Alford’s Victorian Photographers

While pondering these images – all of which were created by Alford photographers – so many questions come to mind, about the photographers, about the sitters and about the lives they may have led. In order to try and answer at least some of these questions a look at the old Alford photographers seems like a logical place to start.

I have taken a closer look at the ladies clothing in a blog post : Flash, bang, wallop, what a picture …

Early photography

The first photographic process “daguerrotype” took place in 1839, limited to the upper and middle classes, these delicate photos were encased in leather pouches and lined with silk. In the 1850s most photographers took the daguerrotype or the collodian positive, the crucial point is that each photo was unique. In the 1840s newspaper advertisements declared the presence of various patent holders and licensees visiting towns in our locality, setting up temporary studios. In 1855 the Lincolnshire Chronicle reported the availability of collodian portraits in Alford.

Collodion Portraits.—The mania to secure these cheap but excellent portraits, has last reached Alford, clever young artist, —Mr. G. Massingham, jun., of Boston, having paid us temporary visit. The likenesses which we have recently inspected are certainly of a much superior character to anything have previously seen in this place; they are exact in expression, are executed with great care, and have the additional advantage over the photographic process, of being moderate price. Mr. has received large amount patronage, which will inevitably increase the quality of his portraits become more generally ascertained. Lincs Chronicle – Friday 09 November 1855

Elsewhere photography had already moved on, the creation of the Carte de Visite (CDV) revolutionised the industry. First patented in 1854 by French photographer André Adolphe Eugene Disdéri these small photos, mounted on card were easily replicated, more affordable, and quickly became a new collectible item. Introduced into England in 1857. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sat for many Carte portraits, keeping their own private family collections.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert taken by John Jabez Mayall. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

In May 1860 the Royal couple gave photographer John Jabez Edwin Mayall permission to release some for public sale and fuelling the popularity of CDV. In 1861 over 3 million cartes were sold in England alone, cardomania had arrived.


In 1866 Macmillan magazine published a tale about the obsession of collecting these small photographs of friends, family and the famous. The opening paragraph provides a delightful insight into this new social phenomena.

I don’t know how it fares with you in London, but I do know that we in Paris have a sorry life of it. By which it I do not allude to the frost, … nor to the money markets … but to a far worse nuisance – the cardomania. Ever since it has become the fashion to have squinting, ghastly photographs, instead of the true, plain honest visiting card – ever since it has become the fashion to make collections of these said photographs – above all ever since the fatal invention of albums ad hoc, farewell peace! Whichever way you turn, requests for your portrait are levelled at you like so many guns. All is acceptable prey; indifferent features, respectable age, obscure position – no thing comes amiss to that greedy monster, Album. … Giovanni Ruffini. “A Contemporary Hobby”. Macmillan Magazine 1866

The pressures of cardomania created an explosion in photographers, by 1866 Alford had two studios available.

Alford Photographers

Plumtree and Smith

One of the first photographic studios in Alford was to the rear of Mr Charles Smith’s shop. The son of a surgeon himself, Smith initially worked in Alford as an assistant to Robert Uvedale West. In 1856 he announced that he had commenced trading as a dispensing Chemist, the premises taken is now 130 West St. most recently an Art shop.

Stamford Mercury – Friday 10 October 1856

In the years following this announcement various advertisements appeared for apprentices and assistants required to work for Mr Smith, at no point did they mention photography until William Plumtree came along. Many early photographers were druggists as their profession was well suited to learning the photographic processes. William Plumtree was such a photographer, born in Swinhope, in 1851 the 19 year old was living in Upgate Louth and working as an apprentice to John Henry Simpson, Master chemist and druggist.

Plumtree appears to have moved around a little for a few years by 1861 the family lived in Kirby Moorside in Yorkshire, his occupation was now that of a photographic chemist. They returned to Louth and in 1865 William appeared in local trade directories alongside William Parker and the Willey brothers as Louth photographers. David Cuppleditch’s history of Joseph Willey mentions Plumtree as a main rival but Plumtree seemed to struggle in those early years and looked for partners to work with, Cuppleditch identifies William Plumtree as the partner in Smith and Plumtree in Alford. Plumtree first worked with Jesse Henry Hall. Jesse was born in Alford, the son of a Master watchmaker. The family lived in Newmarket in Louth following his father’s death, in 1861 JH Hall worked as a medical assistant.

Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser – Saturday 22 April 1865

By July there were indications that all was not well as the partners were forced to reduce their prices …

Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser – Saturday 15 July 1865

In August local papers reported the dissolution of the above partnership by mutual agreement in June 1865. Jesse returned to working as a medical assistant.

W Plumtree continued in his studio in Ramsgate, but the following June began to advertise in partnership with Charles Smith of Alford. Plumtree and Smith of West Street, Alford also registered with the Photographic Journal that year. The adverts ran through to August of 1866, the partnership were reported to have worked with Sam Starbuck taking photos of Alford volunteers.

Stamford Mercury – Friday 31 August 1866

William Plumtree still advertised his Louth studio throughout the Summer of 1866

Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser – Saturday 29 September 1866

The early CDV above all relate to Plumtree’s Louth Studio, they can be reliably dated between 1865 and 1872.

The dissolution of the partnership seemed to go unnoticed but the two men went their separate ways, Charles Smith did not associate himself directly with photography again, appearing to just lease out the West Street studio.

William Plumtree continued in his Ramsgate Studio advertising throughout 1867 seemingly without a partnership.

In December 1867 William Plumtree was listed in “Perry’s Bankrupt Gazette”. The entire contents of Plumtree’s Studio were auctioned, the notice specifically mentions that the whole of the apparatus and stock are nearly new and of first class quality.

This notice appeared in the Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser on Saturday 07 December 1867

The sale must have cleared the debts as in 1871 the family still lived in Ramsgate, 38 year old William is listed as a photographer and they have a general servant.

William Plumtree died in April 1872, the notices appeal for debts to be sent to Mrs Plumtree at her residence or Mr James, the operator of the Ramsgate studio, for payment. Clarence James took over the studio at 1 Ramsgate.

Richard Levi Farr

In 1867 Charles Smith’s studio was occupied initially by Richard Levi Farr from Enfield.

Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser – Saturday 28 September 1867

It is difficult to establish a timeline in Alford for Mr Farr, his daughter Caroline Emily was baptised in Alford in February 1868 – “photographer” remained his recorded occupation – so he remained local for some time but does not appear to advertise again as a photographer and was quickly replaced at Smith’s West Street studio. By 1869 the family had returned to Enfield.

J.H Hurst

Mr Hurst is the most elusive of the Alford photographers, there were some Hurst families living locally but they were farmers and shoemakers and do not seem likely candidates. John Hurst of Louth is a very good candidate, a druggist who went on to become a pillar of the Louth community. John Hurst and his family also lived in Sutton for a short period around this time. However there is no mention of a middle name or initial in connection with that gentleman ( found to date) that substantiates the theory. J H Hurst may have moved in from further afield, extensive searches have not revealed a good match yet.

Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser – Saturday 30 November 1867

The advert suggests that the photo below was taken in 1867, the lady does not look at ease, but beyond the subject it is interesting to see inside the studio at the back of Smith’s chemist.

Charles Smith: Druggist to Publican

Although Farr and Hurst did not last long as Alford photographers Charles Smith seemed to thrive in the town. As the above advert appeared for JH Hurst Smith was advertising for a young lady to instruct his four children in sound english, music etc. Applicants needed to state their age salary and references. Despite his photographic connections CS Smith did not request a carte de visite from his applicant, as seen in one advert for a milliner and counter assistant which stipulated that a personal application or CDV was required.

As a brief aside the CDV had also become a prerequisite for matrimonial ads as shown below :

Stamford Mercury – Friday 21 August 1863
Stamford Mercury – Friday 28 August 1863
Stamford Mercury – Friday 23 October 1863
Stamford Mercury – Friday 14 January 1870

Sorry probably too many of those but they do amuse me !

In 1874 Charles Smith announced a change of direction when he took on the Windmill Hotel:

Stamford Mercury – Friday 02 January 1874

The family remained at the Windmill until 1888 when Charles Smith announced his retirement.

The Starbuck family

The adverts regarding Mr Smith’s photographers frequently sat alongside those of Sam Starbuck situated in the East End of Alford. As a second generation photographer Sam had many years experience before moving to Alford.

Sam’s father, John Starbuck, first appeared as a photographer in an 1856 trade directory listed at High St. Boston. Born in Walden, Suffolk in 1810 John worked as a cotton winder. In 1841 John, his wife Jane, and their four elder children born in Leicester were living in Eastgate in Louth. Records show that the family were Baptists Ten years later they are recorded on the High Street in Boston, the only census to capture all eight of their children:

Elizabeth(17), Susannah(15), Samuel(13), Mary Jane(11), Anne (9), Emma(6), Clara(4), John B (11 mnths). Susannah and Anne are the only ones of John snr’s family not to be listed as a photographer at some point. Unfortunately Anne passed away in Boston aged 13.

By 1861 the family had started to expand their photographic empire, siblings Samuel and Elizabeth were living and working together as photographers in the West End of Burgh. John Starbuck remained a photographer in Boston, now at Witham Marsh.

Sam Starbuck

By the end of 1866 Sam Starbuck had moved to the East End of Alford, but unlike his competitors he did not anchor himself to the town as his adverts show.

Stamford Mercury – Friday 30 November 1866
Stamford Mercury – Friday 17 May 1867
Stamford Mercury – Friday 13 September 1867
Stamford Mercury – Friday 06 November 1868

The last advertisement shows Sam Starbuck’s skills as an entrepreneur, he was quick to engage the public with photos of the church after the 1867 – 68 restoration by Gilbert Scott.

Lincolnshire Chronicle – Saturday 05 September 1868
St Wilfrid’s Church Alford: Sam Starbuck CDV

The above carte is one of my favourites. As the previous notice states St Wilfrid’s re-opening ceremony took place in September 1868. Sam’s photograph has provided a snapshot of the new restoration complete with the old gravestones in front of the church and a wheelbarrow in use at the gate. The ghostly imprints of people who paused, when passing by, can be seen along the wall and a workman is just discernable approaching the wheelbarrow.

In February 1869 the cruel hand of fate reached out for another of John Starbuck’s children. Sam Starbuck, Alford based photographer, who was clearly working so hard to establish his business died along with three of his neighbours.

Stamford Mercury – Friday 19 February 1869

Samuel Simpson Starbuck had married Charlotte Taylor Hasnip in Huttoft on 30th January 1868, his young widow married Charles Dinnis in August 1870.

John Starbuck

Stamford Mercury – Friday 19 February 1869

Following Sam’s death John Starbuck made Alford the centre of the family business. Over the next few years his family would take over the reins, his daughters Mary Jane (Nainby) and Emma (Smyth) both brought their husbands into the world of photography. Despite Mary Jane and Emma being the earlier photographers the CDV created show their husband’s names. Clara forged ahead alone for some time, managing the Alford studio for her father in the early 1880s.

The above cartes are blank on the reverse and simply attribute the photo to Mr J Starbuck along the lower edge. Between 1869 and 1873 it is difficult to know if “ John Starbuck” refers to father or son. John Snr was 60 years old in 1871, his son was 20. John jnr. is referred to as an assistant so his father seems to have headed up the business.

In the 1870s rounded cornered cartes became available but square cartes continued to be used

Starbuck and Nainby adverts first appear towards the end of 1872, putting Edwin Nainby in Alford from that point. In 1873 advertisements still had the East End / Market Place addresses, by May 1874 three days attendance in Spilsby and two in Burgh were mentioned. John B Starbuck appears in Long Sutton trade directories from 1873, interestingly the address is later ( 1876 Kellys ) given as Cowpergate raising the possibility of him occupying Edwin Nainby’s old studio.

As mentioned above, the advertisements and listings for Messrs Starbuck Nainby begin December 1872, they appear to stop in 1876. By 1877 John Starbuck resumes advertising in his own name, declaring Clara to be the manager of the studio in December 1879.

Stamford Mercury – Friday 09 November 1877
Stamford Mercury – Friday 19 December 1879
The above is photograph is in the form of a CDV but is a lot thicker card, suggesting it is later, the reverse is blank.

Timeline – John Starbuck – Starbuck Nainby – Edwin Nainby

The intertwined businesses of the Starbuck and Nainby families become harder to distinguish following the death of Sam, in particular the separation of two John Starbucks. The timeline below has been established using a combination of trade directories, census information, newspaper reports and advertisements. The timeline substantiates the family members involved in Messrs Starbuck and Nainby and the whereabouts of John Bissil Starbuck.

1866 Starbuck’s Portrait Rooms open daily in Long Sutton and in Spalding, it is possible this may have been an extension of John Starbuck Snr’s family business and could explain how Mary Jane met Edwin Nainby. An 1863 directory still records John Starbuck, photographer, in Boston.

Stamford Mercury – Friday 27 April 1866

1869 Mary Jane Starbuck had married Edwin R Nainby in 1869, a few months after the death of her brother. Edwin was the son of a wheelwright and carpenter from Long Sutton. In 1871 the couple were living in Long Sutton. Edwin Nainby is listed as a photographer in Cowpergate, Long Sutton in an 1872 trade directory.

1870 Emma Starbuck had married Charles S Smyth from Suffolk on 30th Oct 1870, at the Baptist Church at Fleet. In 1871 Emma and her husband were living close to her parents in the East End. Charles was listed as a joiner, Emma a photographer.

1871 The census recorded many of the Starbuck family reunited in the East End of Alford. John Snr, photographer, his wife Jane and their two elder daughters, Elizabeth and Susannah, do not have an occupation recorded. Clara (24) and her brother John B Starbuck (20) are listed as assistant photographers. Elizabeth passed away in November of that year, she was 37 years old.

1872 Edwin Nainby is listed as a photographer in Cowpergate, Long Sutton in a trade directory. John Starbuck is listed as a photographer in the East End of Alford in the same directory. By December Messrs Starbuck and Nainby were in business in Alford.

Stamford Mercury – Friday 06 December 1872

1872 John B Starbuck married Harriet Oxley, their daughter Lizzie was born around 1874 in Long Sutton providing an indication of the latest they left Alford, confirmed by JB advertising in Long Sutton from August 1873. Lynn News and County Press

1873 Starbuck and Nainby , Photographers and Picture-frame Makers, Market Place and East End Alford. Stamford Mercury Jan 1873

1874 Starbuck and Nainby, Photographers, Daily attendance at Alford. Monday Wed & Fridays at Spilsby. Thursday and Saturdays at Burgh. Stamford Mercury May 1874

1876 Latest advert found : Starbuck and Nainby mentioned as having taken group photo of Foresters Friendly Society Alford. Lincolnshire Chronicle Aug 1876

1879 Starbuck’s Portrait Rooms open daily under management of Miss C Starbuck. East End Alford. Stamford Mercury Dec 1879

1881 John Snr. (70) his wife Jane (72) and his daughter Clara (34) are living in Park Square in Alford. All three are listed as photographers.

1881 Edwin Nainby, his wife Mary Jane, Frederick (11), Arthur (9), Frank (7), Alfred (5) and Ada (1) are living in West Street. The younger three children were all born in Alford placing the family in the town from 1873.

1882 John Starbuck, Photographic Artist is listed in Park Road, in White’s Directory. Edwin Nainby is listed at West Street, Alford and Queen Street Spilsby. There is no longer any mention of an East End studio.

1883 John Starbuck passed away in January, his wife died five years later.

1883 In July Clara Starbuck married Lincolnshire Baptist Minister John Rufus Godfrey, by 1891 the couple were living in Leicester with their children, there is no longer any mention of Clara being a photographer.

1891 Edwin Nainby, Mary Jane, Alfred, Ada in West Street. Frederick is no longer at home, by 1901 he has established his own photography business in Cockermouth, Sunderland. Arthur has also left home, he appears in 1901 and 1911 as a “grocers traveller” in Sheffield. Frank moved to Northumberland where he became a motor mechanic.

1908 Edwin Nainby died on 22nd July, in 1911 Mary Jane (71) remains a photographer assisted by Alfred (35) and Ada (31). Mary died on 20th October 1916 having contracted bronchitis, at the age of 79 she had assisted her son Alfred in the business until early October. Alfred continued the business, he married Annie Dobbs in 1920 and 19 West Street remained the family home when he passed away in 1945.

Beyond Alford

John B Starbuck: Long Sutton and Market Rasen

1881 John B Starbuck (30) in Long Sutton, working as a photographer.

1882 John B Starbuck of Long Sutton, photographer appeared in list of liquidations by arrangement. Stamford Mercury 29th Sept 1882

1883 The death of John Starbuck and John Oxley means Harriet and John B Starbuck of Long Sutton both lost their fathers. Spalding Guardian Jan 1883

1884 John B Starbuck’s daughter Lizzie died aged 9. registered in Holbeach, indicating the family were still in Long Sutton.

1885 John B Starbuck in trade directory listing, Market Steet, Long Sutton.

1889 John B Starbuck in trade directory, Union Street, Market Rasen.

1911 John B Starbuck (61), photographer, and family in Market Rasen. John and Harriet record 9 children , lost 2.

Emma Smyth (Starbuck) : Skegness

1881 Charles and Emma photographers in Wainfleet

1882 Charles Smyth photographer, High St. Skegness and Burgh, whites trade directory.

1891 Charles and Emma are living in Skegness, Charles is listed as a photographer and a joiner, Emma a photographer, and her brother John B is also present, listed as a photographer ” Employer and employed”.

1901 Charles and Emma continue to live and work in Lumley road in what is clearly a thriving enterprise. The household consists of : Charles (55), Emma (56) their children, Walter (25), Harry (21) and Winifred (19), along with their niece Ada Nainby (21), all working as photographers.

1911 Only Charles (65) is listed as a photographer, Emma has no occupation shown, Winifred remains at home working as a music teacher on her own account.

1928 In October the death of Emma Smyth was reported as the “loss of an old Skegness resident”. Charles had passed away in 1925. Much was made of their Wesleyan connections particularly the choir and many musical achievements as a family. Unlike the obituary for Charles no mention of photography was for Emma.