MODERN historians have the luxury of being able to see the past in photographs taken over the last 150 years ago, or more. Most of the oldest images date from the 1860s and were taken with collodion wet plates. These had to be developed immediately, so photographers working in the field needed a mobile dark room. Not until dry-plates became available in the late 1870s, could the image be developed at leisure.

A huge number of photographs on a wide range of subjects are held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust, the Hampshire Record Office, Southampton Archives and the Portsmouth History Centre. Others are in the hands of museums, local history groups and private collectors. The Gosport Society alone has 600 images of various kinds, all online.

The most prolific pioneer in the country was Francis Frith. The Hampshire Record Office has bought more than 7,000 photographs of the county from his company, mostly taken in the last century. Although images can be ordered from the HRO, they are not online. In contrast, many others are online and can be purchased from the Francis Frith Collection, based in Gillingham, Dorset. It also sells a range of associated merchandise, including digitised old maps, illustrated local histories and many other items – from mugs to jigsaws!

Most of Frith’s online photos were taken between the 1890s and the 1960s. They cover many Hampshire localities, including Farnborough, with 217 images, New Alresford 178, Aldershot 154, Romsey 144, Winchester 345, Stockbridge 46, Ringwood 112, Portsmouth 93, Southampton 84, Whitchurch 29 and many others.

Frith was an extraordinary man who by his mid-30s had amassed a fortune from a wholesale grocery business in Liverpool, as told in The History and Heritage of the Francis Frith Collection by Julia Skinner. From the start he realised that photographs were money spinners. In 1870, after making trips to the Middle East to take photographs for books published in London and New York, he married and settled down in Reigate, Surrey, where the business remained for the next century.

Frith and his assistants made a business of travelling around the whole country, often trailing a separate mobile dark-room. The business thrived, especially after advent of the picture postcard in 1894, by which time the business was in the hands of Frith’s two sons. In the late 1930s the company passed out of the family and by 1970 was unprofitable, largely because it had failed to exploit advances in colour printing. The Reigate premises were closed and scheduled for demolition.

Left behind were 300,000 vintage photos of 8,500 places with nowhere to go. By a stroke of luck Rothmans, the cigarette manufacturers, stepped in and bought everything “within a week of the bulldozers moving in”. Subsequently, the collection was sold on to Rothman employee John M Buck, who created the Francis Frith Collection – a registered trade mark – and made it available online.

Francis Frith was without equal, but in Winchester there was another pioneer who left a huge collection. This was William Savage, who in March 1860 announced in the Chronicle that his photographic studio was “replete with Apparatus of the highest class that science can furnish, with every appliance for the production of Portraits of surpassing beauty”. His story and those of other early photographers have been researched by local historian Mike Pettigrew.

During the next few years, based in a city with a strong religious heritage, he toured central Hampshire with a large camera and a mobile dark-room, taking pictures of churches, parsonage houses and – to order – “beautiful photographs of tombs”. Many of his photographs are online on the Hampshire Cultural Trust website.

A heaven-sent opportunity for Savage came in March 1866 with the death of the Reverend John Keble of Hursley. He provided 32 images for a book rushed out by an Oxford publisher to celebrate the life of this icon of the Anglican Church. The pictures depicted “the Pathway of the Rev. Poet from his Birthplace at Fairford [Gloucs.] to his Grave in Hursley Churchyard”.

Savage went on to gain recognition nationally in the world of photography. In 1887, the year before he died, the editor of the British Journal of Photography came to visit his studio in Winchester. He was bowled over by the facilities, noting especially the “‘posing’ luxuries of a little lake, with a boat to match…[and] a rustic bridge over real water.”

All this was in his Wykeham Studios, built alongside his home in Southgate Street, called Friary Cottage. One of the luminaries photographed there in the 1870s was a young Oscar Wilde.

People like Frith and Savage were later succeeded by a train of photographers who profited from taking portraits and selling postcards of local scenes. These included Francis G.O. Stuart of Southampton, described as “one of the best-known landscape photographers”, Terry Hunt of Basingstoke, J.G Short of Lyndhurst and many others.

In Winchester Savage was followed by Henry W. Salmon, who had trained with G.W Wilson in Aberdeen. Others active in the early 1900s included the “military photographer” Adolphe Rapp, and Bertram Hutchings, a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, who went on to build caravans and use photography to promote them as “Rolls Royce” products.

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