Frederick Thomas Searle


Collotype of Plaistow published by Pennicard. Photo by Searle (Watersfield) of houses opposite the church

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West Sussex photographer, whose unpretentious pictures of sleepy villages and hamlets, mostly in the Arun valley, deserve to be better known. Whereas other photographers purposely sought out picturesque, prosperous-looking places with well-kept cottages and tidy gardens, Searle was not averse to recording scenes of rural shabbiness and neglect, away from the usual tourist trails. His photographs are a useful reminder of the prosaic realities of village life.

Searle was born in about 1860 in Hackney in London. His parents were Amelia Searle (born in London in about 1843) and Matthew Thomas Searle (another Londoner, born in about 1839) who was "clerk for an African merchant". The 1881 census reveals that at 19 Frederick had left school and was an out-of-work grocer's assistant. He lived with his parents and six younger brothers and sisters at 7 Anthill Road in Tottenham.

Searle married Ellen Stammer (born 1860 in Brighton) in 1884, and for some years the couple led a peripatetic existence moving between addresses in south London. When the 1891 census was held, Frederick was lodging in Lambeth without Ellen and working as a decorator. The 1901 census is the first and possibly the only one to list him as a photographer. By this date he and Ellen were living in Burpham in the Arun valley with their two daughters: Ellen Dorothy Violet Searle, aged 9 (born at Brixton in Surrey) and Winifred Cissy Searle aged 15 (born at Ewhurst in Surrey).

At the time of the 1911 census, Ellen and her two daughters were living in Church Street in Amberley, north of Burpham. Frederick was not at home and his whereabouts are not known. Ellen recorded that she had had three children; the identity of the third child has not been established.

In July 1907 a copyright declaration (now in the National Archives) was lodged with the Stationers' Company in London concerning a photograph of a robin's nest with five eggs "built inside an automatic machine In (the) shape of (a) boy? and discovered in a tree at Arundel, Sussex". The copyright author of the work was stated to be "Frederick Searle, photographer, Camberley (surely a misprint for Amberley), Sussex" and the copyright owner was James Searle, 43 Walpole Road, New Cross in London. James may well have been a relative of Frederick, but this has not been proved.

After the Great War Frederick Searle moved from Amberley to Watersfield on the west bank of the Arun. Kelly's 1924 Sussex Directory lists him as a "painter" at Coldwaltham, whose boundaries include the hamlet of Watersfield. Further research is needed to establish when he died (1926?).

Searle allowed his photographs of seven or more places in West Sussex to be reproduced as collotype postcards:

1) COWFOLD and WEST GRINSTEAD. Some cards of Cowfold and West Grinstead in the Adur valley printed by Mezzotint of Brighton are labelled "Photo, Searle Henfield & Arundel". These date from 1904 onwards and are the earliest known Searle cards.

2) PLAISTOW. The label "Searle, Photo, Arundel" appears on the front of some collotype cards of Plaistow that are labelled on the reverse "Goodeye Stores". Although the Stores doubtless sold the cards, they are unlikely to have been the manufacturer of the cards, who has yet to be identified. The captions are printed in scarlet, gothic-style lettering. A 1910 postmark is the earliest so far recorded. Cards with the same distinctive style of captions were sold in many places in Sussex around this date, including West Wittering, Singleton, Turners Hill and West Grinstead. The anonymous publisher also produced cards of other parts of Britain, for example the Bristol area.

Later cards of Plaistow are marked "Photo. Searle. Watersfield" on the front and "Pub. by Pennicard" on the reverse. They were printed in England apparently after the Great War and have white captions and single digit serial numbers (6 is the highest seen).

3) WATERSFIELD. The same printer who produced the later cards of Plaistow also created a set of very similar collotype cards of the hamlet of Watersfield next to Coldwaltham. The cards are marked "Photo. Searle. Watersfield" on the front in white lettering, and Unsted on the reverse, printed in black. Serial numbers seen range from 2 to 11, suggesting that a dozen different cards may have been published.

4) SUTTON and BIGNOR. Originating from the same printer are some collotypes of the scarp-foot villages of Sutton and Bignor, which are labelled "Photo. Searle. Watersfield" on the front, but on the back claim to have been published by "Hare, Sutton" or "Neal, Bignor". As in the case of the Watersfield cards the Sutton cards carry serial numbers (9 is the highest noted), but the Bignor cards are unnumbered.

5) BURY. Brian Clay of High Salvington has found an interesting collotype card of the former Black Dog (or Dog & Duck) Inn at Bury, now a private house, which was issued by the landlord or publican, H. Henly, and is labelled "F. Searle, Photo., Amberley" on the front. No other card is known that includes an initial with Searle's name.

Frederick Searle does not appear to be listed as a photographer in Sussex Directories of the early 1900s and sadly little is known about him. Recently, however, Ron Stilwell has uncovered an important piece of information while transcribing cassette tapes made by Bill Parsons, who lived in about 1920 at Bury near Arundel, and in 1970 recorded his memories of his boyhood and early adult life. Bill used to visit the village pub, which he called the Black Rabbit (meaning presumably the Black Dog) where he remembered meeting "Old Searle, the photographer from Watersfield, the other side of Bury. He took group photographs with his tripod camera and a cloth draped over his head. For an individual he would do a portrait which would be put into a little shilling brass brooch and pinned to their clothing." There can be little doubt that the photographer who plied his trade at the Black Rabbit or Dog was the same Searle whose name appears on the collotype postcards, but finding further information about him is proving to be an uphill task.

Acknowledgement: Grateful thanks are due to Ron Stilwell for drawing this website's attention to the recollections of Bill Parsons and to Brian Clay for sharing his discoveries about Searle.

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