SIMON Robinson had been collecting old photos for more than three decades when, two years ago, his sister noticed something rather peculiar.
Among the thousands of snaps bought in bulk from antique shops, jumble sales and postcard fairs were hundreds of strikingly similar pictures of people walking along town streets.
They featured different subjects in different places from different decades but the style was always virtually identical – person mid-stride, rarely looking at the camera, urban-life carrying on all around them.
“I hadn’t noticed the similarities before,” says the 57-year-old of Stannington. “But I was fascinated – especially because some were clearly taken in Sheffield. I had no idea what the connection was.”
Two years on, his quest to find out has seen him travel across the country, discover hundreds more photos, and will, this year, result in a unique book which is already exciting officials at Bradford’s National Media Museum...
The pictures themselves are a fascinating glimpse into the past.
Among the almost 2,000 Simon has gathered, there are men, women and children; friends, families and courting couples. The chaps tend to be dressed in suits, and the women in full skirts. In the background are all the identifying features of the mid 20th century – black motor cars, trams and bunting celebrating the 1953 royal coronation.
They stretch from the 1930s to the 1970s, and from Glasgow to Brighton. Seven (pictured above) are identifiably taken in Sheffield – indeed, The Star’s office, Kemsley House, can be seen in one – while the most common location appears to be a promenade in Mablethorpe.
And therein lay a clue...
“One of the pictures had a company name on the back,” explains Simon, a graphic designer. “It was Snaps of Bridlington – which I remembered from going on holiday there myself.
“I did some research on the company – and that was when things started to make sense.”
He learned Snaps would send dozens of cameramen into town during the summer months to ‘pap’ people walking the promenades. They would then give their subjects a ticket and tell them they could buy the picture – a memento of their day – from a certain address at a certain time.
It is proof, perhaps, that while styles changed, people’s love of having their picture taken never does.
One firm, Sunbeam in Margate, estimated they would take about 30,000 photographs in a Bank Holiday weekend before the Second World War.
But, surprisingly, it seems this was not just a seaside phenomenon.
“The more photos I found the more they seemed to come from inland towns and cities too,” says Simon.
“It’s quite funny because on the inland ones people seem to look more harassed – perhaps because they weren’t on holiday.
“I wrote a couple of articles for specialist magazines and people started sending me pictures from all over such as Leeds and Manchester.”
And Sheffield too – where it seems the photographer’s pitch was somewhere along Pinstone Street and Fargate.
One shows a young Ken Hawley, who today runs a collection of historic industrial tools at Kelham Island Museum, with his granddad Frederick Gould in 1935; another captures Glaswegian Henry Shannon on the day, in 1953, he arrived in the city visiting his sister.
“His son Chris gave it to me,” says Simon. “It meant a lot to his dad because he met his future wife here and never ended up leaving.”
There are also Sheffielders on holiday including Brian and Carole Frogatt, of Wisewood, snapped in Skegness in 1961.
“They’re family friends and when I told them about the project, by coincidence they said they had one of themselves,” explains Simon. “The picture makes them look so sophisticated and well-dressed, you imagine they’re on their way to the opera. In actual fact they were going to an open-air wrestling contest on the beach.”
But the public paparazzi had a limited shelf life. As personal cameras become increasingly affordable, more people shunned the street ‘toggers’.
“It was of a moment,” says Simon. “And then it disappeared, which makes it all the more fascinating.”
Certainly, that was an opinion shared by Bradford’s National Media Museum.
Staff said nothing like it had been done before and are already discussing the possibility of holding an exhibition there to launch of Simon’s book – pencilled in for late 2012.
“I’ve always loved old photographs,” says Simon. “I love the romance of what stories they might tell but these ‘walkies’ are particularly special because they reveal so much social history too.
“They’re never really posed, and most of the time people did not even realise they were being taken, so they are completely natural.
“That means they really are a snapshot of the times.”
Simon is still looking for more ‘walkies’ for the book. If you have one which might be suitable email email@example.com or call 0114 233 3024.