From a pin-point image on a pewter plate with a mix of toxic chemicals, to the invention of Polaroids and into the digital age, the photographic process has undergone a series of radical transformations and improvements. In the early 1800’s, photography was a hobby accessible only to professionals or the very rich, but now it is open to the mass market with modern electronic media allowing both professionals and amateurs the chance to produce high quality images that can be stored and shared at the touch of a button. Many of the photos John and I looked at over the weekend were taken on 35mm film cameras with a small single lens and no focussing adjustment. But their beauty and simplicity helps to keep history alive as I discovered when John told me some tales of the people posing in the portraits.
Thomas J Jefferies (John’s great uncle) served in the Royal Navy and spent time aboard a training ship called the HMS Impregnable (launched in 1810). It was a 98 gun 3-decker ship with a wooden hull and I imagine life for the crew was hard. Food was generally boiled by the cook in a large copper pot and weevils were regularly found in the bread. The food must have been of a questionable quality given that the only way of preserving meat was to keep it in salt and most other foodstuffs were supplied dried. Having said that, Thomas J Jefferies probably faced many dangers from life at sea as well as disease and the perils of war, so mealtimes were probably considered one of the highlights of the day.
Photography must be in the blood as John’s great great grandfather William J Cornwill (1861 to 1943) was also a photographer. He must have witnessed some exciting changes in photography because he would have been around when a man called George Eastman started a company called Kodak in the 1880’s. Eastman created a flexible roll film that didn’t require the constant changing of solid plates and created a self-contained box camera that held 100 exposures of film. The user would take pictures and send the whole camera to the factory for the film to be developed, giving rise to the first camera cheap enough for the average person to afford. Strong opinions also run in the family apparently as William J Cornwill was an exponent of reinstating Middlesex as a county and he even appeared in the local Surrey Comet to state his views. For those of you that would appreciate a quick history update at this point, the City of London in the 12th century was able to exert political control over Middlesex and began to expand its boundaries resulting in problems with the administration of local government. Eventually Middlesex became absorbed into Greater London with small sections in other neighbouring counties.
William J Cornwill was married to Fanny Withers, an entertainer on stage, and had several children, as was the trend in those days. Two of his sons, William F Cornwill and Douglas W Cornwill, served in the First World War and one son named Horace Courtland Jason Cornwill was reported missing in action on 7th October 1916. He survived as a prisoner of war in Germany working in the coal mines before being ex-patriated on 15th February 1919. All this information might have been lost if it weren’t for the fragile black and white pictures that John has kept safe all these years and the names and dates written on the back of many of them. Traditional film-based photochemical methods of photography are now a part of its past and new technology does have many practical advantages. But whatever methods you use to store your photos, whether it’s in an album or in a cloud, you should write about them or label them so your history is never forgotten and your memories can be kept alive.
These are taken from the many photo’s passed down to John from members of his family!