Detective work uncovered story behind pictures from the past

The next owner of Fir Tree House will inherit a photographic history of the property thanks to an inquisitive teacher. Sharon Dale reports.

Fir Tree House

After haggling at a Wakefield market one Saturday morning in 1975, Colin Gordon walked away triumphant with a box of 600 glass photographic negatives.

The stallholder wanted £7 and he got them for a fiver, although the curiosity they excited was to cost him a year’s worth of free time, which he devoted to tracking down the story behind every picture.

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A teacher and Oxford graduate, he began by developing some of the Victorian and Edwardian negatives in a makeshift darkroom. Intent on solving the mystery of who had taken them and where, he then cancelled a summer holiday in Cornwall to turn detective in Yorkshire.

Thanks to the late Mr Gordon’s investigation, which was recorded in his book, A Richer Dust: Echoes From an Edwardian Album, and in a subsequent BBC documentary, prospective buyers will get chapter and verse when they enquire about the history of Fir Tree House.

The property in the village of Huby, between Harrogate and Leeds, was the home of gifted amateur photographer Alfred Atkinson and it featured heavily in the box of pictures taken between the late 1800s and 1930.

Mr Atkinson, who ran Atkinson Builders in Leeds, bought his late father-in-law’s house in 1904. He used his craftsmen to more than double the size of the property, creating a grand home with plenty of space for him, wife Polly, their children, his mother-in-law and several servants.

His remarkable photographs record life there and capture Japanese tea parties in the garden, fancy dress pageants, relaxing in the summer house in rather formal Edwardian dress plus his prized Lagonda motor car. The images also depict landscapes, seascapes and glimpses of social history. He travelled to the East Coast, where he photographed fishermen in Whitby and Runswick Bay, to York, the Dales, the Lakes and beyond. The clarity and quality of the pictures and prints led to an exhibition in York in the 1970s and some of them hang on the wall at Fir Tree House, which is now owned by Martin and Janet Owen.

They bought it in 1975, shortly after the death of Alfred’s daughter Kathleen, who had lived a Miss Havisham-style existence, suffering from senility and cared for by neighbours in the village, who were used to seeing her wandering with a bedroom slipper on one foot and laced shoe on the other. She would often wear a crepe de chine blouse over pyjama bottoms.

Martin says: “We lived down the road and we knew Kathleen, as did most of the villagers, who made sure she was all right. The lady at the shop used to take her meals on wheels and another man who kept chickens on her land would go in and stoke the boiler for her. When the house went up for sale we wanted to buy it as we were keen to have a larger garden for our two young children and there was a cottage attached to the house that was perfect for my parents-in-law.”

A speculator outbid him at auction, but after carving up the land for building plots, he asked Mr Owen if he was still interested in the house. He was.

“The garden was a wilderness and the house was practically derelict. Kathleen had lived in two rooms and there was water coming through the roof and plaster hanging off the walls. Even though the contents had been removed it was like a museum but there was a sense of life and the whole place had a magical quality.

“The other thing that struck me was the quality of the build and the materials that Alfred Atkinson used. The doors were mahogany, the parquet flooring was intact.”

Martin and Janet spent 10 years modernising and restoring the property and took great care to preserve its many period features, including the doors, panelling and the magnificent fireplaces, one of which came from Sawley Hall, where Atkinsons Builders carried out work.

They installed a new heating system but were amazed at the ingenuity of the old one. Alfred Atkinson had devised a gravity-fed system fired by a solid fuel boiler in the basement with five-inch diameter pipes concealed under sloping floorboards and hanging six inches from the ceiling.

“He was obviously a pioneer because he also had his own gas supply for the lights, which were powered by a coking plant in the coach house,” says Mr Owen.

During the renovation, there was a knock on the door from Colin Gordon. He was following up his first clue.

“All he had to go on were the words Atkinson and Huby on the box of negatives. He started at the graveyard in Huby and he ended up here. We told him all we could and I found him a student, Peter Bennett, who helped him with the research,” says Martin, a former English lecturer and manager at Trinity University, Leeds.

“It was fascinating and gave me a connectivity with the history of the house. It became clear that this was a happy place and Mr Atkinson was a really nice man, who was sensitive and intelligent and I think you can see that in the pictures of him.

“It was interesting to see old photographs of the rooms and the summer house, which also came from Sawley Hall. That was derelict on a bit of the land that had been sold off but I took the leaded windows hoping that I could rebuild it in the garden. There was so much work to do I didn’t get round to it.”

That could be a project for the next owner. Martin and Janet are selling up after 38 years to downsize.

“It’s too big for us now the children are grown up but we are leaving with regret. It has been a very happy family home,” says Martin, who will be leaving a copy of Colin Gordon’s book and a DVD of the documentary as a reminder of the property’s glorious pictorial past.

For Sale: Fir Tree House

Fir Tree House, Huby, is for sale for £1.25m

The property has a hall, study, sitting room, dining room, family room, breakfast kitchen, cloakroom/shower room, a boot room and utility room. Upstairs there are six bedrooms and a house bathroom.

The adjoining cottage has a sitting room, breakfast kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. It is run as a holiday let that brings in a gross annual income of £12,500.

Outside there is a large, flagged courtyard, a coach house providing garaging and storage and landscaped gardens.

For more information contact Carter Jonas by phone on 01423 523423 or visit