While having a bit of a New Year tidy up of computer files and folders, I came across many photos taken in a ‘Walk around Tunbridge Wells’ five years ago, and was aware of just how many changes the town has gone through in such a short time.

One place is the Vale Road Methodist Church (pictured in the snow in 2012) which is currently being converted into a gym. This church was the place of marriage in 1895 for a well known Tunbridge Wells photographer – James Richards. Following their marriage James and Amy ran a shop at 112 (now 132) Camden Road, before moving to larger, permanent premises at 85 Camden Road. Amy ran a Newsagents, Stationers and Lending Library, at a time when libraries were privately run. Books were lent at 1d and 2d per week. James had a darkroom in the basement. He photographed street scenes and events in the local area, turning them into postcards for sale. There were several postal collections and deliveries during one day in Victorian times, and postcards were used to send short messages, much as we now send a text. A James Richards postcard can be identified by the white handwritten initials “JR” and serial number along the bottom.

As well as photography, James was a Methodist preacher, and wrote several books, under the name of ‘Jim Cladpole’ and ‘Old Jim’, using Sussex dialect (having been born in Hailsham, Sussex in 1866). The History of High Brooms written by Old Jim in 1937, was sold to raise money for High Brooms Methodist Church improvements, with James printing all 250 copies by hand on a small press, one page at a time. With his strong religious beliefs, James started his history “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” This religious theme carries on throughout the sixty two page booklet, but does contain a very good history of the area, which developed during Victorian times, due to the brickwork industry.

As he travelled around preaching, James would photograph many local scenes, including churches, chapels and mission halls. He also photographed street scenes around Tunbridge Wells, including local people within the scenes, and news events. During the time of his photography business, from marriage in 1895 until his death in 1949, national events included the Suffragette movement, World War, Coronations, Jubilees and Royal deaths. Tunbridge Wells was very proud of putting on huge displays to commemorate events, including decorated stately arches, fireworks displays, bonfires and carnivals, all recorded by James Richards.

It struck me that today we are often inward looking, taking selfies rather than recording the everyday life of streets and houses. These images, and writings, are then stored on phones, and occasionally on computers, leaving us with less legacy than that left by James Richards. Unfortunately all his glass plate negatives that were stored in the shop basement developed a mould and were thrown away after his death, but postcards, and sometimes the books, can be purchased second hand.

More Tunbridge Wells photography to come at The Museum and Art Gallery, “27th January – 20th May “Capturing on Collodion” with Sean Hawkey.

Written and published: Town Crier Magazine January 2017


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