Thursday, 3 April 2014

Sepia Saturday 222: A Question of Berthage


Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Marilyn Brindley

Last year I had some correspondence with Bill Forster relating to the Stalag XXID Prisoner of War Camp at Poznan in Poland, which I wrote about in the story of Bill Ball and Work Camp 9. Bill had another query in connection with his own research on a group of sailors who also ended up in Stalag XXID:

I have a puzzle in identifying a photograph of a (French?) port where a requisitioned LNER ferry is berthed which carried the troops of the BEF to France in 1939-40. This is in connection with the book I published about my father's wartime destroyer, HMS Venomous, which I update between editions on my web site. I have successfully identified photographs taken by the men on Venomous at Calais on 21 May 1940 and at Boulogne on 22 May 1940 and uncovered some fascinating stories of the refugees they landed at Folkestone and Dover.

Image courtesy of Bill Forster
HMS Archangel by Eric Pountney
Image courtesy of Bill Forster

But [I] was puzzled by [this] photograph taken by the Wireless Telegraphy Operator, Eric Pountney, until it was identified by members of the "Ships Nostalgia" Forum as the LNER ferry Archangel which was used as a troop transport in 1939-40.

Image courtesy of Bill Forster
HMS Archangel at northern French port, by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR
Image courtesy of Bill Forster

I have recently found a further photograph in my own collection taken by Lt Peter Kershaw of a ship which looks very similar berthed alongside a quay with railways wagons. But where was it taken? Venomous escorted troop carriers from the Solent (Southampton/Portsmouth) to Cherbourg, Le Havre and Brest in the first few weeks of the war and I suspect it would have been taken at one of these channel ports. Where there are no letters or journals - as in the case of Eric Pountney - I rely on his photographs to tell the story.

What I've done is had a good look at all three of the ports that Bill mentioned - Cherbourg, Le Havre and Brest - using the myriad of postcard views that are available, many of them on the Delcampe postcard auction web site. European postcard publishers were prolific, and there are a wealth of sources on the net for images of scenic postcards published before, during and after the Great War, up to the mid- to late 1920s. There appear to be far fewer from the 1930s, and I suspect that this may have been due to financial pressures caused by the Depression, although I haven't found a confirmation of what is really just an assumption on my part to explain the apparent paucity of images.


Le Havre, Bassin de l'Eure, undated postcard view

From what I can tell, Le Havre was the only one of the three which had the very distinctive tower lights, one of which appears close to the edge of the quay at centre-left in Bill's Archangel photo. They are very tall, probably of steel construction with a lattice framework, and are characterised by a curious bell-shaped frame for the lamp hanging from a short at the top. The lighting towers appear in most of the postcard views of Le Havre port from the early 1900s until the late 1920s - as in the view above, undated but probably from the 1920s.

Image courtesy of The Web Gallery of Impressionism
The Inner Harbor, Le Havre, by Camille Pissarro, 1903
Image courtesy of The Web Gallery of Impressionism

They are also depicted in many paintings by Impressionist artists, who appear to have congregated in Le Havre before and after the turn of the century. A typical example painted by that "father of the Impressionists," Camille Pissaro, in 1903 includes one of the characteristic tower lights.


La Nouvelle Digue - The New Dike, Le Havre, postcard view, PM 1927

Sadly, I've been unable to find any images of the port, wharves and quays which show railway carriages, or even areas clearly identifiable as railway sidings, although there were tramlines on some of the quays which serviced the ocean liners, I believe. However, I did find a 1927 (postmark) postcard depicting "La Nouvelle Digue" (or, The New Dike), which may well be where railway sidings were later built. The port was extensively damaged by bombing during the Second World War, so looking at modern photographs is probably no use at all.


Bassin des Torpilleurs, Brest, postcard view, PM 1912

None of the postcards I could find for Brest displayed such tower lights.


L'Entrée des Jetées, Cherbourg, postcard view, PM 1908

I did find a postcard view of the port at Brest with a similar tower light, but the design was sufficiently different to rule it out as a candidate for the Archangel's berth. While I can't rule out this particular quay being at some other as yet unidentified port, I think I can be fairly confident in saying that it's not either Cherbourg or Brest. If the Archangel only visited these three ports, then it was, in all likelihood, Le Havre.

I'm grateful to Bill Forster for permission to include the contents of his email and the the HMS Archangel photographs in this article. I have primarily aimed at demonstrating how the huge database of scenic images, in particular of old postcards, now available in various locations on the internet can be used to research and identify our own family photographs. Apart from the postcards for sale on various auction sites such as Delcampe and eBay, there are many web sites created by postcard enthusiasts. A little inventive searching will find the one with a particular focus that you're looking for.

If you haven't yet had your fill of reading about old photographs and postcards, the remainder of this week's Saturday sepians will no doubt have plenty more.

26 comments:

  1. As you say, the path less trodden so far, but the workers in the prompt are certainly overlooking that ferry wharf, and your postcards of the French ports are very interesting. Maybe some other sepian can shine a light on where those towers are or were exactly located.

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    1. I always hope that additional clues will be spotted by my readers.

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  2. An interesting take on the prompt which obviously initiated an irresistible urge to sleuth out an answer to help another photo enthusiast. Well done. And thanks for the tip! I never thought to use old postcards to help identify places in old photographs. Should be interesting to try.

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    1. Thanks Gail. Actually I must admit I did this research some time ago, and was just waiting for an opportune moment to write about it.

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  3. Since I collect postcards and not photos, my searches usually go in the opposite direction--from postcard to photos.

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    1. Yes, I suppose they do. So you probably have a good idea where the best collections of old postcard images are.

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  4. I love sleuthing...it is an absorbing hobby.

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    1. Or perhaps an engrossing obsession?

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  5. A super post, Brett. Seaports have greatly diminished from the days of sail and steam when they were the only point of departure and arrival. I suppose there are postcards of airports and jet, but I doubt they have the same collectiblity or historic value.

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    1. I haven't been on a long sea voyage since I was about two, and I don't remember that at all, but I'm not sure I fancy the present day alternative, the cruise ship. It must have been quite an experience, departing from a port on board a huge ocean liner, and plenty of opportunity fopr vendors to sell postcards and other memorabilia.

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  6. The Pountney and Kershaw photos are a great record of that time. You've done well to follow the clues in them.

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    1. Thanks for visiting and taking the time to leave a comment Boobook.

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  7. I'm amazed at the types of resources available online even down to specific forum themes.

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    1. Yes Wendy, that never ceases to amaze me too.

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  8. As I was reading I was thinking how hard it would be as so many places were bombed out of existence. You've done well to get this far!

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    1. Well, if you're a regular Photo-Sleuth reader, you'll know that I've visited a few ports over the years.

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  9. I always check the postcards at our local flea market but have never seen any like these. As a poor sailor I'm not keen on ferries. These are historically important views.

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    1. In the several years that I've been visiting the delcampe web site, I've seen the proportion of older cards on offer decline considerably. Presumably they're popular, are making their way into people's permanent collections, fetching higher prices, and therefore becoming rarer.

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  10. You have such good research and observational skills Sometimes I find it hard to keep track of all the bits that need to fit together to form the jigsaw, if that makes sense ! A very interesting post on ports.

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    1. Yes, I agree that's often difficult to keep all those strands separate, and yet still in hand.

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  11. I'd never have thought of referring to a painting for clues. The only hitch would be the artistic licence making it it a not too reliable source; they weren't called Impressionists for nothing - still, any port......

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    1. Yes, I suppose it's possible one artist might have inserted towers that looked like those he'd seen at another port, but that fact that several artists show the same towers at that port, I think, clinches it.

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  12. Another post that is most intriguing...following photos and postcards into a continuity. Thanks for the entertainment, and esteem at your sleuthing!

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    1. Thanks Barb, for visiting and commenting.

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  13. I really enjoyed these especially the impressionist print of Le Havre and that tower.

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    1. I'm very partial to the Impressionist painters, so it was a nice opportunity to include a painting. It's not all about photos.

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