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March 2002
Old Photographs
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27th August 1899
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Harry Jack

In my article on R.H. Bleasdale (Journal June 2001) some of the picture captions say where the photographs were taken. A couple of these locations have been questioned by readers who suggested alternative sites. One of my locations is confidently described as somewhere else, in the Society’s list of photographs. What follows is an attempt to sort all this out, before the nineteenth century become even more remote than it is, and therefore the memory of past evidence fades.

Most of the early locomotive photographs Move to the photographs page were published without any indication of where they were taken, or any note of when – apart from one or two of Bleasdale’s where the date was chalked on the engine. Railway photographers had different priorities in those days; a clear image of a locomotive was what they wanted, and they regarded the background – even when it only consisted of a few harmless trees – as an unnecessary distraction. It was often painted out on the negative, so that the engine stood out against a blank white ‘sky’. Over 120 years later, these blank backgrounds are irritating, because they usually prevent us from finding out where the picture was taken. If only we knew where it was, we could speculate about the work the engine might have been doing, and the photograph would come alive, no longer just a print of some old engine somewhere; we could ‘place’ the engine in a landscape which we know, beyond the frame and all around.


Trying to discover the location is a detective–puzzle. There are often lots of clues in the picture, although most of the backgrounds (where they exist) are mysterious in themselves. There have been so very many changes demolition, rebuilding, trees felled and planted, urban sprawl – that hardly anywhere or anything looks the way it did in the 1870s.

The first Bleasdale LNWR prints I ever saw featured some very strange old engines (Long-boiler 0-6-0s, a Bloomer Explain 'Bloomer Locomotive Class', an 0-4-2T) standing in the same unrecognisable location: on gauntletted track Explain '??', with a weed-covered platform as foreground and a typical LNWR brick wall behind. Beyond the wall lay open fields with hedges and big elms. Far off, over on the left there was a big house surrounded by trees. Apart from the Bloomer, the engines were complete mysteries. Their 18xx duplicate list numbers made identification (in those pre-Baxter Explain 'Baxter, Bertram (?—1966)' days) impossible, from any printed source: only the number plates and chimney caps showed the engines really were LNWR. That background, though, where could it be? I thought about this a lot; it seemed to be some unreal country where strange LNWR engines abounded, a sort of dream landscape.

I asked everyone who might know. Vague replies (‘Oh, somewhere round the back of Wolverton I suppose?’) were delivered casually, with none of the curiosity I felt. Even after learning the identity of the engines from Dudley Whitworth, the location remained a mystery.

Story continues ...
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