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Lancashire's pioneers of photography

Image submitted to Samuel Battersby, Chief Censor for the North West during Second World War to remove umbrella so enemy did not learn about weather
Image submitted to Samuel Battersby, Chief Censor for the North West during Second World War to remove umbrella so enemy did not learn about weather
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Keri Nicholson, archivist at Lancashire Archives, reveals some of the fascinating treasures held by the county ahead of a talk on the history of photography and the Red Rose pioneers of the printed image

The strongrooms at Lancashire Archives contain more than nine miles of documents, but perhaps the most evocative are our photographic collections.

Example of John Mercers earliest experiments in colour photography using dyes and fabric printing circa 1850

Example of John Mercers earliest experiments in colour photography using dyes and fabric printing circa 1850

These start in the earliest days of photography and run right up to the present day. Images can be found in a range of formats, from glass plate negatives and lantern slides to modern digitally processed images.

The collections described here represent just a small number of highlights from within our photographic material.

John Mercer is perhaps best known as the textile pioneer who invented the process of mercerisation, but working during the 1850s he also conducted some of the earliest experiments in colour photography. He would use his already considerable experience with dyes and fabric printing to produce colour photographic prints on cloth. Perhaps most surprising to modern eyes is just how clear these images are, despite now being well over 150 years old.

As photographic processes developed the equipment required became increasingly portable, offering the opportunity to take photography out of the studio and into the wider world.

Image taken in 1911 from suffragist Selina Coopers collection

Image taken in 1911 from suffragist Selina Coopers collection

One Lancastrian who

really took this idea to heart is Edward Mellor. Having been born into a cotton manufacturing family, Mellor eventually moved to Lytham, where he would pursue his interest in both photography and travel.

As a member of the Manchester Geographical Society and the Royal Photographic Society, Mellor would give regular talks at which his photographs could be viewed, sometimes gathering audiences of more than 900 people. The Edward Mellor archive contains more than 3,000 magic lantern slides, the vast majority taken during his travels to destinations as diverse as France, Holland, Jamaica, Egypt and India.

Most of the images in the collection are in black and white, but a small number are in colour. During this

Photo of Jamaica in 1903 by traveller and photographer Edward Mellor

Photo of Jamaica in 1903 by traveller and photographer Edward Mellor

period colour photography was still in its infancy, and it is likely that these images were hand painted to produce colour photographs.

As photography became more widespread its use for official purposes became more common. There are numerous examples of this within our collections, from photographs of policemen within the Lancashire

Constabulary personnel records to mugshots of the people they arrested.

As their use became more widespread, photographs began to be used to document the key people and events of the day, including the fight for women’s suffrage.

Beauty contest in Morecambe in the 1950s

Beauty contest in Morecambe in the 1950s

As we celebrate 100 years since some women gained the right to vote, interest is obviously turning to the huge number of women who were involved in the long fight for equality. Our archive holds the personal papers of Selina Cooper, a noted suffragist and women’s leader from Nelson. Cooper was a mill worker who became involved in politics through the trade union movement.

In 1910 Selina was one of only four women chosen to make the case for women’s suffrage to then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and three years later she would take part in the pilgrimage to London, which saw around 50,000 women march from across the country.

As the potential impact of photographic images became clear, increasing thought was given to what could, and should, be published, particularly in times of war. Samuel Battersby was Chief Censor for the North West during World War Two, and his archive contains almost 300 photographs submitted to the Manchester censorship office, some with additional notes explaining the censorship decision or showing exactly what should be edited out before publication. Sometimes these choices could be surprising, for example it was forbidden to show the top of Blackpool Tower. Weather conditions were also to be kept secret, with instructions to remove items such as umbrellas as well as puddles or piles of snow visible on the ground.

It’s difficult in the age of Photoshop to imagine how such editing would have taken place, but in fact retouching of photographs has been taking place almost as long as photography itself has been in existence.

Some photos may simply need to be cropped in order to remove the censored part of the image before publication, but in other cases the process could be much more technical. The original photographic negative would need to be physically altered, with options including scraping the surface of the negative with a sharp scalpel, drawing or painting on top of the image to make alterations or even pasting together multiple negatives to create a single image.

To end on a lighter note, we can’t forget the joys of the British seaside. Morecambe Borough Council collections include the archive of the publicity department, who were involved in running the first national beauty contest (pictured, inset).

The Miss Great Britain competition started in 1945 and took place in Morecambe until 1989. Women applied from all over the country, and the final would take place in the Super Swimming Stadium.

Caring for photographic material has a number of challenges. Our collections can be found in a range of different formats, some of which are fragile simply because they are printed on to delicate glass while other images are at greater risk of loss because of the chemical processes involved in their original production. If you ask to view photographic material in our searchroom we will always ask that you wear cotton gloves in order to help preserve the original image.

As part of our upcoming series of Family History Fridays, our conservator Zoe Kennington will be giving a talk on July 13 about historic photography. She will talk more about how some of these amazing images would have been captured, and give advice about how best to look after your own photographic collections. This is just one of a series of free talks which will be running from now until the end of the year, on subjects ranging from the census to electoral registers and maps, hospital records to the First World War.

Family History Fridays will also include a free family history surgery in the morning, at which you will have the opportunity to speak to members of the Preston branch of the Lancashire Federation of Family History and Heraldry Societies, ask them any questions you may have about your own family history and hopefully get help moving forward with your research.

Finally, in the afternoon we will be running our popular Getting to Know sessions. Anyone who is new to Lancashire Archives and wants to learn more about our collections and how best to make use of our service is very welcome to come along.

As well as a short talk you will be offered a tour of our public searchroom and a glimpse behind the scenes into one of our strongrooms, where you will be shown some of our favourite treasures. For the full programme and booking information visit www.lancashire.gov.uk/archives or call on 01772 533034.