James Cheetham


Ploughing at Houndean Rise, Lewes

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Clerk and schoolmaster, Lewes Gaol. James Cheetham was active as a postcard publisher from 1905 to the early 1930s. He published a large number of real photographic cards of Lewes, including many unusual views of back streets. He also covered the neighbouring villages of Offham and Kingston. A card of Charleston Farmhouse near Firle and two or more cards of the French Convent School at Newhaven may have been produced to special order. Cheetham evidently enjoyed walking in his spare time on the Downs around Lewes and many of his cards show shepherds tending flocks of sheep and oxen ploughing the fields. In addition to publishing cards, he contributed photographs to books such as F. W. Jackson's Homeland Handbook for Lewes of 1926.

Cheetham was born in about 1854 in Mayo in Ireland, but his birth certificate has not been traced, and nothing is known about his family background, except that his father was called Patrick. In the late 1870s or early 1880s he married Emma Jane Lockett, who had been born in Manchester in about 1853. Attempts to find the couple's marriage certificate and to trace them in the 1881 census have so far been unsuccessful, despite much searching. Their only son, Thomas Patrick Cheetham, was born at Southport, Lancashire in about 1885. Annie Kathleen Cheetham, their only daughter, was born at the family home in the dispiritingly named Cemetery Road at Ipswich, on February 20, 1890. Cheetham was an assistant warder at the local prison.

He moved to Lewes with his family from Ipswich in 1895. It is uncertain where he first settled, but by 1899 he was living at 6 St Anne's Crescent on the western edge of the town. The 1901 census records that Cheetham was a clerk at Lewes Prison, and he continued to work at the prison both as a clerk and as a schoolmaster for many years.

Cheetham probably took up photography as a hobby before coming to Lewes. It would be interesting to know whether any pictures of his survive of the Ipswich area. He is listed as a member of the Lewes Photographic Society in 1897/8 and again in 1900, but not in 1906/7 when he was already selling postcard views of Lewes. Perhaps he was required to resign from the Society, which seems to have tried to restrict its membership to amateur photographers.

Cheetham attended St Pancras Catholic Church in Lewes and was treasurer of the local branch of the National Catholic Benefit and Thrifty Society.

On November 16, 1908, Emma Cheetham died of cancer, and early in 1911 James Cheetham remarried, at St Pancras Catholic Church. His new wife, Mary Jane Maguire, had been born in Lewes and was the daughter of Edward Maguire. She was 15 years younger than James, who by the time of his marriage had moved from Number 6 St Anne's Crescent to Number 15, which Mary may have acquired.

Lewes Prison closed from 1917 to 1931. Cheetham would have been about 63 years old in 1917. He may have found other employment in Lewes, possibly as a teacher, but nothing definite seems to be recorded. Alternatively, he may have taken early retirement, supplementing his pension with his earnings as a photographer. He died on June 29, 1941, aged 87. His daughter, Annie, who was unmarried, attended the funeral at St Pancras Church, but his son, Thomas, was away in Africa.

Mary Jane Cheetham continued to live at 15 St Anne's Crescent until January 31, 1947, when she died intestate at the age of 78. She had no children of her own, and her sister, Annie Daly of Croydon Road, Anerley, in south-east London, handled the estate.


EARLY ANONYMOUS CARDS (1905 - c. 1910)
James Cheetham published his first cards anonymously. Most had captions that were individually handwritten on the photographs, but a few were issued without captions. The handwriting is distinctive - a fluid graceful copperplate with numerous loops and flourishes. The L of Lewes, for example, normally has a looped top, though sometimes the loop is so narrow that it is not immediately apparent. Cards with pale backgrounds have Indian ink captions; white ink is used on dark backgrounds.

The oldest examples of these 'Early Anons' that have been found date from 1905. Cards of this type were gradually phased out from mid 1906 onwards. Postmark evidence suggests that production may finally have ceased around 1909 or 1910.

THE CLASSIC CARDS (mid 1906 to 1911 or later)
The 'Classics', as they will be termed here, are stamped CHEETHAM-LEWES on the back in grey or sepia ink. Most have captions added to the cards in the usual graceful copperplate, but a few lack captions.

The Classics were first issued in summer 1906 and comprised both new cards and re-issues of Early Anons. Some of the new cards record local events such as the aftermath of the fire at Smith's in Lewes High Street on October 19, 1907, HRH the Duchess of Albany laying the foundation stone of the Victoria Hospital at Lewes in June 1909 and the King Edward VII memorial procession at Lewes on May 20, 1910.

The Classics were still being produced as late as 1911, but by this date most of Cheetham's output took the form of 'Post-classics', with captions written on transparent slips.

THE POST-CLASSIC CARDS (1907 to 1938/40)
It was presumably Cheetham himself who wrote the captions on each and every Early Anon and Classic card using pen and ink. He must have found the task tedious, and so by 1907 he began experimenting with handwritten captions on transparent slips that could be superimposed on the negatives during printing. By 1910 most of the cards being issued had slip-based captions. Usually the slip is plainly visible, sometimes obtrusively so, but on a minority of cards it successfully merges with the background and only the fact that the glossy surface of the card extends across the lettering betrays its existence (captions written individually on the cards in black or white ink are raised above the glossy surface).

Only the very earliest Post-classics were stamped on the back with Cheetham's name. The majority were issued anonymously. The handwriting on the slips varies: sometimes it is identical to that on the earlier cards, but on most cards (including all those with interwar postmarks) it is more rounded, plainer and less confident. Few of the letters are connected together. The L of Lewes tends to have a simple curly top rather than a loop. Whereas 'Narrow Hand' is almost certainly Cheetham himself, 'Round Hand' is likely to be a woman, most probably either his second wife or his daughter.

The striking difference in handwriting on the majority of Post-classics has caused some collectors to doubt whether the cards are actually Cheethams. However, both Classic and Post-classic versions of quite a number of cards are known, and there is thus good reason to regard the Post-classics as genuine Cheethams. Most of the Post-classics are merely re-issues of Classics, but some are definitely additions to the range. Examples of late cards include:

    View of School Hill in Lewes, showing the War Memorial completed in 1922.
    View of the Prison cross roads showing a Leyland Titan bus. Southdown began operating these buses in 1929.
    View of Southdown Avenue, Lewes, late 1920s.
    View of the Nevill Estate, Lewes, dated by the late L. C. Davey as c. 1931.

Cheetham did not number his cards, but his total output is likely to have been of the order of a thousand cards. The majority of his negatives appear to have been lost, but Kim Clark in her book Lost Lewes (2002, S B Publications, Seaford) reports that 87 were found not long ago in a cottage outhouse in Glynde.

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