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Fascinating insight into harsh life on the streets

A new exhibition is offering first sight of 1890s photographs of Tyneside, as Barbara Hodgson reports

Children at play, Newcastle upon Tyne, c. 1892

Fascinating scenes of Newcastle street life in the 1890s are back in the spotlight, having been unearthed by a photographer carrying out research at The Mining Institute in Newcastle.

Aaron Guy stumbled upon a set of glass plate negatives while looking through the archives of the Institute, which acts a custodian of our mining history, and found himself looking at long-forgotten images featuring local residents – many desperately poor – going about their ordinary daily lives more than a century ago.

Aaron, from Elswick, recalls: “I’d been researching images at the Institute when they needed a spare pair of hands to shift some stuff among furniture belonging to the Society of Antiquaries.

   “There were three or four boxes and I was just hanging around being nosy when I saw some photographic material which looked interesting. I asked if I could have a proper look at it in the right conditions.”

As a photographer he was intrigued by the quality images he found – “they could have been taken today” – and so began a detective trail that has led to their being identified as the work of respected Tyneside photographer Edgar Lee.

Lee, who also made lantern slides and his own hand-held cameras, came from Whitley Bay, and in the late 1800s was known to have worked as a portrait photographer from a studio in Newcastle’s old Eldon Square.

Old Clothes Dealer, Newcastle upon Tyne, c.1892
Old Clothes Dealer, Newcastle upon Tyne, c.1892
 

But he spent a lot of time outside his studio, walking the city streets and around the quayside, North Shields Fish Quay and on the beaches of Tynemouth, Cullercoats and Whitley Bay. On the way, he documented life as he found it and his spontaneous images are a rare insight for us into a long-gone world.

The glass negatives  belong to the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (2013 is its bicentenary year) and  Aaron’s trail also led  the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn in Ashington, where other boxes had been deposited.

A collection of photographs began to emerge of Newcastle street life in the early 1890s and the resemblance of the images – taken mostly on hand-held cameras – to Lee’s known work became obvious.

Side Gallery in Newcastle had shown his work in the 1980s, and now the gallery is to show photographs from this latest find in an exhibition called Street Life, Instantaneous, which it is co-curating with Lee.

While there were negatives of other subjects in the collection, they’ve chosen to focus on Newcastle street life, featuring Sandgate, the Milk Market and the quayside. Some work has not been published or shown before.

When the exhibition opens next week, visitors will be able to revisit the past in poignant pictures  featuring such scenes as a couple trading clothes, their wares spread out on the ground before them, and children playing  – some barefoot, wearing tatty shawls –  or hanging around outside a run-down shop advertising  a scrawled message: “coals sold here”.

There’s even one of a Temperance sermon on the Town Moor; the people in the audience rather well-heeled by comparison.  The Temperance images had been marked “not wanted” says Aaron.

Others include a group on what appears to be a day out, and the poor of the quayside. After the building of the Swing Bridge, many families of  once- prosperous Keelmen fell into destitution and Lee captured the situation in all its stark reality.

His work was promoted by Hexham photographer John Pattison Gibson who advertised his lantern slides for sale as Child Life In The Slums and Street Life, Instantaneous – the name given to the exhibition.

It will run from August 10 to October 12 at Side Gallery at 5-9 Side, Newcastle. Entry is free.

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