Photography and the Debenhams

The invention of photography in the middle of the 19th Century inspired many people to explore this new medium, probably very much as people explore the Internet and its uses today. The Debenham family was no exception to this, and there lived at that time in Bury St Edmunds a family of Debenhams who took to the new medium with vigour and enthusiasm.

Samuel Debenham (1807—1887) was a Baker and Confectioner in the town, married to Salome Warren (1809—1880). Samuel and Salome raised a family of whom one daughter and four sons survived into adulthood. The daughter (Lucy) married an artist, and raised a family who went on the stage. The eldest son of Samuel and Salome (Samuel John) became a successful solicitor. The remaining three sons, William Elliott, Edwin and Arthur, took up photography in a big way and each made a great success of it.

Samuel Debenham
Samuel Debenham Samuel Debenham was the oldest of the Debenham family to experiment with the new medium and enter the business professionally, but probably not the first. Although he was originally a baker and confectioner at Bury St Edmunds, the family moved to London in 1844 and Samuel in turn moved to Hertfordshire, eventually setting up in the photography business at Tilehouse Street in Hitchin in 1862. He moved to King Street in Luton in 1864, where he remained for five years before retiring. Some examples of his work are included here.

The local historian Reginald Hine in a lecture given in 1941 described him thus: "Debenham was a very painstaking photographer, and his victims must have suffered agonies, as indeed is proved by the results. He used to pose them in a dozen different attitudes, or rather contortions, before he was content, and then at the final moment he would say 'Your features should assume a slight expression of animation'."  [Photograph © Copyright C R Debenham]

William Elliott Debenham
William Elliott Debenham William Elliott married Amanda Southwell, a sister of the Southwell Brothers, William Henry, Frederick and Edwin, who had premises in Baker Street and were very distinguished photographers in their own right. Our companion website, Southwell Brothers History, contains much fascinating information about the business and the family, and showcases a comprehensive sample of their work.

The Southwell Brothers and their siblings were the grandchildren of the well-known Anglo-Irish musical instrument inventor and maker, William Southwell (1736–1825). His life's work is the subject of another of our companion websites, William Southwell.

William Elliott Debenham lived most of his life in Hampstead with premises at 158 Regent Street in London, and took studio portraits of many members of London society. One of his many distinguished sitters was the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. Examples of his work are exhibited in the Victoria and Albert museum as part of the Guy Little Theatrical Collection, and are included on their website; others can be seen here. [Photograph © Copyright D K A Beazley]

Edwin Debenham
Edwin Debenham Edwin cast his net widely, and is recorded as being in business at Holdenhurst in Hampshire (1881 Census), York (1891 Census) and Gloucester (1901 Census). He has also been recorded as being in business at Weymouth and at Edinburgh. One of his distinguished sitters was Oscar Wilde, and like William examples of his work may be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Edwin married into a distinguished musical family, that of Marie Lachenal, a well-known player and teacher of the concertina. Marie's father, Louis Lachenal, was a celebrated maker of concertinas, and Lachenal concertinas now make high prices when sold at auction.

Three of Edwin's sons entered the photography business: Arthur Jules Debenham (1870—1958) in Darlington, Edwin Holford Debenham (1871—1936) in Edinburgh and Leonard Colman Debenham (1879—1937) in the Forest of Dean. [Photograph © Copyright F Debenham]

Arthur Debenham
Arthur Debenham in his maturity Arthur lived at Ryde in the Isle of Wight, and raised a large family. He had premises at Union Street, and carried on a photographic business there with considerable success. His sitters included King Edward VII of England and Queen Alexandra, and on the occasion of his last visit to England in 1910, the Tsar of Russia and his family.

Several of Arthur's sons took up photography professionally. In England they included Arthur's first two sons, Arthur William Debenham (1875—1944) in the Isle of Wight and John Worley Debenham (1876—1958), who had premises at Willesden in North London. Arthur's fourth son, Walter Edwin Ashley Debenham (1880—1965) emigrated to America in 1907 and is on record in the 1930 federal census as being in business as a photographer in Owasco County, New York State. [Photograph © Copyright C R Debenham]

John Worley Debenham
John Worley Debenham John Worley Debenham was the second son of Arthur, and in common with two of his brothers entered the photographic profession. He is the only member of the family presently known to have found a specialism beyond that of portraiture, and he made a name for himself in the field of theatrical photography.

His many surviving photographs include a roll-call of famous names from the theatre, opera and ballet. The foyer of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden displays a number of his photographs of earlier productions. He took many photographs at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park, some of which are included in a display of his work on this website here. [Photograph © Copyright M J Debenham]

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