Sunday, 18 May 2008

Thomas Roberts (1804-1885), one of Derby's first photographers

The American daguerreotypist John Johnson (1831-1871) briefly operated a studio in Victoria Street, Derby for a few weeks during the summer of 1843, under license from the patent holder Richard Beard [Source: A Faithful Likeness - The First Photographic Portrait Studios in the British Isles, 1841 to 1855, by Bernard & Pauline Heathcote, self publ. 2002]. However, it was Derby stationer and bookseller Thomas Roberts (1804-1885) who appears to have made the first attempt at operating a permanent photographic studio in the town. Roberts was born in Derby in 1804 and, after his marriage there in 1829, worked there as a printer. He and his wife Harriet had six children between then and 1844. The census of June 1841 [Source: Indexed census enumerators' images from Ancestry] shows him living in St James' Lane, Derby St Peter, and still described as a printer.

After Johnson had moved on to Blackpool by September 1843, the first contemporary evidence of a photographer working in Derby is an advertisement which appeared in The Derby Mercury [Source: The British Library, courtesy of Gale Databases] on 28 February 1844.

Image © The British Library and courtesy of Gale Databases

This announced that "proprietors of [the] photographic establishment, Victoria Street, Derby," unfortunately unnamed, would be "reducing the prices of their portraits, so as to place them within the reach of all ..." and included a list of these prices. It seems likely, however, that this was Thomas Roberts, as a very similar advertisement appeared in The Derby Mercury just over three months later on 5 June 1844, with prices further reduced, and this time providing his name.

Image © The British Library and courtesy of Gale Databases

It seems likely from the wording of the February 1844 advert that it had already been open for some months, perhaps even since Johnson's departure. This is supported by a claim on a mid-1860s carte de visite (see below) produced by Roberts of an 1843 date of establishment of the business.


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He did not take the portraits in his bookshop, which was situated at number 3 St James' Lane, but set up a studio in the same premises around the corner that had been occupied by Johnson in the summer of 1843. When he advertised again in The Derby Mercury on 25 September and 30 October 1844, he boasted that he was now "the sole proprietor of the patent for the taking of photographic likenesses in Derbyshire," and had "taken the rooms next the Athenaeum, Victoria Street, Derby ... near the Royal Hotel." The exact location of the studio will be dealt with in a susequent article.

Image © The British Library and courtesy of Gale Databases

In May the following year, Roberts was still taking portraits of the "nobility, clergy, gentry, and the public in general." His advert in The Derby Mercury on 28 May 1845, however, appears to give mixed messages.

Image © The Magic Attic and courtesy of Clyde Dissington

He has a rather nice engraving of a photographer with a distinguished client in his stylishly furnished studio, and states that he had recently renovated his rooms, "with the latest improvements, and in a style not to be surpassed by any in the kingdom." However, the statement that the studio would be "open for a short time only" suggests that he might have been reconsidering the viability of the business.

Image © The British Library and courtesy of Gale Databases

Indeed, a few months later on 10 September 1845, Roberts inserted what is likely to have been his last advertisement for his daguerreotype studio in The Derby Mercury.

Image © The British Library and courtesy of Gale Databases

He stated that he would be "declining the photographic business," but would continue taking portraits at the Mechanics' Institution, Wardwick for a further fortnight until the 29th September. He would obviously relinquish his lease on the rooms on Victoria street from 13 September, but intended to "continue to carry on his newspaper, periodical, and bookselling business as usual, in St. James' Lane, Corn-market," which he obviously found far more remunerative.

This was a common experience of early daguerreotypists, who obtained licenses from Richard Beard (the sole patentee of the daguerreotype process in England and Wales) under conditions which would often prove financially disastrous. The agreements usually involved a high initial payment to Beard, followed by the remission to him of a large proportion of the proceeds of the business. Beard himself had made huge profits from a chain of studios in London, where there was a ready supply of wealthy clientele. [Source: Richard Beard (1801-1885) in A History of Photography by Robert Leggatt] The licensees, however, found it far more difficult to find as many customers in the provinces, particularly under such restrictive financial arrangements.

In the case of Edward Holland, who purchased a license to use the daguerreotype process in certain specific parts of Yorkshire and Derbyshire, including Buxton and Bakewell, in November 1842, the financial arrangements amounted to a license fee of £500 and 15% of all his takings from the sale of daguerreotype portraits. As a result, Holland was forced to abandon his photographic career in July 1843, before he had even reached Derbyshire. [Source: The First Derby Daguerrotypists, 1842-1844 by David Simkin] Although there is no direct evidence to support this, it seems likely that Roberts experienced similar difficulties, hence preferring to concentrate on his bookselling business.

The patent rights of Beard's British Patent No 8194 expired on 14th August 1853. At around the same time the wet collodion process, invented by Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857) in 1848, but popularised in the early 1850s, and most importantly patent-free, resulted in an explosion of photographic activity all over the United Kingdom, including Derbyshire. A number of photographers, including James Brennan, Edmund Stowe, Richard Smith, William Seville, James Wilson and E.N. Charles, established themselves in Derby in 1854 and 1855. Kelly & Co.'s Post Office Directory of Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire for 1855 (from the University of Leicester's Historical Directories), presumably compiled in late 1854, shows only Brennen and Stowe working as photographists in Derby.

Thomas Roberts is listed as a bookseller & news agent at 3 St. James' Lane in the same directory, so it is likely that he only returned to the photographic trade in 1855 or 1856. Certainly by 1857, when Francis White & Co.'s History, Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Derby (transcribed and presented online by Neil Wilson) was compiled, in addition to his newsagency in St James' Lane, he was operating as a photographic artist in Oake's Yard (between Green Lane and St Peter's Street), presumably offering ambrotype portraits. Harrison's 1860 trade directory and the census of 7 April 1861 once again describe Roberts, still living at 3 St James' Lane, merely as a printer, compositor and newsagent/newsvendor, so it is not clear how long the Oake's Yard studio remained in operation.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This carte de visite portrait of a young man was taken by Thomas Roberts at studio premises in Albert Street, probably in the mid- to late 1860s. The first documentary record of this address being occupied by Roberts is Harrod & Co.'s 1870 Postal & Commercial Directory of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Rutland & Staffordshire (Historical Directories), which also lists his newsagency in premises at "Morledge Bridge." In 1867 and 1868, the entire length of St James' Lane was demolished and redeveloped, which is almost certainly the reason for Roberts' move. It is also likely that the newly built shops on the broad thoroughfare which was now called St James' Street attracted a higher rent than that which Roberts had paid previously.

The census of 2 April 1871, also showing him living on the Morledge (next to the Old Boat Inn), is the only one in which he describes himself only as a photographer - the natural assumption is that this was now his primary means of income, but this may not have been the case. Three years later, C.N. Wright's 1874 Directory of South Derbyshire included entries for him as a newsagent on the Morledge, and as a photographer at his Albert Street premises, on the southern side of the road between the Derby Co-operative Society Stores and the Prince's Street corner, and with a new stall at the Market Hall, selling books and stationery.

Image © The British Library and courtesy of Gale Databases

By early January 1876, however, Thomas Roberts had decided to quit the portrait business for good, and instructed auction house Messrs. J. & W. Heathcote to dispose of the studio and all of its contents [Source: Advertisement in The Derby Mercury, dated 12 January 1876].
Albert-street, Derby. To photographers, gardeners, and others. Messrs. J. and W. Heathcote have received instructions from Mr. Roberts, to sell by auction, upon the premises adjoining the Co-operative Stores, Albert-street, Derby, on Thursday, Jan. 13, 1876, at 11 o'clock precisely, a photographic studio, well adapted for a Greenhouse. It contains 10 frames, glazed with 21 oz. glass, 6ft. by 3 ft. 4 in., and 6 frames 3 ft. 6 in. by 3 ft. 3 in., besides various other lights, with wood floor, and part sides, measuring 26 ft. long by 10 ft. wide. Also several Photographic Instruments, including multum in parvo, pedestal vase, full plate lense, half plate ditto., quarter plate ditto, with camera complete, rolling machine 17 in. with polished plate, stove piping, and other effects. The whole to be sold without reseve, the land being wanted for building purposes immediately. Auction Offices, Albert-street, Derby.
The description of the studio suggests that it had originally been purpose-built, but it was advertised as also being suitable for use as a greenhouse! It is not known what became of the studio, but there doesn't appear to have been another one in Albert Street until the 20th Century.

The census of 3 April 1881 shows Roberts living with his family at the premises of the newsagent's shop, situated on the north-eastern side of the Morledge, at Tenant Street Bridge. He is described, once again, merely as a newsagent. The 1881 edition of Kelly's trade directory (published on microfiche by the Derbyshire Family History Society) confirms that he was running the news agency from the shop on the east side of the Morledge, as well as listing him as a bookseller & stationer at Market Hall.

Thomas Roberts died at Derby on 2 December 1885. His widow Harriet continued the bookselling business at the Market Hall stall, helped by a grand-daughter, while her two daughters Elizabeth and Jane ran the newsagents shop at Morledge until at least 1895. Harriet died in Derby in 1900.

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