Henry and Walter Bennett


Martyr's Memorial, Lewes (1908 postmark noted). A collotype version of this card acknowledging Bennett as the photographer was published by Mezzotint of Brighton.

To home page
To directory of publishers
To gallery

Henry Bennett published real photographic cards of Hove and more especially West Blatchington that unfortunately have tended to become badly faded and yellowish with age, presumably because his methods of fixing and washing his photographs were often defective. The backs of the cards are usually stamped in purple ink "Photo by: H. Bennett, Cowper St., Hove", but some are anonymous. The photographs generally lack borders, and many have no caption. Captions, when present, are generally handwritten in neat blocky capitals with a full stop at the end, but a few cards have machine printed captions (for example, a view of Queen Victoria's Statue in Hove). "Road" is usually abbreviated to "RD". Some 1913 postmarks have been seen, but publication of the cards is likely to have started several years earlier.

Bennett produced some interesting sepia-toned cards of St Ann's Well Gardens in Hove, including the band of the Fourth Dragoon Guards playing to an attentive but rather sparse audience. One of his most notable cards shows "His Majesty the late King's favourite seat at Hove" - a seafront shelter with a bench on which an elderly man can be seen dozing and his wife busy knitting. Opinions differ as to whether the couple are really King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra or just two look-alikes. There are also doubts as to whether Bennett actually took the photograph or borrowed it from another photographer.

Quite different in character is the black and white real photographic card reproduced above showing a Mr. J. A. Kensit addressing a large crowd at the Martyrs' Memorial in Lewes. No date is given, and the perspective of the picture is rather odd, making one wonder whether it is in fact a clever meld of two separate photographs. The back of the card is stamped in the usual manner with Bennett's name and address. The caption on the front is unusual in being printed within a black frame. Bennett is not known to have published any other cards of Lewes, which is puzzling. The card may have been a special, intended to stand alone and not form part of a series. The same could perhaps be true of another black and white real photographic card showing an unidentified "Wreck near Hove". A card of Bethel Chapel at Wivelsfield may also be a "one-off" as no other Bennett cards of Wivelsfield have been reported.

Bennett seems rarely to have undertaken portrait photography, which suggests that he lacked the necessary studio facilities. However, an interesting postcard portrait exists of Mrs Sarah Ann Akehurst of Upper Horsebridge near Hellingly sitting outdoors and celebrating her hundredth birthday on May 21, 1912. The card is elaborately decorated with scrollwork and beautifully worked leaf patterns.

Henry Bennett was born in 1856 at Hove and was a secondhand furniture dealer and upholsterer. In 1879 he married Louisa Peckman, who was born in about 1854 at Uckfield. The 1881 census locates the Bennetts at 17 West Hill Street in Brighton; in 1891 they were living in Upper North Street in Brighton, and in 1901 at 4a Blatchington Road in Hove. By 1901 they had five children: Florence Bennett (born in 1880 at Brighton), Arthur Bennett (born 1882 at Brighton), Walter Bennett (born 1886 at Hove), Maurice Percy Bennett (born 1891 at Brighton) and Doris Emily Bennett (born in 1899 at Brighton). By 1903 Henry Bennett had moved with his family to 32 Blatchington Road, where he remained for a few years, before settling (no later than 1910) at 27 Cowper Street in Hove.

The 1918 Brighton Electoral Register, issued after women were given the vote, records Henry Bennett as living at 27 Cowper Street, but makes no mention of Louisa Bennett, which may indicate that she had died. The 1920 Register has an entry for both Henry and Arthur Bennett at this address, but the 1922 and 1923 Registers record only Arthur and Florence Bennett. Henry Bennett was presumably living elsewhere. He died at 172 Sackville Road in Hove on 2 August 1945, aged 88.

Pike's 1904 Brighton and Hove Directory lists Bennett as a "furniture dealer and dealer in photographic materials". He presumably took up postcard publishing as a sideline activity, but it could not have been very profitable, judging from the rarity yet underwhelming quality of most of the 100 or so different cards that he is known to have issued.

From its earliest days the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway attracted the support of a large band of enthusiasts, including many members of the travelling public, who took a keen interest in the appearance and performance of its many steam locomotives, especially its newest and most stylish creations. Numerous picture postcards of the locomotives were published to satisfy the demands of enthusiasts, including some real photographic cards that were stamped on the back "Series published by W. Bennett, Hove" in purple ink. The Bennett cards lacked captions and serial numbers, but were pin sharp and of excellent tonal quality. Enthusiasts could also buy postcard-sized photographic prints of their favourite engines, which in some cases were stamped on the back "Loco Photograph, W. Bennett, Hove, Publisher", again in purple ink.

The initial on the labels of the railway cards and prints is definitely W and not H, but the somewhat idiosyncratic typography of the hand stamped labels precisely matches that on Henry Bennett's non-railway cards, and there can be no doubt that W. Bennett was in fact Henry's son Walter and that both obtained rubber stamps from the same maker. In the 1911 census Walter, or else a namesake, is listed as boarding with a family in Peckham while working as a "compressed drug maker", which presumably meant that he was creating pills or tablets from powdered ingredients. Railway photography is not mentioned by the census, and can be assumed to have been a hobby and no more than a supplementary source of income. Walter was still working as an industrial chemist in 1945 when he and his brother Arthur acted as joint executors of their late father's estate. He remained active as a railway photographer into his sixties.

Walter Bennett started photographing LB&SCR locomotives in his late teens, accompanied by his younger brother, Maurice Bennett, and their friend and fellow enthusiast, Ralph Stent (1889-1972). Over the years the indefatigable trio assembled some 800 photographs, copies and originals of which are housed today as the Bennett Collection in the Bluebell Railway Archives at Sheffield Park Station. Klaus Marx has published a selection of the more memorable photographs in his fascinating book The London, Brighton & South Coast Railway: The Bennett Collection (Lightmoor Press, 2011) including several views in which Walter in flat cap can be seen posing for the camera next to an engine. Marx is of the opinion that "by far the largest quantity" of pictures in the Bennett Collection were taken by Henry Bennett. The evidence, however, would seem to negate this and points strongly to Walter and his two associates. The non-railway cards that Henry published are all too often in a ruinous condition, badly faded and yellowed with age. The Bennett railway cards by contrast show an admirable concern with print quality, which is why they are still keenly collected. In support of his attribution of the great majority of the railway photographs to Henry, Marx reproduces a collotype postcard (printed by Mezzotint of Brighton) that was posted from the Bennett home in Cowper Street and shows an I3 loco with a rake of Southern Belle coaches outside Brighton Station. According to Marx, the card carries the H. Bennett hand stamp, but in actual fact it is signed and stamped by Walter. Henry may have loaned Walter and Maurice a camera and shared his darkroom facilities with them, but there is no proof that he played a significant role in railway photography other than by offering his sons help and encouragement.

In both 1906 and 1909 Walter Bennett issued an abridged list of his many railway photographs, which he rather coyly initialled "W. B. BTON", omitting his full name and address, despite presumably selling direct to customers rather than through shops. Why he chose to operate "under cover" remains unclear.

Walter Bennett's postcards of steam engines are generally undated but he appears to have started photographing the LB&SCR in about 1905 and to have continued until at least 1914. Some photographs in the Bennett Collection obviously predate 1905, in certain instances by a considerable margin; these presumably represent "swaps" with older railway cameramen, as was common practice in Edwardian times. Walter, Maurice and Ralph seem to have carried out most of their railway photography at Hove and Brighton stations, but they also ventured as far afield as Worthing, Dorking and Croydon. In addition they gained access to Brighton Works where casual visitors were generally disallowed. Bognor, Littlehampton and Newhaven seem to have held little attraction for them.

Acknowledgements: Grateful thanks are due to Lawrence Marshall and Robert Jeeves for sharing their knowledge of the railway photos of Walter Bennett.

To directory of publishers
To gallery

Design: Lucid Design