John Milton Worssell began taking photographs of bathers and people on the beach around 1912. After WW1 he took over an existing business run by G E Houghton in 1919 and named it The Sunbeam Photograph Ltd. His wife ran the sales kiosk.
As the popularity of seaside souvenir photographs grew, Sunbeam expanded, with help from Frederick Lewis Pettman (Mayor of Margate 1932-1934) who owned trading rights along the coast here and offered to fund expansion and help pay for a new lab. Sunbeam then moved into 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 Sunbeam (often referred to by workers simply as The Beam) employed up to 300 people, many on a seasonal basis.
The company started using large format cameras and glass plate negatives, moving to single postcard size paper negatives around 1929. From 1934 or so they were using Thornton Pickard cameras (Type 36 and 37) which were fitted with new paper negative roll holders. These took rolls which could take up to 100 postcard size images. Anthony Lane has figures which suggest Sunbeam could take around 35,000 walking images on a busy Bank Holiday before the war with cameraman Dickie Tombs taking 3,000 on a single day at Ramsgate. The thinking was that the more images taken, the more sales were likely. 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) where holiday-makers could view the results and find their own photo. In 1946 numbered tickets began to be handed out 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 on the card negatives, but in-camera negative numbering systems were later fitted with a letter which identified the photographer and his pitch (Above – part of a later walking picture strip). Sunbeam’s first office was in Dane Hill, before they moved to a shop with cellars round the corner at 156 Northdown Road. Their main office (and lab?) was later opened at 82 Sweyn Road in 1925 (thought to be the first purpose built film processing works in the country), At some stage (pre 1953) they had a big lab at Rosedale Road.
John’s two sons came into the business full time after WW2, and Jack took over a walkie business in Hove and later had a kiosk on Brighton pier, while Dick ran the Margate end. Sunbeam developed their own camera design, around fifty of these were made and they used these at least until 1959, although standard 35mm Leica cameras came in around 1948 for other types of work. By this time the walkies were a smaller size, and customers would be offered two prints on a sheet. Chris Fright became their head photographer. One of these special cameras can be seen on the following page.
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 1964 at 5/-. The firm used half frame 35mm Olympus Pen cameras for this colour work, and most of their old black and white machinery was scrapped. Some female camera operators were also used from around 1959.
During the off-season, Sunbeam concentrated on more traditional studio portrait work, as well as scenic photographs and material for newspapers. They offered wedding photography, and to cover conferences, parties, school sports days, etc.
For most of the firm’s life Sunbeam also had a changing collection of animal props including a life size felt donkey, large cats and dogs, and a real stuffed tiger, which were placed in suitable locations. Children (and often adults!) would sit on these to have their portrait taken.
The family decided to retire and 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 during the 1960s. UPL closed the firm in 1975.
Thanks to Max Warwick (former UPL director) and Margate Museum for additional information. Also to Paul Godfrey, and his scans of Bygone Kent magazine. The Margate Museum has a collection of Sunbeam images of the area (though few walkies) and one of their donkeys, albeit much restored! Closed for a time, the museum is now open again and run by Margate Museums Trust a Charitable Trust (Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays as well as Bank Holidays).
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.
Two more 1930s walkies, one by Sunbeam, on the site here.