An Amateur Stereo Photographer from Manchester

An Amateur Stereo Photographer from Manchester

Although it is great to find information about a sitter in a portrait and bring them back to life, so to speak, it is even more interesting for the photo historian I am, to discover a stereo photographer I had no idea existed and to try and put together the main events of their life.

The story behind this post began when my sharp-eyed assistant, always on the lookout for the unconventional in stereo photography, brought my attention to a set of unusual stereo cards for sale online. They were unusual by their format – 17×11 cm, as opposed to the traditional 17.8×8.5 cm – but also by the fact they were mounted like tissues, although on an opaque back. More interestingly, all of them bore a label on the back with a printed name, J. C. Phythian, in Gothic lettering. By the time I decided to buy them, one of the cards, a view of Wales, had, unfortunately, already disappeared. I, however, managed to secure the rest, and, when three more were listed, I purchased them too. Between the moment I paid for the cards and the day they arrived, I started researching the amateur photographer behind the images and soon found that his full name was Joseph Collier Phythian, from Manchester.

Illustration 1-Labels small

ILLUSTRATION 1 – Some of the labels on the back of Joseph Collier Phythian’s stereos.

Joseph Collier Phythian was born at Manchester, Lancashire, on 6 June 1844, the second child of Joseph Phythian (1814-1887), a smallware manufacturer, and his wife Alice, née Townsend (1816-1861). His parents had married in 1840 and their first born, Elizabeth Ann, was born on 2 April 1842. By the time of his mother’s untimely death on 25 August 1861, four other children were born: Sarah Hannah (1846-1888), Alice Townsend (1850-1920), Arthur Thomas (1853-1924) and John Ernest (1858-1935).

The 1851 census informs us that the Phythian family was living at 3, Grosvernor Terrace, Cheetham, Manchester and that they had two servants, a twenty-four year old house maid, from Elland, Yorkshire (where Mrs Alice Phythian was from) and a nineteen-year old nurse from Manchester. Ten years later, the Phythians were still living at Cheetham but had moved to 221 York Street, with two different servants. Joseph Collier must have been apprenticed somewhere – he was just over sixteen then – as he is the only member of  the family who is not listed at the above address. Although Phythian is not a very common name I have not yet found where he was. He could have been sent abroad to further his education but was probably called back home when, a few months after the census, his mother passed away.

Just over a year after this sad event, Joseph Collier’s father married again and chose as his second bride his dead wife’s sister, Elizabeth Jane Townsend (1819-1895). Now that is actually very strange. Although it had been forbidden long before, the 1835 Marriage Act made it unlawful for a man to marry his sister-in-law after his wife’s death. It may seem bizarre to most our readers but, despite the fact that most of the time a man and his sister-in-law are not of the same blood, it was nevertheless considered incestuous to marry a woman who had become your “sister” on the occasion of your marriage. It took decades and yearly campaigns before the The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act was passed in 1907 and put an end to this rather odd situation. Before that act became law men who wanted to marry their sister-in-law had to go abroad. I have no idea how they pulled this off but the fact is that Joseph Snr. married Elizabeth Jane, in Manchester Cathedral and the wedding, far from being kept secret, was reported in several local newspapers.  Here is how the announcement appeared in the Leeds Mercury on 30 October 1862:

PHYTHIAN-TOWNSEND. – Oct. 28th, at the Cathedral, Manchester, by the Rev, W. W. Johnson, Mr. Joseph Phythian, smallware manufacturer, of that city, to Elizabeth Jane Townsend, only surviving daughter of Mr. L. Townsend, of Elland, near Halifax.

The 1871 census – under the name Pythian, instead of Phythian – reveals that Joseph Collier, now aged twenty-six, was still living with his father, step-mother/aunt and four of his brothers and sisters, at 221 York Street. Like his father, who is described as employing about 120 people in his factory at Salford, he had become a smallware manufacturer, as had all his siblings except John Ernest who was still at school.

In June 1876 Joseph Collier travelled from Hull to Norway with a friend and landed at Christiania, later renamed Oslo, the capital. It was not his first trip abroad as he had previously visited Spain, Russia, Italy, Switzerland, and sailed along the Rhine, the Elbe and the Danube. This two-week visit, however, was different from his previous excursions abroad inasmuch as he wanted to explore some untravelled parts of the country, which he did, and gave birth to a narrative that was published in 1877 by Cassell, Petter & Galpin under the title Scenes of Travel in Norway. Joseph Collier must have been favourably impressed by the people he met and the scenery he saw in Norway since he went back there three years later and produced another work, published by the same Cassell, Petter & Galpin. This second book was called Three Years After, a further account of Travels in Norway, and, like his previous attempt, got positive reviews in the press. This work is an important turning point in Joseph Collier’s life since we know that he took photographs of the Norwegian countryside during this second trip and can therefore assume that he took up photography around that time. Joseph Collier never became a professional photographer, though, and is again listed as a smallware manufacturer, still living with his father and three of his siblings, and still unmarried, in the 1881 census. We know from a note in the census slip that the family business was then employing 35 men and 70 women and was involving every one in the family, except the youngest son, John Ernest, who had become a solicitor’s clerk. 

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ILLUSTRATION 2 – Joseph Colllier Phythian. Mill Street, Warwick.

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ILLUSTRATION 3 – Joseph Colllier Phythian. Lynmouth, Devon.

There is no telling when Joseph Collier took up stereo photography but we can see from the images I managed to buy that he used a binocular camera and travelled all over Britain, as well as to Ireland. In the views I purchased are images of Durham, Devon, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Warwickshire, Northumberland, Scotland and two pictures of Ireland, one of County Clare, the other of County Cork. Most of the images are rather well preserved but a few have faded. They remain pleasant to view, however.  I would obviously love to find more of his stereos and find out about the camera he used. Please, do not hesitate to contact me at if you have any of his pictures or more information about his photographic work.

Joseph Collier’s father died on 5 March 1887 and was buried 5 days later at the Wesleyan Cemetery, Cheetham. His business survived him and was now run exclusively by John Collier. The 1891 census shows that the Phythian family has moved to Salford, where they were living in a house called “Newlands”, on Bury Old Road. The head of the family was Elizabeth Jane who was on a visit to her brother John’s, in Elland, Yorkshire, when the enumerator or census-taker knocked at their door. Elizabeth Jane passed away in 1895 and John Collier, still a bachelor, became the head of the Phythian family.

In 1894 Joseph Collier was still into photography. A short article published by him in the Nottinghamshire Guardian on Saturday 15 December 1900 recalls a visit he paid to five generations of the Walton family at Rowsley, Derbyshire, and mentions photography :


I have stayed a day or two at the house where representatives of all the generations lived, and it was strange to talk with one who remembered a time before Waterloo. I much regretted being unable to use my camera under rare circumstances, but the old man was not well enough to leave the house, and a few weeks later I received a card in memory of George Walton, of Rowsley; born June 25th 1798; died November 8th, 1894. – J. C. Phythian.

It would have been fascinating to see a photograph of all the Walton family but it was not to be, unfortunately.

In 1901, Joseph Collier and his two unmarried sisters, Elizabeth Ann and Alice Townsend, were still in Salford but had moved to a property called Huntspill, on Upper Park Road. This is where Joseph Collier breathed his last, on 19 July 1905. His executors were his two younger brothers, Arthur Thomas and John Ernest.

Joseph Collier’s photographs outlived him and were still mentioned several years after his death. In 1907, his brother John Ernest, published a book illustrated with seven of his late brother’s images. John Ernest, who, after being a solicitor’s clerk became a solicitor himself, apparently had a passion for art and he became something of an expert, as well as an author and a lecturer on the subject. He was even giving radio talks on Art in the 1920s. He published books about Turner, Millais, Burne-Jones, Watts, Art in the British Isles, etc., and his writings make pleasant and interesting reading. He was not a stuffy and pompous academic trying to impress his peers but a true art-lover with a passion for his subject, which clearly transpires in his works. His book Trees in Nature: Myth and Art contains six images of trees and one picture of the interior of Lincoln Cathedral, all taken by Joseph Collier. One of the tree pictures was taken during the latter’s second trip to Norway.

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ILLUSTRATION 4 – Some of the pictures taken by Joseph Collier Phythian and published by his brother John Ernest in his book Trees in Nature: Myth and Art. From left to right: Ancient oak and silver birches in Sherwood Forest, Pollard willows, Silver Birches, Norway.

On 11 November 1936, a short report of a meeting of the Cardiff Naturalist’s Society in the Western Mail mentions that slides where shown then which had been “taken by Mr. J. C. Phythian, of Manchester, 20 years ago.” The journalist obviously got his facts wrong since Joseph Collier had been dead for over thirty-one years when these lines were written. They show, however, that his images were still appreciated.

The Manchester Archives and Local Studies have photographic copies of three albums from the Townsend family. They all contain photographs of the Townsend family house at Elland, Yorkshire, taken by Joseph Collier Phythian. They show portraits of some of the members of his family, on his mother’s side, and of the house and shop of his cousin John Ernest Townsend. The latter was somewhat of a black sheep in the Townsend family. He studied to become a teacher but was fined once for illicit gambling and later spent four months in prison for drunken and disorderly behaviour. Not the ideal role model you expect a teacher to be. So he became a dealer in Hay, Straw, Linseed, Chaff, etc. I would love to have a look at the original albums and learn more about the photographs and the circumstances they were taken. One day, maybe !

In the meantime I hope you have enjoyed reading about this interesting manufacturer, author, and more importantly, amateur stereo photographer, Joseph Collier Phythian.

My warmest thanks to Rebecca for letting me use her blog again. Such a privilege !

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ILLUSTRATION 5 – Joseph Collier Phythian. The Wharfe, Bolton Woods.

Denis Pellerin.

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