George Frank Burtt


Ringmer Green and Pond with North Road Cottages on the right (Brighton View Co. card, 1915 postmark)

To home page
To directory of publishers
To gallery

Railway engineer and draughtsman, also photographer and postcard publisher. Burtt was born at Greenwich in Kent on March 22, 1871. Although George was his first name, he preferred to be called Frank. His father, another George Burtt, had been born at Greenwich in 1845, and his mother, Emily S. Burtt, had been born in the same town in about the same year. In the 1891 census his father is described as a wine merchant's clerk, but in 1897 he was said to be a warehouseman. The 1901 census lists him as a distiller's clerk.

After attending Grammar School in Lewisham, Frank Burtt worked for a few years as an apprentice engine fitter at the New Cross Works of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (one of the forerunners of the Southern Railway). A talented though "fiery little man with a trooper's vocabulary", he was promoted by 1892 to a post at the LB & SCR's Drawing Office at their Brighton works, where he served under a succession of Chief Mechanical Engineers, starting with Robert Billinton.

On July 24, 1897 Burtt married Millicent Hayler at All Saints Church in Lewes. She was the daughter of Edward Hayler, an engineer and perhaps one of Burtt's colleagues. By 1901 the couple were living in a cottage in Lewes Road at the Paygate (western) end of the village of Ringmer, together with Millicent's sister, Helena. Millicent was working as a schoolmistress. Burtt presumably cycled to Lewes each weekday morning to catch the train to Brighton, returning home in the evening. He is hard to locate in the 1901 census index of as he is listed under the surname Furth!

As part of his official duties Burtt was required to photograph new locomotives (and rebuilds) constructed at Brighton works, and he seems to have used the opportunity to take extra photographs for himself, which he then set about publishing as picture postcards. One wonders whether his employers realised that Burtt was busy supplementing his income on the side. His loco cards, which were borderless and lacked captions, were of high quality and would have been popular with railway enthusiasts. Many were labelled on the back "Photographed and published by G. F. Burtt, Ringmer, near Lewes - Sussex", but others were issued anonymously, perhaps to disguise their origins.

Burtt photographed a varied range of LB & SCR locomotives, from the Stroudely designed "Terrier" 0-6-0T tanks and the unique "Single" 2-2-2, Grosvenor, to examples of R. J Billinton's Class D3 0-4-4Ts and elegant Class B4 4-4-0s. In 1907 he issued a card of the prototype of Marsh's Class I3 4-4-2T. Some of the locomotives were photographed outside Brighton works, but Burtt arranged for others to be towed to sidings at the Crumbles at Eastbourne where lighting conditions were generally better. Prototypes were often painted specially in grey and black to enhance their appearance in the photographs, then repainted in normal LB & SCR colours and livery before entering active service. Burtt seems rarely to have attempted the difficult feat of photographing moving trains. The locomotives he photographed were mostly carefully posed, steamless and static, permitting long exposures and consequently pin sharp pictures.

Burtt published postcard views of the interior and exterior of Brighton locomotive works, and also cards of some of the LB & SCR steam ships that operated the Newhaven to Dieppe cross-Channel service. One particularly interesting card (see Gallery) shows the paddle steamer Alexandra tied up to the East Quay at Newhaven. This venerable ship had plied the Newhaven to Dieppe route from 1863 to 1883, and then seen service in the Bristol Channel and in North Wales waters. Re-registered at Newhaven in 1895 she ran summer excursion trips along the South Coast, before being sold for scrap in 1905. It is unclear when Burtt photographed her, and perhaps he acquired the negative from another photographer. Other Burtt cards show the elegant paddle steamer Paris III (1882-1924), her sister ship Rouen IV (1888-1909), the steamship Arundel (1900-1934) and look-alike Brighton IV (1903-1933).

Burtt also busied himself recording the Ringmer village scene. He supplied photographs to Mezzotint, which they used to create a set of collotype cards of the village early in 1904. His contribution was not acknowledged on the cards (contrary to Mezzotint's usual practice), but at a later date he re-issued at least one of the pictures as a real photographic card, thus demonstrating his ownership. He also supplied photographs of Ringmer to the Brighton View Co. and these appeared as real photographic cards with his initials on the front not long before the First World War. Other cards were published by Burtt himself. They are usually of good quality like the loco cards and many have a rich sepia cast. Sometimes the photographs have borders, but many lack borders. The captions are usually written on the photographs in neat, backwards sloping capitals, followed by the initials "G. F. B" (easily misread in some cases as "C. F. B.") and a 3- or 4-digit reference number. A few cards lack captions but have the same printed label on the back as many of the loco cards: "Photographed and published by G. F. Burtt, Ringmer, near Lewes - Sussex". One captionless card that appeared in 1907 (and reproduced in the Gallery) shows a store of ancient steam engines at Horsted Keynes awaiting repair or scrapping during the rebuilding of Brighton Works. It provides modern steam enthusiasts with a nostalgic and fascinating glimpse of a long lost world.

In 1907 Burtt began producing some distinctive cards featuring country life and rural pursuits. To the frustration of collectors the pictures have tended to become rather yellowed and faded with age, unlike on the majority of Burtt's cards. Instead of being superimposed on the negative, the captions on the cards are often individually handwritten in Indian ink in a white border at the base of each photograph. The cards are unnumbered, and there are no initials on the photographs.

One particularly interesting yellowish card shows the Ringmer postman on his rounds (a 1907 postmark has been seen). Also of interest is a card of a game of stoolball on Ringmer village green. Another notable card records a country wedding at Ringmer in 1907. Finely decorated carthorses haul a wagon laden with guests across a field hedged with now vanished elms. Another card of the wedding, which is generally less yellowed, has a caption that was written on the negative, not on the card. A card of the Southdown fox hounds at Ringmer was issued entirely anonymously without a caption. Other cards of this type include views of Plashett Wood, Malling Mill (Lewes) in the snow, Ringmer Mill, sheep-shearing, and working oxen on a farm near Ringmer, believed to be Lade's farm at Housedean between Lewes and Falmer.

Many of these distinctive cards are labelled on the back in an obvious echo of the railway cards "Photographed and published by C. F. Burtt, Ringmer, near Lewes - Sussex". The first initial is puzzling. It is certainly a "C" and not a "G", but what significance does it have? The simplest explanation is that Burtt purchased backs preprinted with his name and address, and the printer mistakenly thought his first name began with a "C" rather than a "G". When the error came to light, Burtt decided to ignore it and continue issuing the cards. The card of the Sussex fox hounds has his correct initials.

A further puzzle is that Kelly's 1909 and 1911 Sussex Directories list a Frank Burtt, photographer, at a house called "Kingmoor" in Ringmer, in addition to George Burtt, who is listed as a private resident in Ringmer Road, which is where the postcard publisher and railway employee lived. Perhaps Burtt owned two houses in Ringmer, or changed the name of his house to Kingmoor. Perhaps the George Burtt listed in the Directories was his father. The possibility that two photographers called Burtt lived in Ringmer around 1910 is scarcely credible.

Burtt was a founder member of the Stephenson Locomotive Society, which in 1927 was instrumental in preserving Gladstone, an express passenger engine built at Brighton in 1882 by the LB & SCR and designed by William Stroudley, Billinton's predecessor as Chief Mechanical Engineer. Burtt was also a founder member and one time secretary and treasurer of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers. Starting in 1896, he wrote a series of articles in Moore's Monthly Magazine and its successor, the Locomotive Magazine, under the pseudonym "F.S. Hollandsche". Company policy dictated that he could not use his real name, and casting around for a pseudonym his eye is said to have alighted on a cigar box labelled "Hollandsche Sigaren Fabriek"! The articles were reprinted in book form in 1903 under the title The locomotives of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway, 1830-1903 (Locomotive Publishing Co., London).

Burtt lived in Ringmer until about 1910 or 1912, and then moved to 46 Malling Street in Lewes, from where he could more easily get a train to Brighton Works. He and Millicent are listed as voters at Number 46 in the 1918 Electoral Register, which was the first to be compiled after women were given the vote. Sadly, Millicent did not have the vote for long - she died on February 2, 1919, of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged only 47. Later that year, Burtt married Mabel Ann Knight. The Autumn 1923 Electoral Register lists Burtt and his new wife at Number 46, together with his son, Martley Burtt, born in 1901.

In 1932 Burtt retired from Brighton Drawing Office, having served four successive Chief Mechanical Engineers (Robert Billinton, D. E. Marsh, Colonel L. Billinton, and the celebrated R.E. L. Maunsell). Afterwards, he and his wife moved to the western side of Lewes, to a house called Caradoc at 27 South Way, where he began writing books (under the name F. or Frank Burtt). He was as passionate about steamboats as he was about railways. His fine monograph on Cross-Channel and coastal paddle steamers appeared in 1934 (Richard Tilling, London) and was reprinted in 1937. Fred Rich (Steam World, July 2005, p. 23) reports that during the Second World War Burtt came out of retirement and resumed work at Brighton Drawing Office. After the war was over Burtt returned to his writing and contributed four books to the Ian Allan ABC Locomotive Series: LB & SCR locomotives: a survey from 1870 - 1927 (Ian Allen, Staines, 1946), SE & CR locomotives, 1874-1923 (Ian Allen, London, 1947), L & SWR locomotives: a survey 1873-1922 (Ian Allen, London, 1948), and (with W. Beckerlegge) Pullman and perfection (Ian Allan, 1948). His final book on Steamers of the Thames and Medway (Tilling, London) was published in 1949. Burtt used many of his own photographs to illustrate his books.

Burtt died in Brighton on August 22, 1949, and was survived by his second wife, Mabel, who continued to live in South Way. The extensive collection of railway photographs and documents that he amassed is held by the National Railway Museum in York.

Acknowledgement: Grateful thanks to John Kay (Ringmer) for supplying valuable information about Frank Burtt, Samuel Holford and George Duffield.

To directory of publishers
To gallery

Design: Lucid Design