Discovering hidden history

In October 1984, when 16 George Street was a pet shop, staff from St. Helens Local History and Archives were contacted to rescue 4,000 glass negatives from a sealed-up backroom.

Hills Pet Shop t where negs found

The pet shop at 16 George Street

Unfortunately, many of the negatives were damaged and broken, however around 3000 remained intact and were carefully collected and returned to the library.  Later when the pet shop became Holland’s, another sealed up backroom was found and more negatives were brought to the library.

It was known that the building had once been a photography studio, further research revealed just how long the studio had been operating, and who the photograpers were:

  • Fred Ash from c.1885-1893
  • Joseph Cooper from 1893-1897
  • Mark Metcalfe in partnership with his father-in-law James Jordan 1897-1904 (Jordan died in 1904)
  • Mark Metcalfe and his wife Ella Metcalfe (née Jordan) under the name ‘Jordan and Metcalfe’ from 1904-1920 (Metcalfe died in 1920)
  • George Potter under the name ‘Jordan and Metcalfe’ from 1920-1948
  • Geoff Williams, ‘Central Studios` between c.1950-1970

It has become apparant that the majority of this collection is around the mid 1950s, from the time when Geoff Williams ran the studio.

So why were the negatives hidden away?

Glass negatives take up a lot of space and are very heavy.  It was common practice for commercial studios to retain glass negatives for about 5 years, incase they were needed for repeat photographic prints.  Once the 5 years was up, the negatives were destroyed or sold for their glass.  At the time this was an essential business process, however it is sad to think about all the heritage that must have been lost over the years!

If negatives are discovered in a hidden place; an attic, under floorboards or another area, it is thought this was because they were stored and then forgotten about.  Geoff Williams ran the studio for at least another 10 years after these images were taken.  Did he move to film and no longer need the storage space?  Are these the final images he took on glass?  He had sealed up the images; maybe he hoped they might be discovered and appreciated in the future, and if so, he was right.


Geoff Williams Exhibition Stand, 1950s

Thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the images have now been digitised, and will be sorted and catalogued then made available to the public.  Check out other posts on this blog to find out about different workshops and events surrounding the collection.

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