Press photo pioneer

For photohistorians, the Coronation of Charles III has provided an opportunity to revisit similar royal events and examine how they were recorded photographically.

The Coronation of 1902 is an occasion that prompted my recent article for The PhotoHistorian, the journal of the Royal Photographic Society Historical Group (available as a free download via this blog).

The article looked at how the American stereoscopic photography company Underwood & Underwood (U&U) secured a 3D exclusive featuring King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in their robes and crowns.

“The Crowned King, Edward VII, and Queen Alexandra in Coronation Robes, Buckingham Palace, London”
by James Edward Ellam. Author’s collection.

One of the figures who emerged from the shadows during my research was the British man who stereographed the royal couple on that occasion for U&U. His name was James Edward Ellam.

This blogpost draws on public records, newspaper reports and local history sources to highlight his previously under-studied role in the evolution of early press photography. It also includes previously unpublished examples of his work.

Born in Lindley, Huddersfield in the summer of 1857, James came from a large family. His father, Firth Ellam, was a cloth dresser in the textile industry and held the elected post of Guardian for the Huddersfield Poor Law Union.

James’s apparent non-appearance in the 1881 England Census leaves a gap in our knowledge about his years as a young adult.

However, in April 1885, newspapers in Hudderfield reported that “Mr. J.E. Ellam” was leaving the town, bringing an end to a long connection with the High Street Sunday School. Involvement in church activities was to be a recurrent theme in his life.

James’s career as a pioneering press photographer started to take shape when he relocated to Yarm, near Stockton-on-Tees. There, he lodged with the Bradley family who ran a long-established tailors and drapers shop. It was a domestic relationship that was to endure for the rest of his life.

By 1890, James was secretary of the Stockton Photographic Society, involved in organising talks, exhibitions and conversaziones where members photographs were exhibited.

By day, he worked in Yarm as a chemist’s assistant for Strickland & Holt, founded in 1854 and still in business in 2023.

As more of its customers started taking their own photographs, James helped develop their negatives, producing high-quality prints. The business on Yarm High Street also featured an outdoor portrait studio. 

Strickland & Holt’s outdoor portrait studio, Yarm c. 1890s. Courtesy of Stephanie Richardson.

James’s speciality and that of the Stockton Photographic Society was stereoscopic 3D photography.

The illusion of three dimensions, which our eyes produce naturally, is created when two slightly different images captured on camera are viewed side-by-side in a stereoscope.

Initially, James trained his stereo camera on local happenings such as the flooding of Yarm, a regular occurrence when the nearby River Tees burst its banks.

Flood, Yarm High Street, October 1893 by J.E. Ellam. Courtesy of Preston Park Museum. T68105.

His stereos, such as “Temporary Bridge over the Tees at Yarm Gala 1891,” featured the stamp “J.E. Ellam, Yarm” on the verso.

Verso of 1891 stereo stamped “J.E. Ellam, Yarm.” Courtesy of Preston Park Museum. T63093.

And he captured local ‘views’ such as this stereo of Durham taken from the town’s railway station with the cathedral in the distance.

“View of Durham from the railway station” by J.E. Ellam c. early 1890s. Courtesy of Preston Park Museum.

The same ‘view’ was produced as a glass lantern slide credited to J.E. Ellam that is now part of the collection of Shropshire Museums. The slide is marked “Yarm 6,” suggesting that it was part of a lantern slide lecture.

The presence on his stereos of “J.E. Ellam, Yarm,” some with printed labels and titles, indicates that they were sold commercially.

At this point, an opportunity arose which allowed James to share his photography with a wider audience.

In October 1894, he supplied photographs to the national press of the aftermath of a fatal train crash involving the “Scotch Express” at nearby Northallerton.

Stereo of “Scotch Express” crash scene by J.E. Ellam, October 1894. Courtesy of Stephanie Richardson.

The following month, James registered the copyright of his rail accident photographs in order to protect his commercial interests.

These included “The Second Engine & Tender,” which the Illustrated London News had published uncredited in its report of the accident (“The Railway Accident at Northallerton,” 13th October 1894, p. 460).

“The Second Engine and Tender” by James Edward Ellam, October 1894.          
COPY 1/418/366, National Archives, Kew.  

Apparently intent on pursuing a career in photography, James left Yarm in the summer of 1896. His timing was auspicious as the illustrated press had begun to adopt half-tone printing. This process allowed photographs to be reproduced and required a regular supply of news pictures.

In London, James’s 3D work came to the attention of a leading American stereoscopic company, Underwood & Underwood (U&U). The company had an office close to Fleet Street and was already supplying prints to the press taken from one half of a stereo negative.

Among James’s first assignments was stereographing the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in June 1897. A set of stereos issued by U&U included a number taken in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral where the Queen attended a Thanksgiving Service.

These illustrate the prime location that James occupied and how events unfolded in front of his stereo camera over a number of hours. The lamppost located in the middle of the shots illustrates how the scene changed as he waited for the Queen to arrive.

“The Clergy waiting for the Queen in front of St. Paul’s, Diamond Jubilee Ceremonies, London, England” by James Edward Ellam. Author’s collection.
“Singing the National Anthem in the presence of Her Majesty in front of St. Paul’s, Jubilee Day”
by James Edward Ellam. Author’s collection.

In the second stereo, Queen Victoria (left of frame towards the top of shot) is visible in her carriage. It was positioned at the foot of the cathedral steps which she was unable to climb due to infirmity.

A few days after the event, a print taken from another of James’s stereos, “Ambassadors and Royalties witness the Thanksgiving Service,” was placed by U&U with The Graphic, a leading illustrated weekly paper, and credited to U&U, “Publishers of Stereoscopic Views.”

“Ambassadors and Royalties Witnessing …”
Print taken from stereo.
COPY 1/431/772, National Archives, Kew.

It was a significant moment for both James in his new career and for U&U in its pioneering efforts to establish a press photography service.

The copyright forms for these stereoscopic photographs refer to an agreement between U&U and “James Edward Ellam of Dunmow, Essex.” Dunmow was the town to which the Bradley family, with whom James had lodged in Yarm for several years, had also relocated.

Henry Bradley, a fellow committee member with James in the Stockton Photographic Society, took over a tailors and outfitters business in Dunmow which he ran together with his wife Dorothy and their daughters.

As an entrepreneur, Henry used his own amateur photography to produce promotional postcards for his business featuring scenes around Dunmow.

Postcard produced by Henry Bradley to promote his business.
From Dunmow in old picture postcards by Stan Jarvis (1986).
Author’s collection.

As a commuter, James worked in London and stayed with the Bradleys at weekends where the England censuses of 1901 and 1911 recorded his presence as a “visitor.”

His working relationship with U&U continued, coinciding with a worldwide revival of interest in buying and collecting sets of 3D ‘views.’

During the summer of 1902, the company’s co-founder Bert Underwood (1862-1943) was in London to supervise U&U’s stereo set celebrating the coronation of Edward VII.

As one of Underwood’s trusted stereographers, James was involved in a project which involved covering various society events. It may have been partly enabled by a connection supplied by James himself.

In Dunmow, he was a near neighbour of the Countess of Warwick. Frances Evelyn Maynard, or “Daisy” as she was known, inherited her family estate at Easton Lodge near Dunmow at the age of 21.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the estate was the scene of extravagant weekend house parties, attended by society figures including the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.

During that coronation summer of 1902, “Daisy” hosted society events at
Warwick Castle, her husband’s family seat.

A week before the coronation, U&U photographed a “lavish fete” there attended by “Indian Princes and Colonial Premiers.” Given his Dunmow connections, it seems possible that James accompanied Bert Underwood who recorded this assignment in an unpublished memoir.

On Saturday 9th August, James was at Buckingham Palace to stereograph the King and Queen Alexandra in their coronation robes and crowns.

Alternate version of U&U’s “coronation robes and crowns” stereo by James Edward Ellam. Author’s collection.

A few weeks later, he travelled to Balmoral, the royal family’s Scottish home. This time he stereographed the King surrounded by his grandchildren including the future Edward VIII and George VI. Again, the image appeared in the illustrated press credited to U&U.

“Edward VII and his grandchildren, Balmoral Castle, Scotland” by James Edward Ellam. Author’s collection.

At another event that coronation summer, a photograph known to show Bert Underwood with his stereo camera atop a set of ladders featured another figure stood alongside him with an equipment bag at their feet.

Courtesy of George Eastman Museum.
Detail from 1988.0202.0007.

Could this be James Edward Ellam? If so, it is the only photo of James that research for this blogpost has identified.

The following year, permission was given to U&U to create a set of 36 stereos featuring the new Pope, Pius X.

James was among the Underwood team who journeyed from London to the Vatican in Rome to create A Pilgrimage to See the Holy Father through the Stereoscope.

Such was the project’s global success that U&U later received a Silver Medal from the Pope to mark the occasion.

“His Holiness Pius X … enthroned in the Vatican” by James Edward Ellam.
Author’s collection.

By now, daily newspapers such as the tabloid Daily Mirror, launched in 1904, were primarily using photographs rather than drawings to illustrate the news, and photography became integral to the press.

With his considerable experience, James was well placed to further develop his career. Around 1908, he began work as a staff photographer for the newly-established London News Agency Photos at 46 Fleet Street, one of many set up to meet the insatiable demand from the press for images.

Letterhead for London News Agency Photos Ltd c. 1921. Authors’ collection.

Among his colleagues was Alfred James Robinson whose family compiled this 2014 blogpost about his career which includes some wonderful photos and information about the agency.

Alongside this professional role, James continued to be active in the world of amateur photography from which his own career had emerged.

In 1908, he exhibited a print titled “A Sea of Steps,” a much photographed scene from Wells Cathedral, at the West London Photographic Society’s 19th annual exhibition.

The following year, as a member of the United Stereoscopic Society, his work was exhibited by the Royal Photographic Society at its 45th annual exhibition in London.

Small details of James’s day-to-day life during these years are also revealed by public records. London electoral rolls for 1910 and 1912 record him paying six shillings a week to live in an unfurnished room on the second floor of a terraced house in Hammersmith.

In Dunmow, he continued to be actively involved in the life of St. Mary’s Parish Church where he was superintendent of the Sunday School, sang in the choir and was a server to the vicar.

Between 1905 and 1915, the vicar was the Reverend John Evans and a postcard featuring the church’s interior together with his portrait was published during his incumbency.

Postcard of St. Mary’s, Dunmow featuring the Rev. John Evans. c. 1910. Author’s collection.

Whether or not James, or perhaps Henry Bradley, was involved in its conception, it certainly has stereoscopic qualities, using the rows of pews and the light fitting in the foreground to add a sense of depth.

Research has revealed little about James’s life in the years either side of the First World War.

However, in January 1920, his life came to a tragic end. Its circumstances were reported by many national and local newspapers.

As The Times stated in its News in Brief column: “Mr. James Edward Ellam, who had been associated with the London News Agency Photos, Limited, for many years was knocked down and killed by an omnibus in Fleet-street on Saturday morning.”

After the accident, James was taken less than half a mile to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, but the internal injuries he sustained in the accident proved fatal. An inquest later recorded a verdict of “accidental death” (City of London Coroners Court CLA/041/IQ/04/03/001/015).

The Essex Chronicle report of his funeral service at St. Mary’s Church, Dunmow described how Henry Bradley was notified by police about the accident. That same day, he travelled to London to identify James whose death brought to an end a relationship with the Bradley family that spanned at least 30 years.

In October 1921, an oak prayer desk paid for by “friends, choirmen and Sunday School scholars” at St. Mary’s was dedicated to James’s memory.

Oak prayer desk (right) St. Mary’s Church Dunmow. Courtesy of Catherine Salmon.
Dedication on oak prayer desk, St. Mary’s Church, Dunmow. Courtesy of Catherine Salmon.

In the years since, James’s most celebrated photographs have taken their place in public collections, notably his royal stereos for U&U in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Further examples of his work as an agency press photographer are more difficult to identify as individuals were rarely if ever credited for their work.

Given his career with London News Agency Photos between 1908 and 1920, and his work prior to that for Underwood & Underwood, James Edward Ellam is deserving of greater recognition for his contribution to early press photography.

** The author would be pleased to hear from anyone with further information about James’s life and photographic career via the comments box below.         

James Edward Ellam (1857-1920) is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Dunmow.
Postcard c. 1920.
James Edward Ellam’s gravestone May 2023. Courtesy of Catherine Salmon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: