Doris Robinson was only 19 when she took over her father’s photography business in 1920. Her father George Robinson had set up the firm in Stowmarket, Suffolk in 1909 and had taken early pictures of parades and ceremonies in the Market Square. Still surviving in the archive are photographs of the aftermath of the 1871 explosion at Prentice’s Guncotton Factory which claimed 24 lives. Possibly taken by an aquaintance of his, George (who was born in 1872) had printed and mounted them up, and probably displayed them in his shop in Ipswich Street.
But George died in 1920, aged only 47 and leaving a wife and twelve children. Doris was the fifth but her older brothers weren’t interested and her older sisters were married. So she took on the business for her mother and became the breadwinner, later buying her mother out in 1935.
1920 was about the time when Man Ray began taking photographs, and photographic technology was very different to today. 35mm film wasn’t introduced until 1925 and instead film was available in many sizes because prints were made by contact rather than enlargement. This meant that Doris would have had several cameras of different sizes (with different sized roll film) to make different sized prints. The single lens reflex camera wasn’t introduced until 1957.
During the first part of the 20th century photography was promoted as a hobby by Eastman Kodak, who tempted wealthier Americans in 1918 with the idea of sending photographs of the family to soldiers fighting ‘over there’.
But having your own camera was an expensive luxury and most families of moderate means could not afford. Instead on special occasions like weddings and births, they would employ the services of a photographer like Doris, who photographed generations of Stowmarket families’ celebrations as the archive of her own family shows. Amongst the pictures of her parents, grandparents, cousins, siblings and children are scores of prints of men and women, couples and babies, taken with a sensitive eye to detail.
Doris eventually sold up because the commute from the house in Dedham that she ran with paying guests became too much. By then she had served Stowmarket for over 35 years and the shop had been burned out twice and bombed in 1941 in a raid which destroyed the congregational church and smashed the shopfront of the neighbouring sweetshop which she ran with her husband George.
In January this year one of my distant cousins gave a rather special birthday party for his mother. He’d researched the family history of every one of her grandparent’s children, produced a book and invited all he could find to meet up for a presentation tea to hear the story. It included tales of young women who never married as all the men of their generation had been lost in the first world war, young men who drove the first cars in Suffolk, and one young girl’s thwarted attempt to make a new life in Canada from where she was recovered by maiden aunts when her husband died. At the end of an evening of black and white slides of hundreds of my relations he showed a cine film.
The film was taken in 1932 and included scenes from a wedding where my aunt (now aged 81) was a toddler bridesmaid, and other scenes from a trip to the beach at Felixstowe. Playing in the surf were the same aunt of mine and a young man, muscular, happy and full of life. This man was the same one who I remembered frail and old, though with a spark of humour he’d carried through from those early days in the thirties.
That man was my Grandfather George Francis, and the film was taken by my Grandmother, Doris.
Ada Lovelace Day, 24 March 2010, is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Find out more at Finding Ada
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