FAMILY PORTRAIT – Downey photography studios in South Shields & London

As I was sorting out some books this picture card fell out of one of them. It’s something I picked up at Shields Market a few year ago. I’m not sure who the sitter is but the photo was taken by the Downey brothers, William and Daniel, who along with older brother James, had studios in the North East then moved to London. Commercial photography was in it’s infancy when the brothers were taking pictures of royalty and personalities like Oscar Wilde.

Looking back to photographers in South Shields if it was a competition I couldn’t call it, they have different qualities. There was James Cleet with his housing clearance pictures during the 1930’s, and reported to be a bit of a showman in his mac and bowler hat, especially at Tyneside ship launches he would signify when he was finished by making a large sweep of his bowler hat and take a deep bow in front of the crowds. Amy Flagg’s unforgettable Second World War images of a scarred town after the German bombs hit, then in her own darkroom printing photographs of devastating images of a town she loved, important pictures that still have a huge impact today.

Records show the Downey brothers worked out of a studio in London, but before that were based in South Shields. William Downey was born in King Street, South Shields in 1829, with help from his older brother James and together with brother Daniel, they set up a photographic business in the Market Square in 1860. The studio became successful resulting in branches opening across the North East in Blyth, Morpeth and old Eldon Square in Newcastle.

In 1862 Queen Victoria commissioned William Downey to take a series of photographs illustrating the Hartley Colliery disaster, near Blyth. Soon after William and his brother Daniel moved to London where they accepted commissions from dignitaries and aristocracy including the UK royal family, the Emperor of Russia and King of Norway. The brothers also took pictures of show business personalities from their studio at 57 & 61 Ebury Street in Belgravia, while older brother James, as well as his grocery business, kept a studio open in South Shields.

Big brother James was a huge help to William and Daniel. He was a grocer and importer of German yeast, with premises in West Holborn in 1865. 10 year later he had two shops trading as a grocer and confectioner out of 17 & 19 Eldon Street. By 1881 he had one shop for his grocery business and opened the other as a photography studio. There is a record of a Frederick Downey at 19 Eldon Street, I suspect that he was James’ son who carried on the family photography business.

Meanwhile in London, Daniel and William continued their work of royal sittings and portraits. Sadly, Daniel passed away in Bethnal Green in 1881 while William died in Kensington in 1915. His son, William Edward, kept on the family business, as did his son, Arthur.

A lasting record of their work is an impressive set of 5 books called ‘The Cabinet Gallery’ printed by Cassell & Company of London, Paris and Melbourne in 1890. The volumes include 36 photographs each, plus a summary of the subject. Kings, Queens, Professors and actors all sat for a Downey portrait, the attention to detail made them stand out among other photographers and ensured customers would return. Their stamp is on the back of some pages.

Throughout the early 1900’s there is records for a Downey photography studio at 17 & 19 Eldon Street, but unfortunately by 1912 the trail goes cold. What happened to the Downeys in London and South Shields? Is there more to their story? If you have any information to add get in touch.

Source: Census records, Burgess Rolls, Wards Directories, Wikipedia, The Word South Shields.

Gary Alikivi  December 2019

 

HARD UP in HOLBORN – South Shields photographer James Henry Cleet 1876-1959.

During the 1930’s James Cleet was commissioned by South Shields Public Health Department to make a photographic record of ‘slum housing’ in the town. Side Photographic Gallery in Newcastle produced a booklet in 1979 of some of the photo’s. Not sure if the term ‘slum’ was first used by Side Gallery or Public Health Department ?

But first time I came across James Cleet when I was doing some family and history research in the Local History section of South Tyneside Library. It gave me the idea to make a documentary in 2010 called ‘The Hills of Holborn’, featuring the area once known as the industrial heartland of Shields, Cleet’s work and the digitization project. The Local History section had been awarded funding to digitize thousands of photographs they had in their archive and load them onto a new website. Volunteers were needed for this process and as I was self employed I could give a couple of hours a week to a worthwhile cause.

Spending time looking through photographs, some from the early 1900’s, of people, places and events around South Tyneside was a great way to spend a couple of hours. It wasn’t long till I dropped in more frequently. Photographs by Emmett, Flagg and Cleet were an excellent record of the times. Some images had familiar street names of area’s where my ancestors lived, mainly Tyne Dock, Holborn and Jarrow. Finding a family of photographers called Downey who had a studio in Eldon Street next to where my great grandmother lived was an added bonus.

There was a small team of volunteers who recorded details of the images, scanned the photo’s, and uploaded them onto the website, this process features in the documentary. Street names, buildings, shops and people were researched, as much information as possible was added. On the back of the pictures was nearly always a date or name of the photographer. But unfortunately, some photographs were left blank and didn’t have any recognizable signs, but were still uploaded.

After a few sessions I could recognize the styles of certain photographers and two of them stood out. Amy Flagg added extensive details to a lot of her work, and covered some powerful subjects like the Second World War – climbing over bombed houses to get the shot won’t have been easy. Some of her images became instantly recognisable, in her darkroom she stamped a date in Roman numerals on the bottom of the photo.

There were a load of photographs that were taken in Holborn by James Cleet, his style and composition was of a very high quality with clean, sharp images. Most of the images are taken on overcast, grey rainy days – is that a coincidence ? I doubt it. The lighting give the pictures a uniform look and add to the bleak, grim atmosphere of the housing clearance. In research I found he had regular work at ship launches, plus The Shields Gazette and Daily Mirror. While Flagg’s technique was more hand held, Cleet used a tripod in most if not all of his shot’s. Both were passionate about their work.

Around that time an old guy used to come to the local history section and tell me a few stories about Tyne Dock and Holborn as his family lived in those area’s. Next time he brought in a booklet which he gave to me, it featured a collection of the housing clearance photographs I’d been looking at.

The booklet also included reports by the South Shields Medical Officer for Health talking about ‘rat repression’ and ‘eradication of bed bugs’. They reported….’The women had a very hard life. They polished their steps and the pavement was scrubbed. The backyard was washed regular. There was a question of pride. They had to keep them clean or they’d be overrun with vermin. No getting away with it. It had to be kept down’. The report also included complaints from residents…’A’ve seen some hard up times. Families of nine in one room. I knew a family, the father and mother had to gan ootside to do their business. Yes they used to do their courtin’ ootside. The mother used to stand at the telegraph pole on Johnsons Hill and have her love with the husband and then gan yem to bed. You couldn’t do nowt with all the family livin’ in one room’.

In a previous post I wrote about the important historical archive that Amy Flagg had left to the town: her Second World War photo’s plus the book ‘The History of Shipbuilding in South Shields’, the James Cleet housing clearance booklet is just as important a document of South Shields.

To check out the South Tyneside photographs featuring Amy Flagg and James Cleet go to :   https://www.southtynesidehistory.co.uk/

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

The Village People – new book about Westoe, South Shields

In 2016 I made a documentary ‘Westoe Rose’ about South Shields photographer and local historian Amy Flagg who lived in the Westoe area of the town. Her most notable work was recording the impact of bomb damage on South Shields during the Second World War. When doing some local history research in The Word I came across a new book about Westoe.

The book goes into great detail not only of the houses but it’s residents. The section on Chapel House, where the Flagg family lived, includes a copy of an inventory of furniture which Amy listed for 21st May 1941. It includes a typewriter and photographic equipment in an attic, a what not and stirrup pump in the hall, with a gongstand in the breakfast room – it’s all in the detail. To find out more I talked to the book’s author and member of South Shields Local History group, Dorothy Fleet…. 

More recently the Village has undergone a revival and many houses have been restored as cherished family homes. It has regained it’s elegance and has a sense of the atmosphere of yesteryear. Although it is now totally surrounded by our busy town, Westoe Village remains a place apart. This book tells the story of each of the houses and the families who lived there from the mid-1700s. About 200 years ago it gradually became the desired location for families of successful local businessmen, who often worked together for the successful development of the town. For centuries before then it was a remote rural village of farms and cottages.  (Map of 1768 with the River Tyne flowing out into the German Ocean, now the North Sea. A blue arrow points to Westoe at the bottom of the pic).

One of the stories in my book about the history and notable residents of the Village concerns Mrs Paine and her family. In 1780 a dashing Royal Navy Lieutenant called William Fox was in command of the ‘Speedwell’, an armed vessel on press gang duty in Peggy’s Hole on the North Shields bank of the river Tyne.

Mrs Paine’s young daughter, Catherine, fell in love with William and they arranged to elope to Gretna Green. Catherine joined William in a horse drawn carriage and they travelled at speed, changing horses at the posting stations along the way. Married by the blacksmith at Gretna, they returned home the following day and their marriage was accepted by the family. The following year Catherine gave birth to their son, George Townsend Fox.

Their romantic story ended tragically when William fell (or was pushed) into the icy cold river late one night when boarding the ‘Speedwell’. His fellow crew members recovered his body but, with no knowledge of hypothermia, presumed he was dead.

Left almost penniless Catherine returned to her family home. By 1807 her son George Townsend had married and had eight children, one was William who emigrated to New Zealand. After a highly successful legal and political career there, he served four terms as their Prime Minister and his childhood home in the Village is now a privately run hotel that bears his name.

The book is already selling well and with all proceeds going to the Local History Group to hopefully keep the group going forward and remaining solvent. With all the research, design and illustrations it’s been a real team effort.

For further information about ‘Westoe, a History of the Village and it’s Residents’

contact:   dorothyfleet60@gmail.com  

Interview by Gary Alikivi November 2019.