Exit, stage left... Bradford’s history, frozen in time

Curator John Ashton in the Bradford Museums photo archive. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Curator John Ashton in the Bradford Museums photo archive. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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IT was perhaps the first paparazzi photograph, and one that captured a theatrical drama the playwright had not foreseen.

Sir Henry Irving, the great actor-manager of the Victorian stage, had declaimed Tennyson’s prophetic words, “Into Thy Hands, O Lord”, when he exited the stage at Bradford’s Theatre Royal, returned to his room at the Midland Hotel and, as the local paper put it the next day, “expired”.

An aerial photograph of Odsal Stadium with its biggest ever crowd in 1954.'Picture: Bradford Museums Photo Archive

An aerial photograph of Odsal Stadium with its biggest ever crowd in 1954.'Picture: Bradford Museums Photo Archive

It fell to his business manager, Bram Stoker, to tell his cast the next morning that as a consequence, they were all out of a job.

A photographer captured the scene as Stoker – who, eight years earlier and inspired by the brooding Abbey above Whitby, had written his Gothic masterpiece, Dracula – left the theatre, umbrella in hand.

It is one of thousands of small moments of local history that could have been lost to the ages. But yesterday, preserved and restored, they all went on sale in a vast online archive.

“The clues are in the detail,” said John Ashton, photographic archive assistant at Bradford Industrial Museum, on whose third floor the pictures are held.

Bram Stoker (with umbrella) leaving Bradford Theatre Royal after the death of Sir Henry Irving in 1905. Picture: Bradford Museums Photo Archive

Bram Stoker (with umbrella) leaving Bradford Theatre Royal after the death of Sir Henry Irving in 1905. Picture: Bradford Museums Photo Archive

“There’s a dray house passing and the dray is empty, so it must have been taken mid-morning, when the beer had all been delivered. And it was clearly taken by someone who had been waiting for just that shot. A kind of a 1905 paparazzi.”

Bradford has an unusually large archive of photographs in civic hands, including that of the Belle Vue studio, which from 1902 to the 1970s took portraits of sitting families. Latterly, these were newly-arrived residents from the Indian subcontinent, who posed with ball point pens in their top pockets and a transistor radio on the sideboard, to demonstrate to their families back home their new-found wealth.

“But their possessions were often just studio props,” Mr Ashton said. “The same radio crops up again and again.”

The online archive also includes the work of the commercial photography business CH Wood, which was active in Bradford from 1930 until two decades ago.

Among its jewels are an aerial shot of a record 102,000 crowd at the city’s Odsal Stadium, when Halifax played Warrington in a replay of the 1954 Challenge Cup Final.

“It was a sought-after picture,” Mr Ashton said. “Companies would buy a copy and ask CH Wood to write their name on the roofs of the stands.”

But it is another early piece of photo manipulation that stands out in the archive.

The amateur photographer Christopher Pratt, the wealthy grandson of the founder of a famous furniture firm, made it his business to illustrate the poor families who teemed out of the back-to-backs that lined Bradford’s ginnels.

On his pictures were mottos that illuminated his Methodist mantra. “In the darkest spot on earth, some love is found.”

Outside Popplewell’s off-licence, a woman covers a jug of ale with a shawl, but Pratt had directed his printer to replace the licensee’s name over the door with the more direct legend, “ales and stouts”, by way of a warning about the perils of drink.

“It’s the sort of thing we show to students, to remind them that Photoshop isn’t a new technique,” Mr Ashton said. “People were cutting and pasting in the days when it literally meant using a pot of glue.”