John Herbert ("Jack") Osborne


Poynings smithy (1906 postmark). Chris Cook identifies the blacksmith as his great great uncle, Frank Shaw

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Photographer, Poynings, Sussex. Osborne was born on March 8, 1882 at his parents' home at Moss Side on the southern edge of Manchester. His birth name was John Herbert Mason and he was the son of a book-keeper, Richard Redfern Mason (born in 1860 at Bowden in Cheshire), and Marianne Elizabeth Sloane (born in 1861 at Halifax in Yorkshire, died Portsmouth 1948, aged 87). Richard and Marianne married in the Moss Side area in 1880, but later separated and embarked on new marriages. Richard took Ada Louisa Lees as his new wife at Portsmouth in 1888 and then in 1895 Marianne married Henry Turner Osborne at Fulham.

John Herbert Mason was 24 years old when he married Elvira (Elvera or "Vera") Hollingdale on April 12, 1906 at Brighton Registry Office. The registrar entered his name on the marriage certificate as John Herbert Mason-Osborne and described his father, Richard Mason, as a deceased musician. John (or Jack as he was often known) was living at 2 Seville Street in the Elm Grove area of Brighton and already working as a photographer. His bride, Elvira, was 25 and lived in Dyke Lane at Poynings. She had been born in the village, and was the daughter of Frederick Hollingdale, a deceased brewer.

Despite his marriage John seems to have continued living at Seville Street, only periodically joining Vera at Poynings, where Vera gave birth to a daughter, Maisie Marion Mason Osborne, on November 3, 1908. The 1911 census records that Vera and Maisie were living at The Street in Poynings with Vera's unmarried brother, Archibald Hollingdale, a brewer's drayman (born at Poynings and aged 39), who is listed as head of household. Sharing the house was Vera and Archibald's 73-year-old mother, Lydia Hollingdale, born at Ringmer. Also present was Renee Charles, aged 5 (born at Brighton), who like Maisie is described as a niece of Archibald (she was the daughter of Archibald's sister, Amy Hollingdale, who was married to John Thomas Charles). For some reason, John Osborne (as he currently styled himself) continued to live apart, at 2 Seville Street in Brighton. Was Elvira merely visiting Archibald on census night or did she and her husband maintain separate homes? The census entries do not elaborate.

Osborne began issuing sepia real photographic cards of Poynings village, the Devils Dyke and Pyecombe in 1904. One of his most interesting cards shows the steep grade railway that carried passengers up and down the escarpment below the Dyke Hotel until its closure in 1908. Another notable card shows the well-wheel at Saddlescombe Farm. A donkey or horse used to step inside the wheel and operate it treadmill fashion to draw water up the 150-foot farm well, excavated by the Knights Templars in the 13th century. Unfortunately, the card does not show the wheel in use.

Osborne's earliest cards are anonymous and often the captions are individually handwritten in Indian ink in a single white border at the base of each photograph. Capitals are used only at the start of words. Typically the captions are split, with, for example, "Poynings" on the left side of the border and "Sussex" on the right side with a wide gap in the middle. Osborne soon tired of writing the captions individually and switched to writing them directly on the negatives in Indian ink so that they appeared in white when the photographs were printed. By 1908, he was issuing cards with a narrow border all round the photographs or with no border at all. His name and address are printed on the back of some of the cards, but most are anonymous. There is a possibility that Osborne also published some anonymous cards of Poynings and the Dyke that lack the characteristic "split" captions.

Osborne did not normally issue cards of Brighton, though an undated card of a burst water main fountaining skywards in Franklin Road (off Lewes Road and close to Seville Street) shows that he could not resist a "scoop". A postally used example has been seen with an August 1907 strike. A card of Paygate Cottages at Patcham was perhaps produced to oblige a friend.

Osborne was still selling cards of the Poynings area in the summer of 1912, as is shown by a card of a group of villagers attending the annual flower show. Soon afterwards, however, he became seriously ill, and on September 1 he died at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton of septicaemia, angina pectoris and cardiac failure. He was aged only 30. It is sometimes claimed that he was accidentally poisoned by his photographic chemicals, though his death certificate offers no support for this assertion.

Osborne's death brought his fledgling photographic business to a premature end. It was presumably Elvira who gave A. W. Wardell of Brighton permission to reproduce her husband's popular card (dating back to 1907 if not earlier) showing the road leading up from the Smithy to the Church in Poynings. Wardell cheekily claimed authorship of the photograph and failed to acknowledge his debt to Osborne.

No entry has been found for Elvira in Kelly's 1915 Sussex Directory or in the 1918 Electoral Register for Poynings, and her whereabouts during the Great War are uncertain. However, the Autumn 1923 Register lists her (under the name Elvera Mason Osborne) as a voter in Poynings Street and Kelly's 1922 Sussex Directory records her as Vera Osborne, proprietor of refreshment rooms at Poynings, so she was definitely living in the village not long after the war, and may never have left it. She died at Poynings on March 25, 1948.

Maisie Osborne married Edward Long in 1935, and lived at Poynings all her life, following her mother to the grave on October 30, 1989. Her daughter, Marianne Long, now lives in California.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks are due to Marianne Long for helping with information about her parents and grandparents, and for supplying three of the images reproduced here. It is also a pleasure to record the assistance provided by Adrian Vieler, who has researched the Mason-Osborne family in some detail. Peter Booth has kindly provided many additional insights.

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