Through Glass Darkly

by Robin Imray

© This article is copyright Robin Imray, July 2007 and no part of it may be reproduced without the permission of its author. 

106 years ago, Wolverhampton had its own "Dome" moment. The six-month long Art & Industry Exhibition was meant to show-case Midland talent and manufacturing. It was, though, bedevilled by poor attendance, appalling weather, and problems with sideshows. It lost over £34,000 - two and a quarter million pounds in modern terms.
A general view of the Wolverhampton Art and Industrial Exhibition, 1902 by George Phoenix.

From the beginning, the press carped. About the opening on May 1st, 1902, the Midland Weekly News complained that "the Royal procession was not longer and more imposing. The Wolverhampton authorities are entirely to blame in this matter". A week later, it noted that bad weather and low attendance "afforded a good deal of the Exhibition which was incomplete after the opening to be put in order".

There was other discontent. Under the headline "Wolverhampton's Isolation", Bilston District Council complained about a lack of public transport: "A great many people would have taken tickets if there had been a better means of getting to it". But the show went on: the Coldstream Guards played, a young John Masefield, later Poet Laureate, ran the Art Gallery (and wrote Cargoes, with its theme of changing trade, at Tettenhall that year). The Boer war ended, Emile Zola died, southern white Americans lynched blacks, and a "Mad Mullah" caused trouble in Somaliland. Here, the King fell ill and postponed his Coronation, a Prime Minister resigned, there were executions (frequently), and in Wednesfield a man was fined 12/- for using bad language in his bedroom (he was cursing his wife, and two passing policemen heard him through a window).

The Exhibition added attractions to try and boost attendance - elephant rides, high diving into the lake, glass-blowing demonstrations. Most especially, for the Coronation, they added 20,000 lights - "Royal Ediswan Lamps, used throughout in the lighting and decoration". "Talk about fairyland," remarked a visitor, and the Weekly News spoke of "lines of glowing fire".

A century on, some remarkable photographs have emerged to show this fairyland. With views new even to the Wolverhampton archives, they are part of a collection of glass negatives found in a Devon jumble sale.

Packed loosely into shoe boxes, the collection had been neglected for decades. The problem was that as negatives they were hard to understand, and, being glass, would cost a lot to print. Only when computers and scanners came along did it become relatively easy to study them. They show buildings (grand city ones and cottages), bridges, and stiffly posed Edwardians in high collars and big hats. But with no captions and no major landmarks, they could be almost anywhere. Detective work is called for.

There are some clues. Separating the glass plates were scraps of paper. Most were tissues, but there is a flyer for E. Mentor & Co, photographers, with " studios at 213, Moseley Road, Birmingham"; a compliments slip from Riley and Smith, of Colmore Row, and a torn-up draft letter about a fire at Thickbroom Farm, Weeford ("We looked into the damage with Mr Thorneycroft ..."). There are also details in the pictures. Old 5"x4" negatives have extraordinarily fine grain, and careful scanning at high resolution makes the smallest letters readable. So a pub is called the Fighting Cocks, street names say Colmore Row and Waterloo Street, and one of the mysterious but stunning illuminated pavilions proclaims the Connaught Restaurant. It's enough to get you going on the internet.

The Connaught Restaurant with the arch leading to the bandstand in the middle.

And so to Google. Type in "Colmore Row", and in well under a second 82,000 references make clear that this is indeed Birmingham. Check a street plan, and you'll find a corner with Waterloo Street, just as in the photo. "Fighting Cocks" offers a few hundred thousand possibilities, including a pub in Moseley Road and a photo to confirm it is right. Most importantly, "Connaught Restaurant" takes you to the Wolverhampton Exhibition, with mentions, too, of Machinery and Industrial Halls.

The Industrial Hall.

We have a place, and, from the date of the Exhibition, a year. Circling round the area, it gets easier to identify other pictures, not least because you can email them to local libraries, historians and other specialists.

A website covering the River Severn identifies one bridge as Bewdley, and another, iron, one as carrying water pipes near Trimpley - our 1900 photo shows this pipe bridge being built. There is Aston Hall, the Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts, and Chamberlain Square (with a bowler-hatted workman crossing frame). One stray image is from Nottingham, a fine half-timbered building where Wheeler Gate joined Beast Market Hill.

Slowly a theme emerges, still largely guess-work, but with an increasing base of fact. Local directories tell us Riley and Smith were loss adjusters and fire assessors. Looking through the photographs of buildings, some are derelict. One, probably a shop (it has a Fry's Chocolate plaque outside) is thoroughly destroyed. Two, almost identical, images are of Colmore Row - rather dull ones of a corner building. There is something very deliberate about taking two dull photos. May be it is relevant that the street then was full of insurance businesses? The Nottingham building also contains insurance offices. Was our photographer in this line of work? Did he use the camera in his job, to record fire damage? Looking at the posed Edwardians, you can imagine it - solid people, men with pipes and square-jawed women. Photos show them in the countryside; one has a couple rowing. Well-dressed, well-found, they are very much the image of success that the 1902 Exhibition was designed to celebrate.

A weekly magazine appeared that summer. The Wolverhampton Exhibition Pictorial was a little thing of background articles and faits divers covering the exhibition. In its first issue, the Note Book column comments on "the ubiquity of the snapshottist in the grounds ... numerous pocket cameras produced from the recesses of overcoats", and it goes on to wonder if "they will all turn out".

We can be grateful for the care and practice of our "insurance" man. His photos did come out; and despite the risks of a century of war and change, they are still there, telling their tale of "fairyland".

The Machinery Hall.

A photograph of two couples, from the same collection of glass negatives. Could one of the men be "the insurance man"?

Anyone who can shed any further light on the photographer and the photographs mentioned in this article is invited to make contact with the author at:

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