Market Square in 1855

A brief history of photography

This month, our curator delves into the history of photography and takes a look at the early photographs taken of St Neots.

The first temporary exhibition of 2022 is ‘What a Beautiful World’ a photographic exhibition by local amateur photographer, Peter Hagger.  Today, almost everyone in the UK carries a camera as a feature of their mobile phone, but just when were cameras invented, and what do the earliest photographs of St Neots show? Here’s a brief history…

Camera Obscura

The early days

The camera obscura, which utilises light passing through a tiny hole into a dark room to produce an image of an outside scene, has been used for at least two thousand years, but the ability to preserve the image by fixing it permanently to another surface was only discovered in the early 1800s

The invention of the Daguerreotype in 1839 made possible small photographic portraits on metal, and these quickly became popular despite the slow production process, and the need for the subject to remain totally still while the photograph was taken! By the early 1850s, a new process using a glass plate to create a negative from which a positive picture could be printed, had been invented and soon grew in popularity. By December 1854, the photographic portrait had arrived in St Neots. Records show a Richard and Ann Spring of Peterborough visited the town and advertised ‘30 second portraits with frame for five shillings’. This new, simplified photographic process meant that wealthy enthusiasts were now able to photograph their local surroundings, and enterprising traders, often chemists who had the technical know-how, set up photography studios.

The first pictures of St Neots

Market Square in 1855

Market Square in 1855

The earliest known photographs of St Neots are to be found in editions of Gorham’s ‘History of Eynesbury and St Neots’. This was first published in 1820, but later rebound editions contain additional information and images, including early photographs of the town dating from the 1850s. A photograph of 50 – 52 Market Square (currently Caffe Nero) shows the building between 1848 and 1855 when David Tomson, Printer and William Mole, Chemist and Druggist occupied parts of the building (before Mr Mole moved to 30 Market Square in 1855.) Other early photographs in the book show St Neots in 1863. This was the year that Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, married Princess Alexandra of Denmark on the 10th March, and the entire

Cambridge Street in 1863, during Edward VII's wedding celebrations

Cambridge Street in 1863, during Edward VII’s wedding celebrations

country celebrated the happy event with a national holiday. Local surveyor, architect and photographer, William Jackson of Eynesbury photographed the St Neots street decorations and so gives us a glimpse of the main streets of the town. The photograph of the Cambridge Street decoration shows a large cedar tree, which must be one of the trees that gave the later school and the current doctor’s surgery in Huntingdon Street its name.

During the 1860s, camera ownership was still limited to wealthy families, but photographic studios gave almost everyone access to a photographer, and studios were soon recording weddings, children, sports teams and local events, such as Queen Victoria’s Diamond jubilee celebrations of 1897. In the 1860s, police forces began to get in on the action, recognising the ability to capture portraits of criminals. From the early 1870s, every prisoner entering Huntingdon Goal was photographed, giving us some of the earliest local images of working people.

Jane Gardener, 1871 from Habitual Criminals Returns, Huntingdon Archives

Jane Gardener, 1871 from Habitual Criminals Returns, Huntingdon Archives

Picture postcards

Postcard from the museum Wills Collection, c.1915

In 1894, the British Post Office decided to accept picture postcards as letters, and the ability to send a postcard for only half a penny made them hugely popular.  In 1902 the divided back postcard arrived, and photographic studios began printing photographs readymade to send as postcards. Postcards became the text messages of their day, with millions of cards sent over the next decade, fuelling an explosion in local views, comic scenes and portraits. Hundreds of St Neots postcards in the museum’s Wills Collection date from this period.

Photography hits the mass market

In the late Victorian period, George Eastman of New York developed photographic film, and in 1901 he launched the Kodak Brownie camera. This introduced photography to a mass market, although general camera ownership did not boom until wages rose in the 1950s.

Portrait of Tom Eayrs 1915

It was the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that ended the boom in postcard sales, but created a huge demand for portrait photographs. This was fuelled by the wishes of millions of ordinary people to have a photograph of their loved ones whilst separated from them by the war. Millions of families still have these treasured portraits in their photo albums and the museum has a number in its own photographic collection.

This surge in demand for photographs enabled photographic studios to prosper, and James and Sarah Phillips ran photographic studios in both Biggleswade and St Neots. Ernest Albone took over their St Neots studio in 1920 and continued in business for the rest of his working life. Both Phillips and Albone produced photographs of people and places, as well as postcard series of St Neots, which show the town growing across the decades.

The rise of amateur photography

Carnival Queen Denise White, 1970s

The production of a wide variety of cameras for the mass market in the 1950s led to a new era of amateur photography and the introduction of colour film for the general public. Photographs in the museum’s collection from this era show everything from local views to the St Neots Carnival, which took place every summer from 1948 to 2008.

Today, the world has moved on from film cameras to digital cameras and a new way of capturing images has emerged. Research into digital images begun in the 1950s, and the first digital image was sent over the brand new world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1992. The first mobile phone with a camera did not arrive until 2002, when the Nokia 7650 was launched. Today, photography has lost some of its novelty, but photographs remain a precious way of recording our loves and loved ones – yet another debt we owe to the remarkable Victorians!

See our latest photo exhibition in the museum until the 12th March 2022, and join us for Meet the Photographer sessions on Saturday 19th February and Saturday 12th March.

St Neots Common, Peter Hagger

St Neots Common, Peter Hagger