The John Wood Collection
Pictures from the Potting Shed - By David Burness
One of the most exciting and remarkable photographic finds of recent years was made in, of all places, a Borders garden shed. Comprising a massive accumulation of glass negatives, it’s the work of John Wood, a photographer whose studies of village life at the turn of the century sparkle with a quality rarely seen.
It’s a find which has enthralled everyone who has seen prints taken from Wood’s negatives. In the short time since their discovery, several Scottish museums as well as one south of the Border have shown interest.
The unique collection came to light in May 1983, when Coldingham garage owner Bob Thomson and his 10-year-old son, Roy, were on the hunt for material to use in a school project Roy was tackling. He was researching early 20th century life in the Berwickshire coastal village. Bob, a keen amateur photographer, had copied and enlarged a couple of old postcards he’d been given and was told that a local man, Jimmy Brown, might have some more. As it turned out he didn’t, but 85-year-old Jimmy, a retired market gardener, told Bob there was something in his potting shed which might be of interest and which he was welcome to have. That “something” turned out to be two boxes full of sadly neglected half-plate glass negatives, thickly coated with decades of grime, dust, leaves and goodness knows what else.
“As I pulled the first one from the grimy box my heart skipped a beat,” Bob told me when I spoke to him recently. “I held it up to the light and saw at once it was the negative of a family sitting in a horse and gig with a black and white dog at their feet. The photograph had been taken outside a house in Coldingham.
“Jimmy told me the plates were the work of John Wood, the very photographer who had taken the postcards which triggered off the search in the first place.”
Bob began the arduous, time-consuming task of cleaning the 600 or so usable plates. Several hundred more were so badly damaged they had to be dumped.
“At 6½in. by 5 in., the negatives were obviously far too big to fit into the enlarger I use for my normal photographic work,” continued Bob. “However, I was able to contact print them, which consists of laying each negative on photographic paper, exposing it briefly to light from the enlarger and developing in the normal way. The results were beyond my wildest dreams. Out of my developing dishes came pin-sharp pictures of all aspects of rural life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“As well as Coldingham, the towns and villages of Eyemouth, Duns, Ayton, Reston and St Abbs feature in the photographs. Before me I had photos of ploughmen in the fields, early motor vehicles, soldiers, stonemasons, sheep-shearers, blacksmiths, shipwrecks, magnificently posed portraits :- you name it, John Wood had captured it with his massive half-plate camera.
“I think some of Wood’s favourite photographs must surely be those of deep-sea divers at nearby St Abbs harbour,” said Bob. “The collection contains nearly half a dozen plates of these men. They present the classic picture of divers : ‘goldfish-bowl’ helmets, baggy suits and lead - weighted boots. I reckon they were pioneers of their profession. Unfortunately, the emulsion on all the plates of the divers is badly damaged and prints taken from them aren’t of too high a quality.”
It’s obvious that Wood was a man of imagination. He realised the photographic potential in scenes, which would have been part of everyday life and accepted as such by most people. What’s more, he persuaded folk from all walks of life to pose for him.
The picturesque village of Coldingham hasn’t changed too much since Wood’s days. As Bob gave me a guided tour he pointed out pubs, houses, even whole streets, which have remained basically unaltered. We stopped at a quaint red-tiled cottage and compared it with a photo taken around 1895. The picture could almost have been taken the day before. “Sadly, there are no photographs of my own garage business,” said Bob. “It was a smiddy at one time and I desperately hoped there would have been at least one negative taken here, but no.”
After a lengthy search, Bob managed to purchase an old half-plate enlarger in Dundee, enabling him to produce prints of almost any size. To help offset the cost of what was proving to be a rather expensive “inheritance”, he offered prints for sale and an eye-catching display in his garage forecourt has proved most popular with villagers and visitors alike.
In order to let still more people enjoy the photos and, hopefully, to begin the daunting task of putting a name to as many faces as possible, Bob copied the photographs, using 35-mm slide film. It’s “standing room only” in village halls when he takes his show on the road. Older folk can enjoy an evening of nostalgia while younger members of the audience are treated to a riveting history lesson.
“A one-hour slide show often stretches to two or three, with the audience discussing the pictures and arguing about who they think the subjects are,” said Bob. “Many have been deeply moved on recognising relatives.”
John Wood himself is a bit of a mystery man although, after many hours of poring over records in Register House in Edinburgh, Bob says the story is gradually beginning to unfold.
At the age of 23, John married a Glasgow girl, Rosina Lynch, at Dennistoun, in June 1877. The marriage certificate gives his occupation at that time as a joiner journeyman. During the next 13 years, Wood made his way to Coldingham, divorced his first wife and took up with local woman Margaret Kerr. She, too, had had a history of marital misfortune. She had a brief marriage to a Robert Kerr who died at the early age of 33. Margaret then fell for his brother, Thomas, and, as marriage to such a close relative was illegal, the pair ran off to be wed in France, at Boulogne in March 1882. That must have given the local gossips something to talk about!
Thomas fared little better than his brother, dying in September 1888. Within 18 months, Margaret found herself with a third husband, John Wood. Now describing himself as a photographer, he married her in January 1890. Margaret had two sons and three daughters including twin girls to her previous husbands and, by the end of their first year of marriage, she’d given John a daughter, Evelyn.
They lived in Coldingham for the next 20 years, Margaret dying in1911, aged 59, and John outliving her by three years. Both lie in an unmarked grave in Coldingham Priory churchyard. The gravedigger there can pinpoint the spot through his records.
But as the fascinating pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place, one snippet of information came to light, which Bob frankly admits he would rather not have known about.
It came from 85-year-old Forsyth Lindores, who told Bob how the plates had found their way into the potting shed over half a century before.
After Wood’s death, his daughter Evelyn asked Forsyth, who was the village handyman, if he could make use of some old glass. Forsyth snapped up the offer and cleared away two lorry-loads from the Wood household. Two lorry-loads of glass negatives!
What surely must have amounted to thousands of these unique photographic plates were then washed clean and used to glaze greenhouses and sheds. Others were trampled underfoot as “rubble” before being concreted over to make bases for those same buildings.
Bob admits he was shattered when Forsyth broke the news. However, at least a small part of John Wood’s incredible collection avoided this undignified fate and lay untouched until the day in May 1983 when Bob Thomson found it.
“I consider it a great privilege to be able to bring Wood’s work to life again after so many years,” said Bob. “For the moment, I’d just like to finish the job of printing and cataloguing the negatives. I’ve about 200 still to do, so I can’t see myself having much spare time on my hands in the foreseeable future!”
© 2000 Bob and Mary Thomson, Prior Bank, Coldingham, TD14 5NJ.