Rye’s First Photographer

Edwin Thomas Gasson of Rye

1827 – 1904

Carpenter, photographer, taxidermist and museum proprietor.

By John C. Pulford

In a family letter written in 1956 by my great, great uncle living in Watchbell street, Edwin Thomas Gasson was remembered as “rather a clever old chap, he used to stuff birds and was a photographer and also did some artistic work in broken china”.

This brief summary unfortunately does little justice to a man whose creative talents and enthusiasm must have been very evident in Rye in the mid -19th century. Not only it seems was Edwin Gasson operating Rye’s first commercial photographic studio but he was recognising the potential in recording and selling photographic views of Rye’s landmarks and surrounding villages some twenty or thirty years before the boom in the popularity of the picture postcard. In addition he had established a museum in the town in the 1860s, over fifty years before Rye Museum was established.

Edwin Gasson came from a family that can be traced back in Rye and neighbouring villages for many generations. Edwin himself was born in Pennon in Scotland in 1827 although his father Edmond had been born in Rye in 1786 and his mother Mary in Winchelsea in about 1790. Edwin had three sisters; Emily, ten years older and born in New Romney, Louisa also born in Scotland and Maria who was two years younger. In 1841 they were all living in Spring Crescent with a lodger called Amelia Roots.

A carte de visite of Edwin's father taken at Gasson's circa 1860
A carte de visite of Edwin’s father taken at Gasson’s circa 1860

By 1851 Edwin was practising as a carpenter and living with his wife Caroline in Landgate. His mother and father (now a Chelsea Pensioner) were living in Landgate (then also called King Street) next door to Edwin’s eldest sister, Emily, and her husband John Chappell Pulford, a Rye mariner whom she had married in 1846.

Caroline Gasson with one Edwin's children 1865
Caroline Gasson with one Edwin’s children 1865

Edwin was still listed as a carpenter in Landgate in the Post Office directory of 1855 but in August 1857 an advertisement appeared in the Rye Chronicle where he “begs to call attention to a large assortment of gilt & maple mouldings. Picture frames made to order. Birds & animals stuffed & cased to order on reasonable terms” This advertisement appeared regularly for the rest of the year.Then on 16th January 1858 the words “Photographs taken and coloured from one shilling each” are added.This coincides with a surviving photograph of Edwin seated in front of a case of stuffed birds bearing the words “GASSON, BIRD STUFFER RYE”. It is a hand-tinted collodian positive on glass (or “ambrotype”) and framed in an ornate, moulded frame, no doubt of his own making. The backing includes a piece of newspaper dated 1858.

Edwin Thomas Gasson c.1858
Edwin Thomas Gasson c.1858

These glass collodian positives reached the height of their popularity in the mid-1850s, the period when photography became more practicable as a commercial trade. Many large and small towns had a photographer by 1855, but it would appear that Edwin was Rye’s first when he was advertising in January 1858. In the same year, Edwin’s first daughter, Elizabeth, was born.

By 1861 the photographic side of Edwin’s business seems to have grown. On 5th January of that year Edwin, now giving his address as 4 Tower Street, placed another advertisement in the Rye Chronicle offering a large assortment of goods including Christmas amusements, panoramic views and the following to let on hire:-

“A box with two powerful glasses 8 inches in diameter which will cause a photographic likeness to appear large as life, 36 photographic pictures including portraits. 1/6d an evening or 6d an hour.” Edwin was also offering, on every day except Sundays, correct likenesses framed and coloured for one shilling; animals and birds stuffed and preserved and gilt, maple and rosewood frames.

On January 12th “Mr Gasson of Tower Street” reported in the Rye Chronicle that he had in his possession some rare birds driven ashore by the severe weather. He was happy to show them to those who might be curious. In February, Edwin wrote a letter to the Rye Chronicle appealing for a working men’s club and library from leaders of societies. In the same paper, a long advertisement appears on March 30th, in which Edwin states that “It may be thought by some that a good likeness cannot be obtained in this little country town but the contrary is the case for E.Gasson’s Shilling Likenesses are equal to many for which 10 shillings are charged in London. Taken in Crystal Medium – thin as paper.”

Gasson's Museum King's Street (Landgate)
Gasson’s Museum King’s Street (Landgate)

In the 1861 census returns he is still only recorded as a carpenter living at 4 Tower Street. His father, a widower, is still living at 21 King Street with his daughter and son-in-law, Emily and John Pulford. Emily had two children before her marriage, John and Mary Ann. Emily’s son, John Gasson, aged twenty has presumably joined his uncle in the taxidermy business as he is described in the census as a ‘naturalist’.

Emily's son John Gasson c.1860
Emily’s son John Gasson c.1860

In January 1862 Edwin was offering likenesses taken in the Crystal Medium, a “recent discovery”, and by October the same year Edwin was advertising his photographic premises at 21 King Street, Landgate, suggesting he had moved to join his father and the other members of his family living there. In 1864 Edwin’s second daughter, Caroline, was born.

On 25th November 1865 a long advertisement appeared in the Rye Telegram for E.T.Gasson Photographic Artist & Naturalist, 21 King Street Rye. This shows the large range of goods and services now being offered, including stereoscopic slides and card views of Rye and neighbourhood, cartes de visite, large views of the town, music books and musical instruments.

By January 1866, there is evidence of a rival for the photographic side of Edwin’s business when Thorpe’s Photographic Studios in the High Street advertised in the South East Advertiser but in the 1867 Post Office Directory Edwin presents himself as a Naturalist, Photographer, Stationer, Picture frame maker and Music seller. A ‘Museum’ now appears in the list of public establishments in the same directory, with his name as the ‘proprietor’

Museum Now Open
Museum Now Open

Edwin seems to have continued his trade as a photographer and naturalist for the rest of the century no doubt benefitting from the increasing demand for studio photographs and scenic views. In 1871 he appears to have been employing another photographer in his studio at 21 King Street, Albert Edwards aged 27, born in Rye and in 1877 a ‘likeness taker’, John Beetham.

Edwin had four more children: his third daughter, Florence, was born in 1868, the same year that his sister, Emily Pulford, died, and a fourth, Jane, was born in 1869. By 1871 Edwin’s wife, Caroline, had died too but Edwin remarried and his first son, Edwin, was born in 1872 and in 1873 his fifth daughter, Mary. In the 1880s he was living at 74 High Street and had probably moved his business there.

Far from being a mere ‘Jack-of-all-trades’, Edwin had clearly adapted the skills he had mastered to meet the growing leisure and tourism market that came with the expansion of the railways. A carpenter, framemaker, music seller, who recorded local views for entertainment as well as souvenirs, who preserved animals, birds and insects and opened not only the first photographic portrait studio in Rye but the town’s first museum too, Edwin Thomas Gasson was clearly a man of great creative energy, talent and enterprise; – ‘a clever old chap’ indeed!

The Strand Coal Warehouse. Photograph taken by E.T. Gasson in the 1880's
The Strand Coal Warehouse. Photograph taken by E.T. Gasson in the 1880’s

John C. Pulford

From the May 2007 issue of “Rye’s Own”

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