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.


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