One of the most useful tools for the writer who sets the scenes for his or her work in Britain’s recent past are the photographs of the Victorian photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898). Frith was one of those Victorian entrepreneurs who made a fortune in one field – a grocery empire – and then sold up to pursue and turn a hobby into a new business.
An avid taker of pictures, Frith photographed most of the great sights of Europe, and even ventured into relatively unexplored parts of Africa.
In 1859 he established the Francis Frith Company with the considerable ambition of photographing everywhere in the British Isles, partly to cater for the Victorian passion for picture postcards.
His legacy is vastly important for historians and writers. If you want to know what some English village looked like in, say 1887, how the people were dressed, what modes of transport they were using, then the pictures of Francis Frith and his firm of photographers are a vital primary source.
The archive of tens of thousands of pictures are of national importance and are now preserved by the Francis Frith Collection http://www.francisfrith.com/ Photographs are available in a variety of ways, as illustrations for books, pictures for your wall at home or business, and as books based on various parts of the British Isles.
Around the turn of this century, I became involved with the work of Francis Frith when I was commissioned to write the accompanying text to the pictures in a series of popular books, giving some history of the places concerned; volumes on towns and villages, counties, tourist attractions, and stretches of coastline etc. I also wrote a couple of more detailed histories for the Devon towns of Torquay and Newton Abbot (just back in print in a partnership between the Frith Collection and Sainsbury’s).
It was one of the most pleasant tasks I’ve had in a long writing career, journeying to some fascinating places with the Frith pictures to hand, to try and identify where the photographer had stood and what had changed since. Seeing how places had changed over a period of time from the 1860s until the 1950s (which the broad range of pictures cover) and indeed up to date.
Despite some hideous modern developments, quite a lot of places would still be recognisable to the Frith photographers. Type my name (John Bainbridge) into the “Search” on the Frith website and you can see some of the titles I did.
Here is a Britain of horse-drawn cabs and farmers’ carts, bathing machines on a hundred beaches, old trains and battleships, the grand hotels of British resorts, the workplaces, the homes of the rich and the poor, ancient churches, cathedrals and abbeys, hilltop views and a countryside often still being worked as it had been for generations.
Here you see real-life Victorians, caught in a moment of time, doing much of the things we do today; busy at work, seeing the sights, just standing around holding conversations. All of these people long dead and gone, but still there for us, just as we see people on today’s streets.
Well worth a look if you are writing a novel set in the British past, not just so you get the settings right, but also so you can discover the way people dressed and the transport that was in use at the time. A good browse of the Frith photographs of your setting will really get you in the mood for writing that historical novel or crime mystery set in the past.
The Frith Collection is a very precious archive indeed.