Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The remarkable Mr Banks from factory worker to photographer by Royal Appointment

Oldham Street looking towards New Cross
There is something magic about this picture of Oldham Street which dates from around 1900.

And I am not alone in thinking this.  My friend Sally commented that “the image draws you in” and certainly you feel right at the heart of the city on a busy working day.

We are actually just past Hilton Street looking up towards Great Ancoats Street and New Cross.

Off to our right at numbers 56-58 was Abel Heywood & Sons, the booksellers who had in their time published some of the most important books on Manchester.

Beside them at number 60 was Marks and Spencer Ltd and beyond were the businesses of White the manufacturing jewellers whose sign dominated the skyline and the equally impressive sign of Crosby Walker Ltd whose draper’s shop stretched across numbers 82-86 Oldham Street.

In between were a branch of Maypoles’ the grocery chain, a Yates’ Wine lodge, and assorted photographer’s tailors, coffee merchants and confectioners.

My own favourite, at number 62, is the premise of Miss Isabella, servants registry office which is a reminder that this is still the age when even relatively humble homes aspired to at least one servant.

What is all the more  remarkable is the number of photographers who were offering their services in this small stretch running from Hilton Street up to Warwick Street but then photography had come of age and one of its best exponent was none other than Robert Banks who took this picture.

He had been commissioned by the Corporation as early as 1878 to photograph a series of pictures of the newly opened Town Hall and went on to compile sets of albums including the opening of the Ship Canal, the unveiling of Queen Victoria’s statue, and King Edward’s visit in 1909.

Many of these appear in an old and battered book which Sally picked up recently.

The cover and binding had long ago been lost but the pictures were intact and they are a wonderful record of our city just a century and a bit ago.

Here are celebrated some of the great achievements of the Victorian period, from the towering textile warehouses, to the impressive public buildings and in between street scenes of everyday life.

But few now know much about Mr Banks.  Back in 2011 a collection of his images was published by the History Press along with a short biography but the book sadly is now out of print.*

All of which is a shame because his was an interesting life and reflects that classic view of the self made Victorian.

He was born in 1847, his father was a journeyman carpenter, and at fifteen he was employed as a woollen piercer in Upper Mill.  At the age of twenty he was an illustrated artist working for the Oldham Chronicle and in 1867 had set up as a photographer in the High Street at Uppermill.

Reception Room, Town Hall
Now that move of course glosses over a lot because the step from illustrator to photographic studio I doubt could have been easy but at present I have no idea at the capital needed to begin such a venture or how he might have financed it.

Suffice to say that by 1873 he had moved to Manchester, set up home at 73 Alexandra Road in Moss Side and was renting a studio at 73 Market Street.

Over the next thirty years the business moved from Market Street to New Cross, and on to Franklin Street and Victoria Street and in 1903 was at 126 Market Street.

Likewise the family home was variously on Alexandra Street, and later Mytton Street, but the buildings have long since been cleared.

That said it may be possible to locale the studio in Uppermill and there remains the census records from 1861 onwards and the Rate Books along with possible references in the Manchester Guardian.

I rather think I will also contact his biographer just because Mr Banks is an interesting chap who began in a factory and  along the way was given  the title By Royal Appointment.

Pictures; courtesy of Sally Dervan

Contributory research from James Stanhope-Brown

*Manchester From the Robert Banks Collection, James Stanhope-Brown, 2011, the History Press

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