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Days Gone By: Are these the oldest recorded photographs of Ipswich and Suffolk?

PUBLISHED: 16:41 19 November 2015 | UPDATED: 09:43 20 November 2015

This image of Ipswich School by John Wiggin must date from around 1863, as the Brett Fountain (centre) at the Henley Road entrance to the Upper Arboretum was unveiled on May Day in 1863. The money for the drinking fountain, £64, was donated by John Brett

This image of Ipswich School by John Wiggin must date from around 1863, as the Brett Fountain (centre) at the Henley Road entrance to the Upper Arboretum was unveiled on May Day in 1863. The money for the drinking fountain, £64, was donated by John Brett

Dave Kindred

These pictures of Ipswich and Suffolk from the 1850s show the magic of photography.

More than 50 years ago, Nick Wiggin helped clear out the family chemist’s shop in advance of a move in 1962. Among all the stuff gathering dust upstairs (which included boxes of magic lantern slides) were some ancient wax paper negatives. It would be a long time before he realised just how special they were.

David Kindred has little doubt. “You can be reasonably sure that these are the oldest photographs of Ipswich - of Suffolk - and some of the oldest photographs in the country,” says our former chief photographer. “Incredibly rare,” he adds, still somewhat in awe of images that have survived more than 150 years.

And for all this we have to thank Ipswich pharmacist John Wiggin. For as well as running his chemist’s shop on the corner of Berners Street and St Matthew’s Street, Nick’s great-grandfather was a pioneer of the relatively new science/art of photography.

Doubtless fascinated by the chemical processes that enabled scenes to be captured and preserved, he created dozens of images of Suffolk that have passed down the generations and - despite their fragility - survived.

They’re mostly of Ipswich, but John ventured further afield: to villages such as Freston, Baylham, Butley (not far from Orford) and quite likely Harwich. “Imagine getting to Butley in 1855!” muses David, thinking of the equipment that would also have had to make the journey.

A little history lesson shows just how much of a pioneer was Victorian chemist John.

David explains that the first successful photographic processes came in 1839. Frenchman Louis Daguerre had his daguerreotype, “which was a very unstable, one-off process. It was silver plate with mercury vapour. You got one image, three (inches) by two, and you put it in a little case, because if you touched it, it wiped off”.

Meanwhile, in England, William Fox Talbot invented “what became the basis of photography for over 150, 160 years, before digital took over”.

A portrait of pioneering photographer John Wiggin. This photograph, which has a camera in the background, was probably taken several years after his wax paper negatives were produced.
A portrait of pioneering photographer John Wiggin. This photograph, which has a camera in the background, was probably taken several years after his wax paper negatives were produced.

His process involved paper that had been made sensitive to light. Using chemicals, he in 1835 produced the first photographic negative − of a window at his home, Lacock Abbey.

As well as “developing”, Fox Talbot established the other two key steps of photography. The image on a negative was “fixed” with a chemical solution that took away the light-sensitive silver and meant images could be looked at in the light. He also found he could make positive prints from a negative.

Photography as we know it was born. Fox Talbot’s creation was called the calotype and the process was patented in 1841.

It’s this technique that John Wiggin embraced, essentially.

David thinks it would probably have been about 1845, perhaps a touch earlier, before someone like John thought ‘This is interesting. I’m going to have a go at this’. “And he did it incredibly well, didn’t he?”

So, judging by the negatives that are his legacy, when was John at his most prolific?

Well, David says there’s always the possibility of people carrying on using “old” processes, “so we don’t know that John Wiggin didn’t carry on a little bit longer at a time when he could have moved forward”.

We do know the Brett Fountain he photographed in Christchurch Park, Ipswich, was built in 1862 and unveiled on May Day, 1863, “which means that John Wiggin was using the calotype process later than the Fox Talbot Museum estimated”. (The museum has examined the negatives.)

But, says David: “Realistically, looking at the technology, the buildings and what the museum says, they are about 1850-54.”

It raises an interesting question: “You then have to ask yourself ‘Where did he get the camera from?’ Nobody sold cameras! Maybe he made it.

“There’s another possibility. Artists used something called a camera obscura. They would draw the scene it projected. It’s thought some of the very accurate architectural paintings were done like that: by projecting an image and sketching it so they got the perspective perfect.

“There is one technique I’ve read about where you would make the paper sensitive with chemistry, sandwich it between glass, put it into the camera obscura, and expose it. Which might explain why he got such a big image.” (The wax paper negatives measure up to 15 by nine inches.)

John Wiggin’s time as a Suffolk pioneer was important but quite short. A little bit later, David says, there were other amateur photographers recording Victorian Ipswich - such as wealthy banker Richard Dykes Alexander, who took pictures of the ragged school and other local scenes. “They’re stored at the record office and dated 1859.

“And there was an artist, Robert Burrows, who was taking pictures. You see pictures of the docks. But, again, they’re probably eight, nine years after John Wiggin.”

David asks: “Dykes Alexander, who lived at Barrack Corner, where would he have gone for his chemicals? Over the road to John Wiggin, it would be reasonable to assume! He was the man who seemed to understand the processes. The man was a chemist.”

By the 1860s photography had become more mainstream, if still something of a novelty, with studios set up where folk could have their portrait taken. Cameras were big and cumbersome, though, and very few photographers ventured out of the studio.

David, who has long collated spreads of nostalgic photographs for the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star, first became aware of the Wiggin legacy more than a decade ago.

He saw pictures from the 1900s attributed to John Wiggin (the Victorian pioneer had a son and grandson, both called John, who were also photography enthusiasts) and spoke to Nick.

“I may have just phoned him to ask if he’d mind if we published them in the Anglian. I can’t remember. He happened to mention that ‘I’ve got some wax-paper negatives here somewhere...’ I thought ‘You’ve got to be mistaken.’ I went over to his house and looked at them.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see a calotype... It was amazing to find a box full of them, and in such good condition.”

They’re reminders that we should remember the Ipswich pharmacist - even if the history books don’t.

“There’s no real record of John Wiggin as an early pioneer of photography,” says David. 
“One of his photographs was in an exhibition in the 1850s, in London. You’re probably talking of about 50 people in the whole country involved in photography at that time.”


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