Sunday, 31 January 2021

'Perseverance' the Story of Thomas Forrest, Pontypridd Photographer

This is a history of the Victorian photographic studio of Thomas Forrest of Pontypridd. At the end is a document which will help you date photographs from his Cambrian Studio. I've been collecting them for over ten years and have 140 examples. 

Thomas Forrest's story starts in Stamber Mill near Stourbridge just west of Birmingham. His father and two older brothers were chainmakers, probably working in their backyard. His mother, the wonderfully named Phoebe Homer, gave birth to Thomas in July 1838 and when he came of age he also became a chainmaker, heating bars of metal and hammering them into links, over and over again. 

The family moved to Pontypridd between 1855 and 1859. They were drawn to the area by the Brown Lenox Chainworks, a massive chainmaking factory that had been in Pontypridd since 1816. They lived a short walk from the chainworks near the Bunch of Grapes pub and this photograph, though much later, shows the type of work the Forrests would have been undertaking: 

Somehow Thomas Forrest and his brother Joseph developed an interest in photography. In the late 1850's photography was in its infancy, with only a few photographic studios in major towns and cities. Taking a photograph was an expensive operation requiring equipment, chemicals, a dark room and plenty of knowledge, skill and time. The owner of the chainworks, Mr Lenox, apparently came to learn of Thomas' hobby and 'took a great interest in the young man' and 'assisted him in many ways.' He paid for him to 'receive a course of instruction in the art' by a practical photographer in Hereford. This was probably Ladmore and Sons of King Street. 

There is a story that the Forrest brothers 'made their own camera out of a large matchbox and Thomas Forrest went to London alone to buy the lens- taking a boat from Cardiff to Bristol and then going by stage coach, and finally by train to London, the money sewn in his clothes!' the writer stating 'Can we imagine the inexhaustible patience to make a camera in those early days?'

The earliest history of the studio is a little unclear. Thomas and Joseph first set up business together as 'Forrest Brothers' in 1861 in a cottage on Berw Road. It is also said that for Thomas 'before that he had done a great deal in his spare time and whenever he had the opportunity.' I have not seen any photographs from the 'Forrest Brothers.' I think around 1864 Joseph and Thomas parted ways. Joseph went on to run his own photography studio first in Treforest around 1868 and then Brynmawr where he ran his studio at 'Likeness House' until his death in 1882 when his wife Maria took over the studio. 

In 1864 we have the first clear evidence of Thomas and his brother Joseph working as photographers. They were also already respected members of the community as in July 1864 they were both on the committee for organising the celebrations of the coming of age of the son of Gordon Lenox. There was a huge party in the grounds of Ynysangharad House with a feast, fireworks, bands and cannon salutes and it was also clear that the brothers had prepared to take outdoor 'sun-prints' of the festivities. On the day however a huge summer storm crashed into Pontypridd and the photographic apparatus they had set up had become 'disarranged by the deluge.'

The earliest examples of Thomas Forrest's photographs I own are his Cartes-de-Visites or CDV's. CDV's are albumen prints mounted on cardboard and were introduced in the 1850's in Paris by Andre Disderi. The photographs he took in the early 1860's are numbered on the back and this photograph, No.736 is the earliest I have and I think it dates to 1864. Thomas was by now in his second studio in Market Terrace, later called Market Street, and he ran this studio from around 1864 until the early 1870's.

Later on in 1864 Thomas married Catherine Sant at Llanwonno on Christmas Eve. Catherine was the daughter of a blacksmith who had grown up on the Rhondda Road heading north out of Pontypridd. 

Thomas Forrest and his brother John were also involved in the early building and development of St Catherine's Church at Pontypridd between 1866 and 1870. Thomas was the first Church Warden there and played a harmonium which he had built himself. When the church was built a bottle of documents was placed under the foundation stone including a photograph of St Catherine's taken by Thomas. 

In the year 1867 a letter was written from Pontypridd which stated 'There is an excellent photographer here, draws to life all he takes.'  These are some examples of his photographs from that time, numbered 827, 1157 and 2457: 

In 1868-1870 Thomas first used the 'Cambrian Studio' name for his business and these photographs date from that period. In this sequence you can clearly see the poses were quite standard and that the studio owned some cardboard props and a lovely round backed chair: 

At some point before 1871 he moved to 14 Market Street where his 'Cambrian Studio' would be located for the next fifty years. In 1871 Thomas, Catherine and their two children Albert and Agnes were living there. His brother John was trading next door as a leather seller. Thomas' children were too young to assist him in the shop so he had a 21 year assistant named Thomas Alder. 

For a short period Thomas was running two studios on either side of Market Street. In September 1871 he advertised his Cambrian Studios as Nos 1 & 2 and he also amended his CDV backing cards by adding an S on the end of 'Cambrian Studio'. 

These photographs date from this period in 1869-1870 and were probably taken at both 14 Market Street and his older studio across the road. You can see the clear development of the furniture and props that Thomas owned:

Thomas returned to the Brown Lenox chainworks in 1875 to take this photograph which is now in the Museum of Wales: 

Although Thomas had lived at 14 Market Street since at least 1871 later reports state that he only erected his customised photographic studio in 1876. I think in fact he extended the property to the north. 'His enterprise was then looked upon by the townspeople as a most rash one, especially as he paid £200 for the site, before he laid a stone.' But 'The development of the town and the consequently increased value of the site show that he had admirable foresight.' The reports say that the Cambrian Studio was built 'on the latest principles for artistic lighting and instant exposures'. It is clear he chose the site carefully- it is on the end of Market Street and this enabled it to have windows not only on three sides but part of the roof was made out of glass panels. This roof, which can be seen in this photograph from around 1908, also faced north which was an ideal direction to get the right light for a photographic studio. 

The upper window, also north facing, also stuck out at the bottom almost like a bay window to angle more light into the studio. The glass panels could still be seen in the 1960's but the roof is now slated. 

In his studio was a miniature stage with scenery backdrops, in 1901 these included a drawing room, an arbour and a woodland scene. These could be changed with the pull of a rope. Despite the windows in the roof the main studio also held 'a number of shutters and white canvas sheets placed in every available nook and corner to catch the light.' There was a darkroom where the photographs would have been developed. Then there was a printing room where the photographs were printed before being attached to the cartes-de-visites card backs. In another room there was a 'large chest,' which I would kill to get my hands on, as this contained 'years upon years of accumulated negatives.' Then, in yet another dark room that was lit with artificial light, was the magnifying room where a carte-de-visite image could be enlarged into more standard picture sizes. Thomas offered 'portraits in oils' and these would have been blown-up photographs that were then painted over in oils to create a more traditional looking portrait. I have not come across any of these yet, but I live in hope. Next to all of this was the framing department where these enlarged portraits were framed. 

That is six rooms so far but there was more. Downstairs was the toning department and also another dark room for developing the enlargements that were made in the magnifying room. Add to this the fact that Thomas and Catherine both lived there with 5 children. I believe that originally the whole Cambrian Studio complex included not only the two buildings now known as 14 and 14a Market Street but also the Goldsmiths and Jewellers shops that now front Taff Street and the barbers and leather shop on Market Street. After completing this purpose built studio Thomas designed new photograph cards to reflect his new professional home:

This is the only photograph I have seen of the outside of The Cambrian Studio on Market Street. It was taken in 1933 right at the very end of the studio's life.

He continued to take photographs in his Cambrian Studio but he also travelled and photographed accidents, like the Tynewydd colliery disaster of 1877, the Abercarn colliery disaster of 1878 and a train crash in Pontypridd also in 1878.

This advert dates from 1879 and shows the full range of services Thomas provided:

In 1881 the Local Board in Pontypridd discussed the matter of an appropriate crest or coat of arms for the town. In the 1950's a local wrote in to the newspaper to tell the story that 'Mr Forrest volunteered to submit a design and in his studio in Market Street many ideas arose but looking from his window in the direction of the Bridge, inspired by his own endeavour, tireless patience and courage, he decided that that should be the watchword and subject of his sketch. The design was submitted, enthusiastically received and accepted. I recall many a glance at the drawing board while he was engaged on his work. So was born the 'Crest' or 'Motto' world famous for its moral and lesson, 'Perseverance.' Thomas included his design on the back of his photographs from then on:

By 1881 his eldest son Albert was working as his photographic assistant aged just 13. His other four children were all aged 10 and under, though he and Catherine had also had another two children who died young in 1866 and 1880. 

In 1881 a wondrous development occurred at the Cambrian Studio. Thomas started to stamp his CDV's after they were printed with the day, month and year. This happened from 1881 through to 1900 and it means that the majority of the people he photographed can be dated to the exact day that they walked into the Cambrian Studio. 

The true wonder of his photographs are their reflection of the inhabitants of Pontypridd. This photograph was taken on Tuesday March 28th 1882 and probably shows a local sewing group:

This mother and child posed on Market Day on the 3rd August 1881:

This brother and sister posed on February 17th 1882:

And the very next day 'Nellie and Baby' posed for this lovely photograph:

Although occasionally the dating must be treated with caution. This is dated January 18th 1884 but is clearly a re-photograph of an 1860's portrait from another studio: 

In 1881 Thomas was advertising a 'new invention.' He patented this invention of a 'due-ratio instantaneous photographic drop shutter' in 1886:

It was not just families that Thomas photographed. When a thief stole jewellery from the Horse and Groom pub in Pontypridd Thomas was called to the Police Station to take his photograph. The 'process was rendered impossible by the ugly faces which the prisoner purposely made.' To remedy this Thomas went away from the station and hid himself and his camera somewhere in the street. When the police took the prisoner out on the street on some pretence Thomas took his photograph in secret. 

In November Thomas helped out the community in a nicer way when he let some local girls hold a bazaar at the Cambrian Studio:

Pontypridd Chronicle 4th November 1882

Thomas continued to take photographs of the inhabitants of the area. This young couple from April 30th 1886:
This girl from March 3rd 1890:
This gentleman from August 2nd 1890:
This father and daughter from March 29th 1893 shows the developing options for scenery available at the studio:
This family were photographed filling up the studio on September 4th 1895:

These brothers are from January 6th 1900:

Occasionally poignant details are recorded. This boys original photograph was taken on November 11th 1893:

Seven years later the family had the shot reprinted in the larger cabinet form, possibly as the boy had died:

In May 1888 an interview with Dr William Price, the famous Druid and Chartist from Llantrisant appeared in the Cardiff Times. While working at Brown Lenox Thomas Forrest would have come to meet Dr Price as he was the company doctor and had a good relation with the workmen. Dr Price become the Forrest family doctor and remained a friend of Thomas, so much so that he posed for his most famous image at the Cambrian Studio. There is a copy of this photograph in the National Library of Wales and Thomas sold copies at the studio as souvenirs: 

Thomas also photographed his cremation in January 1893:


The 1890's saw Thomas join the local Ratepayers Association and the Free Library Committee and continue to take photographs both at the studio and out and about in the community. By the 1891 census the family were still living on the premises of the Cambrian Studio. His son Albert is now a fully fledged 'photographer' on the census and was already exhibiting his work at an exhibition in Cardiff. 19 year old Walter is also listed as 'Photographer's Assistant' just as his older brother had been before him. 

In 1892 the Lord Mayor of London (who was born in Llantrisant) invited Thomas Forrest to the Mansion House in London to take his photograph. Thomas was evidently very excited by this commission and he sold copies of this photograph from the Cambrian Studio and displayed them in his window:

Thomas also sold prints of prominent Welshmen of the period. The choirmaster Caradog was walking past the studio one day and, after seeing photographs of his old schoolmaster Ieuan Ddu in the shop he was convinced to pose for Thomas. Thomas also photographed archdruids and bards such as Clwydfardd,  Hwfa Mon and Morien. At the National Eisteddfod in Pontypridd in the summer of 1893 he also judged the photography competitions, although disappointingly hardly anyone entered and no prizes were awarded!

January 1st 1893 saw a big change for the Cambrian Studios as Thomas Forrest became 'Thomas Forrest and Sons.' Thomas had decided to make Albert and Walter part of the company.  

The photographs reflect this, first they just stamped '& Sons' onto the existing card stock:

Then it was incorporated into the main design:

By 1894 Thomas and Catherine finally moved out of the presumably cramped accommodation at the Cambrian Studio and were living in the middle and upper class area of Pontypridd at 2 Graigwen Place with Albert, Walter, Agnes and Clara.

Thomas Forrest fell ill in the summer of 1895. It was up to Albert and Walter to continue running the business, which they did successfully. On the advice of his doctor Thomas moved out of Graigwen Place in January 1896, as the hill walk to and from the town was too much for him to manage. He moved into 'Glenroy House' at 46 Berw Road with his children, returning to the street where he started his photographic business over thirty years earlier, but probably to a much grander property. 

In 1897 on July 10th Thomas Forrest officially retired from the photographic business due to ill health. A moment of happiness came a month later when he gave away in marriage his eldest daughter Agnes. Four months later Thomas died on New Years Eve 1897 from 'syncope' or heart disease. He was buried at Glyntaff Cemetery in Treforest a few days later in a polished elm coffin with brass fittings with the funeral 'largely attended by prominent tradespeople of the town'. 

Given that this man had photographed tens of thousands of people in his lifetime I strangely do not have one thing to show you- a photograph of Thomas Forrest himself! 

Catherine stayed on at the Berw Road house for another seven years living with her two grown up sons and youngest daughter before she died, after a 'long and painful illness,' in 1904. 

Walter and Albert continued on the business after the death of their father, as they had been doing for years anyway. They kept the name Thomas Forrest & Sons throughout. This Christmas advert is from December 1898:

In 1901 a reporter from the Pontypridd Chronicle visited the studio and wrote an article about what he saw there after being shown around by Albert. He said that 'there are strange devices for attracting the attention of children, and curious looking chairs, where the artful parents may hold a child without being discovered in the picture themselves.' 'There are numerous toys utilised to catch the eye of youth in Mr Forrest's possession, from a modernised monkey on a piece of string to a model steam engine.' Though Albert Forrest said that young people 'are easier to 'take' than grown up folks, as they pose naturally and without affectation.'

Walter is described as a clever artist, draughtsman and photographer and he played the cello while Albert played the violin. They both played in string quartets and Albert became conductor of the Pontypridd Orchestra in the early 1900's. Albert, like his father, was also involved heavily in St Catherine's Church. He is described later on as a kind, generous and sympathetic man who's usual enquiry was 'Is there nothing I can do?' Interestingly Albert married Florence Sherrell the daughter of a Birmingham photographer and when Walter left the 'and Sons' partnership in May 1910 it was Florence who became the photographer's assistant in the business. The in-laws then came to live with Albert and Florence so once again there were two generations of photographers living under the one roof. 

The business continued at 14 Market street with various examples of Albert's work appearing in local newspapers like this shot of 'Five Generations in the Rhondda taken in December 1910. 

Albert photographed the inhabitants of Pontypridd through the Great War and the 1920's:

Albert Forrest died in February 1933. I do not know when the photography studio shut down. Thomas Forrest and Sons were exhibiting at a London portrait show in September of the same year, but Albert may have entered that before he died. There are no references to Thomas Forrest and Sons after 1933.

Walter Forrest, after leaving the firm in 1910 married in Ealing in 1918. He did return to the Pontypridd area but died in Middlesex in 1945 aged 74 and I don't know if he had any more involvement with the photography business after leaving in 1910. 

If you have any Thomas Forrest photographs then please do get in touch, I would love to see them and would be glad to help you date them. The photographic studio building still exists in Pontypridd:

A dating guide to Thomas Forrest photographs 1861-1900 can be downloaded here

Thanks to @aliguana on twitter for finding the studio photographs on the RCT site. All images are from the author's collection. The others are from National Museum of Wales, National Library of Wales and the newspaper reports are from Welsh Newspapers Online.