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One Man's Photographic Memory*
One of a series of articles published in "Reflections" more than two decades ago
For more than 50 years, Harry Gill was a professional photographer who recorded thousands of events - from those of national importance to the homespun familiarity of local weddings. Although his territory was Matlock and the Peak District, he worked wherever commissions took him. Now, over 30 years after his death, Harry Gill's photographic collection has been rediscovered - a unique, fascinating archive of life, people and places spanning 40 years until the late 1960s.
Michael Fay
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Past Matlock & Matlock Bath photographers

Harry Gill was a professional photographer for or more than 50 years

IN AN AGE WHEN the media was limited to newspapers and the wireless, Harry Gill followed an unusual occupation. He was a press photographer: moreover, he was one of an elite handful who chose to follow the uncertain, though exciting, freelance route. For nearly 50 years there were few picture and news editors on local and regional papers in the North and Midlands unfamiliar with Harry Gill's work. And, gradually as his contacts and experience grew, he was used increasingly by national newspapers. The by-line on the back of prints - Photo by H. Gill, Bradley House, Dale Road, Matlock - became acknowledged as a by-word for reliability and professionalism.

Despite extensive press work, Harry Gill took on commercial work to support his family - wife and four daughters - and pay all the bills. As two of his daughters, Mrs Phyllis Higton and Mrs Jean Boitoult recall, there was a good deal of this - weddings, family groups for wedding anniversaries, even bonny babies - often sitting in the studio in Bradley House, Matlock.

Harry Gill was the subject of this photo

On the other side of the lens!
Harry Gill with one of his trusty and obviously much-used -plate cameras. This picture was taken in Matlock Bath near to his premises.

Harry also worked for many years out of premises in Matlock Bath which picturesquely overlooked the famous Pavilion fishpond. A slightly built, wiry, figure with distinctive steely grey hair and a slight disability which prompted the use of a walking stick, he was one of Matlock's best-known personalities.

From camera to newspaper
In that vanished era before e-mails, faxes and websites many of his photographs, in the form of glass negatives, were carefully packed in parcels with special labels and sent by train from Matlock to a Manchester-based photo agency, Fox Photos, who submitted details and tried to win orders from newspapers which they thought might be interested.

As the daughters recall, nothing was allowed to stand in the way of getting negatives to the station for the Manchester express. Whoever happened to be to hand was expected to rush with the slides to the train - excuses were not entertained!

Duke and Duchess of Kent when they visited Derbyshire

Harry Gill was the only photographer allowed access to photograph the Duke and Duchess of Kent when they visited Derbyshire in, we think, 1935, the year after their marriage. The Duchess was the former Princess Marina of Greece.
Princess Elizabeth toured the Peak District in 1951

The then Princess Elizabeth toured the Peak District in 1951, and this study by Harry Gill appeared the following day in several national as well as regional and local newspapers. It continued to be used in magazines and local publicity material for many years.

Harry's interest in photography could well have been encouraged by one of his earliest jobs as a projectionist for the silent films shown at the Matlock Bath Pavilion, at that time a cinema. Born in Bonsall in 1901, he was uncertain as to how to earn a living, and tried his hand at a number of jobs with varying success. He enjoyed working as a projectionist and somewhere around this time was given an old camera which he restored and started to use.

This modest interest in photography rapidly blossomed following his marriage to a Bristol girl, Clara Sheehan, who was a skilled photographer and artist. In fact, Harry's daughters think that it was probably her guidance and expertise which enabled him to turn professional.

Edward, Prince of Wales

The Prince of Wales (later and briefly King Edward VIII) then the Duke of Windsor in buoyant mood and dapper suit at Flagg point-to-point races, probably in 1929.
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip with the Cavendish family

Photocalls at Chatsworth were numerous for Harry Gill from the 1920s to the 1960s, and in this attractive study from the 1950s, several generations of the Cavendish family are shown along with the then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. To the left is the present Duchess, behind her the Dowager Duchess, at the back the present Duke, then the Marquis of Hartington and, to the right, the then Duke and Duchess.

There were innumerable carnivals with carnival queens flanked by winsome attendants and reluctant pageboys; swimming, cycling and best-kept garden competitions; year-after-year of Miss Derbyshire competitions; well dressings (still happily thriving) and all manner or local tea parties, fetes and bazaars held in village halls and community centres.

Road accidents were big news then and there are some rather startling photographs of wrecked car bodies reduced to their fabric and wooden components following what would now be regarded as quite minor skirmishes.

The archives contain many pictures of carnival queens in towns and villages throughout the Peak District. It's a custom that's barely survived, but in 1947 Matlock Bath's carnival was one of many to prove a very popular attraction. The Queen is Pat Rolfe and, to the right, is Councillor Remo Tinti, a well-known personality.
Carnival Queen Pat Rolfe and, to the right, Councillor Remo Tinti. Mary Webster was one of the Maids of Honour

The good, the great and the newsworthy

There are important photographs on record such as those showing the construction of Matlock Lido and Matlock Cinema House (later the Ritz). There is a marvellous series of before-and-after shots showing the building of Ladybower Dam, and there are many photographs of the great, the good and the titled visiting Chatsworth House.

Anna Neagle played the role of Florence Nightingale

One of the big British film successes of 1951 was Lady of the Lamp, the story of Florence Nightingale. Anna Neagle, then a top star, was in the title role, and the film was directed by her husband, Herbert Wilcox. Both visited Lee Hurst, near Matlock - Florence Nightingale's home in her later years - as part of a tour to promote the film. Harry Gill was there to capture the occasion.

There is an important series of photographs of Matlock Bath when visitors to the Derwent Gardens were attracted by a racing car circuit, a zoo and a fishpond. There are some of the original petrifying well before its needless demolition for a road-widening scheme. Dramatic photographs of snow scenes in the Peak District during the harsh winter of 1947 (several of which were used in national newspapers and magazines) remain striking, and a number of Royal visits are recorded - most memorably that of the then Princess Elizabeth in 1952. One of Harry's photographs of the Princess (reproduced in this edition) was a particular favourite used for several years afterwards by picture editors.

Members of the Wirksworth Barmote Court

Members of the Wirksworth Barmote Court pose with a lead ingot after a meeting in 1952.

This ancient court dealt with lead-mining industry matters for centuries, and from the twenties onwards, Harry Gill must have been a familiar figure at their meetings - so much so, that the members struck him a special lead medal in recognition of his work.

Although his roots were firmly in Derbyshire, Harry moved briefly to Farnsworth near Bolton. His daughters never knew the reason but he returned when, after a bout of ill health, his doctor advised him to go back to Matlock "where the air was much purer". Harry did return and good health was restored, so much so that in a brief profile about him in the then fledgling local newspaper, readers were informed that for some photographs he was prepared to shin up trees and telegraph poles!

Although a busy professional, Harry found time for many community interests. He was a member of the original post-war Matlock Town Football Club committee which relaunched the club and joined Matlock Bath Attractions Committee which did so much to encourage visitors to the resort before tourist industry professionals took over.

He enjoyed many successes, both professional and personal, but he was also touched by tragedy. One of his daughters, Doreen, died young in a road accident at Darley Dale. (The fourth daughter, Eileen, lives in Australia).

Harry died in 1970 soon after his 69th birthday leaving a legacy not only of personal memories for all those who knew him, but a unique archive of photographs reflecting his energy and talents and eminently worthy of preservation for posterity.

Editor's note: Much of Harry Gill's work was on glass plates which unfortunately have not survived. Storage difficulties and fragility took their toll down the years - but a varied selection of prints is still available, and it is these which we will be dipping into over the coming months. Mr Gill's daughters, Mrs Phyllis Higton and Mrs Jean Boitoult have allowed Reflections access to this important collection, and in future editions we will publish further selections of pictures, some of which have not been seen for 70 years or more.

Television personality Mary Malcolm watched herself on an up-to-the-minute (for 1952) Ecko 14-inch-screen-television set at a Matlock Trades Exhibition.
Miss Malcolm was a leading personality, one of a small number of on-screen continuity announcers who became popular celebrities[1].
Television personality Mary Malcolm

*This is a copy of an article published in "Reflections" in October 2003, Vol. 12 Issue 141, pp.32-35.
"Reflections" is Derbyshire's largest-circulation targeted lifestyle magazine, serving Dronfield, Chesterfield, Matlock and Bakewell areas.
The article is reproduced here with the very kind permission and written consent of the author, Michael Fay, and Bannister Publications Ltd.

[1] In the photograph of the television personality Mary Malcolm, the reason everyone was smiling was because the picture on the T.V. screen wasn't a televised programme. It was a photo, pasted on!

There is more on site information about Harry:

There's a postcard of Harry Gill's Matlock Bath shop
, taken in 1906 so many years before he became the proprietor, elsewhere on this website.

"The Lady with the Lamp" was filmed at Lea Hurst, 2-3 July 1951

Football Club Committee
. He was the club's photographer and ground secretary.

A book, by Ron Duggins, has been published that contains many of Harry Gill's photos. Details are elsewhere on this website.
Harry Gill's MI.

And some Matlock carnivals: