North Tyne in the spotlight on postcards from the past

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IT’S the best part of 40 years since an Oxford-educated classics scholar came up to Tynedale from his home in the West Midlands to get his first glimpse of the Roman Wall, sparking a fascination that lasts to this day.

“I came up to Northumberland to look at Hadrian’s Wall on a pushbike and I thought I would do the whole of Northumberland in a week, but of course I didn’t,” said Stan Owen, biographer of the North Tyne’s most celebrated photographer, Walter Percy Collier.

“It sounds clichéd but I got this thing called ‘Wall fever’, so I kept on coming back.”

A keen photographer himself, he has taken more than 20,000 slides of the Roman Wall and its surrounds.

But it was someone else’s images of the iconic frontier that pricked a curiosity that has given us the stories behind a pictorial record of the North Tyne during the early 20th century.

About five years after his introduction to Tynedale, Stan stumbled across a postcard of Hadrian’s Wall and began to collect them.

Some were clearly marked as being by Gibson & Son of Hexham, but others carried no name.

“It took a while to work out who they were by because Collier didn’t put his name on the back, and if you have one with his name on, it’s probably a forgery,” explained Stan.

He used his research skills to track down the anonymous lensman, searching through guidebooks from the 1930s in which photo credits were given.

“We also know the style of his handwriting – he had exquisite handwriting – and the titling on his postcards is very specifically his,” explained Stan.

So began his passion for postcard collecting and his determination to gain recognition for W.P. Collier.

His study really took off when the late Dorothy Bell was featured in The Courant talking about establishing a heritage centre in Bellingham.

She had discovered a box of hundreds of photographs, including many taken by Walter Collier, that had been hoarded by her husband Jim’s aunts.

She realised a wealth of local history was in danger of disappearing and set the wheels in motion to find somewhere to put the pictures on display.

“She mounted an exhibition in the old library in Bellingham and I got to know her,” Stan recalls.

He ended up supplying pictures and artefacts for the Bellingham Heritage Centre that opened in Shellcroft in 1994 and switched to its present premises in the Station Yard in 2000.

Within it is a wonderful reconstruction that Stan has created of Collier’s shop in Lock-Up Lane, where he did his developing and printing and sold sweets and tobacco alongside his picture postcards of the North Tyne and other places in rural Northumberland.

To mark the 80th anniversary of Collier’s death on September 7, 1937, Stan has put together an exhibition at the Heritage Centre to tie in with his 11th book about the man.

Called Photographers Three, it details the so far untold story of the influence that Collier’s two brothers-in-law had on his career.

W.P. Collier was born, one of four, in Newcastle in 1875, the son of a draper.

“Thanks to having two sisters, Walter would acquire two brothers-in-law, Harry Ord Thompson, an experienced photographer, and John Samuel Hart, a soldier who became a photographer,” Stan says.

It was Walter’s sister, Beatrice, who wed Harry – a union that would bring Walter into contact with photography and a 35-year career, the last 25 in Bellingham.

Stan said: “If the marriage of his elder sister to Harry had shown Walter the door to photography, the marriage of his younger sister, Flora, to John Samuel Hart opened it.

“The two brothers-in-law, Walter and John, went into partnership as tailors in Great Crosby, but soon exchanged fabrics for photography.”

Collier was a proficient photographer by 1905, evidenced by his pictures of a train crash on the Liverpool-Southport line that resulted in 20 deaths. One of his pictures of the aftermath made it into the Formby Times.

But he was not destined for press photography. When Harry, who was making a decent living in Newcastle taking pictures of rural Northumberland, realised he could do with help, it was to family he turned and he invited Walter to join them.

“Harry saw the potential in producing high quality, bespoke photographs and postcards of an area that had hitherto remained relatively undiscovered,” Stan said.

They went on to work together for four years, building an extensive collection of high quality black and white postcards of the North Tyne Valley and Upper Coquetdale, before going their separate ways in 1912.

John moved to be a photographer in Norwich, whilst Walter opened his shop in Bellingham.

“Family tradition records that Harry gave Walter £100 to help start his new venture, and, as a bonus, freedom to photograph rural Northumberland as he wished,” Stan says.

“Walter soon became a familiar figure as he travelled along the quiet roads of rural Northumberland with his large, old-fashioned half-plate camera strapped to his back, tripod and all.”

His ambition was to have a picture of every location within a 42-mile radius of Bellingham and this he certainly fulfilled, producing thousands of postcards.

“All of his postcards and photographs were contact printed from glass plates and have outstanding definition,” Stan said. “The legacy of the Collier collection is a definitive view of Northumberland in the period between the two world wars.”

l Collier in Context, the anniversary exhibition, is part of the Heritage Open Days scheme and is is at the Heritage Centre in Bellingham until Sunday. Stan’s book, Photographers Three, will be on sale there.

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