Snap! My portraits of changing Britain: Is life really better than it was 150 years ago A new TV show recreated the work of a pioneering Victorian photographer to find out
Charting history: John Sergeant has made a TV series about Victorian photographs
You get offered all manner of strange projects in this business – Strictly was only the start of it, believe me! But when I was asked to make a TV series about old photographs I thought someone was having a laugh. I couldn’t think of anything more boring.
It got worse. They wanted me to track down the places where these old photos were taken and take my own ‘modern’ versions. Now, I can just about take holiday snaps without everyone losing their heads, but this seemed a bit ambitious. Happily, I let myself be persuaded, and the result is a BBC series called Britain’s First Photo Album, where yours truly travels up and down the country, camera in hand, following in the footsteps of someone who actually knew what he was doing.
One of my new heroes is Francis Frith – a pioneering Victorian photographer who founded a publishing company with the aim of making the first photographic record of every city, town and village in Britain. Those images, taken by Frith (and later his team) between 1860 and 1970, are a unique topographical record of the changing face of Britain.
For this series we had to focus on a selection of Frith’s photos. Recreating the location shots brought out my inner explorer – hunting down streets or coastal rock formations. But it was the portraits that were really fascinating, offering terrific glimpses into Victorian life. One of my favourites was a shot of flower sellers at London’s Covent Garden in 1877. Three Eliza Doolittles were trying to smile for the photographer but they probably had little to smile about, for life was hard – many flower girls were orphans.
For my photograph, I wanted to see what flower selling is like today so I trotted off to New Covent Garden Market. What a change! It’s all hi-tech now. Where else could you ask for 10,000 red roses and be told they’d be ready tomorrow Still, I found some modern-day Eliza Doolittles who were happy to be in my shot.
Family across the ages: The Peart family 120 years ago…
… and their descendents today
I’ll never forget, either, the day I spent with the Chelsea Pensioners to recreate a glorious 1898 portrait of some of their predecessors – all massive white beards and stern expressions. In some ways, being a Chelsea Pensioner hasn’t changed much since then. They still parade in full uniform wearing tricorn hats. Today, though, women can be members and one of the first, Dorothy Hughes, found herself in the middle of my line-up. What a hoot she was. Far from being shocked, she joined in when one of the men shouted, ‘Knickers!’ just as I was about to take my shot. Like Britain’s fighting forces throughout history, they were remarkable for their discipline and for their wonderful ability to fool around.
'Three Eliza Doolittles were trying to smile for the camera'
So what did my journey tell me about how Britain has changed That’s a tricky one. I certainly know which era I’d prefer to be living in – the modern one. Some of the insights you get into Victorian life from the old photographs are shocking. Researching one image of a Victorian miner, I discovered that if he had been killed at work, the foreman would visit his widow as soon as possible – to give her 14 days’ notice to vacate her home. Today, we’d regard that as inhuman.
Occasionally, we struck gold ourselves during filming. In Whitby we found the descendants of children who had been photographed by Frith on the seashore. The Peart family was still in the fishing industry and still facing difficult times. There was joy and sadness there. It turned out that the tiny little scrap of a girl in the old photo, Ginny Peart, had lived until she was 92 years old. It was amazing to see the Peart family of today assemble for a photograph, just as their ancestors had.
I loved the characters I met for this series, which says so much about Britain and what has become of us. And I may be biased, but I think the results of my photographic challenge are rather uplifting.
Britain’s First Photo Album, BBC2, 12 March, 6.30pm.