Friday, 5 September 2014

Joseph Acworth, the Cricklewood factory, and Spirit Photographs

I was looking at the 1891 census for Shootup Hill and was intrigued to find someone who called himself an ‘experimental chemist’. This was Joseph Acworth who played an important part in the development of photographic dry plates.

Dry Plates
In 1871 Richard Maddox had coated a glass plate with a gelatine emulsion of silver bromide and found these could be stored until they were needed. After exposure in the camera, they were taken to the darkroom for development at leisure, unlike the existing wet plates which had to be processed straight away.

The Acworth family
Joseph Acworth was the son of Joseph William Acworth, a tallow chandler in Chatham High Street in the 1850s. The business was successful and Joseph senior retired to a large house in Shootup Hill called ‘Sheldmont’. This was one of several houses that were built on the hill out of Kilburn and down to Cricklewood in the 1880s. Joseph senior died there in 1885 and his widow Mary stayed in the house until her death in 1892.

Joseph Acworth junior was born in Chatham in 1853 and was interested from boyhood in the experimental sciences. He began working in the laboratories of the Royal College of Chemistry in South Kensington, (now part of Imperial College).
His first academic paper on the action of nitric acid was published in 1875. Then he worked with Professor Armstrong at the London Institution in Finsbury Circus and they published a joint paper two years later. From then on he became fascinated by the photographic dry plates which Maddox had invented, and he worked in the labs of the newly created Britannia Dry Plate Company at Ilford. He went to the University of Erlangen in Germany where he completed his PhD in 1890.

Acworth returned home and lived with his widowed mother at ‘Sheldmont’ this was later numbered as 14 Shootup Hill, near Garlinge Road.

The Imperial Dry Plate Works
Acworth built a private laboratory in Cricklewood to continue experimenting with dry plates. Seeing the commercial potential he set up the Imperial Dry Plate Company. The factory was built by George Furness at Ashford Road in Cricklewood in 1892. Furness was the major builder and developer in Cricklewood.

Imperial Dry Plate Works, Cricklewood, 1894

With clever advertising and by sponsoring photographic competitions around the country, Imperial dry plates began selling in huge numbers and the factory had to be enlarged several times.

1901 Imperial Advert

Each year they produced a handbook which gave advice and tips about photographic techniques.

In 1893 Acworth married Marion Whiteford Stevenson in Kensington. She was also a scientist and had completed the Associateship course at the Royal College of Science and was the first woman to receive the diploma in physics in 1893. She and Joseph published joint papers at a time when it was unusual to see a woman’s name in a scientific journal.

After their marriage they moved to ‘Braeside’, later numbered 98 Shootup Hill. ‘Braeside’ had been put up for sale in March 1892 and the advertisement provides details of the house; Elegantly fitted by Liberty and Co. Five bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 3 reception rooms, conservatory, large gardens, electric lift.

About 1903 Joseph and Marion moved across the road to ‘Thornbank’ (Number 35 Shootup Hill). The 1911 census shows them there with two of their four children and four servants. They visited Egypt several times and became fascinated by the early civilisation. In 1939 Marion donated their collection of 600 pieces of Egyptian scarabs and bronzes to the British Museum. They are still there as the Acworth Collection. Joseph and Marion were leading figures in the founding and management of Dollis Hill House military convalescent hospital during WWI.

Their eldest daughter Winifred was a professional architect in Acworth and Montagu. They designed Neville’s Court in Dollis Hill Lane, opposite the corner of Gladstone Park. This is a large block of 60 flats which was built about 1935.

Imperial flourished and bought up two smaller companies so that it became one of the largest producers of dry plates. But Acworth’s health suffered badly from asthma and in 1917 he sold out to Ilford and retired.

Joseph John William Acworth died on 3 January 1927. The company had proved extremely profitable and he left £562,026 to his children, Angus and Winifred. Today this worth an astonishing £28 million. Marion stayed on at 35 Shootup Hill, which was on the corner with Mapesbury Road, and in the 1936 directory she is shown there as a JP. She died on 6 October 1964 and was buried at Hampstead. At the time she was living at 65 Frognal and she left £125,675 (worth £2 million today), to her son Angus.

Ilford took over the Cricklewood factory and continued with the famous Imperial Dry Plate name.

Spirit Photographs
Imperial Dry Plates played an important part in a famous case of spirit photography.
A former docker called William (Billy) Hope had been showing ‘spirit’ photographs since 1905 and he was supported by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent advocate of spiritualism. The Illustrated London News rather snootily described Hope as, ‘a niggardly, coarse-mouthed man’, whose photos appeared to show ghostly apparitions with real people. To prove his case, in 1922 Hope surprisingly agreed to be tested by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Harry Price, the famous ‘psychic detective’ was asked to conduct the experiment.

Hope wrote to Harry Price asking him to bring a packet of dry plates - “Imperial or Wellington Wards are considered preferable”. Hope said he would have to use his own camera in the experiment. Price visited the Imperial Dry Plate factory in Cricklewood and discussed with them the best way of making an incontrovertible test.

Price wrote to the SPR:
I have spent the morning at the works of the Imperial Dry Plate Co Ltd Cricklewood, discussing and trying out various tests by which we can invisibly mark the plates which will be handed to Hope. We have decided as the best method that the plates shall be exposed to the X-Rays, with a leaden figure of lion rampant (the trade mark of the Imperial Co) intervening… Any plate developed will reveal a quarter of design, besides any photograph or ‘extra’ that may be on the plate. This will show us absolutely whether the plates have been substituted.

On 28 February 1922 Price and his assistant arrived at Billy Hope’s studio at 59 Holland Park where Price handed him one of the marked Imperial plates. After taking the photographs, in the darkroom Price saw Hope put the plate into his breast pocket and then apparently pull it out again. When they developed the plates one showed Harry Price with a ghostly woman looking over his shoulder, but without the Imperial trademark of the Lion.

Photograph of Harry Price with a ghostly figure by William Hope, 1922

After thanking Hope for the sitting, they left and later carefully examined the plates. They found these were not the same thickness as the Imperial plates and did not have the trademark which clearly showed when they developed their remaining plates. Hope had obviously switched the plates and had faked the spirit image with a double exposure. The results were published in the SPR journal in May. The report created a worldwide sensation and gave Harry Price his first experience of celebrity status. Billy Hope went into hiding and refused to answer the critics. The controversy raged on with Harry Price on one side and Conan Doyle on the other.

The Imperial factory in Cricklewood was again expanded in the 1940s to cope with the increased popularity of photography. But it no longer exists today and Ashford Court now covers the site.

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