Antique glass negatives

Thursday, 16 May 2019



Back in March, my family was reunited with a box of glass plate negatives which we hadn't seen for nearly twenty years, and which I didn't know even existed. I wrote about the story on Twitter, and it got a fair bit of attention! I had lots of nice interactions with Genealogy Twitter (there's communities for everything) and felt overwhelmingly lucky to have found this little section of my family history. 

The whole experience reminded me how much I love antique photography; when I was at university I used to scour the Spitalfields antique market on a Thursday looking for old photographs, and I even tried out the wet plate collodion process a little myself. It's been a long while since I went down to the market, so I took myself on a little trip last week. Over the last few years, gentrification has turned Spitalfields into quite a strange place - glass office blocks and chain restaurants have started to swallow up the old, now cleaned-up market, and its stalls have been homogenised, made of identical wooden frames, rather than the more ramshackle affair I remember from years back. Lots of the sellers are still the same though, and keen as ever to chat about all the treasures they've got on offer. 

These negatives were from one family collection, five or six boxes of dry plate negatives from around the 1910s. I'd have bought the whole lot if I could afford it, as it seems sad to split up this family's history - but I'm hoping no one else will buy them, and I can slowly collect them. Since having my family's history returned to us, I've been harbouring a wish to one day do the same for another. I like the idea that maybe, one day, I could give negatives I've collected to the descendants of the people in the pictures. For now though, I picked out some of my favourites and took them home to process. Twitter quickly identified the seaside town as Fowey in Cornwall, and the buildings in these pictures still stand in the village today. I love the shots of people, especially the less posed images - the man writing, or a girl hanging out washing, or a group doing some kind of land clearing (the girl in the back has a bow and arrow!). The beach scenes are great, too - they show the 'bathing machines' which people used to use on British beaches, and the portrait shows an attendant (sometimes called a 'dipper') with his machine.


Moments at the Natural History Museum

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

It's been a long while. For a while, I stopped taking my camera everywhere with me, and when I got a chance to use it, I didn't get a chance to take a look at any of the photographs afterwards. Moving happened, new jobs happened, travel happened, the PhD happened, and I got picked up and swept along with it all. And it feels like just recently, I've finally got the hang of the current - even if I'm still working pretty hard to keep my head above the water. So, Ainsley and I went to a museum, and I took my camera. We battled the holiday crowds, went up the escalator through the red shiny sphere, looked at ancient fossils, got shaken about in the earthquake simulator, picked out minerals that belonged on forbidden snacks and compared centipedes to millipedes. I even took some photos.

Seven days in Mauritius #2

Monday, 5 March 2018

The second half of my week in Mauritius was as busy as the first, with more kind local contacts taking us out to experience some of the more hidden areas. On one of my favourite days of the trip, we took the jeep out to the sugarcane fields, driving through the nine foot tall leaves and avoiding the pre-harvest burn. We headed up to see a little patch of land where my mum's colleague is hoping to build his own house, then drove further on to see the Pont Natural. After watching in trepidation as tourists in extremely unsuitable footwear walked out onto the bridge for photographs, and having my drone dive-bombed by territorial seabirds, we moved on down the coast to the Souffleur. We drove past ruined chimneys and buildings swallowed up into the banyan trees, morphing into farmlands with stone walls like the ones you'd see in England; eventually, we reached the little rocky formation where the waves force jets of water into the air. Further on from this, through the glades, was the most beautiful beach I've ever seen - perfectly empty aside from a local fisherman and hoofprints from the cattle who make daily visits. From here we drove to a quiet local spot, a waterfall running straight off a little beach cliff, onto the crashing waves below. On our way home, our final stop was a huge old bridge over a canyon, the palm trees at the sides filled with parakeets and macaques, and the river running far below.

Whilst most of the week we spent exploring the countryside, we did venture into Mahebourg to buy pineapples at the bustling market, and visit the National History Museum - because I don't pass up a museum trip. The museum is a beautiful building, but it displays a much more unpleasant side of Mauritius' history - colonialism and the slave trade. The displays include everything from railway memorabilia and natural history specimens to colonial artefacts, and don't shy away from the realities of  what life was like for enslaved people (and later, indentured servants). We also booked a ride at a local stables, who look after ex-race horses. We arrived right in the midst of a torrential storm, and when it became clear it wasn't going anywhere, we just rode out. I've never experienced anything like it. It was warm, there was no wind, and no waves on the lagoon; just heavy rain and total silence apart from the sound of hooves on the sand and the quiet splashing of raindrops on the water.

On my final full day, we took the jeep and drove up the east coast, admiring the organised little gardens at the side of the road, stopping to photograph the bougainvillea and look at the mangroves. A feature I loved were the signs at the entrances of some of the villages, with kind reminders: Mahebourg's was 'speak softly and lovingly', and another I saw reminded visitors to 'help ever, hurt never'. We finished off the day with a trip down to the beach, collecting some washed up coral and watching the little pirogues (traditional wooden fishing boats) sailing past. All in all, it was a perfect week with one of my favourite people.

Seven days in Mauritius #1

Tuesday, 20 February 2018


Last September, straight after handing in my final dissertation for my Master's degree, I packed my bag and headed the furthest from the UK that I've ever been - to Mauritius, to visit my mum. She was on a six month stint working on a wildlife conservation project, helping local conservationists work to protect endangered species. So, it was probably appropriate that after a day recovering from my sleepless (read: turbulent) flight, our first trip out was to the tiny Île aux Aigrettes, now a nature reserve managed by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. I encountered my first giant tortoise, learnt about ebony forests, spotted Telfair's skinks, and visited the little island museum to see the poor, doomed Dodo.


The next day, we were picked up by a friend of a friend who does tours of the island, and were whisked off on an extremely thorough excursion across the Southern part of Mauritius. Starting off in Mahebourg, we visited the diamond shops (not our thing) and the model boat makers (actually very interesting), before quickly heading into the Mauritian countryside. The Hindu temple at the Ganga Talao crater lake was a beautiful visit, and we were lucky to have our guide able to explain to us the significance of all of its aspects. I admired the many temple cats, the monkeys, the loudly-singing frogs and the great number of fish causing the lake's surface to boil with anticipation every time a passer-by looked over the edge. We headed further west, stopping at a local restaurant for lunch (and twice for roadside pineapple), and then making our way through the hills of the Black River Gorge National Park, winding down through the sugarcane to the Chamarel distillery for rum tasting. Me being me, I bought local papaya jam instead. A little wobbly from our tasting, we stared out across the near-three hundred foot Chamarel waterfall and marvelled at the Seven Coloured Earths, before heading down to see darkness fall at the viewpoint over Le Morne Brabant mountain (the site of the famous 'underwater waterfall' illusion!) and making our drive through the fields and villages back to the bay.

Another day, another contact from my mum's colleague, and we were taken out on the reef by Zoulou, an expert on the best snorkelling spots in the area. After a look around the wreck and a swim, he took us to some of the more difficult locations - one being Île de la Passe, a fortified island which was a key site in the Battle of Grand Port, where British colonial forces fought the French, who occupied Mauritius. There are still plenty of military structures on the island, complete with the carved graffiti of soldiers occupying the island. We also headed to the more easily accessed Île aux Fouquets, wading through the shallows to wander around the ruined lighthouse. One of the most exciting parts of the day was driving the boat up the river to the Grande Reviere Sud-Est waterfall, watching the giant fruit bats lazily flapping from tree to tree, and sharing my lunch with wild macaques who clambered down from the trees to the riverbank. To my mum's great amusement, Zoulou forced me - terrified - to drive the boat back to Blue Bay, and we finished off with a final snorkel over the reef, looking out for the resident family of clownfish and getting extremely sunburnt in the process. A day well spent (minus the sunburn, whose tan lines I'm still sporting, nearly six months later.)