‘Snapping the centuries’: the photographs of John Smith

By Nichola Court, Archivist

West Sussex Record Office is fortunate to hold the collections of a number of professional photographers and studios, including those of George Garland, Walter Kevis and Chichester Photographic Studio. These collections provide an immediate visual representation of the past, albeit – usually – a carefully managed and planned representation, according to the photographer’s brief.

Alongside these professional collections, WSRO also holds a number of amateur photographers’ archives. Although they may not be as polished as their professional counterparts’, these collections are no less important, particularly as they often capture a more natural, less contrived moment in time.

The John Smith Photographic Collection, comprising over 3,000 photographs across 13 albums, is one of our largest and most important photographic collections. Born in South Norwood, Croydon in 1851, John Smith was a builder by trade but he became a keen and prolific amateur photographer. Clearly hooked on the still fairly new-fangled but increasingly popular and accessible hobby of photography, by 1895 he had amassed 13 cameras (12 of which are shown in the photograph) and was a member of Croydon Camera Club, founded in 1890 (still in existence today and one of the country’s oldest photographic societies).

John was also one of the founding members of the smaller, appropriately-named SNAPS (South Norwood Amateur Photographic Society, founded 1899), and was actively involved with both societies. Interested in both the technical and artistic aspects of photography, John was a regular exhibitor and medal winner; he also led the Croydon Camera Club’s experimental flashlight group, delivered lectures, and took part in both clubs’ regular excursions. He was later elected President of the SNAPS and, during the early 1900s, hosted the SNAPS for their popular, annual excursion to Fittleworth.

It is this connection to Fittleworth that has brought John Smith’s extraordinary photographic collection to West Sussex Record Office. Although John was resident in South Norwood throughout his working life, the Smith family bought their first property in Fittleworth in 1894, renovating a shop and its adjoining properties into one large dwelling house, Crohamhurst. Gradually, John bought and renovated a number of properties in the village – often renting them out to family members and naming them after locations in Croydon – and he eventually retired to Fittleworth, where he died in 1925; his relations retain links to the village today.

John’s extensive photographic collection provides an enticing glimpse into the world of the Victorian / Edwardian middle and working classes, a world long-since passed. Alongside his experimental and technical work, we find snapshots of travelling tinkers and saw sharpeners, labourers digging wells and tarmacking roads, fishermen hauling nets, and carpenters planing wood in the workshop. Transport is a popular theme, with new bicycles and family cycling excursions captured, alongside John’s first car and automobiles lined up for the RAC’s 1903 ‘Motor Car Reliability Trials’, for example.

High days and holidays also feature heavily, with images of London bedecked for King Edward VII’s (aborted) Coronation, parades and amusements for Fittleworth’s annual club day and the Stopham regatta, to name just a few. Day trips to Portsmouth, Bognor, Littlehampton, Hastings and the Kent coast are captured, with people strolling along the prom or crowded on beaches, watching ‘quack’ doctors and puppet shows, and horse-drawn bathing carriages lined up on the shoreline. And there are many fun images of John’s fellow photographers posing on their regular day trips, usually surrounded by an array of cameras and tripods.

John’s firm – founded by his father, James Smith – enjoyed considerable success; at the end of the 19th century, they employed over 400 men and had their own railway siding at their yard in Croydon . Accordingly, yet more photographs capture a number of John’s building projects, from the properties he renovated in Fittleworth to the schools, swimming pools, houses and even crematoria he built further afield. Equally important are the photographs that John took of the interiors of his own homes, including those at Fittleworth, which detail the opulent décor chosen by the wealthy Victorian / Edwardian family; similarly, snaps of the family playing chess – often taken by flashlight – provide us with the opportunity to further appreciate contemporary interior decoration.

John’s remarkable collection – which is not only rich in social history but also documents the technical development of photography – was to have been the subject of this month’s Tuesday Talk, now postponed until 2021 due to our national effort to reduce the spread of Coronavirus. If this blog has whetted your appetite and you’d like to find out more about John and his work, see more of his photographs and have the opportunity to view his original albums, please keep an eye on our website for details of our 2021 programme, or contact us towards the end of the year (2020) for further information.


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4 thoughts on “‘Snapping the centuries’: the photographs of John Smith

  1. Thank you Nichola, most interesting. We’ll look forward to the talk when it is rescheduled.
    We have become interested in the world of Victorian photography through our ownership of Walter Kevis’s old studio in Petworth.

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    1. Thank you, Richard – that’s very kind of you. It’s a certain Petworth photographer’s birthday tomorrow and I’ve written a blog in celebration, so that might interest you as well – and I have a couple more blogs on Victorian photographers coming up in the next few weeks.

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