A photographic interlude

Copyright: G J Wright 2018


In November 1953, after three years’ service and at the age of 21 I was discharged from the RAF and returned to St Ives with no idea of what I would do next.  I didn’t want to return to the employ of the Huntingdonshire County Council Weights and Measures Department — anyway I had probably forfeited my right of return by opting for a three-year engagement in the RAF.

I rather fancied going abroad again, but at that time I could see no clear way of doing so and so was obliged to bide my time.  I was again mixing with the same circle of hometown friends who I had known before the RAF.

Whilst I was in Aden I had acquired an Ikonta 6 X 6 square centimetre camera, an enlarger and all the gear necessary to photographic processing and taught myself basic photography.  I had returned with a collection of “Arabian” photographs that I would display at every opportunity to anyone who showed the slightest interest.  This led to a suggestion by Alan Scotney’s father, Percy, that perhaps I should go into photography and he said that if I was interested, then he would talk to a friend of his who owned University Cameras in Cambridge.

The owner of University Cameras was ex-RAF and a Welshman whose name now escapes me, Griffiths I think.  Four or five years before I had been at Bourne Aerodrome with Alan and Percy Scotney, where the latter kept his Auster aircraft, and we found ‘Griff’ preparing his Percival Proctor for a flight.  “Jump in boys” says ‘Griff’ and it was thus that I had my first flight in an aeroplane.

A few weeks later I found myself employed at University Cameras in Cambridge, in their developing and printing department, commonly known as a D & P, which was housed in a very old building in Sydney Street near the Round Church.  Commercial developing and printing in those days was pretty primitive and the premises appeared to have been converted from other use and judging by the large archway leading to the Street, it was probably stables or a warehouse.  The shop, University Cameras was itself immaculate and in those days on Kings Parade, almost opposite King’s College Chapel.

My job consisted of developing 35mm and 120 films which was done by opening the films in darkness, putting film clips on the top and bottom and hooking them about a dozen at a time to a stainless-steel rod set in a hole in a rack on the wall.  The actual developing, washing and fixing was done in in porcelain tanks about 40 centimetres square and perhaps a metre and a half in depth, which were set into a concrete drainage trench against the wall so that the top of the tanks was at about waist level.  The luminescent timer clock was set and it was necessary to ensure that the films were all separated as they were lowered into the tank and checked after a few seconds to ensure that all surfaces were whetted.  The films were agitated every minute or so and checked to ensure that they remained separated.  When the developing time had elapsed, the films were put into a second tank through which water was running.  After a prescribed time, they were transferred to a tank containing fixing solution and after a few minutes the light could be switched on.  When fixing was completed, the films were washed for about 15 minutes and then transferred to a warmed drying tunnel from which they emerged dry into the printing room.

In the printing room two former RAF photographers were seated at treadle operated printing machines on which rolls of paper were aligned and transported under the negatives, with exposure controlled by a rheostat slide and adjusted according to the judgement of the operator.  It must be admitted that their judgement of the negatives was usually spot-on and there appeared to be little wastage of photographic paper.  The rolls of printed paper and the films were then cut by two boys and placed in the relevant envelopes.  One had the surname Speed and was always known as ‘Speedy’ and the other Alan Belgrave.

The processing facility was cold, damp and squalid and I often wondered what the customers would think if they could see where their precious films were processed.

It was at about this time that I acquired from a friend my first wheels, a second-hand Francis Barnet 125cc two stroke motor bike which enabled me to avoid the tedious morning and evening railway journey between St Ives and Cambridge.  The bike, a delightful means of transport in the English winter!  On one occasion, I had left the bike at a garage in St Ives which was near Scotney’s hardware store.  Alan, perceiving that it was standing ready for collection, collected it and promptly had an accident in which it was badly damaged.  His father decreed that I should have Alan’s Triumph Terrier, a four stroke, until the Francis Barnett was repaired.

LEW 268

I was pretty lucky with the two stroke and made several journeys, once to Ipswich to see an old Marine Craft friend and once to High Wycombe to stay with friends.  There were no motorcycle helmets in those days and I always travelled wearing a tweed flat ‘at.  I remember one frosty morning in the winter of 1953/54, gingerly approaching an intersection and encountering a patch of black ice.  I had no control and dare not brake, but fortunately I was able to step off the bike and it slipped into the gutter.  Recovered, I was able to continue on my way to Cambridge.

The ford

With Keith Radford (centre) and Alan Scotney.

I still had no firm ideas about my future and would half-heartedly scan the overseas job vacancies in the Daily Telegraph.  One of the printers at University Cameras pointed out to me an advertisement in the Cambridge Evening News for a job with Ramsey and Muspratt, a long-established firm of Cambridge portrait and commercial photographers in Post Office Terrace.  I applied and with few formalities was offered the job.

Once again, behind the shop façade the business operated in a ramshackle collection of Victorian buildings which had indeed once formed part Sayles stables, but had been a photographic studio since 1844.  The owner, Lettice Ramsey, was the widow of Frank Ramsey an eminent Cambridge Mathematician, a senior wrangler, and noted atheist.  Frank Ramsey was one of five brothers one of whom, the only one to remain religious, became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lettice Ramsey was supported in the portrait business by Elienne Ridgwell, Greta Zobel, and Jean Smith, whilst the commercial work was covered by Phil Brunney, another former RAF photographer.  Meanwhile, the first partner in the business, Helen Muspratt, operated her own studio in Oxford and at Poole in Dorset.

My work in a small, dingy darkroom equipped with rather antique equipment was to develop and proof the studio films, occasionally to make finished prints from outside jobs such as schools and dance academies.  I would also copy customers’ prints using an old cut film, quarter plate camera with which the exposure was achieved by gently lifting off the lens cap, counting in seconds and then replacing the lens cap.  This copying was sometimes done as the first step in a lengthy and painstaking process to insert into a group a family member who had died, or was otherwise absent, by copying another photograph of that person in the same scale.  The second print was then cut out, pasted into an appropriate position on the original group, retouched and then photographed again, followed by retouching the of the negative before making a new complete print which would also be retouched to hide the insertion! A photograph never lies!

Lettice and her two assistants were self-taught, used Rolleiflex cameras and I don’t recall ever having seen an exposure metre on the premises — save for that used by Phil Brunney.  But, the panchromatic Ilford film of sixty years ago was tolerant of minor errors in exposure and had considerable latitude, although one tried to print on ‘normal’ paper, there were other grades for possible compensation.  I guess that it wasn’t really so difficult in the studio with a set lighting scheme, a constant aperture and shutter speed, to achieve consistent results.  Experience was the key.

At that time, Lettice would go to Majorca to stay with Robert Graves and on return from each trip would hand me a handful of films with the comment — “perhaps a minute more”, or, “a minute less” in the developer.  All deliciously casual and imprecise, but by sticking to the well-worn formula of selected lighting, consistent shutter speed and aperture, she got the results.

On the commercial side, I was sometimes called on to assist Phil Brunney on outside jobs.  A few weeks before Christmas 1954 Phil photographed the interior of King’s College Chapel in all its glory, with the choir in their regalia and festive lighting.  My job was to stand at the top of a bank of choir seating holding a large circular reflector set up with about 20 large flashbulbs.  Phil used quarter plate colour transparency stock and emphasised that we only had the one shot.  Needless to say, the resulting transparency was perfect and used on the front page of the Christmas edition of, I think, the Tatler magazine.

On another occasion, the job was at the Aero Research plant just south of Cambridge.  The company was famous for having developed the epoxy adhesive which was used in the construction of the de Havilland Mosquito aircraft in WWII.  As I recall, a crane was positioned with the intention of hoisting an Austin seven motorcar on a sling which was to be attached to the crane cable by means of two, 10 mm bolt heads which had been joined together using their epoxy adhesive.  The car was duly hoisted and the photograph taken.

Towards the end of my time with the firm, Phil invited me to join him for a flight in an Auster aircraft from Marshall’s aerodrome to take pictures of the nearby cement works.  That was a mistake; I was convulsed with air sickness in the back seat!

When I told Mrs Ramsey and gave her my notice she put on her gentle, enigmatic smile and said that she was glad that I found something that I wanted to do because “your heart is not really in this is it?” She thanked me and we parted on good terms.

The Cambridge University Cruising Club had their base on the stretch of river above the bridge. During this time they converted from National One Design, gunter rigged, sailing dinghies to the more modern and faster Bermuda rigged Firefly boats. The National One Design were heavy clinker built in timber, whereas the firefly was much lighter and in moulded plywood. When the club offered the Nationals for sale, I bought one. Originally varnished, I painted the boat in white with a dark blue sheer strake.

My National with Alan Scotney at the helm.


It was some time before I could afford to rig the boat and in the meantime I became quite adept at rowing it. Under sail, being very flat and shallow in the stern, the hull was designed to plane and was quite fast, but under oars it was tricky and progress depended upon the skill of the oarsman. Things were not helped by the fact that the only thwart was across the rear of the centreboard case and further back than in a pulling boat.

One Saturday morning Alan Scotney and I were at Dines boatyard, I in the National and Alan in his clinker dinghy “Omega”about to set out for a row up river. As we were about to leave a gentleman called Sammy Searle arrived, dumped a sack in the stern of Omega, climbed into my boat and asked to be rowed up river. Sammy, two or three years older than me, was something of a character. He was apprenticed to Allen’s, the marine engineers in Bedford and returned home at weekends when he ran an unofficial firewood business. This often involved felling and logging trees with axes, wedges, crosscut saws and, I suspect illegally, removing the stumps with dynamite.



Copyright: G J Wright 2018