I am happy to share a remarkable unfolding story. I wonder how many readers are keen frequenters of antique shops, junk shops, old trading stores and charity shops? The appeal of this category of shops is that you never know what you will find or where a connection will lead you. I adore such shops for this very reason. There is no possibility of walking in with a precise shopping list (keep that for the weekly grocery shop) and the pleasure of a visit to an antique shop is precisely because you will spot something that appeals or that you recognize an item of heritage.
Recently a Hospice visit brought forth a great find. I stopped off at the king of charity shops in Johannesburg, the Hospice Charity shop in Orange Grove. Hospice bought the old Gallagher's Corner and have turned all the small shops and central alley into specialist shops for recycling the contents of the homes of Hospice supporters (a book emporium, a bric-a-brac shop, designer recycled clothes, antiques, children's toys, more clothes, discarded furniture). The latest addition to the Hospice shop is a small nook turned into an art corner. All money raised after expenses goes to the caring work they do.
As I entered the new little art shop, a sepia toned old photograph caught my eye. Then I spotted a second one. They were panoramic views of somewhere, but where, taken when and who was the photographer? The one was much damaged and had parted from its frame. But there were two longish light oak frames. Both were dirty and thick with grime. The panoramic views were made up of three separate photos in sequence pasted on a board (see main image) and then two pictures also pasted on a hard board formed the second one (see below). These had to be somewhere in South Africa. I gathered up the photos and frames, and asked the price. I explained to the manager that these photographs were old and might be historic and that my mission would be to find out more. A ready deal was struck, the dust and condition counted against the too high a figure, because of their state of disarray, they were mine, dust encrusted as they were (the dust is always free) for a very modest price.
Early photograph of Prince Albert found in an Orange Grove Charity Shop
The Investigation Begins
Home to the kitchen table to take out the old nails from the back of the frame, haul out a magnifying glass and peer to examine in detail. What are the clues to discovery? I set aside the photographs carefully, used elbow grease and water to clean up the frames and the glass. It then became evident that the faded ink writing on the surface of the one photograph said something meaningful. Ahaa… I could just make out the spidery writing scratched on the surface of the one picture... "Panorama of Prince Albert, taken on the Hillside 25 years ago". On the reverse of the cardboard mount the following inscription appeared: "F S. 19.4.91". So the inference (wrong or right?) is that these were photographs taken in 1891, and could have been placed in the specially made oak frames in circa 1916 (a hundred years ago). Other writing says things like "Road from Prince Albert Road Ste (Station?) about 29 miles 5 hours ride" and "direction of Beaufort West". (Click here for details on the history and location of Prince Albert)
The photographs show what the town looked like at the end of the 19th century. The church (it is the Dutch Reform Church) features prominently. It’s a small place. There are modest gabled houses, Cape Dutch and Victorian style buildings are scattered about. Distant hills rise above the settlement. In 1891 it was not particularly densely settled and the farms lay close to the town. The most built up part is around the church. Roads to somewhere else are visible.
Finding Dr Judy Maguire
Having done some research in the historical roots and geographical bearings of the town, I turned to the internet to find if there was a heritage society or a museum in Prince Albert. It was in this way that I found Dr Judy Maguire (heritage is embedded in her DNA). She is a palaeontologist and winner of Heritage SA's gold medal in 2014 for a lifetime's dedication to heritage. We immediately realised we had Wits University connections and had met at a heritage conference a few years ago. The correspondence followed and I quickly dispatched descriptions and scans of the photographs to Judy.
Unravelling the Mystery - First Steps
Here is the Response from Dr Judy Maguire:
Yesterday, Wednesday, we had our Fransie Pienaar Museum Board of Control meeting and our curator, Lydia Barella, had brought out the early photograph file from the Museum archive. I took print-outs of your e-mailed photographs and we did a careful comparison. Here is what we found:
Your picture 1 measuring 45X10cm – comprising 3 pictures on a board mount, stuck down in an oak frame behind glass.
Our museum version is identical – even to the measurements, the three stuck-down photos, and oak frame. On the back of ours is written, in the handwriting of a former curator, Ms Frieda Haak (Haak was a parliamentarian): “This fotho (sic) of Prince Albert was specially taken by late Gawie Beukes from Koel Hoogte in 1913 – bless him.” Gawie Beukes was a local artist and a photographer who lived in town and had the first bioscope. Koel Hoogte was the name of the viewsite somewhere on the Gordon Koppie adjacent to the town. [But the mystery deepens...]
In 1907, a full 6 years earlier than the supposed ‘Haak date of 1913’, there was published a photo taken from almost exactly the same viewpoint, in a book entitled ‘Cape Colony Today: Illustrated’ the picture of Prince Albert appearing on p.255 shows considerably more development in terms of infill buildings – also the tree growth is taller and there are more plantings. Therefore, the three stuck-down photos purportedly taken in 1913 must have been taken much earlier than this (1907). The information given on the back of your picture (the middle one) is initialled F-S and bears the date 19-4-91 (1891) and is therefore the much more likely date, I think. I compared the central photo which shows the church and surrounding built environment and the difference between your and our museum pic and the book photo is quite obvious – there is far more development shown in the 1907 illustration and much taller trees than is present in the other photos. The Haak date therefore must be incorrect, especially in view of the inscription on the back of your photo.
Your picture 2: Two Pictures making up a panoramic view of Prince Albert measuring 39x14cm
This is a truly astonishing find. The Museum has a miniature - very small, about 12x4cm, of only the left-hand photo of the pair in your photo, a reproduction (black and white photo), not an original. It has always been acknowledged as the oldest photo that we have of Prince Albert… the right hand photo in your loose frame fits exactly as the missing right hand portion – otherwise the left-hand photo on its own is a strange ‘composition’ for a photo. The walled cape Dutch thatched house in the foreground is actually Lydia Barella’s house – it was built in 1850: it has a dated gable.
The inscription that you mention on the back of your photo, namely ‘Panorama of Prince Albert, taken on the hillside some 25 years ago’ and dated FS 19-4-91 (1891) is fascinating: does that mean that the picture was taken 1891 minus 25 years? Which would put it at 1869? Perhaps not, because the plantings around the 1850s house look more established than a mere 19 years. And who on earth was F-S? Not everybody has framed panoramic views of their village…
In the extreme bottom right of the right hand photo can faintly be seen the outline of an old mill building – the museum has a more recent photo which shows the mill launder and other outbuildings proving that this (your photo) is the older photo.
Your photos seem to be printed from a standard 6 x 4 inch glass plate type of negative, given that there would have had to have been some overlap and trimming.
A photographer called Ravenscroft was appointed by the Government to go around the country taking photographs of the towns and villages at around 1899-1901 – probably exactly for use in 'Cape Colony Today’ type of publication, for prospective colonists. There are several of his for Prince Albert as well as in postcard format dating from this period but yours appear to be older.
Further Correspondence - Did Ravenscroft pass through Prince Albert in the mid 1870s or late 1880s?
The hunt continued and Judy sent through these fascinating follow up details:
The curator of the Fransie Pienaar Museum, Lydia Barella, fished out an interesting article sent to her by the S A Library services. She had been researching background to the photographer Ravenscroft but had been able to find very little. She is just as interested as we are concerning the date of that earliest charity shop photo – it may be that the 2 photos you found date from different times – one does seem earlier than the other, judging from buildings we can identify and their known construction dates (like the Church, and Mission Church). So she approached our local town Librarian, Reinie Smit, who contacted the SA Library Services for Lydia and they returned several sheets of information about Ravenscroft apparently taken from ‘Biografiese Woordeboek’. What is interesting is that the article notes that Ravenscroft departed with his young wife from Swellendam in the early 1870s – around 1873 – for a long trip with his new wife (married ca 1871 in Swellendam) and two young children, by ox-wagon to firstly Krugersdorp and then the Victoria Falls. What an amazing adventure! During the course of this trip he took over 3000 glass plate negatives of interesting towns and villages passed along the way. The article notes his technique of panoramic shots from highpoints and then closer detail of buildings, bridges, agricultural activities etc. in the town. He was later (towards the end of the 1880s) contracted as ‘unofficial agent’ by the Cape Government Railways to take photographs of all the towns through which the railway passed, or which were served by the railway, e.g. Prince Albert served by the railway via Prince Albert Road station, and Fraserburg served via Fraserburg Road station, now called Leeu-Gamka.
We were wondering whether or not he passed through Prince Albert on the earlier mid-1870s trip, or took that very early photo during the Cape Government Railways 1880s freelancing contract. (There is a photo identical to the one in the 1907 publication as a sepia-toned Ravenscroft postcard picture) – but it is different from the charity shop photo. Photography has been around in South Africa from and after 1843 (De Beer and Barker 1992).
The 1907 publication I mentioned in the last letter acknowledges Ravenscroft as a photographer – probably one of several whose pictures are in the book. The 1886 publication “Cape Of Good Hope: Official handbook” apparently did not have easy access to the technology to reproduce in print form photographs as photographs, choosing instead to use tinted lithographs as illustrations. It would be interesting to see when photographic reproduction for printing purposes became available, although it may be that in the early stages, photographs were reproduced so poorly that a good lithograph was better – and in colour.
These two composite panoramic photos are evidently unusual. They are now my gift to the Prince Albert museum. The journey to confirm the date and photographer will continue. There is of course another question: who donated the photographs to Hospice and what was their connection to Prince Albert?
I encourage all readers of this story to consider museums, and archival collections, libraries and specialist collectors if you have early photographs, documents and items that add to our understanding of a place.
Update June 2016: The photos reached Prince Albert courtesy of Phillippe Menache and were gratefully received by the Museum Board.