Banburyshire Family History

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--- the hard way!

This week I was fortunate to obtain the latest issue of "New Zealand Memories" from our town library. This is a real treat, with its interesting and informative regional historical articles and excellent reproduction of old photographs.

An article caught my eye. It was "Pioneer Photograher" by Gordon Campbell, and was about the famous New Zealand photographer, Alfred Burton.[1]

I want to tell you about him. What has this to do with Banburyshire? Nothing in particular, but I feel that we should not be too parochial, as it enlightens us about the conditions pertaining to those times --- and plenty of Banburyshire people emigrated there from the mid 1800s on.

Photography was in its infancy in the mid 1850s, and involved preparation of wet plates. These were given a coating of a light sensitive substance and had to be shielded and then used before they dried out; and before electricity, printing was done by sunlight---a lengthier and chancey process.

Because of the various difficulties and amount of equipment needed, early photgraphers mainly concentrated on indoor studies. Not so Alfred Burton! He loved taking landscapes and studies of street scenes. The latter form part of an invaluable record of the time, today.

He had a horse drawn van made, to convey his equipment and travelled around taking his photographs. He ventured into the fastness of Fiordland in southern New Zealand, which has a high rainfall,and the largest and most voracious sandflies imaginable.

Not only did the latter make the humans miserable but they did kamikaze attacks on the wet plates --- ruining them. To this was added the hardships of the terrain, where on some locations equipment had to be backpacked in. Streams and rivers could rise and cut them off for days, Once they had to shoot wekas, (flightless hen-like birds), and wood pigeons in order to survive until they could trek out, again their fortitude and determination in facing such odds --- and triumphing, is almost beyond imagining.

Then in the 1870s dry plate photography was invented. These decreased the need to carry so much equipment and were also prepared for use, cutting down the times involved. Alfred roamed far and wide. His shots of the Maori way of life in the remote interior of the North Island, recorded a fast disappearing lifestyle. He not only faced the hardships but also some hostility.

We are so lucky that he was fascinated with the thermal region, and recorded the famous Pink and White Terraces, just months before they were destroyed in the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera. The article shows one of his photos of a nearby village almost buried under the volcanic ash, after the event.

Other photos show that at that time city streets were very rough and unpaved; traffic was horse drawn, and sparse. It reminds us of how young our colonial history is and the enormous strides in development, since then. We owe a great debt of gratitude to these pioneering photographers.

Technically their work was excellent, as you will know if you have had to enlarge a postcard sized shot. But wouldn't they have delighted in the modern array of cameras!

Alfred, you were born too soon for a digital camera --- I wonder what magic you would have made with it?

(I have two glass plate negatives with the developing instructions, courtesy of my gt aunt Alice. One is of my gt-grandparents and the other my grandparents with their two children).

Contributed by Muriel Wells


Many thanks for your account of how Alfred Burton took such wonderful photographs in spite of the difficulties he faced.

I for one found it very interesting and as you say we have certainly come a long way from those times to now when we can just "point & shoot"! I had never heard about Alfred so I Googled him. Apparently he & his brother Walter went to New Zealand from Leicester so you weren't too far off! There were 4 brothers, 2 stayed in the UK they were all trained in the trades of printing, engraving, stationery, book selling, and newspaper publishing in their father, John Burton's company.

The site has some lovely landscapes that they took, the Burton Brothers must have been the Francis Firths of New Zealand!

Contributed by Barbara Rosethorne

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Burton Bros. A Portfolio of 11 South Island, New Zealand Views from the 1870s and 1880