Sir Benjamin Stone: Celebrated 19th Century Birmingham Photographer

When we are asked to name notable Birmingham residents, our mind will usually turn to such eminent individuals as Joseph Chamberlain, or perhaps Matthew Boulton and James Watt or John Baskerville. The audience at this month's presentation by Stephen Roberts had never heard of Sir Benjamin Stone.

There was some surprise when Stephen pointed out that he was perhaps the most well known amateur photographer of late Victorian Britain. "Sir Snapshot", as he was popularly known, was born in Duddeston in 1838 into a wealthy family. Educated at King Edward's School in Birmingham, he became a successful businessman, in part through careful marriages within the wider family. In Duddeston, he owned companies manufacturing paper and glass. Blessed with excellent managers for his businesses and a substantial income, he travelled around both Britain and the wider world with his photographic equipment and his assistant, Mercer, recording a wide variety of subjects. Such was his photographic ardour, that by the end of his life, he had amassed no less than 22,000 photographs, all of which were deposited with Birmingham Library after his death in 1914.

Avuncular and easy going, he made his home at The Grange, in Grange Lane, Erdington, but his long suffering wife, Jane, who brought up six children, would have seen little of him, for his photographic career involved over the years no less than 37 visits overseas. Whilst European trips cropped up fairly regularly, more adventurous outings took him to South America (and the Amazon in 1893 to view a solar eclipse) as well as sailing around the world to exotic locations such as Japan. A patron of the newly introduced Thomas Cook tours, he visited Spain in 1872 with them, completing a travelogue of his experiences upon his return. He was an avid writer. His diaries and excursion notes survive in Birmingham Library's archives, so that Stephen and other researchers can still gain a detailed impression of the thoughts of a Victorian travelling gentleman.

Benjamin Stone was no less enthusiastic about recording the British scene. Whether this was by a day excursion to the Rock Houses at Kinver, or his detailed recording of Warwickshire scenes. Here, he joined forces with William Jerome Harrison, a leading light in historical photography. Together, they inaugurated the Warwickshire Photographic Survey in 1880. Then, in 1897 he formed the National Photographic Record Association, with the aim of recording the folk traditions and customs of Britain before they were lost.

In 1895 he was elected, unopposed, as MP for Birmingham East (Duddeston), a seat he held until 1909, although his contribution to Parliamentary debates was minimal. He used his position to access photographic opportunities within Parliament itself, photographing all the MPs. Locally, he was a member of Sutton Coldfield Corporation and was its first mayor. He died on 2nd July 1914 and his wife of fifty years, Jane, died three days later. They were buried in a double funeral at Sutton Coldfield.

Stephen concluded his talk by showing a series of Benjamin's photographs, illustrating his wide interests. People, buildings, places; all were recorded copiously, although not particularly artistically. His collection does, however provide us with a fascinating glimpse into our immediate past.

Roger Hockney
May, 2018