Photographic surveys of British history


Times Gone By: A Photographic Record of Great Britain 1856-1956, by John Gaisford (ed.)

Looking Back at Britain: Peace and Prosperity, 1860s, by Brian Moynahan


Times Gone By: A Photographic Record of Great Britain 1856-1956, by John Gaisford (ed.)

This large-format book, published in 1977, contains over 250 black and white photographs from the Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, with a short introduction and minimal captions.  Photographers are not credited.  The dates may seem arbitrary but the idea was to run from the height of Empire (not to mention a time that is convenient to a compiler because of the proliferation of photography in that decade) to the year of Suez, charting changes in Britain during the course of a busy century.

The contents are divided thematically, each section running chronologically so the reader is regularly moving from the 1950s back to the 1850s.  Despite the title, not all photographs were taken in Britain.  The first section is on ‘Royalty and Empire’, which includes scenes in Egypt, Australia, India and South Africa.  Further sections cover transport, industry, agriculture, leisure, home and family, politics, wartime, body and soul (a miscellaneous category covering such topics as education, medicine, marriage, death and religion) and entertainment.  As is typical in such compilations, there is a mix of the famous and ordinary people, showing the different classes at work and play in town and country.

As well as snapshots in time within the book, the volume itself represents a snapshot in time of the Radio Times Hulton Picture Library.  The Hulton Press Library was a spin-off from Picture Post, and when that publication folded in 1957 the archive was sold to the BBC.  It was combined with the BBC’s own photographic archive, to which the corporation added other acquisitions before selling the BBC Hulton Picture Library to Brian Deutsch in 1988.  The collection is now owned by Getty Images, who have digitised their holdings.  Thus the photographs in the book can be seen online, with many others.

That provides an opportunity to compare the reproductions in the book with those in the archive from which they were drawn.  For a start the book’s captions are less informative.  I was puzzled by one image Gaisford had captioned ‘An evacuee family from London settle in with a miner’s family in the Midlands in 1945’ (p. 139).  I couldn’t imagine too many fresh evacuees leaving London as late as 1945, and indeed the Getty caption is ‘Overcrowding – 30th November 1940: Evacuees staying with a family of seven in the Midlands. Original Publication: Picture Post – 331 – Is This Just? – pub. 1940 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)’.

Many of the photographs in the book have been cropped, some marginally but others substantially.  The Glaswegian walking his greyhounds in 1939 (p. 114) has lost a large chunk of the left-hand side, making the original landscape format square.  The original caption would have been worth adding: ‘Walking the dogs – 1st April 1939: A man walking his greyhounds down a Glasgow street. Eighty-six thousand of Glasgow’s 1,119,900 population are unemployed and this figure rises when the seasonal employment at the shipyards declines. Original Publication: Picture Post – 91 – Glasgow – pub. 1939 (Photo by Humphrey Spender/Picture Post/Getty Images)’.

Further, the Getty website contains entire spreads, showing the photographs as originally presented on the page with accompanying text.  A pair of photographs on p. 115 of Times Gone By, of two women looking at a magazine at a street stall and men playing dominoes in a pub, are captioned ‘Quiet pastimes in the Elephant and Castle, South London, 1949’.  They were shot for a spread which appeared in Picture Post on 8 January 1949, titled ‘Life in the Elephant’, taken by Bert Hardy again (the Picture Post version of the magazine browsers was cropped, unlike than that reproduced in Times Gone By, though the uncropped version is also on the website ).

The Getty archivists have done a valuable job in scanning and adding comprehensive keywords to facilitate searches.  Together, the superior quality of reproduction, fuller captioning and lack of cropping of images readily available online means that Times Gone By is redundant as a source.

(28 March 2017)


Looking Back at Britain: Peace and Prosperity, 1860s, by Brian Moynahan

It is difficult to know whether to consider this 2009 volume a compilation of photographs with extensive commentary or lavishly illustrated history.  It follows the familiar Reader’s Digest approach, packaging text and images in an attractive middlebrow whole, and here they have gathered some fascinating photographs, arranged thematically, charting life in Britain in the 1860s (or thereabouts because some can only be roughly dated from internal evidence).  Brian Moynahan’s commentary and captions are clear and informative while not throwing up any surprises.  He emphasises that it was a time of solid national progress, albeit at different speeds regionally, free from the political and military convulsions that were gripping the Continent and North America and before substantial competition from abroad threatened Britain’s commercial supremacy.  He mentions more than once that it was a country willing to give sanctuary to Karl Marx while remaining impervious to his ideas.

Moynahan takes a standard approach, ranging widely: Britain’s place internationally as the Empire grew, with the British ‘at home all over the world’; industry and commerce; agriculture and food; health; class; poverty; the place of women; the hard lives children often experienced; death; social reform; travel; sport and leisure; politics and political unrest (Moynahan struggles to convey in a straightforward way the complexities of electoral reform during the decade and its implications for the two parties); education; science;  religion; philanthropy; crime; architecture; the use of domestic space; and more – not least the growth and increasing sophistication of photography itself.  Obviously there is much overlap in these categories.  One topic lightly dealt with is literature, addressed only in passing.

Perhaps the ubiquity of photography so soon after its invention is indicated by the preference shown by many to look away from the camera.  Some hold the lens’s gaze, but at this early stage in the technology’s history one might have expected photography to still be a general object of curiosity.  Instead a number gaze into the distance in an echo of classical portraiture, as if disdainful of the photographer’s presence and determined to show that already they are blasé about the process.  These were people who experienced a new marvel every week, and their poses indicate that they were not easily overawed.

So, copiously illustrated historical overview or commentary-rich photography book?  The quality of many of the images, drawn from the Getty Collection, is excellent and would stand better on their own than would the text, so probably the latter.  Either way, it is a worthwhile look at a key period in British history, one in which we can see our own world being constructed.  Moynahan in his conservative-leaning narrative is clearly an admirer of the Victorians, their entrepreneurial self-sufficient individualism and their sheer versatility, and while he does not hesitate to indicate the shortcomings of their society, overall he sees them as a positive force in the progress of civilisation.

(30 December 2015)

100 Years of Spirit Photography, by Tom Patterson

100 years cvr

Major Tom Patterson’s 1965 70-page book on spirit photography is a condensed survey of the history and practice of spirit photography, published to mark the hundredth anniversary of its inception by William Mumler of Boston, USA, in 1862.  The book is illustrated with 36 plates which are discussed in the text.

Patterson was General Secretary of the International Spiritualist Federation and a believer in the genuineness of spirit photography; in his foreword he declares that ‘In this work I explain how the light radiations which emanate from discarnate spirits, can, and do leave their impressions upon the silver salt on the undeveloped film in the same manner that the light of day, or any other form of illumination leaves its pictorial effect upon the negative.’ (It may be noted that the use of commas is eccentric throughout.)

It was his belief that spirits, though invisible, still give off radiations – ‘psychic energy’ – which can be captured on film, accounting for examples obtained without the use of a camera, the images directly impressed onto the film.  ‘Ribbon’ effects can be accounted for by the spirit moving during the exposure.  He emphasises how soon spirit photography appeared after the invention of photography, an example as he sees it of how the spirit world is able to utilise scientific advances to improve methods of communication between the two worlds.

There is a brief overview of significant names in the field such as Mumler, Frederick Hudson, Robert Boursnell, Edward Wylie, M J Vearncombe, William Hope and the Crewe Circle (discussed in some detail), Emma Dean, Tom Lynn, David Duguid, John Myers, as well as others less well known in 1965 and totally obscure now.  The focus is generally British, though international examples are included: as well as Mumler, T. Glen Hamilton in Canada, some American and even African producers are touched on.  Patterson stresses that the production of spirit photographs has been widespread, with many one-offs, and undoubtedly further bodies of work that have never been publicised.  He says he is still receiving examples taken by ordinary members of the public with no claims to mediumistic abilities.

My favourite of Patterson’s examples has to be Staveley Bulford (misspelled Steveley by Patterson).  Bulford was a member of the Society for Psychical Research who built an unusual type of camera with which to take spirit photographs in that it was possible to sit inside it (a photograph of the contraption, plus some of his results, courtesy of the College of Psychic Studies, can be found in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, ed. Clément Chéroux, 2004).  The spirit operators, Bulford concluded, employed a kind of ultraviolet light to produce the extras; Dr Karl Muller, past president and research officer of the International Spiritualist Federation, and therefore a colleague of Patterson’s, is quoted as commenting that as observers sitting inside the camera saw light effects when extras were recorded, the ultraviolet was ‘of a peculiar kind’.  Indeed.

Patterson is aware of some of the methods of fraud that can be used to produce spirit photographs or misinterpret them, and lists ten mechanisms by guarding against which trickery can be excluded.  He is confident test conditions will rule out all these methods, leaving the only possible interpretation that the photograph so produced is genuine.  Unfortunately a written account does not necessarily match accurately what occurred in studio and darkroom, and Patterson does not take into account the degree to which a sitter might be misdirected by sleight of hand.  It is entirely possible to run through the list provided and assume all such possibilities have been guarded against, but despite one’s best efforts still fall prey to deception.  Patterson may not have been quite as rigorous as he would like to believe and the reader may find his evidence unconvincing.

A chapter is devoted to the development of camera mediumship in the context of a home circle, stressing that the circle is primarily a means to communicate with the dead, not for entertainment.  Thus the general advice is relevant to any group wishing to form a circle whether or not they pursue photography as an adjunct.  The final section deals with infrared as a means both of identifying fraud in the séance room and ‘proving the reality of genuine spirit manifestations’, and Muller adds a technical appendix on infrared in the darkroom, arguing that the low energy levels he describes are not injurious to mediums.

Patterson claims to have an extensive collection of photographs, many of recent origin, including a number that had belonged to Bulford, himself a collector.  Additionally there are several references to Estelle Stead, who was still alive when the book was written (a lengthy letter written by her about William Hope is included) and Patterson adds that she owns ‘a large selection of psychic photographs’.  One has to wonder at the fate of the bulk of spirit photographs.  Some are in the archives of such organisations as the College of Psychic Studies, the Society for Psychical Research, and the odd museum and gallery, but they can only represent a fraction of those produced in a century and a half.  More may turn up but most, sadly, are gone, as evanescent as the extras on them.


Sherlock Holmes and the Ghost in the London Athenaeum, by Jack Zonneveld

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Jack Zonneveld, president of the Sherlock Holmes Society of The Hague, has written a short story for children, bulked out in an attractive hardback by random Sidney Paget illustrations and photographs taken inside the Athenaeum club.  It is published by De Nieuwe Haagsche and undated.

In April 1883, Holmes and Watson are visited at Baker Street by Lord Reay who has been babysitting the Dutch king, William III (1817-90), on a private visit.  They are staying at the exclusive Athenaeum, but to Reay’s consternation while he was having a chat with someone the king had disappeared, though not before scribbling a note which he had left with the porter saying he had seen what seemed to be a ghost!  He had to investigate, but he would be back.

Holmes having undertaken to help, the trio return to the Athenaeum, Holmes and Watson on the way reminding each other what a dubious character William has, with a reputation for drinking, philandering and violence: most un-English in fact.  They enter the club only to find the errant monarch has returned, though he is shaken by his experience.

Downing a few stiff ones, he claims to have seen what he first took to be the ghost of an earlier monarch, William the Silent, who was murdered in 1584,  He had been sitting looking out of the window in the Athenaeum when William the Silent tapped him on the shoulder and, living up to his name, walked off.   After the king’s initial shock he had realised it was a living person, not a ghost.

The more recent King William followed and was led into Hatchards, the bookshop, where the apparent ghost seemed to have vanished.  To compound the mystery, the baffled sovereign was handed a piece of paper with a cryptic quotation from La Fontaine, while having to pretend to the staff that he merely had the delusion of being the Dutch king.

Naturally Holmes wraps up the mystery quickly, though how ‘William the Silent’ came to be in the Athenaeum at the same time as the king and why the La Fontaine note was given to the latter is rather far-fetched.  Finally, Lord Reay and Holmes dine together at the Athenaeum where, Holmes tells Watson afterwards, they had bumped into a famous author who said that some ghost stories they had heard connected with The Hague were, in his opinion, true.  His name?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course.

The story is amusing for adults, with characters telling each other things they already know – such as The Hague and Delft are in Holland – or assuming the king might have to abdicate in favour of someone else solely on the grounds that the other person looks exactly like a predecessor of the king’s and might therefore be a descendant with a greater claim to the throne than the incumbent.  However, for all its gaucheness, you can’t get new readers of Sherlock Holmes too young.  Those who enjoy this may advance to the originals in due course.

Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness, by Jon Ronson

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Jon Ronson certainly has a knack for recycling his material.  Having read bits by him in the Guardian over the years, I found myself initially thinking I must have read versions of pieces in his 2006 collection Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness in the newspaper, before realising I had read them in his 2013 collection Lost at Sea, and indeed there is a note in the later volume stating that portions, in slightly different form, had already appeared in Out of the Ordinary and What I Do: More True Tales of Everyday Craziness (2007), which follows the same format – there is even less in that one not cannibalised in Lost at Sea.  At least half, and the better half, of Out of the Ordinary I had read elsewhere, sometimes more than once.

In the first part, much of it cobbled together from his diary-format newspaper column, his family looms large, particularly his relationship with his irritating small son Joel and, as written, passive-aggressive wife Elaine.  Jon is ostensibly trying to give the former a ‘magical’ childhood but also wanting to bask in the glow cast as creator of the magic, to the bemusement and often irritation of the latter.  The overarching theme is the ‘domestic craziness’ bubble within which Ronson lives in Islington (of course), but frankly it’s a dull kind of craziness, and cannot be made authentically crazy by the frequent use of exaggerations such as ‘yell’ ‘shout’ and ‘shriek’ when recounting conversations.

A trip to meet Santa in Lapland in ‘A fantastic life’ is of greater interest to the Ronsons than to anyone else.  Much better is ‘The family portrait’, the tale of his eccentric hotel-owning parents commissioning a portrait in which the Ronson clan will appear among depictions of celebrities.  If the idea is terrible, the painting’s execution is even worse.  The account of it all though is hilarious, and one suspects that Ronson is settling familial scores.  In ‘Messages from God’ (‘A message from God’ in Lost at Sea) he attends an Alpha course run at Holy Trinity Brompton.  ‘The Frank Sidebottom years’ describes his stint as keyboard player in the Oh Blimey Big Band, a story which evolved into Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie (2014).

In the second half, all appearing in Lost at Sea as well, ‘Phoning a friend’ is the sad story of Charles Ingram, the ‘coughing major’ who won a million on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Game show and ended up in court, his career in ruins.  The poor man would be largely forgotten if he didn’t keep turning up in Ronson’s books, surely constituting a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

‘The fall of a pop impresario’ is about the trial of sleazy Jonathan King for having sex with underage boys.  Ronson is incredulous at King’s self-justifications, particularly the comparison of his plight with Oscar Wilde’s, though Ronson concedes that heterosexual celebrities got away with things gay ones didn’t.  Now we know that showbiz paedophilia extended much further than King’s stamping ground, the Walton Hop, but the portrait of an unrepentant King and various cronies with whom he associated is no less distasteful.  But then the Paedophile Information Exchange (1974-84) was legal, saying much about the values of the period in which such practices thrived.

‘Blood sacrifice’ concerns the Jesus Christians cult’s efforts to donate kidneys to strangers as an expression of their faith, and it deserves to be longer.  The chapter concludes with an account of the Ronsons’ difficulties with their son’s private primary school and the manipulative behaviour of the head teacher in enforcing conformity among the parents, expulsion (Ronson’s word) the ultimate sanction. Ronson likens it to the kind of influence cult leaders wield, finding parallels with the Jesus Christians.  His conclusion: you can find this control in everyday life; you don’t have to be a fully paid-up cult member.  In the version in Lost at Sea the school section has been omitted, perhaps for legal reasons.

The book concludes with ‘Citizen Kubrick’, Ronson delving into the vast archive of Stanley Kubrick, who had died not long before, ostensibly in search of Kubrick’s ‘Rosebud’ to give the article some structure (hence the nod in the title to Citizen Kane).  It’s a random and unilluminating investigation that would have worked better, and certainly been more informative, had a film historian been the one to open the boxes and make the inevitable documentary (the Lost at Sea version has been expanded and much improved, and should be read rather than the one in Out of the Ordinary).

The amount of material in this book that has been recycled is frankly a liberty.  Surely Ronson cannot be so hard-pressed he needs to keep repackaging the same stuff with slight tweaks.  He is an uneven writer, but it would help if he left out the smug domestic details and concentrated on investigations.  One telling piece of autobiographical information is the fact that when he was at school in Cardiff he was thrown in a lake for being an ‘arse’.  At a school reunion he is told he still is an arse, just not a pubescent one.  It’s easy to see how the lake incident happened.

In Search of the Dead, by Jeffrey Iverson


Jeffrey Iverson’s 1992 book, co-published by BBC Books and Penguin, accompanied a BBC documentary series on which he was producer.  He had previously written More Lives Than One (1976) on past-life regression sessions conducted by Arnall Bloxham and produced the television documentary ‘The Bloxham Tapes’.  In Search of the Dead ranges widely, if not deeply, over the evidence for life after death, told in an easy journalistic style.  The project obviously had a decent budget, allowing a fair amount of travel, notably in the United States and India, and Iverson touches on a wide variety of phenomena that fall under the umbrella of psychical research.

The book begins by discussing ‘Powers of the mind’, covering remote viewing’, psychic detection, the Ganzfeld experiments, and Montague Ullman’s dream research, the thrust being that if mind can be shown as a separate entity from brain within living individuals, there is a chance the same will hold after death.  The second part, ‘Visions and voices’. moves directly into survival issues by examining Near-Death Experiences, asking whether they are subjective or do give an insight into a life beyond life.

The third, ‘Intruders from the psychic world’, examines apparitions, mediumship and post-mortem communication, a mixture of both contemporary and historical material.  ‘Remembered lives’ deals with reincarnation, drawing heavily on Ian Stevenson’s research.  One chapter is headed ‘The Galileo of the Twentieth Century’, referring to a description of Stevenson:  ‘Either he is making a colossal mistake … or he will be known as the Galileo of the twentieth century.’  There is no prize for guessing which verdict Iverson favours, but Galilean status is still a long way off for Stevenson and reincarnation studies generally.

The final chapters are more general, looking at what Iverson matily insists on calling just ‘quantum’ instead of ‘quantum physics’, propounding the familiar point that quantum physics allow wiggle-room for the existence of paranormal phenomena essentially on the  grounds that we don’t know what’s going on in either, so one extremely strange thing is potentially as good as another.  There are plenty of examples given in all the categories Iverson covers, some familiar, others less so, leavened by interviews with significant figures, notably Brian Josephson, Peter Fenwick and the Dalai Lama.

Iverson is sympathetic towards the topics he covers though not always sufficiently critical.  His interviewees too are on the sympathetic side, and sceptical voices for balance are notably lacking.  However, despite its age and clear bias this is still worth reading for the brisk overviews of the cases covered and may encourage the casual reader to delve more deeply into the issues, and come to appreciate their complexity.

Drawing Parallels: Architecture Observed, by Quintin Lake


In his 2009 book Drawing Parallels, Quintin Lake has paired architectural photographs taken in different places worldwide which echo each other in terms of some formal element, allowing the reader, as the title suggests, to draw parallels between them and in so doing find in them more than the sum of the parts.  The photographs are prefaced by a couple of somewhat overblown essays by Richard Wentworth and Hugh Cumming giving an indication of the book’s purpose: playfulness in tandem with the serious intent to encourage the viewer to view the world with a fresh eye for what are too often its overlooked details, and the ways in which space is used (or one could argue abused).  Pairs are drawn from places near and far (the first from Oxford and São Paulo) and compare and contrast structures old and new, permanent and ephemeral.  The book is organised into a series of fairly self-explanatory, if sometimes arbitrary, chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect:  ‘Seeing shapes’, ‘Surface and texture’, ‘Organising space’, ‘Shelter and home’, ‘Memory and place’, ‘Architecture as stage set’ and ‘Urban horizons’.

Having set up the pairs and provided clues in the captions, it is left to the viewer to work out why they have been linked.  It may be easy: similarities or contrasts in size, shape, texture and colour, randomness versus order, closed versus open, rural versus urban, human-scale versus monolithic and so forth, but at times there seems to be something deeper than superficial attributes at work.  Sometimes it is subtle: a small ancient dome with two flanking towers from Iran forming a clever refrigeration system is shown opposite the Barking Creek Tidal Barrier which the description likens to a ‘giant guillotine’.  The caption reads ‘Buildings without precedent’.  Why would Iran and guillotines be associated in Lake’s mind?  To reinforce the point, Cumming points out that the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence seen on a hill in the distance was used for sky burials, with vultures stripping the corpses’ flesh.  All sorts of comparisons spring to mind looking at the two photographs.

More bluntly, a woman in a chador being photographed by a man at Persepolis, Iran, is opposite a man photographing young ladies in brightly coloured period dresses in Venice.  The contrast in costumes and attitudes could not be starker.  Islamic sexism even extends to door knockers in Iran it seems, with heavy macho ones for the men and light ones for the women, installed so the sexes do not interact.  The critique is not always focused on religion-dominated culture of course: two multi-coloured park benches of different sizes shown next to two arches, one bigger than the other, is captioned ‘Related scale’.  The juxtaposition takes on a deeper significance when one reads the descriptions and learns that the benches are in the Fallen Monument Park, Moscow, and the arches are part of the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest.  The latter possess a sense of permanence missing in the former.

The photographs are enjoyable to look at and often insightful, but any well-travelled photographer with a large enough collection could do something similar – especially if the constraints are this flexible – then leave the reader to do the work of interpreting the result; dressing the collection up with a philosophical layer in the introductory essays cannot make it profound.  To refer to Henri Cartier-Bresson as an influence, and Lake as pursuing the ‘decisive moment’ on his ‘urban safari’, is misguided.  Also, using the word ’optimistic’ in conjunction with soulless megacities, as Lake does, raises the distinct possibility that he doesn’t have to live in one; many of their residents would probably disagree with the adjective.  On the plus side we are reminded how close to each other we are as humans, wherever and whenever we live, and how similar the solutions used in architecture and the organisation of lived space often are irrespective of location, and it can never hurt for it to be reiterated.  I did learn too that there is a building designed by an architect even worse than Birmingham’s Selfridges, because it is on the opposite page – built the same year, it is in Seoul.  I cannot imagine why anyone thought sticking disks all over the outside of a building was a good idea.

Two booklets on St. Ann’s Well, Hove


The Legend of St. Ann’s Well, by G. Albert Smith [c. 1897]

The Story of St. Ann’s Well, by Neil Doyle [n.d.]


St. Ann’s Well is a park in Hove with an interesting history.  The well part of the name is drawn from its chalybeate (i.e. iron-bearing) spring water which led to its development as a spa in the mid-eighteenth century. Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid laid out a garden the early 1830s and built a pump room for the spring. The site was developed into a thriving pleasure garden, promoted as a rural oasis in treeless Brighton, with a variety of entertainments such as a miniature forest, gardens, swings, lawn tennis, concerts, theatricals and fêtes, in addition to the spring.  Journalist George Augustus Sala, who lived in Hove, referred to the gardens in 1898 as ‘one of the most charming retreats in Brighton’.  The site was sold by D’avigdor Goldsmid to Hove Council for £10,000 and opened to the public on the day preceding Empire day, 23 May 1908.


The Legend of St. Ann’s Well, by G. Albert Smith

My particular interest in St. Ann’s Well stems from its period under the control of George Albert Smith, a significant figure in the early film industry.  Prior to that phase in his career he had been a stage mesmerist and had worked for the Society for Psychical Research.  Having obtained the lease to St. Ann’s Well from Sir Julian Goldsmid, Smith began his tenure in April 1893, with an advertisement for the rebranded St. Ann’s Well and Wild Garden in The Brighton Herald, dated 22 April: ‘Refreshing foliage, beautiful flowers, interesting plants. The place for outdoor fetes and picnics, lawn tennis, afternoon teas, and children’s sports. The famous Chalybeate Spring is Free to Visitors. The NEW MONKEY HOUSE. GYPSY FORTUNE TELLER. Swings, see-saws, and other amusements for children.’   There was a variety of attractions for all ages, including a reading room in the Pump House, where light refreshments could also be obtained.  A conservatory was used for entertainment, exhibitions or for private hire.  Outside, greenhouses had ferns, flowers and grapes on sale.   There was even a ‘hermit’ living in a cave.

As an extra money-making scheme Smith produced a booklet for visitors, priced 1d., titled The Legend of St. Ann’s Well, ‘The famous Brighton chalybeate spring’.  It is undated, but John Barnes in Volume 4 of The Beginnings of The Cinema in England 1894-1901 reproduces part of a copy which he dates to about 1897.  It is certainly post-1895 as it refers to ‘The late George Augustus Sala’, and Sala died in December 1895.  An advertisement for Smith’s film-making activities dates it to 1897 or later.  Smith may not have been the author of the booklet: his name appears on the cover but that is in his capacity as ‘Sole Lessee and Manager’ rather than author, and he may have employed someone to write it for him

Inside the cover, visitors are promised ‘HIGH-CLASS Lecture Entertainments, With Magnificent Lime-light, Scenery, and Beautiful Dioramic Effects.  As given with great success at numerous important institutions.’  On the lower half of the page is an advertisement for Smith’s new cinematograph: ‘Cinematographe. Displays of ANIMATED PHOTOGRAPHS, Interesting and Sensational Moving Pictures.  including numerous Local Scenes, taken by Mr. G. Albert Smith.  As exhibited at the principal theatres of the country, FOR PLACES OF ENTERTAINMENT, INSTITUTIONS.  AT HOMES, SCHOOLS, &c.  For terms and vacant dates, apply G. Albert Smith F.R.A.S., St. Ann’s Well and Wild Garden, Brighton.’

The bulk of the booklet consists of ‘The Legend of St. Ann’s Well’ itself, referring to a ‘translation from the Saxon’, obviously designed to give the gardens ‘class’.   It seems unlikely the Saxons noticed the spring, let alone wrote about it, and local historian Judy Middleton refers to the legend originating in the 1880s, when ‘an imaginative lady wrote a fanciful account of the origins of St. Ann’s Well.’  Certainly the name ‘St. Ann’s Well’ was only coined in the 1880s as a marketing device.  This co-opting of a fictional history may seem a cynical, and unconvincing, ploy, but as Rosemary Jann argues in The Art and Science of Victorian History, ‘The Victorians plundered the past for the raw stuff of imagination and shaped what they found to their own political, social, and aesthetic ends.’   Saxon times were of impressive vintage and gave the business a cultural cachet, but were conveniently imprecise.

A preamble reads: ‘The legend associated with the famous Brighton Chalybeate Spring, which nominally forms the chief feature in the pretty and fashionable resort now known as St. Ann’s Well and Wild Garden has been published from time to time with more or less important variations. The following account which originally appeared in the Brighton Herald, in July, 1882, may, or may not be a correct translation from the Saxon M.S. referred to by the Editor, but it has the merit of being more complete than some of the other versions, and “the story will perhaps be allowed to take rank among the most graceful and pleasing of our local legends.”’  Most of the rest of the booklet is given over to the story of The Lady Annefrida, her pursuit by the wicked Black Harold and the murder of his love rival Wolnoth, to whom Annefrida had given her heart.  One part is of particular interest, bearing in mind Smith’s prior history in, and continued membership of, the Society for Psychical Research.  The dead Wolnoth, accompanied by an angel, appears to Annefrida in a dream:

‘One night especially, dream after dream haunted her, and at early dawn, one, one dream, more real and dear than all the others, came to her.  She thought she heard a voice – her dear Wolnoth’s voice – calling to her, “Annefrida, my loved one, wake and listen to me!”  She saw her lover in white robes – the dear face which she knew so well, wore such a noble, kind expression – and by his side stood an angel.

‘“My beloved one,” said Wolnoth, “all your love and all your sorrows I have seen, and how you have daily watered my grave with tears.  It was hard not to have met you once more on earth.  Alas!  You know whose cruel hand it was that prevented it; but we shall meet again!  till then, my loved one, for my sake, for your own, and for the sakes of those who love you on earth; let your grief and sorrow for me sleep.  Yes! sleep; keep it in your faithful loving heart, but let it not become a burden to others.  Help those little ones!  Help all you can, and God will surely bless your efforts.  The tears, which you have shed on my grave shall not be lost; for where they fell, a HEALING SPRING SHALL RISE AND FLOW FOR EVERMORE.  The blessing of God rest on you.”  With these words the vision passed away.  Cenneth [her nurse] that morning found the sweet maiden in a sound slumber, which continued until the next day.  Her physician said it was a restful slumber and would at length restore her.  When Annefrida awoke she told Cenneth all her dream and bade her tell her parents.’

Following the lengthy story of Annefrida, and the alleged origin story of the well a reformed Harold built around the spring, are the more prosaic season ticket prices and details of an analysis which had been undertaken by Professor Wanklyn of the chalybeate water, assuring the reader that ‘it is quite free from sewage contamination’.  On the back is more information about the gardens and the range of pursuits offered, stressing the rus in urbe angle but also its accessibility: ‘Where are all the Brighton trees? They are all at St. Ann’s Well & Wild Garden, the delightful wooded retreat.  Furze Hill, West Brighton. Ten minutes from the sea, Western Road ‘buses stop at Brunswick Place, four minutes from the Garden.’  Afternoon tea under the trees must have been a pleasant experience.


The reproduction of the cover in Barnes’ book, credited to East Sussex County Libraries, has Smith’s name scored out and replaced by ‘A. H. Tee’.  This was Archibald Horace Tee, who took over as lessee after Smith left St. Ann’s Well, most likely in 1903.  It is possible Tee continued to sell the pamphlet, but I have not seen a copy with his name on the cover; however, it is a scarce publication and Tee’s tenure was relatively brief, so perhaps none has survived from his period.



The Story of St. Ann’s Well, by Neil Doyle

The Story of St. Ann’s Well, written by Neil Doyle and published by The Friends of St. Ann’s Well Gardens, is a heavily illustrated A4 booklet designed for the casual visitor, giving some information on the park’s evolution and acting as a guide, copies of historical photographs having been dotted around the gardens that are reproduced and discussed in the booklet.

The illustrations are excellent, including rare postcards, photographs and ephemera, both from the period of the gardens as a private fee-paying attraction and since it became a municipal facility, still of benefit to the community it serves if less glamorous than it was in its heyday.  Doyle covers the history and features of the gardens – the spring of course; the Pump House; the old cave, with a photo of the hermit outside.  There are photographs and descriptions of some of the attractions that could once be found there; sections on Smith and Tee; ballooning; the Swiss Cottage at the main entrance and Grasshopper Cottage; the gypsy caravan; the May 1908 opening, and the philanthropic contributions of benefactor Flora Sassoon.  It is a must for anyone interested in the history of this fascinating garden.

Copies can be obtained at St Ann’s Well.  It is also available for £4 (at the time of writing), and can be purchased online.

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