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The Sunbeam Photograph Ltd. company was started by John Milton Worssell, with help from Frederick Lewis Pettman (Mayor of Margate 1932-1934), circa 1919.
As the popularity of seaside photographs grew, Sunbeam expanded to other towns along this part of the East Kent coast including Westgate, Cliftonville, Broadstairs and Ramsgate. It’s possible they expanded by taking over smaller businesses. Certainly there were other operators in some of these towns, with W. P. Dobbs, Remington’s Fotosnaps, J. Easton Snaps and Walker’s Holiday Snaps operating in and around Margate in the 1920′s. Sunbeam also opened in Folkestone, with a photo office on the promenade ‘near the fish market’.
At their peak they employed up to 300 people, many on a seasonal basis.
The company started using large format cameras and glass plate negatives, then moving to paper negatives using long rolls which took up to 100 postcard size images. Colin Harding at Bradford Media Museum has figures which suggest Sunbeam could take around 35,000 walking images on a busy Bank Holiday before the war. Every hour the rolls would be collected by car and taken back to the labs for processing. The paper negatives would be developed, rephotographed using the same sort of paper negative, to produce a positive print.
The finished prints would be taken out to a Sunbeam kiosk (there appear to have been several, including one cut into the rock at Palm Bay in Cliftonville) and by producing your paper slip with the reference number the following day, you could see and purchase your photograph. You could also order further copies by post later, though we have no details of how Sunbeam archived the originals or for how long.
At first reference numbers were scratched into the glass plates, then done in ink, but in-camera negative numbering systems were later fitted with a letter which identified the photographer and his pitch. Sunbeam’s main office (and lab?) was at 82 Sweyn Road, and they also had a shop round the corner at 156 Northdown Road. At some stage (pre 1953) they had a big lab at Rosedale Road.
In 1957 the firm was charging 2/- for a postcard print (or 2/9d for two half postcard prints – on a postcard). They offered enlargements up to 8″ by 6″, and even prints ‘finished in solid water colours’, which may mean hand coloured postcards. The company moved on to offer small colour walkies in the sixties at 5/-.
During the off-season, Sunbeam concentrated on more traditional studio portrait work, as well as scenic photographs and material for newspapers. They advertised weddings photography, conferences, parties, school sports days, etc. Sunbeam also had large props including a donkey and a real stuffed tiger which were places in suitable locations and used for static portraits, often of children.
The company was bought out in 1972 by LRC plc and then taken over by United Photographic Laboratories (based in Wiltshire) along with other labs owned by LRC in 1974, to streamline the amateur photographic processing trade. We do not know exactly when Sunbeam finished with the walkie trade but assume it ended during the 1960s. UPL closed the firm in 1975.
Thanks to Max Warwick (former UPL director) and Margate Museum for additional information. The Museum has a collection of Sunbeam images of the area (though few walkies) and one of their donkeys! Sadly although the Museum was largely staffed and run by volunteers, Thanet Council shut it down in 2009. I don’t know how you get to see the material now, the Council put me in touch with the leisure department who have ignored my emails.
Dane Packaging took over the Rosedale building in the 1970s and Tony Ovenden, an ex-employee, recalls all the developing machinery and boxes of old prints lying around, and was instructed to burn them. He rescued 1500 or so and gave them to local collectors.
Thanks to Jane Audas for the ‘boy on a dog’ image. V332 shows Cyril, Joy, Gertie and Edgar Copley, about 1925, taken by Sunbeam at the same spot as the group of five on V7024 above. The kiosk image at the top appeared in Picture Post in 1948 and shows people waiting for it to open.