A Brief History of the Coventry Photographic Society
The Coventry Photographic Society was formed in June 1883 as the Coventry and Midland Photographic Club by eleven local enthusiasts and was, according to information supplied by the magazine "amateur photographer" the 10th such Club/Society to be established in the UK.
The above image was taken we believe in 1885 but depicts the 1883 founders of the Club (only ten are pictured and it is assumed the eleventh founder is behind the camera). Of the ten pictured just five of those founders are named. Of the remaining six four are currently unknown, but it is possible to deduce from a Coventry Evening Telegraph article that two of the other founding members were a Councillor W Andrews and a Mr A. B. Rollason.
From a book titled "The Coventry We Have Lost Earlsdon & Chapelfields Explored" by David Fry & Albert Smith we know that Jeremiah Martin Danks was a watch jeweller who lived in Moor(e) St Earlsdon. He was approximately 36 when the Club was founded but records show he died just three years later at the young age of 39.
T J Lloyd had a photographic business at 26 Earl St, Coventry but little is known about the remaining named founders, but looking at the equipment on display they were all from wealthy families or held down good jobs. The cost of a ‘bare bones’ plate camera could cost upwards of £9 (old money) and a complete outfit could cost around £26 (old money) - a significant amount when compared to a teacher’s annual salary at that time of £133 per annum.
Very little is known of the early years of the Club but what we do know comes from an article published in the Coventry Evening Telegraph on Thursday, November 25, 1954. This reports that the first meeting of the Club was held at the Coventry Dispensary in Priory St, where Councillor W Andrews was appointed the first President and a Mr A. B. Rollason its first Secretary.
By 1891 the club was holding regular meetings at the Technical Institute, later to become the Technical College. A regular lecturer at the time was a Mr D Welford who later became editor of the Photographer magazine. The regular meetings then moved to the old Grammar School in Hales St until 1899 when the club relocated to rented rooms at 7 Little Park St.
In 1904 the Club became affiliated to the Royal Photographic Society.
In January 1915 the Club, with other Photographic Clubs nationally, undertook to create a pictorial record of interesting buildings within the Coventry and Warwickshire area. These images were then displayed at an exhibition held by the Club. It is believed that these images were destroyed during the Coventry Blitz in 1940 along with many historical artefacts that were being stored at the Gulson Library which was adjacent to holy Trinity Church.
In 1919 members assisted in photographing the locations used by George Eliot in her books and these prints formed part of a centenary exhibition held in Coventry. The images also were used in a book published, at the time, by the Coventry Library Committee, a copy of which is held by The Herbert History Archives.
It was thought that it was around 1920 that the Club changed its name to Coventry Photographic Society but the 'Letter from the Past' is still using headed paper with the name Coventry Photographic Club. Perhaps they members we just using up a stock of old letter-headed paper or we may have made a mistake with the date for the change of name, research continues.
In December 1942 the King wrote to the Society thanking them for their loyal greetings and sending good wishes on the occasion of the Club’s Diamond Jubilee.
During the Second World War one of the Society’s members, a Mr George Osborn, was granted permission to photograph war damaged buildings for the National Building Record which was a Government register (now part of Historic England).
In 1943, as part of the Society’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, two members (Charles Fairfax and Sam Bate) wrote a six-page letter detailing the membership and wartime conditions at the time. This letter was to be opened on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Club.
In 1965 the Society was congratulated by the Lord Mayor of Coventry (Alderman Tom Whiteman) for inviting Foto Klub Beograd (Belgrade) formerly known as Yugoslavia and now part of Serbia, to take part in an annual exhibition run by the Society. N E Clarke (President of the Society) commented that the Society was quite small considering the size of the city but there were many Clubs linked to factories and other places of work. It was also mentioned that the Society was going to introduce a new Colour Print category for Competitions. One of the prizes awarded was the Stokes Bowl which is still awarded annually for the Best Image of the year in the opinion of the Society’s members.
On 14th May 1983, to celebrate the Society’s Centenary, a Dinner was held at St Mary’s Guildhall. The sealed letter mentioned earlier which was written as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations was opened. It was opened by Mr Doug Lee-Bird who was the Society’s President, at the time, in the presence of the then Lord Mayor, Councillor Eddie Weaver, the President of the Midland Counties Photographic Federation, Mr Phil Swain and Mr John Podmore who was the main speaker at the event. See the 'Letter from the Past' page.
In that letter Sam Bate had added a footnote which stated, “You are probably enjoying photographic improvements of which we cannot comprehend and if we could see into the future we almost certainly would not believe”. How true this statement was!
In April 1970 Mr Alec Watson, a member of 25 years standing, and past President of the Society, was elected President of the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain (PAGB) as well as having served 3 terms as President of the Midland Counties Photographic Federation.
In the 16th July 1979 edition of the Coventry Evening Telegraph it was reported that Roger Wagstaff, a longstanding member and Committee member of the Society, was taking photographs of demolition work in progress in Leamington Spa when he managed to photograph one of the demolition workers falling off the roof. The worker survived the fall, although his injuries were said to be serious. The resulting photograph and article appear in both the local, national and international newspapers of the time.
Research is continuing into the history of the society and more will be added in due course.*
Steve & Chris Simmonds
* November 2021: An update on the society during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and 2021 is now available here.