John Hill, Amateur Stereo Photographer From Halifax

John Hill, Amateur Stereo Photographer From Halifax

After the first golden age of Stereoscopy came to an end in the early to mid 1860s to be replaced in the public’s affection by cartomania or the carte-de-visite craze, things were rather quiet on the stereoscopic front. Stereo photographs were still made though, and, in Britain, artists like Francis Bedford, Frank Mason Good and George Washington Wilson published thousands of very nicely composed and carefully processed topographical views which are still delightful to collect and watch these days. In the staged scenes sector Michael Burr of Birmingham was one of the sole successors to the likes of Eastlake, Elliott, Gaudin, Goodman, Robinson and Silvester, to name but a few. However, it was not until the 1880s and the rise of the amateur that Stereoscopy got back in favour with a larger audience. Cheaper binocular cameras and dry collodion then gelatine-bromide plates made it much easier for the middle class to take, develop and mount their own pictures and start documenting their lives and travels in three dimensions. These early [1] amateurs concentrated mainly on portraits of family and friends and on photographs of the places they visited. The images they created are usually far more personal than the ones that were produced commercially and show us more of the everyday lives of their contemporaries.

One such fairly early amateur was John Hill, from Halifax, Yorkshire, Britain. John Hill was born at Angus, Forfarshire, Scotland, the second son of famer David Hill and of his wife Mary. Nothing is known of his infancy, childhood and early adulthood and it is not even clear when he moved to England since I could not find any trace of him in the 1851 census. All we know is that on 3 May 1858, John Hill, then a book-keeper living at Halifax, Yorkshire, married a native of Halifax, twenty-three year old, Ann Esther Hey. The bride was the eldest daughter of a deceased relieving officer, John Hey, and of his wife Ann. She was born and bred at Halifax where, in the 1851 census, she was described as a seamstress living with her widowed mother and five siblings. Three years later, at the time of the 1861 census, the still childless couple was living at Lansdown Place, Halifax. The twenty-six year old John was now working as a clerk in a ventilating firm created around 1855 by one Charles Watson (c. 1812-1890), a former schoolmaster who had designed and patented a syphon ventilator and went on to create and manufacture the Watson’s double current syphon ventilator, the Excelsior syphon ventilator and the Excelsion outlet ventilator. Some of Watson’s patrons were members of the royal family and his ventilators were installed in the royal residences of Windsor Castle, Frogmore and Sandringham.

On 9 July 1869 Ann Esther Hill gave birth to a son who was named Charles Watson, after her husband’s employer. Two years later John Hill and his brother-in-law John Edwards Hey (1831-1890) had become business partners and had taken over Charles Watson’s company which was now called Hill and Hey and was employing fourteen men. The 1871 census described both men as ventilating engineers.

On 9 March 1872 a second son was born to John and Ann Esther Hill who was named John Edwards after John’s partner who also happened to be Ann Esther’s brother. Two years later, in 1874, the two men patented a design for improvements in ventilators.

For reasons which are unspecified John Hill and his brother-in-law dissolved their partenership by mutual consent on 14 March 1881. In the census that was taken less than three weeks later on 3 April,  John Edwards Hey was still listed by the enumerator as a ventilating engineer whereas John Hill was described as a “ventilating engineer out of business at present”. At the time the Hill and Hey families were all living on Gibbet street and were next door neighbours, the Hills residing at number 201 and the Heys at number 203. With the Hills and their two sons were living Mathew Hey, Ann Esther’s younger brother, thirty-four, unemployed and formerly in the army, as well as a twenty-six year old general domestic servant named Elizabeth Johnson.

Soon after John Edwards Hey became the sole proprietor of the Hill and Hey firm, John Hill, now apparently retired, seems to have taken up photography. The earliest stereo photograph by John Hill I have in my archive is dated June 1882 and was taken in the greenhouse of the house the family occupied on Gibbet Street. It shows Ann Esther and her two sons Charles Watson, nearly thirteen, (on the left) and John Edwards, ten (on the right). A handwritten caption on the back of the card reads “Photo by J. Hill of Mrs. Hill & sons. Greenhouse  – June 1882.”

01-John Hill-His family

Illustration 01 – John Hill. Mrs Hill and her two sons, Charles Watson (left) and John Edwards (right). Photo taken in the greenhouse of their house on Gibbet Street in June 1882.

John Hill and his family seem to have spent some time travelling around Britain as there is a stereo photo by John dated 1883 and taken at Grange-over-Sands’ railway station, on the north side of Morecambe Bay, Cumbria, an undated image taken on the Menai Suspension Bridge, between Wales and Anglesey, and a third undated stereo featuring Sir William Turner’s almshouses at Kirkleatham, Redcar, in North Yorkshire. All three images bear – either on the back or on the front of the mount – a wet stamp in gothic lettering that reads “John Hill, Halifax”.

02-John Hill-Grange Station

Illustration 02 – John Hill. Grange-over-Sands’ railway station, 1883. The station has not changed much since then.

03-John Hill-Menai Suspension Bridge

Illustration 03 – John Hill. Group on the Menai Suspension Bridge, undated.

04-John Hill-Almshouses-Redcar

Illustration 04 – John Hill. Sir William Turner’s alsmshouses at Kirkleatham, Redcar, North Yorkshire. The building, now a private charitable trust, has now been converted to provide twenty-five flats for retired people with “identifiable needs”.

Closer to home two stereo photographs by John Hill show the Park Congregational Church and Schools at Halifax, and the gateway at High Sunderland Hall which, although it no longer stands (the derelict building was demolished in 1951), is considered by some to have been the inspiration for the exterior of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. These two photos are also undated.

05-John Hill-Park Congregational Church-

Illustration 05 –  John Hill. The Park Congregational Church and Schools, Halifax.

06-John Hill-High Sunderland

Illustration 06 – John Hill. The gateway at High Sunderland Hall, near Halifax.

Although bearing no wet stamp or any useful information, three other stereo images, featuring respectively a group of eighteen people, a wedding group of twelve adults and two children, and another wedding group of eighteen people taken from further away, seem to have been taken by John Hill some time in the 1880s. One lady, who looks very much like a slightly older Mrs Hill, appears in two of the photographs, sitting on the far left of the second row in the group and standing on the far right of the second row in one of the wedding groups. The group taken from a distance appears to have been taken earlier than the other two images. The photographer was obviously still familiarising himself with his binocular camera and had not yet totally grapsed the fact that composition in stereo photography has rules of its own. Were it not for the branches in the foreground, the image would look very flat indeed as the photographer is too far away from the group and has asked them to sit and stand in two lines as would be more appropriate for a traditional photograph. Interestingly, his camera case can be seen on the ground on the far right of the image.

07-John Hill-Group

Illustration 07 – Attributed to John Hill. Group of sixteen adults and two children. There is actually a nineteenth person standing in the background.

08-John Hill-Wedding Group-1

Illustration 08 – Attributed to John Hill. Wedding group of twelve adults and two girls. There is a name – Joseph Farrar – handwritten on the back of the card but in the absence of any other name or date it is difficult to determine who the person was as there were several men by that name in Halifax and its vicinity at the time.

09-John Hill-Halifax-Wedding Group

Illustration 09 – Attributed to John Hill. Wedding group of eighteen people taken from further away than the two previous images. Notice the camera case on the ground on the right.

A total of nine stereo photographs does not constitute an important enough body of work to get a proper idea of a man’s photographic career. There might be other photos lying in some collection or in some attic but until they surface I have to make do with those nine images which still give us a peep at Hill’s interest in the medium. So far I have not seen any images that seem to have been taken after the 1880s, which means either that John Hill’s stereo production was short-lived or that they still remain to be found.

By the 1891 census, John Hill’s brother-in-law, John Edwards was dead. He passed away,  aged fifty-one, on 31 October 1890 leaving four children and a widow, his second wife Mary Elizabeth Jessup, who survived him by forty-three years [2]. John Hill was then living in Edina House, at 38 Parkinson Lane, with his wife, two sons and the same domestic servant they had in 1881. Charles Watson was employed as a salesman for a cabinet-maker while his younger brother John Edwards worked as a clerk for a woollen manufacturer. In 1897 John Edwards Hill left the family nest to marry one Ada Mariy King (1871-1944). His older brother waited another nine years before he tied the knot with one Laura Hunsworth (1873-1963). By then John Hill was dead. He passed away on 5 February 1901, nearly two months before the 1901 census was taken. The Hills were still living at 38, Parkinson Lane at the time of his death and remained there until Ann Esther breathed her last on 15 July 1908.

Denis Pellerin

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[1] There were stereo amateurs as early as the eighteen sixties but they were generally well-to-do men of leisure who had the means and the time to indulge in what was then an expensive and time-consuming hobby. The history of the Rise of the Amateur, remains to be written. It is a fascinating subject but one with lots of grey areas since most amateurs never bothered to mention their names on the photos they took.

[2] John Edwards first married Mary Ann Jenkinson on 9 August 1866. She gave him two sons but passed away on 28 March 1872, aged thirty. Two years later John Edwards married Mary Elizabeth Jessup who bore him three children, a daughter and two sons, the elder of whom died in infancy. She died aged ninety-four on 17 January 1933.

One thought on “John Hill, Amateur Stereo Photographer From Halifax

  1. An excellent stereo-illustrated historical commentary. It is a great example of how stereoscopic imaging can bring a sense of reality to history. The amount of precise detail is a mark of the skill of Denis Pellerin.

    John A. Rupkalvis


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