An addition to the collection

As readers of my recent post on collecting Victorian cartes-de-visite may remember, my first interest in making a collection of antique photographs was to search out the earliest cartes-de-visite from my photographic society’s founding members. Oldham Photographic Society was founded in 1867, unusual in being one of the earliest societies that is still thriving today and which was set up in an engineering and cotton manufacturing town, not in a fashionable town or city. Unlike many of the early societies, it was not founded by scientists or men of means, but by ordinary working men who aspired to making a living out of the trade of portrait photography.

I was very pleased, today, to take delivery of a photograph made by George Walker, a founding member, who was chosen to be the Society’s first Secretary and who wrote the first set of minutes in the minute book that we still have in our archive. Written in his very neat script, this set of minutes details the first meeting of the society. At this time, George was just 21 years old and was probably relatively new to photography.

Entry in the first minute book of the Oldham Photographic Society, 16th May 1867, in George Walker’s handwriting.

The illegitimate and only child of Thirza Walker, he had grown up with his mother and grandfather, a railway warehouseman, in Henshaw Street. At the 1861 Census, the 15 year old George was working as a solicitor’s clerk, an occupation which he still kept when he helped to found Oldham PS at the age of 21. However, by this time, he had already teamed up with a cotton waste dealer, manufacturer and brewer called Samuel Wolfenden, in a photographic business. The information on the back of their photograph mounts indicates that they were trading from their own homes at Henshaw Street and Whalley Street. We don’t know when the partnership broke up, but soon George had over-stamped their mounts with the large letters “GW”. The likelihood is that this was between 1868 and the early 1870s.

The photograph that I have just obtained, for the princely sum of £2.99, is not remarkable in itself, showing a young couple and possibly taken to mark their engagement or wedding. Both are wearing the clothes of the late 1860s…the girl is wearing a crinoline “bell” shaped skirt, belted at the waist, typical of 1865-1869. Her hairstyle is also of the late 1860s…swept back severely behind the ear, with a centre parting and tied up tightly at the back of her head, a style that came into fashion about 1864. By 1869, the first bustle gowns came into fashion and the hair was swept up on top of the head. Therefore, my best estimate of the date of this photograph, from the fashion, is 1864-69. Of course, we don’t know if this young couple were well off enough to wear the latest fashions, but there is no reason, even if their clothes were some years old, why a young woman could not put her hair up in the latest style – young women were just as fashion conscious then as they are now (well maybe not quite so extreme!).

On the front of the mount, George has had his own name printed. Looking at the back of the mount, the studio information shows the overstamp of GW, so I am now thinking that the date of this photograph is nearer to 1868-1869.

The studio is not expensive or fancy looking and is probably either a room in George’s own home (implied by the address on the back of the photograph’s mount), or perhaps it could have been taken in an upstairs room at a hotel or public house. It has a plain painted wall, plain curtains and carpet, a far cry from the more elaborate furnishing of the studio of his main rival in the town, Squire Knott, but typical of the many studios that were being created in front rooms and upstairs rooms of ordinary houses at that time.

George was soon to marry and his wife, Maria, bore him seven children. George’s mother, Thirza, lived with them, and was supported by George, until her death. George gave up his day job and made a living entirely out of photography, but sadly died fairly young, at only 49 years old, leaving a widow with three of their children still at home. The next Census notes that Maria is “living off her own means” – in other words, she did not go out to work but lived off whatever money George had left her.

To read more of the history of photography, along with the history of the town of Oldham and the biographies of many of its prominent Victorian residents, who were members of Oldham PS, please see my book “A Victorian Society”, available from Amazon at this link.

© Christine Widdall