George Edward Austin


"Every little mite helps". Studio portrait with props

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Photographer, 70 Seaside, Eastbourne. Austin worked as a photographer at Eastbourne for nearly 30 years. David Simkin ( has established that Austin started in business in about 1894, as the licensee of a stand on the sea front near the Wish Tower, which was well placed to attract passing holidaymakers. In 1896 he opened a portrait studio at 84 Terminus Road, but he closed it within two or three years and set up home and a new studio at 70 Seaside, where he remained until the early 1920s. After Austin retired, his business was taken over by Robert H. Rice, who also ran portrait studios at Waltham Cross and Bath.

In his early years as a studio photographer, Austin produced many cabinet portraits and cartes de visites. However, from about 1903 onwards he issued increasing numbers of portraits in postcard form. He also sold many souvenir postcards of groups of holidaymakers gathered at the entrances to their hotels and boarding houses. In addition, he published cards of cricket teams and entertainers who visited Eastbourne, as well as cards of soldiers attending military camps on the Downs. In 1909 he issued some cards of Empire Day crowds at Eastbourne, but he seems not to have repeated the exercise in later years. A few of his cards show shop fronts and local families posing outside their homes. As far as is known, he did not produce any general view cards of Eastbourne.

Austin was born on March 13, 1864 at his parent's home at 25 Cawdor Street in Bromley by Bow (Poplar) in east London. His mother was Frances Austin, formerly Geering, and his father was Francis Austin, a "rigger", who presumably worked in a local shipyard. Cawdor Street, which has disappeared in redevelopment, formed part of the cramped and impoverished Abbott Estate, whose streets all had Scottish names.

Frances and Francis married in 1861. They had two other children besides George: Francis James Austin, born in 1862, and Alice Austin, born in 1866, both at Bromley by Bow. Life was hard in this part of East London, death rates were high, and Frances was soon widowed, even before Alice was born. The 1871 census reports that she had moved with her children to Blackwell Yard, which was adjacent to Brunswick Street and not far from Cawdor Street. Brunswick Street now forms part of the northern approach road system to the Blackwall Tunnel. The census records that Frances, who had been born in Brixton, was 35 years old and worked as a servant; she shared the house with another servant, Eliza Hollingworth. When the census was taken, George, who was 7, was not at home. Jill Allen reports that he was living with his maternal grandmother, Sarah Geering, in Poplar.

By the time the 1881 census was held, Frances was living with her children at Green House, near Brunswick Street, and working as a house cleaner. Her eldest son, Francis, was 19 and a basket maker. George was 17 and a joiner, while Alice was 15 and a milliner.

What happened to George over the next 13 years before he began work in Eastbourne is very unclear. Attempts to locate him in the 1891 census have been unsuccessful, and it can be assumed that his name, like many others, has been wrongly transcribed in the census index. He was almost certainly still living in the Poplar area in the late 1880s, when he met up with Priscilla Oswald or Heer, whose maiden name was Massey. She had been born at Sheerness in 1857 and was the daughter of a carpenter, William Massey. On May 13, 1874, when she was only about 17, she gave birth to a daughter. At the time she was living in Sturry Street in Poplar, just off the East India Road and quite close to Blackwell Yard. Priscilla registered the baby's name as Ada Prilly Heer, and declared that the child's father was James Heer, a ship's mate in the merchant service. She told the registrar that her name was Priscilla Prilly Heer, though in reality she was only a common law wife and in the unsympathetic eyes of the State still Priscilla Massey. Presumably to formalise their relationship, she and James Heer married at Poplar Parish Church on March 17, 1875. The marriage certificate notes that she was a minor, and describes James Heer as a mariner, and son of Arthur Heer, a packer. The marriage did not last long, although there was no formal divorce, which was an expensive undertaking in those far off days, beyond the means of all save the very rich. Priscilla went off to live with a marine engineer called James Oswald. Nothing has been discovered about Oswald's parents, place or date of birth. On July 11, 1878, Priscilla gave birth to a second daughter, May Christina Oswald, at 1 Ellerthorpe Street in Poplar. Once again, she registered the birth, but this time gave her name as "Priscilla Oswald, formerly Massey", though technically she was still Priscilla Heer. In 1881 she was living under the name Oswald with her two daughters at 99 Abbott Road in Bromley by Bow. Abbott Road forms the north-eastern boundary of the Abbott Estate. James Oswald was not at home and was presumably away at sea. In the summer of 1882 Priscilla registered the birth of her first, and as far as is known only, son, Archibald James Oswald.

On June 14, 1890, after she had moved to 53 Abbott Road, Priscilla gave birth to a third daughter, Jessie Austin Oswald. Although Jessie's birth certificate names James Oswald as her father, her second name of Austin appears to be an acknowledgement that George Austin was her biological father.

Priscilla is hard to find in the 1891 census as her surname has been wrongly transcribed in the index as Clissold! She was, however, still living at 53 Abbott Road with her second daughter, May, and son, Archibald. Neither James Oswald nor George Austin was present. Her eldest daughter Ada had left home and found work as a domestic servant with a policeman's family in Beresford Street in Newington (under the name Ada Oswald). The census also records that Priscilla was working as a sick nurse, and that baby Jessie was being looked after by Frederick and Elizabeth Perkin in Sabberton Street in West Ham (Frederick was a dock labourer). Unfortunately, Jessie died later in the year.

On January 21, 1892 Priscilla's fourth daughter, Florence Austin Oswald, was born, at 53 Abbott Road. Again, the choice of second name would seem highly significant, though the birth certificate once more identifies James Oswald as the father. Presumably, by this date George Austin and Priscilla were meeting regularly - they may even have set up home together. However, they did not marry for another twelve years, when on October 19, 1904, they exchanged vows in the Parish Church of Bromley St Leonard (Bromley by Bow). The marriage certificate notes that George was 40 years old, and the son of Francis Austin, a deceased "seaman". Strangely, George claimed to be a joiner living in Bromley, and made no mention of his photographic work and current residence in Eastbourne. Priscilla, who gave her surname as Heer and not Oswald, claimed like George to be living in Bromley. She stated that she was 38 years old and a widow. It would be interesting to know why she and George decided on a church service after so many years of informal marriage, and why they chose to return to Bromley by Bow and not solemnize their relationship at Eastbourne. Perhaps James Heer had just died, releasing Priscilla from her marriage vows, and perhaps she and George wanted their wedding to reflect their lives when they first met but were not free to marry.

The 1901 census records that George Austin and Priscilla were living at 70 Seaside with their 9-year-old daughter Florence Austin, and confirms that she had been born at Bromley by Bow (though no mention is made of her original surname). The trio were still residing at this address when the 1911 census was held. Florence was 19 years old and working as a milliner. On the census form Priscilla and George claimed to have been married for twenty years. Although 54 years old, Priscilla only admitted to being 42!

George retired in about 1922, when he was in his late fifties. In Pike's 1923-4 Eastbourne Directory he is listed at 1 Redoubt Road. It is not known when he and Priscilla died.

May Christina Oswald married Frederick Charles Holloway in 1900 in the Poplar area. The 1901 census reveals that her husband was a carman and that they were living at 103 Becton Road in West Ham. In 1902 Ada Prilly Heer married William Edward Hadley, a boiler maker. When the 1911 census was held, she and William were living at 7 Haig Road in Plaistow, together with their three children: Winnifred Ada Hadley (aged 7, born in Canning Town), Iris Hilda Hadley (aged 2, born in West Ham) and 7-month-old Leonard James Hadley (also born in West Ham).

Both George and Priscilla died at Eastbourne in 1949. George was 85 years old and Priscilla 91.

Acknowledgement: The above account draws in part on the researches of David Simkin and Jill Allen and it is a pleasure to acknowledge their help. For further details of George Austin's life and work as a portraitist you are recommended to visit David's invaluable website (

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