O J Morris and David Leggatt

Today I find myself thinking, once again, about the Rev. Spurgeon and his photographs, not least because the encyclopaedically-minded Julian Watson has sent me a 1986 article written by the former Chief Librarian of Greenwich, David Leggatt, from the Transactions of the Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society, from which I plunder today.

It’s an account of two parts – firstly the story of Charles Spurgeon and his magic lantern shows (apparently it was a lifelong passion – in his famous father’s autobiography there is a photo of Charles and his twin brother posing with their mother – and a magic lantern they’ve just been given as a gift) and secondly how the photographs came to be in the collection – a patient waiting game on the part of Leggatt and a gradual decision to ‘do the right thing’ on the part of their by-then-owner, O J Morris, via, of all things, Bournemouth Railway Club…

After Spurgeon’s death his photos passed to another Baptist minister, Rev. Burley, who’d married one of Spurgeon’s daughters. He ended up preaching in Bournemouth, where he joined the Railway Club and met Owen Morris who was also crazy about trains. I suspect that Morris ended up with the Spurgeon collection more because of the transport photos in it – this was not Spurgeon’s only Magic Lantern show. I’m guessing some of the others were transport-oriented and it was these pictures, rather than Greenwich’s street cries that had the Baptist preacher and Welsh Roman Catholic slavering over them.

Burley died in 1953 and by 1954 the pictures were in Morris’s sweaty paws. He does sound like the classic bachelor-train-obsessive. He lived in Beulah Hill in Norwood and his house was ‘adapted’ to his purposes – he thought nothing of cutting right through doors and cutting ‘tunnels’ through furniture to accommodate his model railway layout, creating a standard lamp from a railway signal or replacing all the handles in the house with carriage door handles salvaged from old London, Brighton and South Coast Railway trains.

I have no idea what happened to any other Magic Lantern shows that Spurgeon created – perhaps they went to private buyers in America. Certainly that was to be the fate of at least one photograph, of a tram, that Morris brought to David Leggatt at the Borough Library in 1954, wanting to identify where it had been taken so that he could sell it and casually mentioning that it was from a whole bunch of old snaps.

Leggatt, presumably after having smelling salts administered, confirmed that the picture had been taken in Trafalgar Road. Morris refused to sell the photo to the library, but said he’d make a copy for him and show the rest of the pictures to Leggatt ‘if I was interested…’

I’m surprised that Leggatt managed to last two weeks before going over to Beaulah Hill to view them. Perhaps he was acting cool but he admits in his paper ‘I felt something of the impact which the reading of Chapman’s Homer had on Keats.‘ He asked, casually, about what Morris was planning to do with them, and was told that he liked the idea of a National Photographic Collection.

Once again, Leggatt tried to buy the collection from Morris for the Borough ‘but he was unmoved.‘ Leggatt tried a different tack, telling Morris that the photographs should at least be treated as a collection, rather than sold off piecemeal, which Morris agreed to, then also agreed to create a set of copies to the Borough for £50.

Morris comes across to me as a canny sort of guy. He spent a lot of time with a local architect, Percy Danatt (whose name is ringing huge bells; might look him up when I’ve done some actual work today) to identify all the locations before preparing the copies, and then, just before the sale, called the picture ed at The Times

The Times article brought a flood of interested parties to Greenwich Borough Library – everyone from the V&A to a bunch of students from the LSE, from a director of Bryant & May to John Betjeman and the resulting interest led to a book deal for Morris – Grandfather’s London. Morris hated the title, btw (and I confess I’m not wild about it) but was firmly told that calling it ‘London’ instead of ‘Greenwich’ would sell more copies. Plus ca change.

Ultimately Morris did a most generous thing. He presented the original collection to the Borough, no strings attached, in recognition of Leggatt’s part in ‘rescuing the collection from oblivion.’

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