William M Grundy
Grundy was the first to photograph Holy Trinity in the middle of the nineteenth century. We are still hoping to reproduce examples of his work on these pages. All that we have so far is a drawing of the chancel and nave by Norman G Evans based on one of Grundy’s photographs of 1852.
Roger Lea writes in a History Spot in the Sutton Coldfield Observer of 2008:
“The Grundys lived at the house which has since been converted into the Royal Hotel. Morris Grundy had retired as a partner in the Birmingham firm of Horton and Grundy, curriers and patent leather manufacturers, and his son William Morris Grundy had succeeded him in the flourishing business.
About the time of the family’s move to Sutton, W. M. Grundy developed an interest in photography, then in its infancy. He had a darkroom at home and a special van fitted up as a dark room and drawn by an old brown horse where the complex processes of developing and printing were carried out.
He exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1858. His work won great praise from the critics, and a carefully posed photograph of a model dressed as a Dutch fisherman was said to reach “the greatest height to which we may legitimately expect photographic composition to go”.
Grundy published a series of stereoscopic photographs (two photos side by side which, seen through a viewer, give a 3D effect) in the 1850s, and a volume of poems, Sunshine in the Country, is illustrated with photos by Grundy. There are some of Grundy’s photographs in the Norman Evans Collection at Sutton Library, as well as copies of Sunshine in the Country published in 1861, two years after his death in 1859.” You can get further information from the Sutton Coldfield Local History Research Group.
James Speight was a well-known photographer in Sutton Coldfield with premises on The Parade. He lived to the age of 97, in 1977, and is therefore still remembered clearly by many current residents.
A family of photographers
His story is interesting as he was the youngest in a family of photographer siblings, who all set up in businesses across the midlands following in the footsteps of their father, Edward Hall Speight.
Edward Hall Speight was a schoolmaster who set up a photography business which gradually took precedence over his teaching, and he ran a successful business in Rugby for more than 50 years over the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.
Amongst the many subjects of his photography was the Brooke family in Rugby whose son, Rupert, was to become the famous poet who died prematurely in 1915 during the First World War. The photographs of Rupert and his family are in the Archive of Kings College, Cambridge.
The oldest child, Lizzie married James Walker, a chemist and druggist, and they had a photographic studio alongside their shop in Ledsam Street, Birmingham.
Gulliver Hall Speight gained experience from the age of 17 at the studio in Rugby and also in Alton, Hampshire, setting up his own studio ultimately in Market Harborough. He also became known as a rose grower and a bassoonist!
Edward Atkinson Speight settled in the West Country with a studio in Exmouth. His wife was from Rottingdean, and they married in Christchurch. This would have been a good location for the tourist trade, though he moved later in life to Rochdale, perhaps to secure a more reliable ‘year-round’ income.
George William Clare Speight (known by his family and professionally just as “Clare Speight”) had a studio in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. His young brother James is known to have helped out here quite regularly in his youth. Clare took a number of pictures of the places associated with the writer George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) who came from the Nuneaton area.
Charles Eyre Speight set up his studio in Kettering, and his daughter took this on after his retirement, herself retiring in the 1950s. Wedding couples apparently were quite upset if their portrait did not appear on the easel in the studio window.
Harry Harrison Speight worked at the Rugby studio before taking on his own premises in Leamington Spa. However, he only stayed there a short while and then settled at a studio in Redditch, Worcestershire. He was not as successful as the other siblings, and tried other work such as poultry farming. The view from those brothers who tried to help him was that he did not have a business head.
Eleanor Louisa Speight was brought up by a childless aunt and uncle in the Lake District, from the age of 18 months. The rest of the family visited fairly frequently and in much later life, after the death of her own husband, Eleanor lived for a while with her single brother, Clare.
So we come to James.
Born in 1879, from the age of eighteen he kept a diary of his work experience, writing every day till 1902, thereafter just noting momentous events.
He gained experience in a number of studios in different parts of the UK, including Lichfield, and also a period in Paris, settling eventually in Sutton Coldfield in 1901 where his oldest sister Lizzie and husband James (Walker) lived. He worked from a studio in the rear of his garden at “The Mount” in Victoria Road, before his purpose-built studio at 95 The Parade was built in 1908.
This is the building of living memory for many, though black and white images may not do it justice. Frearson states it was demolished in the 1970s and the site then used by the Midland Electricity Board, but Thornton says it was used for a time by the MEB and then demolished in the 1990s.
James served in the First World War at Ypres and also in Italy, without injury. He married Cecilia Hill in 1920 and the couple lived at “Bank Top” in Wyndley Road, just 200 yards from the Walkers! They had two sons and a daughter.
When he retired in 1950, the studio closed, and some 300 toys he had amassed to amuse children while they had their portraits taken were auctioned in Birmingham.
James is remembered by local residents for taking their family and wedding photographs, and there are numerous examples of his work in the archives of Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield libraries including of the church and views from the tower.
The information here has been gathered from extensive research by John Frearson who has investigated all the members of this extraordinary family of pioneers of photography.
Frearson, John PH – Edward Hall Speight and his family: Rugby’s photographers. A research summary. Published by the author, 2009 ISBN 978 095633 5005
Frearson, John PH – The Speights of Rugby* : photographers.
[*and at Market Harborough, Exmouth, Nuneaton, Kettering, Leamington Spa, Redditch and Sutton Coldfield]. Published by the author, 2009. ISBN 978 095633 5012
Thornton, Roy – Lost buildings of Birmingham. The History Press, 2009 (p. 131)