The Search for Eugenia Fynch

Devotees of Norfolk Broads history will be familiar with the work of the Victorian photographers Peter Henry Emerson and John Payne Jennings and the stunning images of Broadland they produced during the 1880s and 1890s. Indeed, I’ve mentioned them both on the blog in the past and some examples of their work can be found within the gallery pages of the Broadland Memories website.

Neither men were local to the area but both obviously had a passion for Broadland, Emerson in particular wrote a vivid account of a year spent sailing around Broadland in the converted trading wherry Maid of the Mist in the book On English Lagoons which was published in 1893. Both Emerson and Jennings published collections of their photographs of Broadland during the late Victorian era and were held to be pioneers within the field of photography, between them they produced a wonderful and lasting record of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads in the late 1800s.

Acle Bridge by W.H. Finch - by courtesy of Norfolk County Council Library & Information Service

Examples of their work can also be found within the Norfolk County Council archives on the Picture Norfolk website. The photographic collections held by the County Council are wide and varied and I can often spend a couple of hours at a time just browsing through some of the delightful images of Norfolk which are displayed on their website. It’s also an invaluable resource for local and family historians and I’m constantly discovering photographs which I haven’t seen before. Such was the case over the Christmas holiday when I stumbled upon a fascinating set of images produced by the Victorian photographer William Henry Finch. Finch was living with his family at Acle when the photographs were taken, what makes them all the more interesting is the fact that many predate the iconic scenes captured by Emerson and Jennings by some twenty years. Finch was obviously quite a skilled photographer and the quality of the images he produced was quite astonishing for the time, as his photograph of Acle Bridge, above right, demonstrates.

But it’s the story behind the discovery of the collection and the life of the man himself which is really intriguing. This story is told in the book “The Search for Eugenia Fynch – The story of Norfolk’s unknown Victorian photographers” which was published by the Acle Community Archive Group (ACAG) in 2011, a copy of which I picked up recently at the newsagents stand in Lathams at Potter Heigham.  In 1988, a box of 148 photographs of Acle, credited to Eugenia Fynch and dated between 1863 and 1883, were discovered at Norwich library. The photographs were copied and catalogued by local Acle historian Brian Grint and were returned to the library – sadly, after the fire which destroyed the library in 1994, many of these original photographs were thought to have been lost. In 2010, the ACAG began to archive the copies of the photos which had been taken in the 1980s and to research the life of Eugenia Fynch who, it was supposed, was a woman. Further investigations revealed that rather than Eugenia, the photographer was actually Ægena Fynch, a rather exotic pseudonym adopted by the Acle photographer William Henry Finch. With the help of Clare Everitt, the administrator for Picture Norfolk, a search was made for further Finch images within the council archives which led to the surprising rediscovery of the original box of photographs which it was thought had been lost in the fire. Many more photographs were eventually attributed as being the work of William Henry Finch (1816-1883) and further images were discovered to be the work of his three sons, William Henry Finch jr. (1840-1889), Walter Juan Finch (1843-1888) and Eugene Arthur Finch (1857-1883), who all followed in their father’s profession.

William Henry Finch - by courtesy of Norfolk County Council Library & Information Service

The Search for Eugenia Fynch” not only tells the story of the Finch family, but also includes a varied selection of the remarkable photographs produced by the family, taken from what turned out to be an extensive body of their work held by Norfolk County Council Library & Information Service. It’s fair to say that both Peter Henry Emerson and John Payne Jennings could be termed “gentleman” photographers in an era when, I had assumed, photographic equipment would have been prohibitively expensive for the ordinary man. However, William Henry Finch came from a far more modest background, having been brought up in the Norwich Yards which were home to some of the city’s poorer inhabitants. How William eventually came to photography is discussed within the book but, although he presumably made a reasonably comfortable living from it, it’s clear that it never really made him a fortune, and the latter years of his life seem to have been spent traveling from town to town and village to village with his photographers barrow.  The image above right is believed to be the only known photograph of William himself, captioned by him as “Acle Photographer’s dark room after being damaged.” It’s interesting to note that the wet collodion process used by Finch to develop his glass plate images necessitated certain parts of the process to be carried out in situ when the photographs were taken, hence the need to carry bottles of chemicals in the barrow which was used as a dark room.

It is thought that the use of these rather toxic chemicals and the noxious gases they produced may have been a contributory factor in the rather premature deaths of all three of William’s sons. William Finch himself died in 1883 at the age of 65 from what was believed to have been a stroke. Over the course of around thirty years the four photographers produced a prolific body of work, providing us with a fascinating record of life in Victorian Norfolk. It’s astonishing to think that the collection lay unrecognised for 130 years, but thanks to the dedication of the Acle Community Archive Group and Clare Everitt the legacy left behind by the Finch family has now been rightfully acknowledged.

To view more of the Finch collection of photographs just use the “Photographer’s Name” section of the search facility on the Picture Norfolk website. My thanks to the Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service for allowing me to reproduce the photographs seen above.

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