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Behind the Lens (Volume 8)

To coincide with the launch of Golden Shots and Visions of Blue The Watford Treasury’s photo editor, Colin Payne, acknowledges the contribution to chronicling Watford’s history of the Watford Observer’s photographers. First published in Vol 8 of The Watford Treasury.

My heart sank as I held it up to the light. Another sports day, circa 1955. The image was inverted into negative form, yet there was no doubt, this definitely wasn’t a football match. Sitting on a stool in the archive store of Watford Museum, I sighed. I was five hours into my search through an extremely heavy pallet topped with literally thousands of glass photographic plates. Donated to the museum by the Watford Observer when they had moved premises several years previously, many of these images hadn’t seen the light of day since they were stored away in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, somewhere between Rickmansworth Road and the Lower High Street the catalogue listing the contents of the boxes had gone astray!  It was a search for anything relating to Watford Football Club, one which occasionally would throw up a gem ‒ approximately one in 50 images ‒ but mostly a wonderful demonstration of just how much a local newspaper loved capturing the joy of Scout parades, theatre performances and the progress of a growing town in post-war Britain.

At times I wondered why I was bothering. However, once my bounty was placed on a negative scanner, the answer became apparent. These plates, over 60 years old, within boxes coated in a black dust only time can create, contained a truly fascinating insight into an era sadly long gone. Having featured heavily in The Watford Treasury, the sheer quality and clarity of what was contained on those plates, each the size of a coaster, left me in awe. These weren’t just action shots from a single vantage point with the old Supporters’ Club HQ in the background, although an awful lot were, but pictures of ordinary men going about their life. Shots capturing candid moments, portraits of players in shirts that had perhaps seen a season too much of action, and a look at a football club operating on a day-to-day basis where a Saturday’s gate money would finance the following Friday’s wages.

Among the hundreds of photographs uncovered were a couple of the photographers themselves. As a visual history of a football club, it’s these Watford Observer images that contribute so much to The Watford Treasury, yet I realised they contain no mention of those who had actually captured such wonderful pictures which are also fascinating glimpses of social history. I was curious to know more, especially about the local press, and for a query relating to Watford Football Club’s history, and the Watford Observer, there is only one person to ask, so an email was dispatched to the ever-helpful Oli Phillips.

As someone who covered the events at Vicarage Road and beyond through all of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and into a new century, Oli’s words would accompany the photos which we now delight in, and as hoped he was able to add not just names to the image-takers, but also a potted history of the local press and how photographs became a feature of what was within their pages.

“Between the days when Watford FC was founded and the early 1970s, Watford and the surrounding area was served by two local papers. The bigger of the two was the Watford Observer, which enjoyed a circulation of around 46,000 in the late 1960s. It used to publish on Saturdays – market day – but subsequently dropped back to the Friday slot, where it remains to this day. Published on Thursdays, the West Herts (Watford) Post was a smaller paper serving south-west Herts. The Observer, at one stage, covered events in Tring, Cholesbury, Wigginton and, closer to the Watford hub, Berkhamsted, Hemel Hempstead, Leverstock Green, Aldenham, Bushey Heath, Bushey, Carpenders Park, round to Northwood, Rickmansworth, Chorleywood and the villages within that area.

“Photographs were a special feature rather than part of the staple diet of both weekly papers. The Watford Observer deployed the local commercial photographic firm Greville's in Queens Road throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. Photographs were for display, rather than for news value. Ironically Greville’s donated much of their collection to Watford Library, in spite of the fact many had been commissioned by the Watford Observer in the first place. The wedding and portrait photographs that were Greville's stock-in-trade were lost as the Council was in an inordinate hurry to press ahead with the abortion that was the central redevelopment of the town, and the building and photographic contents were bulldozed into rubble.”

The loss of photographs wasn’t just limited to Greville’s images of happy couples though, and as Oli explains the entirety of a previous employer’s archive would also be shamefully lost. “The donation of photographs to the library was a laudable, public-spirited gesture, especially in comparison to others. The owners of the West Herts Post, when it closed in the early 1970s, dumped the entire collection of glass plates and negatives, covering some 40 years of the history of the locality, in a couple of skips. They were lost to posterity.”

Thankfully the Watford Observer exhibited a more long-term approach to its extensive archive, as demonstrated by my ability to spend hours poring over those old glass plates, having donated the cumbersome negatives to Watford Museum, whilst keeping film and hard copies of their entire Watford Football Club content at their offices in Caxton Road (which thankfully they have been happy for us to use). It’s these images I’m keen to be able attribute names to, so as to recognise the photographers’ part in contributing so much to the recording of the history of the football club we all care so much about. Oli recalls “Many of the photographs taken during the 50s and 60s at Vicarage Road were the result of Mike Dellow’s work. Tony ‘Greg' Gregory was an enthusiastic photographer for the Observer in the 1960s, following on from Ralph Jones, who subsequently became mine host at the Red Lion, Water End, Hemel Hempstead for 18 years. Ralph ran a shop, Camera Craft in Garston, and also worked as a diver, being the first to take photographs of the Mary Rose.

“The Watford Observer contracted Graphic Photos in the late 1960s, and the likes of Ray Busch, Keith Fletcher and Malcolm Orvis regularly covered the Hornets. When the contract ended, Malcolm joined the full-time staff of the Watford Observer as chief photographer and Peter Baker was recruited as his deputy. They covered the Hornets for some 15 years and at one stage, in 1979, also provided photographs for the club programme.”

Unfortunately, attributing particular images to an individual would seem to be a herculean task, as no record was kept of who photographed what. “While the original Watford Observer photographers in the post-war era included Ralph Jones, Mike Dellow, Keith Fletcher, Malcolm Orvis and Peter Baker, they have all passed on and it would take considerable research to determine who took what. Certainly, Malcolm captured Watford’s 1970 FA Cup upset at home to Liverpool, the headed double by Luther Blissett at Old Trafford in 1978 and the majority of the promotion photos during Graham Taylor’s first era. As the 1990s arrived, Watford began to use photographs from a variety of sources but the award-winning Jane Parr, from the Watford Observer, certainly made her mark during Graham Taylor's second era.

“To some they were just names in the newspaper, appearing occasionally underneath a shot of goalmouth action. Yet we would spare a thought when they sat chilled behind the goal as the rain lashed down.”

Indeed, we should spare a thought for those behind the lens, for without the likes of Baker, Dellow, Fletcher, Jones, Orvis, and more recently Parr, much of Watford’s history would be mere cold statistics, rather than the wonderfully illustrated look into a bygone age we can now enjoy and treasure, and The Watford Treasury would certainly have a lot of glaring spaces where their work now resides!


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