Francis (Frank) Walter Spry


The Danish barquentine, H. C. Christensen, built at Marstal in 1896 for its eponymous owner, is seen here in June 1925 leaving Littlehampton Harbour under tow to sail to Methil in Fife

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Photographer, Surrey Street, Littlehampton. Spry was born in 1869 at Devonport in Devon. His father was John Robert H. Spry, a bookseller and printer, and his mother was Eliza Spry. Unfortunately, John died in 1872 at Devonport, aged only 33. His mother, who was 31 at the time of her bereavement, is believed to have remarried. By 1881 Francis (now called Frank) and four of his brothers were living with their paternal grandparents at 16 Martin Street in Plymouth. James Spry, the head of household, was a 65-year-old accountant from Devonport.

By 1891 Frank Spry was living at Totnes in Devon and working as a photographer for an as yet unidentified local firm. He then moved to London where he continued to work as a photographic assistant. On January 26, 1901 at the Methodist Free Chuch in Railton Road, Lambeth, he married Rosina Hankin, who had been born at Ashwell in Hertfordshire in about 1858. The daughter of John Hankin, a gardener, she lived at a house called The Chestnuts in Herne Hill. Spry gave his address as 12 Morden Road, Greenwich. His choice of a bride many years his senior who would soon be unable to bear children may seem to some a little strange, but, to quote Virgil, omnia vincit amor. In 1902 their only child, Francis Reginald Spry, was born at Lewisham.

H. J. F. Thompson in his book, The Littlehampton Story No. 3 - the picturemakers (1981, Littlehampton Printers, Littlehampton), provides much useful information about Spry, who moved to Littlehampton with his wife in about 1904, taking a cottage in East Street. He worked briefly as a photographer for John White, and at the same time did some photography on his own account, though whether this included postcard production is unclear. In 1907 he set up in business in rivalry with John White, opening a shop and studio at 21 Surrey Street. Within a year or two properties along the street underwent renumbering, which is why the 1909 Directory lists him at 25 Surrey Street. In the early 1930s, after further renumbering, his address became 33 Surrey Street. Thompson reproduces a photograph of the shop in 1927 with an assortment of postcards and prints in the window. Rolf Zeegers, Juliet Nye and Lucy Ashby in their book Littlehampton Revisited (2007, Tempus Press, Stroud) provide two other views of the shop.

Spry began publishing high quality real photographic cards of Littlehampton and Arundel in 1907. At a somewhat later date, he also started producing cards of East Preston and Rustington, and, most unexpectedly, an area north of Lewes at Danehill and Furners Green, where presumably he had a relative or friend who was willing to sell the cards.

Some cards are blind stamped (impressed) "F. W. Spry, Littlehampton" in their bottom right corners or have his name and Surrey Street address printed or stamped on the back. Many cards, however, are anonymous. On some cards the photographs are sepia tinted, but on others black and white. Often the photographs have white borders, but borderless cards are by no means rare. The captions, where present, are handwritten possibly in the first instance directly on the negative, in small blocky capitals with occasional descenders.

Spry took many portrait photographs of local residents and holidaymakers in his studio, some of which he printed in postcard form. The studio like many others of the period was equipped with a variety of painted backdrops in front of which clients could pose. Popular with the socially ambitious was a large painting showing a grandly panelled room in a make-believe country house with a window looking out on fine trees and parkland. Another much used backdrop showed a wave-washed beach with distant mountains and a harbour entrance. Children could be artfully photographed in front of the painting holding buckets and spades to foster the impression that they were actually playing on the shore.

Spry photographed many local events, such as the first horse to cross the new swing bridge over the Arun in May 1908, storm damage on the coast in 1913 and the railway accident at Littlehampton station in August 1920 when an engine pulling a train ploughed through the buffers and descended into Albert Road. He seems to have been particularly drawn to the riverside, photographing many of the fine sailing ships that traded with Littlehampton, and also the little paddle steamer Jumna that acted as harbour tug. Other favourite subjects included the old ferry before its long overdue replacement by the swing bridge, and the launch Nancy Lee, packed with holidaymakers enjoying river cruises. Spry's score or more cards of sailing ships are keenly collected today, and include three-masted barquentines, brigs, schooners, ketches and sailing barges. It is a pity that many of the ships are unnamed and that none of the photographs, which evidently span several decades is dated. One picturesque barque that appears on a card, the William Miles, was wrecked off Porthcawl in 1883 when Spry was just a teenager - he must have acquired the negative from someone long afterwards. By contrast two cards show the elegant Danish topgallant schooner Ornen, built as late as 1914, while other cards feature yachts and modest-sized schooners of the interwar period, one even flying a swastika flag!

One of the tall ships that Spry photographed was the Whitstable-built Zebrina, which later acquired much notoriety when on a passage from Falmouth to Brittany with a cargo of coal in 1917 it failed to arrive and was found aground (some say adrift) near Cherbourg having sustained little damage but with nobody aboard, Her captain and crew had vanished without trace and what happened to them remains an unsolved but engaging sea mystery rivalling that of the similarly ill-fated Marie Celeste.

Other memorable cards that Spry issued show meetings of the local hunt, early motorists with their cars, the tea gardens at Toddington north of Littlehampton, and the flock of pedigree Southdown sheep belonging to John Langmead of Clymping. Several cards depict the child-sized cottage that a wealthy Rustington resident built in his garden as a playhouse for his daughters, which boasted its own electricity and water supply. The garden was filled with statues of mythical birds and beasts, a quaintly sculpted tree stump and other kitsch decorations. Brough House as it was called was regularly open to the public in summer to raise money for charity. Doubtless the Spry cards were offered for sale at these time. Brough House was pulled down and replaced by flats in 1967.

Spry was evidently interested in local history, and one of his cards reproduces an 1861 etching of the entrance to Littlehampton Harbour. Another real photograhic, undated and without a caption, is a fine view of Littlehampton High Street in 1887. A man can be seen putting up a sign to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Since Spry was only 18 at the time and living in Devon, he must have acquired the negative from some local photographer after settling in the town. The most likely explanation is that the photograph was taken by his former employer, John White, though it is Spry's name, not White's, that is stamped on the back of the card.

Although most of his output consisted of real photograhics, Spry published a few collotype cards of rather indifferent quality showing, for example, Littlehampton Harbour mouth (a 1909 postmark has been noted) and Swanbourne Lake at Arundel (postally used in 1910). Spry's view of the new bridge at Littlehampton appeared in many guises, for example as an oval halftone in a mock wooden frame in the Unikum Series, printed in Germany.

As noted by Klaus Marx (London, Brighton & South Coast Railway Album, 1982. Ian Allen, London), Spry took many photographs of steam engines and trains in the Littlehampton area. Only a few, however, seem to have been issued as postcards. The photographs eventually passed into the collection of O.J. Morris of Beulah Hill, who was a famous railway photographer.

Spry continued in business as a photographer until the Second World War, but probably gave up publishing cards in the late 1920s or early 1930s. In July 1939, Sussex County Magazine published a letter from him including a photograph of a group of Littlehampton "worthies" taken in about 1860 by an unnamed person.

Spry was living at a house called North View in East Preston when he died on 20 August 1955, leaving effects of £304. His son, who was granted probate, was described as an aerial radar rigger. Thompson notes sadly that the vast majority of Spry's negatives were consigned to a council dump and only a "pitiful few" were rescued. Fortunately, prints of some of the photographs survive as well as the picture postcards, providing a fascinating glimpse of life in and around Littlehampton in the early twentieth century.

Tony Pratt recalls the history of the sailing ships and motor boats photographed by Frank Spry and William Wareham at Littlehampton in an absorbing article in the October 2013 issue of Picture Postcard Monthly (pages 36 -38).

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