Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Locating Derby's first photographic studio in Victoria Street

While researching the career of early Derby photographer Thomas Roberts, featured in a previous Photo-Sleuth article, I was keen to find out whether the building which housed his first studio still existed. Roberts had taken over the premises used for the same purpose a few months earlier by Derby's pioneer daguerreotypist John Johnson, advertised as being the "rooms adjoining the Athenaeum," in Victoria Street. Derby resident and keen fellow photo-sleuther, Nigel Aspdin, offered to go and photograph the area for me.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
The northern side of Victoria Street, Derby, April 2008
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Although the weather did its best to thwart Nigel's attempts, as it started to hail while he was taking the first shots, he did a great job. The white walled building on the right hand side of the photo is the Athenaeum, referred to in Roberts' advert. To the immediate right of the Athenaeum (not shown in this photo) is the building housing the Royal Hotel, which was already in existence by 1843. The phrases "next the Athenaeum" and "adjoining the Athenaeum" used in Roberts' adverts must therefore mean immediately to the left of the Athenaeum building.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
The entrance to the Derby Tramways Office, April 2008
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

The brick building to the left of the Athenaeum, in the centre of the photograph, is currently occupied, at least on the ground floor, by a Post Office. It was built as the Victoria Street Tramways Office in 1904, to a design by Alexander MacPherson "in the Tudor style made popular during the Arts and Crafts movement," and served as the central terminus for the Derby Tramways Company for three decades. [Source: Wikepedia]

Image © and courtesy of Ann Hunt

I am very grateful to Ann Hunt for this rather nice image of a coloured postcard of Victoria Street, Derby, produced from a photograph which was taken looking in an easterly direction towards the intersection with St. Peter's Street. The newly built Tramways Office (the postcard has a postmark dated 17 April 1907) and the Athenaeum are on the left. The postcard also features several horse drawn carts and carriages, two of Derby's electrified trams and even a motor car.

As the current Tramways building only appeared on this spot in 1904, I deduced that if I could find a photograph of this part of town prior to the turn of the century, it might show the building which housed Thomas Roberts' old photographic studio. However, further investigations revealed a far more complicated story.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Culverting over the old Markeaton Brook, on Victoria Street at the site of the old St Peter's Bridge, during road renovations in July 2004
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

In 1839, soon after that portion of the Markeaton Brook between St Peter's Bridge and St James' Lane had been culverted over to form a wide street, Brookside (see photo above), the Derby Athenaeum Company erected a building over some 245 feet of street frontage towards the Cornmarket and Brookside. The stated intention at the time was to include "a Post Office, an Hotel, & an Edifice for various Public Objects, to be called The Athenaeum." [The Derby Mercury, dated 15 Nov 1837] In fact, the Derby Town and County Museum and Natural History Society were moved into the building in late 1840, into "a room ... extending nearly the whole length of the building." [The Derby Mercury, dated 13 Feb 1839 & 9 Dec 1840] Brookside was subsequently renamed Victoria Street, for obvious reasons, in August 1839 [The Derby Mercury, dated 21 Aug 1839].

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
The Athenaeum, Royal Hotel & Post Office, and The Derby & Derbyshire Banking Company
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

The print of the engraving depicted in the image shown above, which currently graces the wall of the Aspdin home, unfortunately appears to be undated. However, it is probably a fairly accurate depiction of how the Athenaeum and Royal Hotel looked soon after they were built. Both are still clearly recognisable in a more recent photograph by Andy Savage.

Image © Derby Museums & Art Gallery

This photograph of a "horse bus in Victoria Street about 1880, with the Athenaeum Club behind and the porch of the Royal Hotel on the right" by an unidentified photographer, was reproduced in Harry Butterton's Victorian Derby: A Portrait of Life in a 19th-century Manufacturing Town (publ. 2006, Breedon Books, ISBN 978-1859835333). If this photograph really was taken c. 1880, and unfortunately there are few clues to help date it, then we can say that the 1904 Tramways Office was preceded by a similar multi-storey brick building. The engraving shown above, almost certainly produced before the turn of the century, and perhaps substantially before then, clearly depicts a three-storey building immediately to the left of the Athenaeum, which must have preceded the 1904 Tramways office.

Image © Derby Local Studies Library & courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

An Ordnance Survey map of this part of Derby, a portion of which is included in the image above, shows the buildings extant in 1881. The building situated on the corner of Victoria Street and St James' Street, marked as the "General Post Office," was built in 1869, shortly after the widening of what was then called St James' Lane had taken place in 1867 and 1868 [The Derby Mercury, dated 1 Jan 1868 & 7 Apr 1869]. To the right of the GPO is the Post Office Hotel & Restaurant, which was built c. 1875, to replace an older building housing the Spotted Horse Inn. Immediately to the right of the hotel is an alley leading to an internal yard. Between the alley and the Athenaeum are the two buildings which must have preceded the 1904 Tramways Office.

Image © and courtesy of the Derbyshire Family History Society
Victoria Street, Derby (North Side), 1891
Image from Kelly's 1891 Trade Directory
© and courtesy of the Derbyshire Family History Society

Clues to the identities of these two buildings can be found in contemporary trade directory listings. The extract shown above is from the 1891 edition of Kelly's, while that shown below is from an edition a decade earlier.

Image © and courtesy of the University of Leicester's Historical Directories
Victoria Street, Derby (North Side), 1881
Image from Kelly's 1881 Trade Directory
© and courtesy of the University of Leicester's Historical Directories

In 1881 the left-hand building was occupied by John Thomas Sarsfield, a cork cutter, but by 1891 the Derby Tramways Company Limited had taken it over, and were using it as a manager's office and waiting room. Samuel Whitaker (later S.W. & Sons), an accountant, was at number 4, the building on the right, and he was secretary of the Derbyshire Permanent Building, Investment & Land Society.

Image © and courtesy of the University of Leicester's Historical Directories
Victoria Street, Derby (North Side), 1874
Image from Wright's 1874 Trade Directory
© and courtesy of the University of Leicester's Historical Directories

The listing for Victoria street in Wright's 1874 trade directory shows Mr. Whitaker and the Derbyshire Building Society at number 4, while another cork cutter, Mrs. Jemima Willisford, was living at 4A, presumably the left-hand building.

Image © Derby Museums & Art Gallery
Victoria Street, looking east, taken by Richard Keene in 1870
Image © Derby Museums & Art Gallery Ref. DBYMU.L138, in Keene's Derby, edited by Maxwell Craven

This photograph looking eastwards down Victoria Street, with the Athenaeum building on the left, was taken by Richard Keene, and appears in Maxwell Craven's excellent book, "Keene's Derby" (publ. 1993 by Breedon Books, ISBN 1-873626-60-6). Craven dates the photograph as having been taken prior to the demolition of Thorntree House, shown in the centre of the photo, in 1870. The existence of the single-storey offices of the Derbyshire Building Society, immediately to the left of the Athenaeum, lets us pinpoint the date of the photograph even more accurately. The Society, although it had been created in 1859, only moved to the offices at 4 Victoria Street from 14 Irongate in early 1870, as shown in an advertisement in The Derby Mercury dated 23 March 1870.

Harrod & Co.'s 1870 Directory of Derbyshire (Historical Directories), probably compiled in late 1869, shows a solicitor Charles Thomas Reynolds Dewe, Esq. at number 4 Victoria Street. He presumably used the offices which would be taken over by Whitaker the following year. Similar listings in Harrison's 1860 and White's 1857 directories show that Dewe had occupied the premises for at least 13 years. Searching through advertisements in The Derby Mercury show that he moved there from Irongate in 1846 or early 1847.

This portion of an 1852 map of Derby shows the layout of Victoria Street prior to the redevelopment of St James' Lane in the mid-1860s. While the topography of St James' Lane and the western end of Victoria Street are substantially different from that shown in the later 1881 map, the buildings at 4 and 4A do not appear to be significantly different, apart from the absence of a building at the back of 4A, in the yard to the right of the alley. The photographs taken by Keene in 1870 and an unidentified photographer c. 1880 (see above), however, suggests that single-storey building had been replaced by the 1880s.

Samuel Bagshaw's 1846 History, Gazetteer and Directory of Derbyshire shows a dentist, Henry Jordan, operating from number 4 Victoria street. It appears from adverts in The Derby Mercury that he was at this address from at least May 1845, initially sharing the premises with J.T. Hassall, Dispensing Chemist & Star Life Assurance Officer, who had been there since at least late October 1844. It seems likely, therefore, that Roberts shared the rooms with Hassall and Jordan.

Image © Derby Museums & Art Gallery
Detail of 1870 photograph of Victoria Street by Richard Keene (see above)

Was the building occupied by The Derbyshire Permanent Building Investment and Land Society (the name is almost visible on the lower sign, to the right of the door) at number 4 Victoria Street in 1870 is the same one that was used for Derby's first photographic studio? Unless evidence can be found that some building took place on this site between 1844 and 1870, it seems likely. I would appreciate hearing from any readers who might be able to add to the story. (Email)


  1. The horse bus photo is wrongly dated in the source quoted. It is in reality from the period June-November 1907 when this ex Manchester vehicle provided cover on the Ashbourne Road route during electrification of the tramways. See page 27 of Barry Edwards 'The Story of Transport in Derby' for a view of Victoria Street before the building of the Tramways Office in 1904.


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