Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Sepia Saturday 162: Decorating Bicycles

Sepia Saturday 162 - Courtesy of Alan Bennett and Kat Mortensen

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs ... the launch pad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images
I use the weekly image prompts provided by Alan Bennett and his occasional helpers as an inspiration for writing about photohistory, mostly centred around images from my own collection, but also in response to correspondence with like-minded folk from around the world who've been in touch via this blog or my Derbyshire Photographers web site. The regular deadline suits me as I have to focus on a specific image or topic and get down to it, rather than researching until the cows come home and never actually writing anything.

Another important aspect is the regular feedback received from fellow Sepians, for which I'm very grateful. As I stated in my first ever posting on Photo-Sleuth almost six years ago:

"... the best way to stimulate me into posting more photos is to provide some feedback. It's always nice to hear from like-minded folk."
Over the last year - during which time my blogging as been, shall we say, sporadic - almost half of the articles that I've posted on Photo-Sleuth have been contributions to Sepia Saturday, but they have generated over 80% of the comments received during that time. Using my Google Analytics tool I'm also able to determine that more than half of all Sepia Saturday visitors leave feedback. I take that as a measure of readers' appreciation. Thank you.

Image © & courtesy of Diane Alton-Kaighin
Unidentified boy with flag on bicycle, undated
Cabinet card by Norman McAuslan, of New Road, Belper, Derbyshire
Image © & courtesy of Diane Alton-Kaighin

This week's image reminded me of a couple of curious photographs by Derbyshire studios of decorated bicycles. The first is a cabinet card by the Belper photographer Norman McAuslan, in which a boy on a bicycle brandishes a large flag or banner, the pole of which carries a pointed finial. After some research, I believe I've identified the banner as an early version of the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom in use prior to 1907.

Image © & courtesy of Robert Silverwood
N.J. McAuslan's studio in Belper, undated
Paper print by unidentified photographer
Image © & courtesy of Robert Silverwood

According to his great-grandson Robert Silverwood, McAuslan worked as a photographer from the mid-1880s until ill health forced him to quit in April 1902. This unusual studio portrait was probably taken towards the end of this period, and I believe it may have been taken to mark the death of Queen Victoria and accession of King Edward VII in January 1901.

Image © and courtesy of WW Winter Ltd
Man dressed as a clown with decorated bicycle, undated
Glass plate negative by W.W. Winter of Midland Road, Derby
Image © and courtesy of WW Winter Ltd

This image produced from one of W.W. Winter's glass plate negatives is presumed - from the caption in Angela Leeson's "The Winter's Collection of Derby" - to depict a participant in a Hospital Day parade, and it is my guess from the photographic style that it was taken in the 1910s. This time the decoration is far more elaborate, including masses of flowers, paper Chinese lanterns and an umbrella. The man standing next to the bicycle is dressed as a clown, complete with battered topper and bulbous nose.

Image © and courtesy of Windows on Warwickshire
Group with decorated bicycles, Alcester, c.1890s
Image © and courtesy of Windows on Warwickshire

From what I can tell, the tradition of decorating bicycles first developed during the 1890s' Golden Age of Bicycles, resulting from the introduction of the first practical pneumatic tyres which undoubtedly made cycling a far more pleasant and comfortable pastime. Like cycling, it quickly became a craze which spread rapidly around the world, so that by the late 1890s they were even indulging in the Antipodes.

Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Decorated bicycles, probably c.1918
Postcard by unidentified photographer
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr

The following account of a spring carnival which took place in Dunedin, New Zealand in September 1897 describes a variety of decorated people and contraptions:
At the conclusion of the mayor's remarks a dozen ladies mounted on bicycles went through a number of evolutions to the strains of music supplied by a band of four musicians ... The ladies were all dressed in white, and wore straw hats trimmed with yellow flowers. Their bicycles were also nicely decorated with flowers, daffodils being largely brought into requisition for decorative purposes ...

Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Decorated bicycles, tricycles, scooters, wheelbrarrows & prams
Postcard by unidentified photographer, May Day 1921
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr

At the conclusion of the bicycle ride there was a procession of children with exhibits, consisting of bicycles, tricycles, go-carts, perambulators, &c, all of which were decorated with spring flowers and evergreens. The procession was headed by four children dressed in white, drawing a go-cart nicely decorated with flowers. Then came various kinds of vehicles, some of which looked very pretty with their floral decorations ...

Image © Marjorie Ruddy & courtesy of Whitby Online Historic Photographs Collection, Whitby Archives & Whitby Public Library
Decorated bicycles in Lions Club Parade, Whitby, Ontario, 1937
Black and white negative by Marjorie Ruddy
Image courtesy of Whitby Online Historic Photographs Collection, Whitby Archives & Whitby Public Library, Ref. 30-023-032.

Conspicuous in the procession was a pug poodle drawing a small cart ... Several children, dressed so as to represent different kinds of flowers, and carrying parasols florally decorated, brought up the rear of the procession ...

Image © and courtesy of
Commercial High School Fiesta Floral Parade with maypole/bicycle float
Photograph by unidentified photographer, Los Angeles, 1902
Image © and courtesy of

The whole display was very effective, and greatly enjoyed by the spectators, who showed their appreciation of it by loud applause. After the procession about 20 little girls, dressed in white and decked with flowers, danced a maypole dance very gracefully.

Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Decorated bicycle, Battle of the Flowers, Ramsgate, undated
Postcard by unidentified photographer
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr

The cycle carnival became a popular fundraiser, always guaranteed to produce a wide variety of interpretations on the theme as well as draw a good crowd.
In 1907 the Molesey Wheelers Cycle Club introduced a cycle carnival to boost the hospital funds. The spectacle of a cavalcade of gaily decorated bicycles and tricycles parading through the streets was something Molesey villagers had never before beheld. The ingenuity displayed by the riders in embellishing their machines was said to have been "much admired by the spectators", and demands were made to repeat the exhibition the following year. Which indeed it was, and for several following years. (Baker, 1981)

Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Floral decorated bicycle with dog platform, undated
Hand-coloured postcard by unidentified photographer
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr

The Northamptonshire Film Archive Trust has film archive footage of the Wellingborough Hospital Day "carnival (in 1925 which) shows a lady pushing her highly decorated bicycle which also carried her little dog," possibly much as shown in the postcard above.

Image © and courtesy of MACE Media Archive for Central England
Decorated bicycles in Shrewsbury Carnival, 1938
Still image from silent film compilation
Image © and courtesy of MACE Media Archive for Central England

The final image in this series is a still taken from a silent film of floats in the Shrewsbury Carnival of 1938, illustrating the continuing popularity of decorated bicycles, some embellished with the same old Japanese lanterns.

I'm very grateful to Gail Durbin, whose Flickr photostream (lovedaylemon) includes a superlative collection of old photographs on various topics, providing several images for this week's topic. If you fancy being entertained in good "sepian" fashion for a couple of hours, I'd thoroughly recommend a wander over there - you won't be disappointed.


Bicycle, from Wikipedia.

History of Carnival, The Official Wellingborough Carnival web site.

Anon (1897) Floral Fete and Bicycle Gymkhana, Otago Witness, Issue 2274, 30 September 1897, p30, Courtesy of Papers Past.

Baker, Rowland G.M. (1981) The Story of Molesey Hospital.

Leeson, Angela (1992) The Winter's Collection of Derby, Breeedon Books, p123.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Sepia Saturday 161: Anyone for a pork pie?

Sepia Saturday 161 - by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen

Apart from the very welcome comments on individual posts here on Photo-Sleuth, I receive a good deal of correspondence from readers all over the world, sending scans of their photographs, giving their thoughts concerning subjects that I've written about, identifying people or places, or merely sharing their enthusiasm for photohistory. Over the last year or so, due to work commitments, I've not done much in the way of follow up articles, so hope to remedy the situation over the next few weeks. I will make the most of Alan's shopfront photo prompt over at Sepia Saturday this week to follow up on some feedback received relating to an image that I published here in 2011.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Shopfront of W. Barnes & Co., general drapers, undated
Unmounted paper print (149.5 x 109.5 mm) by unidentified photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

In August 2011 I posted this image of a paper print depicting W. Barnes & Co.'s draper's shopfront as my contribution to Sepia Saturday 89. I estimated that it had been taken around the time of the Great War, probably at the onset of winter. Fellow Sepians had a good bash at trying to identify the town, with Alan suggesting perhaps he remembered it from his "time spent living in Wimbledon/Merton 40 years ago." My friend and fellow photo-sleuth Nigel Aspdin suspected it was from somewhere in the English Midlands, but we were unable to pin down a location.

Image © and collection of The Francis Frith Collection
Market Place, Melton Mowbray, c.1950
Image © and collection of The Francis Frith Collection

Then in May last year Paul Finch left a comment and emailed me to say that he had successfully pinpointed the location as the Market Place, Melton Mowbray, (dare I say the home of the delicious pork pie?) as shown in this c.1950 Frith's postcard scene. This excellent piece of sleuthing was not a simple or easy exercise, as I discovered for myself when I tried to find a contemporary image of Melton Mowbray's Market Place showing the building in question.

Image © and courtesy of Google Earth
Market Place, Melton Mowbray, 2012
Image © and courtesy of Google Earth's Streetview

The best that Google Earth's Streetview can do is this view from Cheapside near the intersection with Church Street, with the building in question mostly obscured by a tree. At the very least this building, now occupied by Boots Pharmacy, has been significantly modified since 1950, but I suspect it has been completely replaced.

Image © and courtesy of Durham University
Kelly's Directories
Image © and courtesy of Durham University

The demolition of a building that features in an old photograph of course makes it the photohistorical detective work harder, but the dedicated enthusiasts will usually find a way. I asked Paul how he had deduced the location of the Barnes & Co. shopfront:
For about 30 odd years I've been accumulating UK shopfronts mostly on postcards. I try and buy unlocated cards as I enjoy tracking down their locations ... over this period I've hunted down editions of Kelly's Trade Directories. They are very scarce especially the dates I really need. I guess I acquire about 2/3 a year if I'm lucky. The Grocery trade volume still eludes me. You'd think with the amount of grocers/provision merchants around from 1900-WWII there would be plenty of such books but I think there's less than a dozen in the UK ... I have bought only two editions of the Textiles editions: 1906 and 1920. It took a few minutes to look up Barnes in the drapery sections and they appeared in both years. After a quick search on the Kelly's website it looks as though it was a fairly long running family business.
It sounds simple, but one should never underestimate the amount of time and patience involved in hunting down those trade directories. I'm grateful that Paul took the time to help with this quest.

Based on the photo prompt, I suspect there will be many more shopfront contributions to Sepia Saturday this week, some of which may need identification. Pay them a visit and see if you can assist - yours may be the clue which solves the case. As for me, all this has made me hungry - I'm off to find a pork pie.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Sepia Saturday 160: Charles Howell, the Official Photographer of Pleasure Beach

Sepia Saturday 160 by Alan Burnett & Kat Mortensen

Alan's photograph for the Sepia Saturday theme this week was, as I deduced about 18 months ago, probably taken in the late 1940s or early to mid-1950s at Blackpool's Central Pier.

Image © and courtesy of Google Earth Streetview

For my own contribution, I'm going to turn to the left and walk a mile or so south along the Promenade, past the South Pier to Blackpool's famous Pleasure Beach, according to Wikipedia "the most visited amusement park in the United Kingdom," and seen in Google Earth's Streetview above.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Postcard portrait of unidentified woman and child, 17 July 1933
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Somewhere in this vicinity, close to the Promenade - I haven't yet been able to determine the precise location - was where Charles Howell (1866-1943) operated a popular seaside resort photographic business between the two world wars. In this postcard portrait by Howell a mother envelops her arms protectively around her somewhat fearful child, who is perched precariously in a saddle on the back of a stuffed pony, itself mounted on a wheeled base strewn with "grass." A large painted backdrop depicting a cottage in a rural setting and wooden floorboards complete the scene.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The printed back of the standard postcard carries an imprint, "Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool." Although there are references to hundreds of postcard portraits on the web taken by Howell with this claim to official license, I have been unable to find any other photographers using the same title, and therefore assume that his permission to operate within the grounds of Pleasure Beach was sanctioned by the owners, the Thompson family. This must have been an important concession - in the mid-1890s, according to one report, around three dozen beach photographers were reported to be plying their trade in a single day (Moore, 2012).

Fortunately Howell was one of those thoughtful photographers who provided a clear date stamp on the back of most of his portraits, presumably as much to facilitate the purchase of prints by customers as to enable future family historians to date the holiday photos of their loved ones.

Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Postcard portrait of unidentified family group, 4 August 1928
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr

Charles Howell opened his first photographic studio in Blackpool on Bank Hey Street close to the tower in 1913, having operated briefly for a couple of years in Oxford Road, Manchester (Jones, 2004). Here, and later at 85 Central Beach, he exploited the burgeoning market for novelty caricature portraits using comical or grotesque painted foregrounds (Harding, 2008).

In 1923 he opened another studio which formed part of the rapidly expanding attractions at Pleasure Beach, and started to style himself as the "Official Photographer." The portrait of a young family above was taken at these premises in 1926, only three years after it opened, and demonstrates that the stuffed pony had already become one of what developed into a large array of studio accessories.

Howell ... offer[ed] playful portraits incorporating an assortment of novelty props ... you could be photographed wearing a top hat, playing a banjo or holding a giant bottle of beer. You could be photographed on a papier mache horse or a real, live donkey. (Harding, 2008)

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

In the summer of 1926 the pony was already looking a little worse for wear, with one floppy ear and a rather wrinkled coat. It is interesting to observe that the painted backdrop is very similar to that used for the summer 1933 portrait, althought not identical. I suspect that the same view had been embellished or repainted, perhaps more than once, in the intervening seven years. Certainly the base of the canvas screen (detail above) had become rather tatty, and the somewhat bedraggled "grass" looked more like seaweed.

Image © L.M. Wood and courtesy of Flickr
Postcard portrait of two unidentified young girls, undated
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © L.M. Wood and courtesy of Flickr

It's not surprising that some customers chose instead to pose on or alongside a real live donkey. I presumed that the donkey was borrowed or hired by the photographer from one of the many rides available on the nearby beach, until I noticed that in many of Howell's postcards that include the donkey, it has a saddle blanket with the neatly embroidered name "Radium."

Image © and courtesy of Audrey Linkman
Postcard portrait of unidentified woman on donkey, 28 August 1926
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © and courtesy of Audrey Linkman

This postcard from 1926 has the donkey under some duress (although doing well not to show undue sufferance) and a more topical backdrop which includes a large ferris wheel and a representation of the Blackpool Tower. It includes a negative number at the top, which I have thus far only seen on one other Howell postcard, dated 30 Aug 1930.

Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Postcard portrait of unidentified boy, undated
Unattributed, but probably by Charles Howell, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr

An undated portrait of a schoolboy still in uniform (presumably his socks and school shoes are stuffed into a satchel somewhere out of sight) riding Radium has another version of Blackpool's fairground style attractions on the backdrop.

Image © and courtesy of Colin Harding/Photographica World
Charles Howell's early studio at Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, undated
Image © and courtesy of Colin Harding/Photographica World

Colin Harding includes in his short article about Howell this photograph of the studio premises within Pleasure Beach, advertising 6 postcard photographs for a shilling, and makes it clear that the portraits would be "ready while you wait." The sign above the central doorway encourages visitors to "be photographed on the motor cycle," a studio prop which Harding refers to as Howell's trademark.

Image courtesy of Rootschat
Postcard portrait of Sarah Corkish and friends, 1939
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image courtesy of Rootschat

In a group portrait dating from 1939, Howell went to great lengths to satisfy the whims of his customers. Not only are the six women arrayed around the legendary Coventry Eagle motorcycle and the perennial stuffed pony, but a large toy dog mopes dejectedly in the foreground, there is a 30 mph speed limit sign almost disappearing off stage to the right, and the woman on the far left carries one of the famous giant beer bottles. The backdrop depicting a large gatepost and (as I know from other portraits which include the scene) a driveway leading to a grand home completes this bizarre scene.

As Harding writes in his article, the studio was "... a place where people could escape the cares of the workaday world; a place where, if only for the fleeting moment, the boundaries between fantasy and reality become blurred." That was, after all, the ethos of the Thompson family's Pleasure Park.

Image © Peter Fisher and courtesy of SmugMug
Panel portrait of Bessie Fisher, 2 August 1929
by Charles Howell, Blackpool
Image © Peter Fisher and courtesy of SmugMug

I'm tempted to carry on showing you more of Charles Howell's wonderful variety of customers and array of studio props, because there are many, many examples to be found on the web, but I don't want to get carried away, so I'll leave you with a final example. This is one of the panel prints that Howell advertised at 6 for 6d.

Jones (2004) shows Howell working at the Promenade in Blackpool until 1939, but there are some dated examples of his work at that location from 1940 (listed in the holdings of the Greater Manchester County Record Office, via The National Archives ARCHON Directory). Charles Howell died on 26 November 1943 at Moore-street Nursing Home, Blackpool, aged 77.


Breen, Thaddeus C. (2012) Photographers and Studios in Dublin, on Irish Archæology

Edwards, Steve (2007) 'Poor Ass!' in "A Donkey in Blackpool, 1999," Oxford Art Journal 30 (1), p39-54, Oxford Journals.

Harding, Colin (2008) Charles Howell, Photographer of Pleasure, Photographica World, 2008/3, The Photographic Collectors’
Club of Great Britain, p16-19.

Jones, Gillian (2004) Lancashire Professional Photographers 1840-1940, Watford, Herts: PhotoResearch, 203pp.

Moore, Nick (2012) Blackpool and District Now and Then, The Chronology of a Holiday Resort, version XVI (accessed 18 Jan 2012)

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Sepia Saturday 159: Greetings and kisses from the beautiful Sorrento

Sepia Saturday 159 from Alan Burnett

It seems that I have the travel bug, as this week's Sepia Saturday theme has me off to Europe again, where we pay a visit to the sunny Mediterranean with a German family on a warm morning during the summer of 1929.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This postcard photo shows two young girls with their mother, apparently about to take a plunge, although the presence of water splashed on the wooden boardwalk suggests that someone has already been swimming. After some deliberation I've decided that was more likely to be the other woman whose face we don't see, and who leans on the towel-festooned railing and gazes off at the view to the right. The would-be swimmers, whose perfectly groomed hair belies any prior frolicking in the water, have just emerged from one of the doors to the wooden changing rooms visible immediately to the left, presumably the one from which a tagged key still protrudes.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

I've deciphered the text on the reverse of the postcard as follows:
Viele innige Grüße und Küsse dem lieber guten dunkel Siegfried aus dem schöner Sorrente wo wir auf sommer frische sind
Sorrente 24/VII 1929

My effort at a translation (with assistance from Google Translate) reads thus:
Many heartfelt greetings and kisses to the dear good dark Siegfried from the beautiful Sorrente where we are on summer break.
... although I'd be happy to consider both alternative interpretations of the text and corrections to my translation. The gist of it, I think, is clear.

It's a pity that it hasn't been sent through the post, as an address, stamp and postmark would no doubt have provided more information about the family.

Image © and courtesy of GeoEye & Google Earth
0.5m resolution GeoEye satellite view of Sorrento, 2009
Image © and courtesy of GeoEye & Google Earth

The small town of Sorrento is a popular tourist destination on the southern shores of the Bay of Naples. The glimpses of water in the photograph struck me as looking more like a quiet freshwater lake than the Meditteranean so, not having had the pleasure of visiting Italy, I flew over to have a look courtesy of Google Earth, which I find invaluable for remote research from the Antipodes. The half metre-resolution of the GeoEye satellite imagery used by Google Earth (click on image above) is excellent for a two-dimensional overview.

Image © and courtesy of CNES/SPOT & Google Earth
Perspective view of Sorrento, looking south
Image © and courtesy of CNES/SPOT & Google Earth

Google Earth can also be used for a perspective three-dimensional view of the coastline, taken as if it were from a helicopter hovering out at sea. Google Earth uses GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software to drape the satellite image over a wireframe model of the topography (imagine laying a very floppy table cloth over a papier-mâché model), which can then be viewed from any user-defined point and angle.

Sunset across the Bay of Napoli from Sorrento in Naples
For a more detailed examination, however, I take advantage of the many user-submitted photographs, visible on satellite view as hundreds of small picture icons, provided via Panoramio and 360 Cities. The 360° panoramic photographs are denoted in the Google Earth image by red photo icons, and the one shown above was taken from the cliff edge on the Sorrento waterfront. It was the first photo view I looked at and once you have familiarised yourself with the controls - clicking the "Full Screen" view will make it easier - pan the image down and to the left and zoom in to see what I discovered at the base of the cliff. Panning to the right, by the way, will give you a view of Mount Vesuvius in the distance across the Bay of Naples.
Image © Richard Hart and courtesy of 360 Cities Changing huts at Marina San Francisco, Sorrento Image © Richard Hart & courtesy of 360 Cities
I was a little surprised to see that the wooden boardwalk and changing huts, or at least ones very much like those in the photo, are still there, albeit with a few more licks of paint.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress Sorrento by the sea, Naples, Italy, c.1890-1900 Photocrom print no. 1829, by Detroit Publishing Company Image courtesy of Library of Congress
One of the earliest photographic views that I've been able to find of the Sorrento waterfont is this Photochrom print from the 1890s, which reveals a vista remarkably free of tourist paraphernalia. Presumably the well-heeled late Victorian visitors preferred not to venture too far from unber the shady awnings of the hotel balconies at the top of the cliff.
Hotel Tramontano e Casa del Tasso, Sorrento, c.1900-1905 Colourised postcard published by E. Ragozino, Galleria Umberto-Napoli
Roughly ten years later, judging by this postcard published in Naples, the first "bathing houses," rather more grand than the ones which we see today, had appeared.
Sorrento - Spiaggia e Hotel Tramontano, c.1915-1925 Colourised postcard by unidentified publisher
In the next decade or two, swimming in the sea and promenading along the shore show considerable gains in popularity, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of piers and bathing huts in this postcard, which although undated I'm guessing is from the late 1910s or early 1920s.
Hotel Tramontano - Sorrento, dated 26 Feb 1929 Colourised postcard (painting) by unidentified publisher
The nationalistic fervour pervading 1929 Italy, then firmly in the grip of Mussolini's one-party Fascist state and not yet tempered by the onset of the Depression, is clearly displayed by the prominent Italian flags shown flying atop the Hotel Tramontana. His spending on a massive public works programme, together with treaties with the Roman Catholic Church, resulting in the creation of the Vatican State, had brought him to the height of his popularity. Mount Vesuvius, as if in agreement, issues a column of steam, smoke and ash in the background.
Sorrento - La spiaggia e Hotel Sirene, dated 1 June, PM 3 June 1950 B/W postcard, publ. Vincenzo Carcavello, Via S. Baldacchini 29 - Napoli
Although from more than two decades later the detail from this 1950 black-and-white postcard is probably very close to what the shoreline development looked in those heady pre-Depression, pre-War years. When our young German family - I assume German but they could well have been Austrian, for example - visited Sorrento in July 1929, the Weimar Republic was experiencing a period of political stability and economic recovery under the very able Foreign Minister Gustave Stresemann. After the Wall Street crash commonly known as Black Tuesday in October that year, US loans vital to the German economy were recalled and unemployment soared, ultimately contributing to the achievement of another totalitarian, one-party Fascist state by Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1932 (Wikipedia). I suspect that our family would not have returned to Sorrento the following year!
Image © Heike11 and courtesy of Panoramio "Sorrento - Strand 08.05.06" Image © Heike11 and courtesy of Panoramio
Image © bingram and courtesy of Panoramio "Beach in Sorrento" (Hotel Tramontano at top left) Image © bingram and courtesy of Panoramio
Image © Sugár and courtesy of Panoramio "Sorrento, beach" Image © Sugár and courtesy of Panoramio

These three images, all from Panoramio contributers, probably give one a good sense of the modern day tourist experience. Need I say more?

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Sepia Saturday 158: Bill Ball and Work Camp 9, Stalag XXID

I'm taking advantage of a longer than usual break from work in the Solomon Islands to catch up with some long overdue blogging on Photo-Sleuth, starting with an entry for my favourite weekly theme/meme/photo prompt - call it what you will - Sepia Saturday.

Sepia Saturday 158, courtesy of Alan Burnett

The Sepia Saturday prompt this week is one of several photographs on the National Library of Scotland's Flickr photostream depicting Scottish soldiers, complete with kilts and khaki Balmoral bonnets, in the midst of New Year celebrations somewhere on the Western Front during the Great War. Outside a wooden hut, presumably their billet, carrying bagpipes, a drum, bottles and kegs, presumably containing alcohol, and even a football, they are probably far enough away from the front lines that they can enjoy their festivities without too much interference from "the Hun."

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

My own contribution (a recent eBay purchase) likewise shows a group of thirteen military men in front of a wooden hut, but there are few clues in the photograph itself as to the date, event or location.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The reverse of this postcard format photograph, however, reveals a great deal more. Apart from the address, a brief message and a date (January 31st 1942), there is a purple frank which indicates that it was posted from Stalag XXID/9. A series of 18th Century forts in and around Poznan, Poland (Posen was used during the German occupations), together with several labour camps in the surrounding countryside, were used to house prisoners of war (POWs) by the Germans during WW2 and collectively referred to as Stalag XXID.

Image © and courtesy of Anthony Ball
William Leonard Ball (1914-1945)
Courtesy of Anthony Ball

William Leonard Ball (pictured above) is the "Bill" who wishes Mrs JC Robertson of Ashford Common "all the best" on the back of the postcard, and he is the soldier third from right in the back row of the group, his cap peak partially obscuring his face. His nephew Tony Ball very kindly sent me some background information. Bill was with the Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey) when ...
... he was captured by the Germans on the retreat back to Dunkirk on the 13th June 1940 and spent the rest of the war as a POW in two camps, Stalag XXID, and Stalag VIIIB. When the war was nearing its end the Germans marched all the POW's [including Bill] across Germany on what was called the "Great March or Death March." On the 29th April 1945 the marching POW's sighted the Yanks and were liberated.

The bulk of Bill's incarceration appears to have been at Stalag XXID. Although the central camp was housed in Fort Rauch, on the east bank of the River Warthe, several other forts were used, and there were numerous other work camps operating at various times during Stalag XXID's existence.

Image courtesy of Jim Wicketts & WWII
The Prisoner of War, April 1943, Vol. 1 No. 12, p. 9
Courtesy of Jim Wicketts & WWII

I've not been able to determine the location of Work Camp 9, denoted by the franking on the postcard, but there are references to it (and a photograph) in the April 1943 edition of The Prisoner of War, the official journal of the Prisoners of War Department of the Red Cross and St. John War Organisation in London. One of the occupants writes in a letter home, obviously passing under the censorial eyes of the German authorities:
To Morayshire B.R.C.
Stalag XXID/9. 16.1.43.
"Our spirits here are very high; everybody has a nice smile for his neighbour, but should the Red Cross cease to exist I am afraid it would be a very different story. We occasionally hear of negotiations that have to be made so that you can send us food and clothing, and I assure you everyone appreciates it."

Image courtesy of Stalag Luft I Online by Mary Smith and Barbara Freer
Stalags XXID (Poznan) & VIIIB (Teschen), western and southern Poland
Courtesy of Stalag Luft I Online by Mary Smith and Barbara Freer

Like Bill Ball, Alan Forster of the 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish (Black Watch) was a POW at Stalag XXID from 1940 to 1944. He was moved to Stalag VIIIB in southern Poland, where he worked on a coal mine before being forced to march westwards through Bohemia to Regensburg in Bavaria in the early months of 1945, ahead of the Soviet advance.

Image courtesy of Bill Forster
British POW working party and German guards, near Fort Rauch, Posen
probably c. taken early 1942, Courtesy of Bill Forster

Bill Forster has transcribed his uncle's diaries and these are available on the BBC web pages, WW2 People's War. They are well worth a read, as they give a good feel for the harsh conditions in the working parties at Stalag VIIIB and on the bitterly cold Long March.
He records day by day what at the time seemed most important: food (or the lack of it), the weather, work, Red Cross parcels, letters received from his fiancee, "Bunty" Hancock, and his family ....
Image courtesy of The Pegasus Archive
A column of British POW's, April 1945
from The War Behind The Wire, by Patrick Wilson (Leo Cooper, 2000)
Courtesy of The Pegasus Archive

Once the trek west began he records the places they stopped, the distance covered, the night's billet, rumours, etc. There are references to bombing raids and occasional atrocities committed by the guards to keep the column of prisoners moving away from the advancing troops of the Red Army.
Alan Forster describes the moment of liberation, which must have been very similar to the experience of Bill Ball and many thousands of other POWs:
Monday April 30
This is the Day!! I shall remember this anniversary all the rest of my life for this morning the Americans arrived to free us. The time was 8.30 ... it is now 7.15 pm & I can't yet quite realise just what's happened to me. We have eaten as we liked, bacon, eggs, milk - all those things which we've starved for in 5 long years. It's more than strange to be able to walk around the fields a free man, to do what one likes without a guard's interference - oh to do everything one wishes, only stopped by one's sense of right & justice.
Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums
Lancaster B Mark III carrying liberated British POWS back to the UK, prepares to take off from Lubeck, Germany
Courtesy of Imperial War Museums

From Regensburg Bill Ball's group boarded trains which took them through southern Germany to Juvincourt airfield in north-eastern France. There the ex-Prisoners of War waited to board Lancaster bombers for the flight home, part of the evacuation exercise termed "Operation Exodus."

Image courtesy of Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Clichy Northern Cemetery, Hauts-de-Seine, France
Courtesy of Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Lancaster Bomber 111, serial number RF230-JI-B, one of ten bombers from 514 Squadron commenced the return flight to Waterbeach, England from Juvincourt in France at 12.15 hrs on the 9th May 1945. Not long after take-off the plane crashed into a wooded area 2 miles east-south-east of Roye-Amy and was destroyed by fire, killing all on board. William Leonard Ball and all the other 24 passengers and 6 crew are buried at Clichy Northern Cemetery, on the northern edge of Paris.

Image courtesy of Anthony Ball
Group of POWs at Stalag XXID, Working Camp 9
Bill Ball standing 2nd from left, back row
Courtesy of Anthony Ball

Returning to the postcard group portrait taken at Stalag XXID/9, and armed with a fuller understanding of the conditions prevalent in the camps, it's possible to interpolate further information about the subjects, and more specifically on the day the portrait was taken. A further two group portraits (above and below) include Bill Ball, and were presumably taken on the same occasion.

Image courtesy of Anthony Ball
Group of POWs at Stalag XXID, Working Camp 9
Courtesy of Anthony Ball and The Pegasus Archive

Reports from inmates (see POW Stories) and Red Cross officials indicate that these uniforms, a motley assemblage of tunics, greatcoats and caps, were supplied somewhat sporadically by the Red Cross and German authorities. It is intimated that these group portrait sessions were taken by visiting photographers by arrangement with the camp officials as a PR/propaganda exercise to show how "well" the POWs were being treated. This is from Private George Charlton at Stalag VIIIB/344:
The Germans photographed us and sent the photo home to show that we were still alive.
Sapper Tom Carpenter was at Stalag XIB:
It was about this time that a civilian photographer appeared at our compound. We were each given a board and in turn, our photos were taken with a few details - name, rank and number ... How long before the Red Cross people, family and friends at home would have to wait before notifications of this new status we had no idea, but at least we were now on record as a being.
Both extracts are courtesy of The Pegasus Archive.

Image courtesy of Anthony Ball
Bill Ball (right) and friend, snow under foot, wearing Polish greatcoats at an unidentified POW camp, undated
Courtesy of Anthony Ball and The Pegasus Archive

For me, the poignancy attached to this photographic artefact lies mainly in the fact that it originated, unlike the vast majority of portraits that we see, in such an extraordinary situation, the likes of which most of us are never likely to fully appreciate, let alone experience. Many of our family members who endured such hardships such as service in the front line trenches of the Great War, or internment in POW camps in the Second World War, rarely talked about their experiences, except to fellow servicemen or inmates, and these photographs may be all that we have left. The task of extrapolating the experiences of others - such as the reminiscences on The Pegasus Archive, WWII Memories and the BBC's WW2 People's War - into an authentic story for our own family members is not an easy one, but it is important if we are to understand what made them the people we knew.
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