Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Kings of Photography (2)

Without any in-depth biographies on William and Daniel Downey, any research into their private lives has to rely mainly on what is accessible via family history resources.

It’s well known that during the Victorian age, an individual’s public face was often quite different from the private one and what went on behind the scenes was often covered up if there was a risk of shame or disgrace that resulted in being ostracised by society or ruined financially. Queen Victoria was the symbol of strict morality and family values and she would not look kindly on any divorced person in her presence, nor was she particularly sympathetic towards those who suffered from mental disorders. 

So, not expecting to find much more than is usual in the Census Returns or the occasional archival newspaper report,  it was therefore a surprise to discover some references that point to a more intriguing background to the Downey brothers which, given their positions close to royalty, could have damaged their successful business had this information reached the ears of their clients, especially the Queen.

Bethnal House c. 1870s
There is no way to avoid the fact but Daniel Downey died in a madhouse - albeit a discreet one tucked away in the East of London and which catered to people who could afford the fees - in this case, Bethnal House at Bethnal Green

The paragraph on Daniel in the now-defunct photolondon website states he died of an epileptic convulsion on 15 July 1881. Without seeing the actual death certificate, it is presumed this is true, as Bethnal House is shown as his address in the National Probate Calendar and also appears in this Chancery Division notice from the London Evening Standard  of 6 December 1881.

This notice raises further questions. The Plaintiff, Elizabeth Jane Downey (b. 1867) was one of Daniel’s children by his first marriage to Elizabeth Smith Beloe who had died in 1873. Daniel left no Will and Administration of his estate was granted to the Defendant, his second wife, Mary Stratford, whom he had married in 1876 and with whom he had a further two children.

Daniel left nearly £4,500 (around £400,000 today) and undoubtedly there would have been a tussle to make sure his earlier family received their fair share. Nothing further appears in the newspapers, so it is presumed there was a settlement, although Mary Downey was to be the subject of a future legal matter.

(As to Daniel’s epilepsy, it is not known how long he suffered from it but it is highly possible that this could have been caused by his exposure for so many years to the dangerous chemicals, including mercury, used in early photographic processes.)

On 24 August 1892, Lucy Ellen, second wife of William Downey and about 20 years younger than him, filed for divorce, citing Mary Downey. The third paragraph of the petition states:
That from March 1891 until 14th August 1892, the said William Downey has frequently committed incestuous adultery with Mrs Mary Downey, his deceased brother’s wife at 10 Nevern Square and at Shoreham in the County of Sussex.
The divorce didn’t go through and was dismissed in February 1893. It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened. William certainly was staying at Mary’s house in Shoreham in the 1891 Census along with other family members so there might be substance to the allegations. 

But a divorce would have been utterly disastrous for William’s good standing with Queen Victoria, so was Lucy persuaded or forced to drop the petition for the good of all involved? Surely she wouldn’t have taken such a drastic step without solid proof?

The subsequent Census Returns show them together again. Did Lucy forgive her husband or did she stay on in sufferance? Being a divorced woman in that era would have been disastrous for her and more than likely she had no option but to put up and shut up. Given William’s close connection to some of the most glamorous and beautiful women of the age, princesses and actresses, if he did have a roving eye, there is no knowing how many flirtations or affairs he might have had over the years.

His earlier life throws up a possibility of another disgruntled wife. Back in 1871, William’s first wife Caroline - who was about 10 years older than him - lived on her own at the 9 Eldon Square, Newcastle, premises of W. & D. Downey. She is shown in the Census as “wife of a dentist”. Why is she described so? Did the Census-taker mishear? Or was it deliberate, a private joke? Was Caroline being modest to avoid questions or did she not want to associate herself with her husbands fame and business any longer?

Eldon Square, Newcastle, c. 1963 Tyne & Wear Archives
(most since demolished for shopping centre)

It happens that in the same 1871 Census, William can be found at the Ebury Street address in London where he had his studio, and with him are two unmarried women with the surname of Walton, both described as “dressmakers” from Ireland.

While one should never leap to conclusions from a Census Return in an era where the term dressmaker often had loose connotations, there is no doubt a married man in his forties with a 16 year old maidservant and two women in their twenties sleeping under the same roof does raise the eyebrows just a little. Curiously enough, on that same night another Walton woman (Letitia) is an Irish visitor at Daniel Downey’s house in Windsor.

Many famous names connected with Ebury Street

Subsequent research shows that Letitia Walton and her daughters/sisters ran either a dressmaking or millinery shop in Ebury Street for many years and were probably genuine providers of apparel to the upper classes or possibly the theatre. Perhaps the Downey brothers helped the Walton dressmaking business to get a start, but why or under what circumstances is impossible to know without some serious archival research

When William Downey died in 1915, he left a massive fortune of £207,000, the equivalent of about 10 million pounds today. No family members are shown as Executors in the Probate and finding out the beneficiaries would require access to documents beyond the scope of this blog, but when Lucy Ellen Downey died in 1924 she had an estate valued at £1,419 (modern value £50,000) left to her son and daughter. 

Then, surprisingly, another Probate for Lucy is listed for a year later, this time for £8,500 (or £300,000 today) with two different women named as administrators, neither of whom appears to be a family member. Another tangled web that points to possibly some confusion on the whereabouts of assets in Lucy’s estate and other claimants to her money.

It makes one wonder what other curious matters are to be found hidden away in the Downey family history.

Nevern Square where Lucy Downey lived until 1924

Some more Downey photographs of the beautiful and powerful on this Pinterest page.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Kings of Photography (1)

Dear friend Downey, you are the king of photographers and the most amiable of men.
[Sarah Bernhardt, 1886]

William and Daniel Downey were pioneers in photography in mid-Victorian Britain. They took many thousands of photographs including some of the most memorable images of the most important individuals of the age, as once described in the Pall Mall Gazette, of -
... Emperors and Empresses, Kings and Queens, Sultans, Princes of Blood, Princesses of Blood, Peers of the Realm, Peeresses of the Realm, Soldiers and Statesmen, Men of Letters and Women of Letters, Queens of Beauty, Private Beauties and Beauties of the Boards.” ...
In 1901, when Mr William Downey was awarded the Royal Victorian Medal by King Edward VII, an article was written in the Shields Daily Gazette giving some background to their story and how they came to get involved in photography at the highest level of society.

William Downey was born in South Shields, County Durham, in 1829 and worked as a ship’s carpenter at the Middle Dock in Holborn and his brother Daniel, born in 1831, was a shoemakerThe 1851 Census Return shows them living with their widowed mother and sister at 13 West Pan Street. (Many early images of this area such as the one below can be browsed at South Tyneside Historic Images)

West Holborn from Laygate St to Hill St, South Shields c. 1896

By the middle years of the 19th Century, ships made of wood were being replaced by those of iron and carpenters were suffering more and more “slack time” between jobs. One day William chanced to drop into the chemist shop in Green Street, owned by a Mr Oates, who had become keen on the new invention of photography and was in the process of photographing a member of local publican Thomas Curry’s family. Much excited by what he saw, William went home and told Daniel about the “remarkable feat he had witnessed”. The brothers returned to Mr Oates where they had their own sitting and were then able to watch the amazing development of their portrait on the plate. 

An early subject, Robert Ingham, MP

Within a very short time, the brothers had set up their own photographic saloon in the Market Place, between St Hilda’s Church and Chapter Row. Some of their earliest customers included the local Member of Parliament, Robert Ingham, members of the Town Council, the Vicar of St Hilda’s and other local dignitaries.

St Hilda's Church c.1862, possibly by one of the Downey brothers

Their big break came when a Royal Order was sent by Queen Victoria, who was equally fascinated with the new photography process, commanding them to furnish Her Majesty with a series of photographs of the scene of the nearby Hartley mining disaster. Having recently become a widow herself, the Queen had great sympathy for the wives and families of the more than 200 men who died in the disaster. 

Hartley Coillery, 1862, William Downey

The Master Sinker and his men at Hartley

The success of this commission led to a new studio branch in Eldon Square, Newcastle, then Ebury Place, London. William Downey was commanded to take photographs of Alexandra of Denmark, the new bride of the Prince of Wales, and subsequently made regular visits to Balmoral and other royal residences to take photographs of other members of the royal family. Queen Victoria sat for the firm of W. and D. Downey numerous times. Many of her relatives all over Europe also became the subjects of Downey photographs.

The lesser-known eldest brother in the family, John Downey, also became a photographer and set up an independent family business, with his studio located at 17-19 Eldon Street, South Shields. 

In later years, William Downey became interested in very early moving pictures. Follow the link to see the famous piece of film of the Queen and family at Balmoral which was made by him late in 1896.

The secrets to the success of the brothers probably included a touch of natural Geordie wit and charm and William became known for his ability to make his often stiff and stuffy subjects relax and even the austere Queen was able to smile and laugh in his presence. Daniel died in 1881 but William continued to be involved in his business well into his eighties. He died in 1915.

Many famous photographs, including some of those below, are still copyrighted by Getty ImagesAnd literally hundreds more are to be found in  The Royal Collection as well as the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum and various other photographic archives around the world.

Queen Victoria's servant, John Brown

Princess Alexandra

Bell Scott, Rossetti and Ruskin
The Shah of Persia
Tsar Nicholas II

Sarah Bernhardt

Lillie Langtry

Franz Liszt
Oscar Wilde

Benjamin Disraeli

Perhaps one of the most famous images ever of Queen Victoria.
Taken by William Downey for her 1897 Diamond Jubliee 

It is ironic that if any photographs still exist of William himself, or his brother Daniel, or any members of their respective families, they don’t appear to be easy to access. This fuzzy one of the dapper William in old age comes from an early 20th Century newspaper report.

This web source carries a double exposure image of a man they suggest might be the eldest brother, John Downey, and it could be that among the images of unknown sitters in Downey collections around the world some are, in fact, of William or Daniel or their family members.

It is surprising that the brothers do not appear to have ever been the subject of any serious academic study or a comprehensive published biography, especially given their preeminence in the field of early portrait photography. It could be they purposely kept their private business out of the limelight due to their close connection to people in high places and a Queen who would not have been amused had she been informed on certain aspects of their personal lives ... more on that to come in the next post!

Some information on processes used by W. and D. Downey can be read in the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography

More glamour girls of the age at Cabinet Card Gallery.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Carry it with you everywhere "without exciting suspicion"

Advertisements for “Therapion: or Cure of Cures” pop up regularly in archival newspapers from 1860 through to the mid 1940s.

Also described as “The New French Remedy”, it came in packages numbered 1 to 3 and to those taken in by its effusive quackery, it must have seemed the wonder drug of all drugs. In an age when euphemisms were used for body parts or bedroom activities, the word “French” has certain implications (French letter, French pox, etc.)  During the 1860s  the advertisements were quite freely descriptive, but by the turn of the 19th Century they became less detailed.

Image found on Ebay (link  since removed)

Following is the earliest text of the advertisement as it appears in many newspapers from the 1860s before either censors or official health bodies insisted they be less specific as to description or the promised cures. How much of the flowery assurances that the stuff had been approved by Royal Letters Patent or HM Commissioners can be believed, however, and did the French doctors agree to have their names included? [My comments in square brackets.]


By Royal Letters Patent, under the special sanction of Her Majesty's Government, and the Chiefs of the Faculte de France [Needs research to prove.]


This successful and highly popular mendicament [old Scots word for medication], as employed in the continental hospitals by Rostan, Jobert, Velpeau [all real French doctors] and others, combines all the desiderata [objects of desire] to be sought in a medicine of the kind, and surpasses everything hitherto employed. Devoid of all taste, odour, and appearance of medicine, it can be left or carried anywhere, and taken from time to time without exciting suspicion. Each package contains full instructions for every case.

THERAPION, No. 1, in three days only [truly amazing!] removes gonorrhoea, gleet, and all discharges effectually superseding injections, the use of which does irreparable harm by laying the foundation of stricture and other serious diseases. In dysentery, piles, irritation of the lower bowel, cough, bronchitis, asthma, and some of the more trying complaints of this kind, it will be found astonishingly efficacious, affording prompt relief where other well-tried remedies have been powerless. 

THERAPION, No. 2 for syphilis, disease of the bones, sore throat, threatened destruction of the nose and palate; impurity of blood, scurvy, pimples, spots, blotches, and all diseases for which it has been too much a fashion to employ mercury, sarsaparilla, etc., to the destruction of the sufferer's teeth; and ruin of health. Under this medicine every vestige of disease rapidly disappears; and the skin assumes the pleasing softness of infancy. [Cure your potentially fatal syphilis and a bad complexion in the one dose!]

THERAPION, No. 3, for relaxation, spermatorrhoea [trendy mid 19thC disease known as male hysteria], and all the distressing consequences arising from early abuse, excess, residence in hot, unhealthy climates, etc. [Possible inspiration for Noel Coward's Mad Dogs and Englishmen]. It possesses surprising power in restoring strength and vigour to the debilitated. To those who are prevented entering the marriage state by the consequences of early error, it will render essential aid by subduing all dis-qualifications;  and restoring the lost tone to the system. [The number of men who may have lied to their brides about having a STD and thought this stuff had cured them is both sad and scary.]

Therapion may be procured at 11.s [shillings], and 33.s per package, through all medicine vendors, or in £5 packages for foreign shipment, direct from London only, by which £1 12s. are saved; and £10 packages for the more inveterate cases, by which a still greater saving is effected. In ordering the above, the purchaser should state which of the three numbers he requires.[£5 or £10 would be astronomical sums to pay when an annual income of +/-£100 would have been a respectable wage for a skilled individual, and most working people earned far less.]

HER MAJESTY’S HON. COMMISSIONERS have graciously permitted the government stamp bearing the word "Therapion” in white letters to be attached to each package; thus insuring the public against fraudulent imitations, and securing to the proprietor the sole right of supply throughout her dominions; and any infringement of which they will prosecute with the utmost severity. [Very slick and sure of themselves.]

AGENTS FOR ENGLAND, Thomas & Co.,7 Upper St. Martin's Lane, London; Raimes & Co., Liverpool; Apothecaries Comp., Glasgow ; Ferris & Co., Bristol; Cornish & Co., Plymouth; Rowe, Devonport; Randall & Co., Southampton; and obtainable through all medicine vendors in the known world, or in case of difficulty, by enclosing a draft or order for £5  or £10, according to the nature of the case, payable in London to Messrs. Thomas & Co., as above, a large package will be sent by return mail, carefully secured from observation or accident.

Tracking down who actually made this stuff and owned/sold the recipe would be an exercise far beyond the scope of this overview, but the name of Thomas & Co. of St Martin's Lane appears on all the early advertisements, later an R. Johnson of Holford Square and finally Dr Le Clerc Co. of Hampstead. None of these are easily traceable, which is only to be expected. Interestingly, however, there is a booklet in the Wellcome Library written by a Prof Le Clerc about Therapion but it is unavailable to read online.

Over the years, the advertisements were progressively condensed, as in this one from the Derbyshire Times 15 September 1900 and although it was well over 40 years old by then, it was still described as “new” and had added another French doctor to the list.


This successful and highly popular Remedy, as employed in the Continental Hosptials by Ricord, Rostan, Jobert, Velpeau, and others, surpasses everything hitherto employed for impurity of the blood, spots, blotches, pains and swellings of the joins, kidney diseases, piles, gravel, pains in the back, rheumatism, gout, exhaustion, sleeplessness, etc. Nos. 1, 2, and 3, according to diseases for which intended.
Full particulars send stamped addressed envelope for pamphlet to Mr R JOHNSON, 43 Holford Square, London W.C.

By 1941 the advertisements had become very small and difficult to read. The price has gone down to 3 shillings and there is definitely no indication of its earlier assertions. Although more than 80 years old, it was still “new” in 1944 and available through chemists such as Boots and Timothy White, but then it seems to have quietly disappeared.

MEDICAL. THE NEW FRENCH REMEDY.— THERAPION. Sold by leading chemists. Price in England, 3/. Dr. Le Clerc Co., Haverstock-rd., N.W.5, LondonTHERAPION No. 1 for Bladder, Catarrh, Cystitis. THERAPION No. 2 for Blood and Skin Diseases. THERAPION No. 3 for Chronic Weakness, etc.

Is there any evidence at all that The New French Remedy cured anyone of STDs or anything else for that matter? The same advertisement appears year after year in the newspapers of not only the United Kingdom, but also in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, India and Singapore. Was no-one game to admit it didn’t work because that would reveal some embarrassing health issue or they had been victims of quackery? 

The Wellcome Trust has a booklet from 1909 on research into “Secret Remedies: What they Cost and what they Contain” in which No. 3 Therapion was analysed for the British Medical Journal. It contained: Camphor, Glycerin, Powdered Liquorice, Calcium Glycerophosphate, Extract of Gentian, Extract of Damiana, an Alkaloid and Water, with a possible slight trace of either Fennel or Anise. Damiana seems to have aphrodisiac qualities, but the BMJ concluded that the product was non-poisonous and that the cost of just over an ounce was only tuppence [two pennies]. That means a lot of money was made out of Therapion during its existence. As is still the case today when it comes to health, there will always be those ready to fleece the desperate and the gullible.

From Woodstock Museum, Ontario, Canada

Visit The Quack Doctor for more interesting stories of historical quackery. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beware of imitations! Either cure-all or killer

Chlorodyne was another product still given to children during the 1950s, usually for stomach upsets. Just a couple of drops in water were enough to do the trick. I still remember its pungent smell and taste and the general feeling of comfortable drowsiness it gave me. I have to wonder if my parents were ever really aware of how dangerous it was or whether they even bothered to keep it under lock and key.

Although there were many other imitators and the ingredients seem to vary somewhat depending on the sources, just the words alone seem astonishing today - opium (or morphia), chloroform, cannabis, prussic acid, belladonna, and something more often associated with explosives, nitroglycerin. 

John Collis Browne was born in 1819 in Maidstone, Kent and after gaining medical qualifications in London joined the Army Medical Service as an assistant surgeon. He served with the 98th Regiment of Foot in China and later in various outposts in India and was one of the first regimental surgeons to serve on the North-West Frontier.

Apparently Collis Browne was also an
advocate in the health benefits of beards *
In 1848, Browne created his compound as a treatment for cholera, a disease that had carried off countless thousands of British men, women and children in the sub-continent. Its effectiveness was soon recognised. He later served in the Cape Colony before returning to England where he was asked to travel to the village of Trimdon in County Durham where there had been an outbreak of cholera.  So successful was his treatment that the villagers presented him with a gold medal in appreciation and the General Board of Health officially approved the mixture as a major treatment for cholera.

Leaving the army in 1856, Browne went into partnership with a chemist, John T. Davenport, whose firm would continue to manufacture chlorodyne for another 130 years. It became a must-have in the medical cabinets of millions of people and was used for all manner of ailments.

Other than his invention which made him very wealthy, Browne had diverse interests. He took out patents for improvements in storing explosives in ships and apparatus for raising wrecks and spent his retirement in Ramsgate messing about with boats, including the schooner Kala Fish.

Dr Collis Browne died in 1884 of hepatitis and he is buried in the churchyard of St Laurence, Ramsgate, Kent. His former home, Albion House, is now an hotel.

For all the lives that may have been saved by the invention of chlorodyne, it cast a very dark shadow as well.

On researching this topic through the newspaper archives, the number of intentional and unintentional deaths linked directly to chlorodyne soon proved far too numerous to include here in any detail. From some of the inquest accounts, apparently chlorodyne when mixed with other substances, especially alcohol, could not be easily traced in the less-scientific autopsy methods of the past so the results were often inconclusive. 

The earliest newspaper report of death by chlorodyne was in 1856 when a toddler found the landlady’s bottle and just drank the lot. There are many inquests into people who thought it was a cure after a night of heavy drinking. Because of its easy availability it was also a popular route for suicides.

This sad report from 1886 in the Hemel Hempstead Gazette is about three maiden sisters who had a major addiction that only came to light when one of them died. One wonders what happened to the other two.

But how many cases went unreported? How many babies were accidentally killed by weary or depressed mothers who topped up their milk with just a few too many drops? And popping an overdose into an ill or aged relative’s nightly cup of cocoa would be a very convenient way of getting rid of them in order to claim an inheritance.

Then of course there are the famous cases, including the notorious baby-farmers and murderers Sach and Waters who used the substance to do away with the babies.  It was implicated in the Nottingham murder of Ada Baguley by Dorothy Waddingham and for several other British cases, see books written by Nicola Sly including Murder by Poison: A Casebook of Historic British Murders and Channel Island Murders. As the product was widely available throughout the Empire, who knows what other suspicious and uninvestigated deaths might be attributed to the use and/or abuse of the product.
A prominent politician from Western Australia, Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell died from it. This extract from his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: 
"He was found unconscious in the Legislative Council building on the evening of 27 September 1892, and died soon afterwards. The coroner found that he died from an overdose of chlorodyne taken to induce sleep, he well knowing the risk he was taking of its killing him."
 The stuff even pops up in this medical article about the last days of Queen Victoria! 
"... when requested at night to provide relief for the Queen’s insomnia, Sir James [Reid] gave chlorodyne, a vestigial version of the hypnotic chloral hydrate ..."
The following newspaper report from the New Zealand newspaper The Star of 5 February 1895 is just one example of the many incidents resulting in warnings in the press and it is interesting that the Colony of Victoria (Australia) had already restricted its use by that time, although it continued to be available freely around the world until comparatively recently. (Strangely enough, under the name of J. Collis Browne, the product still continues today as a remedy for both coughs and diarrhoea and still contains a form of morphine as well as peppermint. This appears to be available in pharmacies in the UK but nowhere else that I can see.)


The cure-all lozenge!

(* Biographical information taken from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The tonic wine that cures your brain-fag, love life and blood-sucking by vampire bats ...

This will be a new series of posts on “tonic” wines and other health remedies that were once in common use and have now largely disappeared.

Growing up in the 1950s, I was one of those kids who always seemed to get a lot of infections and was often put onto a tonic regime of Wincarnis. It could only be purchased via the off-licence or chemist and was pretty pricey if I recall. 

Hard to imagine now, but there I would be, aged eight or nine, sitting with my parents at the dining table with my own little sherry glass containing my nightly dose of Wincarnis. When you look closely at this image from 1963, it shows that it is “27.5 proof spirit”. Yikes! And doctors actually recommended this for weakly kids?!

Image from

Fortunately, it didn’t turn me into an alcoholic and my health has been pretty good throughout my adult life so there might have been something in that tonic after all.

It originated in 1881 and was made by Colemans of Norwich (not to be confused with the mustard people) and contained meat extract, malt and port wine. It is still made today and although the meat component has gone, the modern recipe for Wincarnis remains a closely-guarded secret but it still has a pretty hefty alcohol content and in most countries it would be illegal to give it to kids! 

There are numerous images to be found for Wincarnis online, but here are just a few from old newspapers at Trove and Grace's Guide to British Industrial History:

Fixes brain-fag and mental prostration ...

More prostration ...

Joy, strength and vigour

Will even rescue your love life ...

... in just three days

With custard anyone?

If it makes time stand still, perhaps I should start taking it again?

My personal favourite. As good as a blood transfusion.