’s Grand Restaurant, Birkenhead, with John H. Day in the Chair. The undermentioned gentlemen were elected to conduct the business of the society for the ensuing session:
President – J.A. FORREST,
Vice-President – H.N. ATKINS,
Treasurer – J. MAURICE JONES,
T. CRAGG WILLIAMS,
Hon. Sec. – JOHN H. DAY, 19 Milton Road, Birkenhead.
A later edition of the AP, dated 30th January 1885, described the group’s formal introduction to the public in the following graphic terms: “The above institution, which was formed only about the latter end of last year, was formally introduced with much eclat to the Birkenhead public on Tuesday evening, the 20th instant, by His Worship The Mayor, Alderman R. Bateson, J.P., who kindly presided on the occasion of their annual soiree held in the large schoolroom connected with the Grange Road Baptist Church. The first item on the programme, the taking of the portrait of His Worship by the aid of magnesium light, was proceeded with under the charge of Mr. P.H. Phillips, resulting in a very fair negative from which a transparency was taken by super-imposition, both being, towards a later part of the evening, displayed upon the screen by the aid of a magnificent triple diffusion oxy-hydrogen lantern.” Other than learning that the early group devoted itself in the main to lantern slide making, flashlight work, lectures, demonstrations and one or two minor exhibitions, comparatively little is known of its activities between the years 1884 and 1894, but it is on record that with the formation of the YMCA Camera Club a proper constitution was drawn up in a form very similar to that which operates at the present day.
From 1895 onwards the Association got fully into its stride, and weekly meetings, competitions and outings to local places of interest became a regular feature of club life. Monthly council meetings and an annual general meeting also became routine procedure. Around that time a print portfolio was initiated and circulated among members. Total membership was about fifty and the annual subscription 10s/6d, but for members of the YMCA this was reduced to 5s/-.
The year 1897 saw the Association arranging for public viewing two ambitious shows of the new “movies”, one of which was the film of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This was the first time moving pictures had been shown in Birkenhead, there being no cinemas at that time, and such was the success of BPA’s venture that a total profit of £50 was raised – big money in those days. Later in the same year, as a Diamond Jubilee offering to the Borough, a photographic survey of Wirral was undertaken by the Association and over five hundred platinum and other mono chrome prints were produced and presented to the Free Library where, it is understood, they are still held for reference purposes.
In April 1900 a supreme effort was made to put BPA firmly ‘on the map’ as one of the most influential societies in the North of England. This was to be achieved by staging an International Exhibition under the patronage of the Duke of Westminster, the Earl of Crawford, Sir Benjamin Stone, Sir Elliot Lees, W.H. Lever, Esq., the Lord Mayor of Liverpool and the Mayor of Birkenhead. This ambitious project involved taking over the whole of the YMCA building for ten days and, in addition to the United Kingdom, entries for the exhibition were received from as far afield as India, Africa, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United States of America. A copy of the beautiful art brochure published by the club specially for this exhibition is still in exist ence, and it remains a fitting testimony to the dedication and enterprise of the members at that time.
Between the years 1900 and 1914 records of club activities are scanty. The following few notes may be of interest however:-
1906 – Dr. Thurston Holland lectured on “Ozobrome”. Dr. Sidney Wilkinson lectured on three-colour photography.
1907 – The club acquired a ¼ plate camera for slide making, price 30s/-. Slide lantern converted from gas to electric lighting at a total cost of £ 17. Annual Exhibition: 110 prints, 52 slides, 300 visitors.
1908 – James Walker lectured on the new “Autochrome” plates. (N.B. It may be of interest to have this reminder of the early emergence of colour photography). Chris J. Symes, the Country’s foremost exponent of the bromoil process, elected a member of BPA. Annual Exhibition: 118 prints, 84 slides, 300 visitors.
Up to 1914 membership remained at around the fifty mark, but with the outbreak of the first World War this number declined sharply; the younger members joined the Forces and the older ones did their bit as circumstances permitted. By 1915 attendances had fallen to such a low level that the decision was made to suspend operations, and no meetings were held between then and the end of hostilities in 1918. Up to this stage the BPA had remained affiliated to the YMCA, still at their premises in Grange Road, but this state of affairs was eventually to change, as will be described later.
There can be little doubt that of the more active personalities who were mem bers of BPA during the period reviewed in this Chapter few are remembered by any of the current members of the club. At the same time, the latter may like to hear of one or two particular characters who featured prominently in earlier days.
Rachel Ferguson joined BPA in 1906, and up to 1914 was the only woman ‘working’ photographer in the club. Although getting on in years, this didn’t deter her from entering the competitions. She signed every print submitted, and also adopted the novel idea of composing a few lines of poetry appropriate to the subject of the entry, which she inscribed very neatly on the mount. For the whole duration of her membership she remained a vital force in all club matters. Her death in 1935 was a great loss to the Association.
W.H. Miner, manager of Thomson & Capper of Charing Cross for many years, was elected a member of the BPA in 1911 and became President in 1923. He and his wife made a great impact within the club, organising, lecturing, and generally helping in every way possible, for which services they were in later years elevated to life membership. Their enthusiasm was unbounded and remained so until W.H.’s death in 1955. The President’s Table, which stands in the main clubroom, was donated to the Association by W.H. Miner’s son and daughter in memory of their father.
A noted BPA member similarly dedicated to club affairs was J .T. Peters, more commonly known as ‘Pa’ Peters. A man of many parts: artist, photographer, musician, lecturer, keen businessman and secretary of the Club from 1904 to 1909, J .T. was quite indefatigable in his work. So greatly was the club’s indebtedness felt for his contribution to its early success that shortly after his untimely death in 1914 the J .T. PETERS Memorial Trophy was instituted for the best three prints and three slides in the club’s Annual Exhibition, and it speaks well for his memory that for close on fifty years the competition brought forth the best effort of the members each year. The Trophy was withdrawn round about 1965 due to the decline and eventual dis appearance of monochrome slides.
It would be inappropriate to conclude this section of the BPA’s early history without some reference to the primitive equipment and basic chemicals then used in the practice of photography. In those days cameras were heavy and bulky and, due to the extreme slowness of photographic emulsions, instantaneous exposures were out of the question. On a typical BPA outing each member would carry a large plate camera and wooden tripod, and would seldom expose more than one or two plates during the afternoon. But what is more to the point, windy conditions made landscapes containing trees and other moving objects well-nigh impossible to take. Flower shots were similarly affected, also waterfalls; how often have we seen old prints of the latter where the running water has had the resemblance of cotton wool.
Equally, in early times, photographic chemicals and solutions, together with processing methods, were the subject of much research and experiment. A large number of the BPA’s early meetings were devoted to practical demonstrations of new materials, papers and developers as they became available on the market. Fortunately there is no sign that the resulting discussions were conducted in other than a spirit of friendliness and good humour.