What's the story behind the photograph?

By Nick Belcher and Geoffrey Claydon

When was it taken?

To answer this question we set about researching old census records. It was a bit of a mystery at first but we knew it was taken around the turn of the last century. Pinning it down to a year presented a challenge. A good source of information came from the Great Milton History Society booklet called 'Bells, Boilers and Beef'. In it there is an entry dated August and September 1902 recording the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. 

Imagine the scene in Great Milton. Festivities started in the village at 6.00 am with a choir singing the National Anthem on top of St Mary's tower. At 11.30 am villagers assembled on the village green and outside the Bull Inn before heading off to church. Activities continued and at 1.30 pm lunch was served in a large barn to 400 parishioners. Afterwards there were sporting events, a cricket match and festivities ended in the evening with a display of fireworks. 

Below is a sepia photograph of the gathering outside the Bull Inn and it features the Stanton St John Brass Band with the Banners of Great Milton Friendly Society and Foresters. 

Also, have a look at the brewery sign to the left of the photograph. Difficult to read but it looks like Wells of Wallingford. This was one of the oldest breweries in the northern part of the county, founded in 1720 by Edward Wells, and located in Wallingford High Street. The brewery lasted for over 200 years until acquisition by Ushers in 1928 with 77 houses.

So it seemed likely that the date of the photograph was 1902.

Hold on! - there is another possibility. It could be the year 1900 when the photograph was taken because many in the village celebrated the centenary. Following this line of enquiry led us to Mr Alfred Burrows who was a pioneering photographer in Great Milton around 1896. We have proof of this by way of an old photograph showing Alfred's business stamp on the back of it. 

So we can speculate that as part of the 1900 centenary celebrations Alfred persuaded villagers to gather around the Bull Inn so he could take a photograph to mark the occasion. We think that's why everyone in the photograph is smartly dressed. 

We cannot be one hundred percent sure whether the photograph was taken in 1900 for centenary celebrations or in 1902 for coronation festivities. Both stories are equally compelling.

Now let's move on because there was more to discover about the people in the photograph.

Who were these characters?

Identifying these characters has proved a difficult business. Thankfully, Geoffrey has shed some light on the matter. Geoffrey’s family has lived in the village for generations and he spotted two fascinating family connections in the photograph.

You’ll see the sign above the pub entrance naming Joseph Wilson as the licensed Victualler. We can assume Joseph and his family are standing in the entrance. It’s unclear which lady is Joseph’s wife but we do know that her name was Sarah.

Joseph’s first wife, Mary Anne Wilson, died in 1894 and soon afterwards he married Sarah. Not a great surprise really because Sarah worked at the Bull Inn as a barmaid and got to know Joseph pretty well. Joseph and Sarah's marriage didn’t last long because according to burial records he died in 1906 aged 61. How do we know this? Sarah is Sarah Claydon, Geoffrey’s Great Aunt. That's the first connection.

Here is the second one. See the old man with an eye patch standing by his wife? His name was 'Shocky' Beckett and he knew Geoffrey Claydon’s Great Grand Father, George. If you look carefully you can see him nervously fiddling with a waistcoat button.

There is a story behind why he was called Shocky. He was a farm labourer with a special skill of cutting corn by hand and bundling several sheaves together to form an upright bale called a Shock like this one below.

Usually a baling machine did this work but parts of the field would be inaccessible to it and that’s when ‘Shocky’ came in. He would get his stick and cajole a few corn stems together, cut them at the base, tie them together to form sheaves and then place a few upright to form a shock ready to dry out. He was paid on a piece rate and Geoffrey reckons he would be paid by the ‘Chain’, roughly the size of a cricket pitch. Just in case you didn't know, a chain is 4 rods, there are 10 chains in a furlong, and 80 chains in one statute mile. An acre is the area of 10 square chains.

By all accounts Shocky was quite a character and he loved a pint or two after a hard days work. According to Geoffrey's Great Grand Father he was renowned for his pub crawls in the village. His first stop would be the Bell, then onwards to the Red Lion and finally to the Bull Inn. This is where he would often enjoy a few too many pints of beer and rely on his mates to carry him home. 

Bringing the photograph to life

In those days photography was a new technology, so you can imagine that taking a photograph in the village would cause quite a stir. We know for sure that around 1900 Alfred Burrows took several photographs and some can be seen in the Bull Inn or in the archives of the Great Milton History Society. Alfred was a Great Milton man and the son of the Saddlery store opposite the Bull Inn.

As you can see the original photograph below was in poor shape and needed sprucing up.

It was a sepia print and over exposed in many areas especially around the children. Nick retouched it to reduce highlights, lift shadows and sharpen faces. He added a gentle colour wash to clothing, which brought life to the picture in a subtle way. 

In addition to the group shot at the top of the page I also produced four close ups of each group of people revealing more detail in their faces. (See below). Through their expressions I can glimpse what they might be thinking. I hope you can too.

It’s been a privilege to work on Alfred’s photographs, they are a wonderful record of past times in Great Milton. I hope that if he was alive today he would see that his revived photographs encourages more people to look at them.

Photographs by Alfred Burrows 1900, revived by Nick Belcher 2020

I am producing the revived photographs framed and mounted like the ones above. A 7 x 5 inch picture framed and mounted is £32. Larger sizes are available up to A3. If you are interested please call me on 07976 684009 or email nick@nickbelcherphotography.co.uk