Henry George Oakley


Cuckmere Haven

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Proprietor of refreshment rooms, first at Newhaven and then at Seaford. Oakley was born in 1873 at Stepney in London. When the 1891 census was held, he was working as a caretaker, and still living with his parents, Thomas G. Oakley and Mary Oakley, at 9 Spring Gardens in Stepney. His father, who had been born in Lambeth in about 1836, worked as a night watchman. His mother, who came from Bradfield in Essex and was 8 years younger than Thomas, was a "coffee stall keeper".

Henry Oakley married Ada Susannah Pleasants (born 1865 at Colchester, Essex) in London in 1894. By the following year, Oakley had opened refreshment rooms at 4 High Street, Newhaven. He still had these rooms in 1899, but in the 1901 census is listed as the proprietor of a temperance hotel at 1 Meeching Avenue in Newhaven as well as a coffee house. It is unclear whether the coffee house formed part of the hotel or was located at 4 High Street. Already, Henry and Ada had two children: George Edwin Oakley, born in 1896, and 1-month-old Gladys Ada Oakley.

By the time Kelly's 1903 Sussex Directory was compiled, Oakley had given up running the hotel, but was operating a "Refreshment House" in Bridge Street, presumably in place of the former refreshment rooms. Between 1904 and 1907 he opened some refreshment rooms in Seaford, at 5 Church Road. Pike's 1909-10 Lewes, Newhaven and Seaford Directory records that he had set up further refreshment rooms at 11 Church Road. According to Kelly's 1909 Sussex Directory, a Miss Lizzie Oakley was in charge. She was presumably a relative of Henry. Another Oakley, Robert William, was a fishmonger and later a confectioner at Newhaven in the years before the First World War. It is not known whether he too was a relative.

Pike's 1910-11 Lewes and Newhaven Directory records that Oakley still retained an "eating house" in Bridge Street as well as "dining rooms" in Church Road, but at Number 26 instead of Number 5. Lizzie Oakley was at Number 21. Almost certainly the properties along Church Road had undergone renumbering. In 1912 Oakley severed his links with Newhaven in order to concentrate on his Seaford clientele. He closed his Bridge Street premises, selling the equipment and furniture at auction. Kelly's 1915 and 1918 Sussex Directories record that he and Lizzie were still in business at 26 and 21 Church Road, Seaford.

Oakley started publishing real photographic cards of Newhaven and Seaford in the early 1900s. The photographs tend to be quite faded and a yellowish honey colour. It is hard to say whether they were originally black and white or sepia-toned. Borders are present only on a few early cards. The card backs are of very varied design, which suggests that Oakley made his cards in very small batches and purchased only small quantities of photographic card at a time, paying little attention to the brand and the design of the backs.

The captions on Oakley cards are handwritten in plain, blocky capitals. Capitals at the start of words are larger than the rest. Until about 1911-12 Oakley's usual practice was to write ""OAKLEY. SEAFORD∗", "OAKLEY. PHOTO∗" or "OAKLEY∗ PHOTO. SEAFORD" on the photographs. The significance of the asterisk is unknown. Later he stopped putting his name on the photographs and instead added a printed label to the backs of the cards: "H. G. Oakley, Photographer, Church Road, Seaford" or "Hy. Geo. Oakley, Photographer, Church Road, Seaford".

Postmarks on cards marked "Oakley" start in 1905, but an anonymous and captionless card with a July 1904 postmark has been found that may well be his work. Another very early card bearing a caption date of December 1904 and labelled "OAKLEY PHOTO SEAFORD" (with no asterisk) shows the sailing ship "Marie" aground on Newhaven beach. Judging from postmarks and dates on captions, Oakley was most active as a publisher between about 1905 and 1909, but he continued to issue new cards as late as 1914, when he photographed groups of young men assembling in Seaford to volunteer for military service.

Oakley published fewer cards of Newhaven than of Seaford. Two early cards record the visit of Lord Brassey to Newhaven in 1905. Oakley clearly enjoyed photographing the Harbour, with its fine sailing ships and cross-Channel steamers. Amongst the memorable cards that he issued were views of the RMS Dieppe (dated July 1905) and RMS Brighton IV heading out of the harbour past the East Quay. Another card, reproduced in the Gallery, showed the Brighton IV (or its lookalike the Arundel) well clear of the Signal Station on its way to Dieppe (a 1905 postmark has been noted). He also recorded the arrival at Newhaven in 1906 of the Italian sailing ship Anirac from Genoa with its sails in tatters following a Channel storm. Other Newhaven cards depict, for example, the local fire brigade, harvesting, and soldiers on military exercises.

Cards of Seaford are even more varied. Many show the Esplanade and notable buildings in the town, such as the Surrey Convalescent Hotel, the Bay Hotel, the Annecy Convent, the Esplanade Hotel, Seaford Church, Seaford College and the Martello Tower. At least two cards, both very attractive, depict Seaford after a snow storm in November 1910. Another fine card, this time a summer scene, shows Church Street with "Oakley's Restaurant" in the foreground. About 50 cards are on display in the windows. At least 8 Oakley cards depict the cliffs and seashore at Splash Point; other cards show Thomas Tipper's gravestone, East Blatchington, Bishopstone, Alfriston Church, Exceat Bridge, the mouth of the Cuckmere, and Beachy Head.

Several Oakley cards record shipwrecks, notably the SS Newstead, which ran aground in dense fog under Seaford cliffs in March 1907 while on a voyage carrying barley from Capetown to Hamburg. The captain and crew were all rescued and the boat successfully refloated on a high tide ten days later. In the previous month Oakley photographed the remains of a barge wrecked on Seaford beach with the loss of three or four lives. Other cards record the beaching of the Hull trawler Game Cock in September 1908 (see also the entry for R. A. Janeck) and the stranded steamer Needles, which ran ashore in a fog in 1914.

Several Royal children were educated at Seaford Schools. Oakley photographed Princess Victoria sitting on Seaford beach and other Royals at school sports gatherings. One much sought-after card shows H.M. the King arriving by car at Seaford in 1905.

A card that demonstrates Oakley's skills as a photographer is an informal close up of a group of laughing teenage girls paddling on the beach. Oakley managed to get everyone sharply focussed and looking relaxed - no mean feat at a time when film speeds were relatively slow. Two other cards of the group are less successful, however, because some of the girls moved too quickly and blurring occurred.

Another memorable photograph, taken from a tactful distance, shows newly recruited soldiers stripping and washing in the sea, presumably before being issued with their first uniforms.

How many different real photographic cards Oakley issued is uncertain, but it is likely to have been at least 200 to 250. Because his cards are keenly collected, they are now quite scarce.

Oakley seems to have made some of his negatives available to other postcard publishers, presumably for a fee. A card of Claremont Road in Seaford that he published shares the same photograph as an Arrow Series card. Also existing both as an Oakley and Arrow Series card is a view of the RMS Dieppe producing clouds of smoke as it steamed seawards down Newhaven Harbour in July 1905. In addition, a brightly coloured but attractive Arrow Series card of the S. S. Arundel and the paddle steamer Paris III moored in the inner harbour just south of the swing bridge (c. 1905) exists as a sepia-tinted Oakley card. As already mentioned, Oakley issued a card of the Brighton IV or Arundel leaving the Signal Station behind as it headed out of the harbour into the open sea. This was duplicated (albeit later and in a slightly more blurred state) by an Arrow Series card. To confuse matters, a coloured version of the same picture was issued by Oxley, who just possibly may have been the original photographer.

Oakley seems to have closed his refreshment rooms at Seaford by 1922. Pike's Lewes, Newhaven and Seaford Directory for 1924-25 lists him at Augusta House, 7 Chichester Road, Seaford. In 1930 he was living at Stebonheath, Stafford Road, Seaford, and still working as a photographer, though there is no indication that he was continuing to publish postcards. He died at Seaford in 1932.

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