William Harding


Toll Gate, Lewes Road, East Grinstead in the 1860s

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East Grinstead photographer. Harding was born in Charlwood in Surrey in 1838. His father, Thomas Harding, had been born at Horley in the same county in about 1810 and his mother, Sally Wright, in about 1815 at Charlwood. The couple married in 1836 and lived for a time at Charlwood. William Harding, their first child, was followed in about 1840 by Edwin Harding. By the time the 1841 census was held, Thomas had moved with his family to East Grinstead where he ran a grocery and drapery business. Sally then presented him with four daughters: Clarissa (1841), Emily (1843), Ann (1845), and Dedamiah (1848). The 1851 census records that the Hardings lived in the High Street.

When the 1861 census was taken, William Harding was apprenticed to John Southey, who like his father was a grocer and draper in the High Street. However, young William soon tired of the work, and in 1862 set up as a tobacconist at 5 Middle Row in East Grinstead. Around the same time he took up photography, and began to record East Grinstead's streets and buildings. Over the next five years he built up a comprehensive collection of photographs of the town, but then, at about the time he married, he suddenly, and for no obvious reason, abandoned photography.

Harding married Mary Kirk at Withyham Parish Church on April 25, 1867. She had been born in about 1837 in London, but was currently living in Withyham. Her father, George Kirk, was a hatter.

The marriage certificate describes William Harding as a coachman and gives his address as St James', Tunbridge Wells. Following their marriage, he and Mary set up home in Glen Vue Road (later renamed Railway Approach) in East Grinstead. Their only child, Edwin Arthur Harding, was born at Glen Vue Road on July 24, 1869 (see David Gould's 1998 article, "Edwin Arthur Harding", Bulletin of the East Grinstead Society, 64, 9).

Harding became a journeyman painter. By 1871 he, Martha and their young son moved to the Lady Cross area of Milford in Surrey, not far from Godalming. They were still there in 1881, but returned to East Grinstead in the mid 1880s. Harding was still working as a painter when Mary died of liver failure on October 18, 1888, aged only 51.

Harding managed the Elephant's Head coffee tavern in Queens Road in East Grinstead for a year or so, and when this closed, he became caretaker of the town's new Literary and Scientific Institute at 57 London Road (see M. J. Leppard's 2007 article, "Photography in East Grinstead before the Second World War", East Grinstead Museum Compass, 24, 4-13). For many years he managed the Institute's Public Coffee Bar, and also helped as a librarian and assistant secretary. His many skills and hobbies included bookbinding, making stained glass windows, bell ringing and cycling. He lived, reportedly in one room, at the Institute, where he continued to work until shortly before his death on May 12, 1922, aged 84.

Many of Harding's photographs of East Grinstead and district, including some of his finest 1860s pictures, were reproduced as real photographic postcards in the early 1900s. It is thought that he gave the pictures to his son, Arthur Harding, to publish.

On page 4 of his book Around East Grinstead (1997, Sutton, Stroud), David Gould reproduces a studio portrait, now in the possession of East Grinstead Museum, which shows a balding, bearded man in the uniform of the 5th Sussex Rifle Volunteers, holding a cornet, who is widely believed to be William Harding. Arthur Harding issued a postcard version of the picture, which he claimed to have been taken in 1864. At the time William Harding would have been only about 26 years old, but the man in the picture looks considerably older. M. J. Leppard has established, however, that William Harding was indeed a band sergeant in the Volunteers and a cornettist, so perhaps he aged prematurely or his son got the date wrong.

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