Happy Birthday John Fletcher!

By Nichola Court, Archivist

WSRO holds a large and rich photographic archive of the county, dating from the earliest days of photography up to the modern day. One of our most compelling collections is that of the amateur photographer John Fletcher, a local man whose life was tragically cut short by World War I. In honour of John’s birthday, Archivist Nichola Court celebrates the collection, which was of great personal significance to its creator.

John Holland Ballett Fletcher was born in Worthing on 30th June 1879, the only surviving child of William and Agnes Fletcher. The family moved to Bognor in 1899, where they lived at Aldwick Manor (formerly Bersted Lodge, now Hotham Park). The Fletchers were a wealthy family and, as Lord of the Manor of Aldwick, county councillor, magistrate and Justice of the Peace, William was something of a local dignitary and a well-known figure around the county. While Agnes busied herself with her large (and probably unusual!) collection of reptiles, William held a keen interest in the history of Sussex and built up an extensive library.

Unfortunately, little is known of John himself. Educated at Uppingham School in Rutland, he went on to read law at St John’s College, Cambridge. On completion of his BA in 1902, he was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple and practiced as a defence and prosecuting barrister at the Old Bailey. At the outbreak of war, he enlisted as an Officer in one of the London regiments, being sent to the front line at Bethune, France, in March 1915. He was injured in early May, dying of his wounds in hospital just a few days later, on 15th May, aged 35.

What is evident is that John took a keen interest in the new, increasingly popular hobby of photography and – perhaps influenced by his father’s interest in Sussex history – the built landscape which surrounded him. Concerned that this landscape would soon be lost, John set about creating a photographic record ‘of the appearance of the Sussex villages at the time of visiting them’, before their old cottages, farmhouses and mills were lost to modernity or dilapidation.

Starting in 1897, John continued his project until his untimely death in 1915, generating an extensive portfolio of some 1,500 photographic prints, made all the more remarkable thanks to their careful presentation in a series of seven albums – the last of which is, rather poignantly, incomplete. Entitled ‘Wanderings in Sussex’, each album contains a sketch map (drawn by John) of the locations visited and represented in that album, an introduction in which John sets out the motivation for his project and his methods (as well as an apology for the quality of some of the photographs, some of which were necessarily taken without proper lighting), and a location index.

Clearly, John invested a lot of time and energy in his project and he was rightly proud of his output, bequeathing his albums to his uncle, Charles Fletcher (vicar of North Mundham) in his will. Fortunately, the albums eventually found their way to WSRO and we are delighted to be their custodians. John Fletcher’s Sussex albums form one of my favourite collections, not only for their fascinating content, but because of the personal story the albums tell. Despite his parents’ wealth and standing in the local community and despite John’s successful career in law, were it not for his photographic albums, it is likely that there would be little trace of him today. Not only do these albums provide a lasting legacy of our county’s past, but they also provide a little insight into the character and life of John himself, demonstrating the wider significance of archives not just as evidence of the past, but the lives of their creators.

The seven ‘Wanderings in Sussex’ albums have been catalogued (references PH 26114-PH 26120), along with a further, incomplete album by John representing West Sussex churches (reference PH 26121). The albums can be searched via our website – select the Advanced Search tab, enter ‘John Fletcher’ in the Any Text field and select Photograph as the RecordType to call up the entire collection; in addition, nearly 400 images from the collection can be viewed on our Online Picture Gallery (enter ‘John Fletcher’ in the search box).

My illustrated talk, ‘Bygone Sussex’, features the work of John Fletcher and the celebrated local photographer George Garland and provides further information about John and his fascinating albums. It can be booked for local groups; please email record.office@westsussex.gov.uk for information.

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