Every Picture Tells a Story: Worthing Library Photograph Collections, 1850s to date

By Martin Hayes, County Local Studies Librarian

Over the past couple of years some remarkable and extensive photograph collections have been deposited at the Record Office, prompted by a refurbishment project at Worthing Library. Photographs and postcards have been collected by West Sussex CC Library Service for over 100 years and include some of the earliest known photographs of the County. Every town and village in the County is covered and four of the finest of these collections are described in this blog.

Miscellaneous Photographs Collection

Coloured image of a green landscape by the sea
PP/WSL/P002601: Brighton Road looking east towards Shoreham from The Terrace, Lancing

This core collection at Worthing Library was started by a remarkable librarian, Marion Frost. Despite a junior position as an assistant librarian, she obtained a grant equivalent to £500k from American billionaire Andrew Carnegie to part finance a new library opened in 1908. In 1919 she became the Librarian, one of the first female chief librarians in the UK. There are over 18,000 photographs in the collection, around half of Worthing and the rest of towns and villages across West Sussex. The earliest are stereoscopic prints on card dated 1858 of Lancing Grammar School and nearby coastline. More recent views capture buildings and streets in central Worthing demolished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jack Watts Lantern Slide Collection

These 1,800 glass lantern slides are beautifully crafted and technically accomplished views dating from the 1880’s to the 1940s, with the great majority around 1900-14. Most are of Worthing though other Sussex places feature too. The Watts family of shoe-makers and sellers moved to Worthing in 1888 establishing the largest and best known shoe-shop in the area. Jack’s grandfather Nathaniel became interested in photography in the 1890s and founded, with other prosperous tradesmen, the Worthing Camera Club in 1904. Competitions and exhibitions followed throughout the Edwardian era. Jack took up photography aged 10 in 1909 and eventually acquired other lantern slides from his grandfather’s friends, notably jeweller Edmund Crouch and chemist R. J. MacDermott.

N58745: Worthing Town Hall, South Street, on a misty November morning; c.1904 by Edmund F.H. Crouch
Two men ontop of a huge pile of hay that requires a ladder to climb. A third man is standing on a pile resting on a horse drawn cart.
PP/WSL/N057989: Haystack, probably at Tilley’s farm or Lock’s farm, Washington c.1908

Terry Child Postcard Collection

Three members of staff, two women and one man, standing in Edwardian clothes in front of the post office. A bike rests against a fenced wall and one woman.
PP/WSL/TC1918: North Mundham Post Office, c.1910

This is without doubt the finest of postcard collection I’ve seen in nearly 40 years as a local studies librarian. Terry was born in 1944 into a family of builders in Worthing and  was a keen sportsman and fisherman. Concerned about the wholesale destruction of old buildings in central Worthing in the 1960s and 1970s he became an avid collector of postcards. Sadly Terry died aged 50 but the Library Service managed to acquire his collection on behalf of the community in 1994. It comprises around 3,000 postcards, including many rare street scenes and sought-after subjects such as businesses, events, school classes, shops, sports teams and transport. Coverage is mainly of Worthing (2,000) and West Sussex coastal towns & villages (1,000).

A dozen or so men in uniform and women and children posing for the photograph. Some are sitting on the floor, some are smilling.
PP/WSL/TC1714: Arundel Area Volunteer Training Corps, Pier Road, Littlehampton 26th April 1915

Walter Gardiner Photography Collection

This company, established 1893 in Worthing, became perhaps the best-known portrait and commercial photographers in Sussex during the 20th century. This remarkable story owes as much to Walter’s wife Annie as it does to him and it was she who was the early creative driving force behind the company. Annie worked from the age of 12 in her father’s shop in, a curious combination of hairdresser’s & photographer’s, and became a skilled photographer and colourist. She recognised the vital oxygen of publicity for a new business and had 10 photographs accepted at the Royal Photographic Society’s exhibitions in 1894 & 1895 while Walter had only two. In other initiatives to make the business successful, they published some of the earliest picture postcards in Britain dating back to 1894 and their photographs illustrated high-profile town guides. The company reinvented itself to specialize in commercial photography after 1945 and the vast majority of images are from this period. When the Broadwater premises closed in 2007, the surviving archive of around 116,000 negatives were acquired by the Library Service. 

Man standing on metal stairs next to large metal tankards
PP/WSL/WGP000018: Beechams Pharmaceutical Plant, Broadwater, Worthing c.1963

Further Reading and Links

Enjoy nearly 10,000 of the best photographs from these four collections on our website: West Sussex Past Pictures

WSCC senior librarian Katie Gledhill’s blogs about Marion Frost:

Marian Frost: The rebel who built a library – Canvas (bbcrewind.co.uk)

Marian Frost, Rebel Victorian Librarian – Discover (brightonmuseums.org.uk)

Read Jack Watts’ book Old Worthing As I Remember It 1906-1920 (privately printed, 1982) and find out more about Jack’s First World War experiences here.

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