Episode 18: Victorian Photography

With the invention of photography, who knew it would revolutionise culture and communication? Images of real life could be captured for prosperity and sent across the world. Portraits of royalty and other celebrities, far more accurate than paintings, allowed members of the public to feel that they were viewing these people in the flesh.

In this episode, we are with guest Colin Webb, who helps making history more accessible and telling the stories that we as a culture may have forgotten, and he does this by adding colour to black and white photos.

Colin Webb: Facebook

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Full Transcript

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to our London History Podcast, where we share our love of London, its people, places, and history in 20 minute espresso shot episode served with a dash of personality. I am Hazel Baker Qualified London tour guide and CEO of London Guided Walks, providing private tours, treasure hunts, and live London quizzes to Londoners and visitors alike.

To accompany this podcast. We also have hundreds of London history related blog posts for you to enjoy at londonguidedwalks.co.uk/blog. And it's a week for celebrating as we have hit the amazing milestone of 3000 listeners. Now I am beyond proud and thankful, not only for you, my lovely listeners, but also for our expert guests for sharing their love of London. Now don't forget if you want to be our guest, then please do get in touch via our website, londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast.

Don't forget from 4th of July, we will be offering private tours at treasure hunts and live London quizzes to private groups, all COVID-19 secure. And now on with the show.

I have a confession. In my recent folder on my iPhone, I have 64,476 photos. That's not including all the ones that I've taken on my other phones or indeed my camera. 64,476. These are photos i've taken, some with great care and others, admittedly were just quick snapshots, whilst whizzing around the city.

For those of you who've been to Haycock Abby in Wiltshire will already know the first photographic technologies were produced there in the 1830s and 40s by William Henry Fox Talbot. He was a Victorian polymath and frustrated by his inability to paint and draw, I know that feeling, he wanted to find a way to fix images.

Little, did he know that with the invention of photography, it would revolutionise culture and communication in the West for ever. For the first time, images of real life could be captured for prosperity and sent across the world. Portraits of royalty and other celebrities far more accurate than paintings allowed members of the public to feel that they were viewing these people in the flesh.

And how different would it have been if Henry III had seen a fight photo of Anne of Cleves rather than a beautified painting. The dead could be remembered, the fleeting could be fixed. And that's where today's guest comes in.

Cole Webb runs the Facebook page History in Colour, and it's all about making history more accessible and telling the stories we as a culture may have forgotten, and he does this by adding colour to black and white photos.

I know when you're adding colour, you try and be historically accurate as possible. But how do you know these colours they would have been wearing?

Colin Webb: I work with the tones of the original image. And I try to keep things as historically accurate as possible. So a good example is, I've done one recently of some working class, sort of poor children in Victoria slums. And the tone suggested they was wearing dark clothings. So it was common for poor children in the recreation and the slums of Victoria in London to wear dark, warm clothing. So it would be dark greys, blacks, dark Browns, and again, they would have been dirty and stuff like that. So I wouldn't have chosen bright colours for them.

Whereas your richer, upper class, middle class children, they were in dresses, they would have been again, you would have had reds and greens and brighter colours cause they would have been clearer and not so worn down. 

Hazel Baker: One that really shows the depravity is the rat catcher children that you

Colin Webb: did. Yeah. That was, that was kind of a good one, I enjoyed doing that. And that it was a part of sort of history that doesn't really get often told. And again, that's the whole reason why I do it. I like taking those stories that sort of get forgotten and make them come alive and sharing those stories. And, you know, young children did go out and do what we've said it to be, you know, those horrible jobs today.

Hazel Baker: Do you want to tell the listeners how they caught the rats?

Colin Webb: There was a famous rat catcher called Jack Black, who was a rat catcher for Queen Victoria. And that was definitely one of the like, he would use sweet and perfumes smells. They rub onto his hands and sort of rummage around and tracked the rats that way. And, you see, I think in that photograph by the kids, you had the children had ferrets there as well.

Hazel Baker: Yes.

Colin Webb: So the ferrets would go into the walls and, you know, into the holes and stuff to encourage the rats out. Uh, you have a dog, there's a Terrier,   any rats that's still alive were beaten over with a stick. That photo, I believe was taken about 1900-1901 sort of right at the very end of the Victorian period. But certainly before then. So it was 1850s-1860s. A lot of the rats were sold to perhaps for, for rat baiting and stuff like that. And for pharmacists to come up with rat poisons.

Hazel Baker: Yep.

Colin Webb: Yeah. That's the main reason why I liked choosing the image. So do, to tell these stories that aren't told that much if that makes any sense.

Hazel Baker: Right. It makes perfect sense. You know, when we talk about rat baiting, Hockley in the Hole, and that was in a previous episode, so it was perfect timing that you'd done this image actually.

It's different reading about the history and when you start seeing people, it just makes it more real, doesn't it?

Colin Webb: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. It just makes it more accessible.

Hazel Baker: And how did you find these stories?

Colin Webb: A lot of it is my love for history really. I've been obsessed with history for most of my life and over the last sort of five, six years, particularly the Victorian period, not just London, but as a whole Britain. And it's stuff I learned about, I've watched documentaries, I'll be reading books.

I've known for years about things that are knocker-uppers, and like I said, the rat catchers and the mudlarks and Tasha is just finding out there, the stuff that isn't talked about much, you know, the forgotten stuff, but it's, it's purely research books and the internet really more than anything.

Hazel Baker: And some people, they might not realise what knocker-upper is. So I think you need to describe that.

Colin Webb: So a knocker-upper, so these were these Germany men who owned timepieces. So this is in the sort of mid-late Victorian period where most people couldn't afford their own a watch and obviously they had to get up to go to the mill/mine and need to make sure to be to work on time. So someone would go out and buy a timepiece and then go around to the houses and the pubs and say look if you pay me then I'll make sure you will wake up in the morning. So then they'd go around the streets early in the mornings were massive long stick and knock on the windows of the houses that have paid and that was their job. And that's what they did for many, many years

Hazel Baker: All these jobs that modern technology has taken away and we've completely forgotten about. You've also done a Dame Florrie Forde, the musical singer. So she's wearing a very impressive hat with lots of fake flowers. How did you choose the reds in that one?

Colin Webb: Again, it's historical research. So again, if we're reading books and making sure I've got the colours, right. So I wouldn't have gone for some like probably Ford. Um, again, music course in a socially would have been a stage. She would probably would have worn something a bit more flamboyant from what I've read about her recently, and I've only really found out recently to be fair that she's quite flamboyant. So I don't think she would have gone for anything plain. She would've gone for whites. She may have gone from blues. A red was more of a common colour for, especially for music or performance. So that's why I went for it, really sort of playing it safe.

Because obviously, you know, there's no way of telling of what these people actually wore. So it's just using educated guesses

Hazel Baker: And you do private commissions as well?

Colin Webb: I do. I do those for free. I don't think anyone should have to pay for their own history so I do those completely for free. Sometimes they can be quite enjoyable. Sometimes they can be an absolute nightmare depending on the quality of the photo. But I do try my best. And when people would do some of these pictures, I do say to the ones that look particularly in bad condition. I say I'll see what I can do.

But, you know, unfortunate outcome from this miracle was, but I do enjoy that and I still enjoy doing it for people.

Hazel Baker: I think it's really nice that you offer that service. Cause this is the skill that a lot of people don't have Cole.

One of my favourites is the debutante photo that is standing in a corseted long, white trained dress with a head dress and her flower bouquet, looking very proud. And of course, being presented at court with something that was started by George III in 1780. We don't have it now because it ended in 1914, but that's a very, very nice photo.

Colin Webb: That was really good to work with, I enjoyed that

Hazel Baker: And how long would something that isn't of good quality? How long would that take if you sat down and put the effort?

Colin Webb: Anything between, if it was really good quality, and let's say it's a crusty portrait. We've never had that feeling properly. And I think probably about half hour, 40 minutes, something like that. And very long something gets into as the one with the woman's stand on the stairs, which your listeners have to look my page.

And let's say that was about hour to, maybe a bit more, probably about an hour and a half, two hours. Because it was a nice, clear image. There wasn't that much detail on the dress. And the flowers were very easy to work with as well.

I had one recently from a museum of beauty and it was a street party. I think there was about 20 people in it. And that took me about a week to do. That was, I was lucky. That was in really, really good detail, really, really good detail. But what I have do is it's like picking one image that happens to do it 20 times because I have to colour each person individually and then the background and then do the flags and, you know, then assuming they do all the minor details.

Yeah. Poor quality images, again, it depends on how many people were in the photograph. Really like a poor quality images. One person may be about two hours.

Hazel Baker: So what inspired you to doing the one of tower bridge with the family having making sandcastles?

Colin Webb: Oh, the beach. Yeah. When I first heard about the Thames Beach probably about 10-11 years ago? Something like that, and I just thought it was absolutely insane that you had this essentially, what was a seaside resort beach in the middle of London, you know? Cause we don't see London seaside town and it's not, but you know, it's 40 years and saying there was this fire tower.

By tower bridge there was this beach there where people used to go down on some sand and play in the Thames and that was absolutely brilliant. And this is a story of people that most other people have forgotten about, you know, and when I initially I think I picked up on the old London photographs group. When it went up and up on my facebook Page and there was a few comments that people thought it was fake, that I got it Photoshopped, that it's a picture of a beach and a lot of people thought that was fake and it wasn't until I put a link up on a group to a company now that earned what remains of the beach, they sort of said, oh, it is true.

And even over here, you have read it now. And he finally was convinced. But, yeah, just like I said, just those little stories, people forget about this, or think that they can't be right. And it turns out it is true.

Hazel Baker: Yeah. I mean, you think of London beach, you think it's some hippie thing on the South bank nowadays?

Colin Webb: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. I'm not sure how long was breaking for up to a second world war. I think it was,

Hazel Baker: Yes, that's right. The beach was officially opened in July 1934 and King George the 5th declared the area was to always be free for the city's children to use. It's estimated that over 500,000 visitors to a tower beach attended between 1934 and 1939. Now children from surrounding areas will be able to play on the sand. Parents will be here to chillax on deck chairs, and that's what this photograph shows. And also toffee apples will be available, not something that we forget because it's usually something that is available during bonfire night on the 5th of November, rather than something that you'd have for a sunny, summers day. Visitors we're also allowed to go under tower bridge and back again for the cost of what is about 2.5p now and it rivalled the seasides of South end, dim church and Brighton.

And to end Colin, the final picture I want to talk about is a darkened alleyway with houses on either side. And that looked like they're ready to fall apart. Can you tell us a little bit more about that one?

Colin Webb: Oh yeah, yeah. I know what you mean when they're like, Oh, I forgot now. I know what you mean though. I think that's in East London and somewhere like that

Hazel Baker: Yep. Well, that make sense.

Colin Webb: [00:14:25] I sort of lowered the temperature in the image, you know, I just, I there's a lot of snow in there. And I did that for a couple of reasons. So obviously a bit of artistic license and that, but to keep my images as historically accurate as possible, no artistic license in that one.

So it did it because it is, it's a poorer London and I changed the scene to like, to winter Victorian sort of winter time. So closer to Christmas time. So lots of snow coming down. So the first notice, which I think in modern times, When we think of Christmas time, particularly if Victorian Christmas, it makes for happy and, and you know, we go, and that's really nice.

It's really romantic image. But obviously at the time, particularly for the working class is winter would have been, you know, horrific CNF first snow drops this first, but says no come down would have been, you know, a really, really bad sign because obviously it means they can't work or was harder to work, which means less money concern the house and stuff about that. So that's why.

Hazel Baker: We forget that we have proper roads and pavements in that now. We forget that when we look at this image and I hope my listeners, when just been pushed to the, to the middle of the streets, you see how crooked, not only the windows and the doors of it, houses themselves. I mean, they look like they're holding each other up.

Colin Webb: Yeah. Oh yeah. These, these buildings literally just grown up.

Hazel Baker: It's still really well to remind us how lucky we are nowadays. I mean, we might be stuck at home trying to say we have something to lose, whereas they have very little

Colin Webb: Exactly.

Hazel Baker: Thanks very much for coming on the show, Colin and sharing your love of London history. You are among friends.

So hopefully by now you are itching to see these colourised photos that Colin has done, and you can do that by visiting C. R. Webbs History in Colour Facebook page

So that's about wraps up for our latest episode of hope. You've enjoyed it. If you haven't already, can I please, please, please ask you to leave a review really, really easy. And I have left simple instructions on the show notes. And for those of you who have already taken the time to write these five star reviews are coming in, I really do appreciate it.

Thanks so much. And don't forget, this is your chance to guide the guides as well. So if there is a subject, an area or particular Londoner or that you want us to cover, then let us to know. And there's a link in the show notes as well for you to do that. And if you are absolutely busting to share your knowledge and love of London, then you need to let us know so you can come on just like Cole.

And of course, once again, I'm going to sound like a broken record in this digital age, but link is in the show notes. And before you ask that's londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast. Thanks again and see you next time.

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