Friday, 29 June 2018

A Study in Photographic Identification - "St John De Mar at His Sod Hut"

My Grandfather with his Horse Team at
St John's De Mar's "Sod" Hut, Heddon Bush.
Taken circa 1900
Photographer possibly W. Cameron of Winton
[From my own collection]

Having commenced cataloguing a vast collection of old family photographs a couple of years ago, this particular image caught my eye and has truly proven to be the image that keeps on giving. I very much enjoy the challenge of identifying old photographs, this aspect of being a Photographic Archivist being part and parcel of my working career over many years. And this interesting image has enabled me to successfully apply various identification methods which I will detail in this Blog. And, as we shall read, we cannot or should not believe everything we see! 

But what we will be looking at here is surprisingly not one but two photographs, both coming from entirely separate sources however both were taken of the same subject matter and apparently at the same time. Essentially we will explore where, when and who in relation to the subject content including an attempt to identify the photographer with an explanation of the process whereby I have arrived at these conclusions.

St John De Mar's "Sod Hut"

What do we see in this image?

A bush setting with a stand of mature native forest. On the left is a colonial era canvas covered hut with walls constructed of logs and a chimney made of sods. Outside the hut we can just discern a watering can. Over to the right, as shown in the full image, we can see a horse drawn waggon with two adults and two children.

My Grandfather with his Four Horse Waggon

Who do we see in this image?

Although the photo lacks any attribution, it was found amongst board mounted photographs owned by my Grandfather, a sheep and grain farmer of Heddon Bush in Central Southland. While the image is rather grainy I have no doubt that my Grandfather is the bearded man sitting on the waggon holding the child. That it is in fact my Grandfather is also confirmed by the fact that this is his own four wheeled waggon and I hold another image of it to doubly confirm this attribution.

Why my Grandfather was in fact here is unknown although his farm was only just over a mile down the road. It may well be that he was simply passing (the site is by two main roads) and asked by the Photographer to pose with his horses for some added detail and interest - and perhaps hopeful of making a photo sale (in which he was evidently successful!). Even at this date a canvas and sod hut would have been very unusual, such basic dwellings constructed of local materials had probably all been replaced by the 1880's after the first settler farmers became sufficiently established over the previous decade and building supplies were more easily able to be transported once proper roads were constructed. 

Confirmation of John Searle's Employment prior to 1903;
"Jan 1st [1903]Wages to date £14.6.9"

Knowing that my Grandfather permanently employed a ploughman / labourer over these years we also make use of family archives to identify the gentleman standing by the draught horses. While I do not have details of employees prior to 1902, an extant wage book confirms that John Brice Searle, a Cornishman born in 1874 and who died of pneumonia in 1930, had been employed from at least some time in 1902 (as evidenced by the wage book) through to August 1907. As a long term employee it is entirely feasible to assume that he had been employed from an earlier date and he certainly appears to be of the right age. Should Brice relatives still be living in Wrey's Bush (where Brice latterly farmed) they may be able to positively confirm this attribution.

My Grandfather's Purchase of a New Four Horse Waggon,
4th May 1899

When was the Photograph taken?

Again, family archives assist me here. I know that my Grandfather only purchased his new four horse waggon on the 4th May 1899, that being confirmed from the original invoice from Thomas Findlay, "Waggon, Dray, and Coach Builder and Agricultural Implement Maker" of Invercargill. So the photograph cannot have been taken before this date.

Close-up showing my Grandfather with two of his
children and (I believe) his Ploughman, John B. Searle.

With my Grandfather holding what appears to be a child under one year that could only be my Aunt, born on the 20th January 1899 with my Uncle sitting on the waggon seat born on the 13th June 1897. My Father, being the last child, would not be born until September 1902 and I feel this would be too late as the difference in ages of the children would be too great. Thus, dating the photograph to late 1899 or very early 1900 would be my best guess.

"Hart Campbell & Co,
Invercargill"

Who was the Photographer?

Knowing the Photographer is helpful as this can also be a useful aid to dating photographs - but beware as one should not rely on this form of identification alone! In this case we have "Hart Campbell & Co." of Tay Street, Invercargill. This is rather curious because we know from published sources that the Company had been established in Invercargill in 1880 but the partnership would be dissolved in August 1886 with Hart being declared bankrupt. The simple explanation here would be that the original un-mounted photo, which judging by the image at the top of this page was dry and cracking / and or ripped, was later pasted by my Grandfather or Grandmother over an old and rather ill-fitting board mount (not something a professional photographer would take any pride in). I cannot feel the impression of another photograph underneath so this must have been removed. Therefore I believe, and based on all the other facts, that we can totally discount "Hart Campbell & Co" as being the photographer.

Those photographers active in Southland around 1899-1901 were Charles Campbell (formerly the 'Campbell' relating to the above partnership), Karl A. Gerstenkorn of Invercargill, and William ("Will") Cameron of Winton who was active from around 1897 (and whose premises would be destroyed in "The Great Fire of Winton" on the 25th September 1901). Both Campbell and Gerstenkorn always appears to have used board mounts stamped with their names so my educated guess, and using simple deduction, would be that we are looking at a photograph taken by Mr William Cameron. Additionally, Winton is very conveniently located only 20 kilometers from Heddon Bush. I hold other unmarked board mounts taken on family farms around this period which are probably also by Cameron. My Grandfather would also definitely use Cameron for a portrait photograph taken at his Winton studio in 1901. I suspect that Mr Cameron may even have included himself in one of the photographs but without seeing a photograph of him I cannot be absolutely certain.

Having lost his studio in the great fire (along with a number of other businesses), Cameron had new premises built in 1902 before moving to Invercargill in 1911 but after a wartime downturn in business he would be adjudged bankrupt in 1917 and died in November 1918, being buried in an unmarked grave in "free ground". At his farewell from Winton in 1911 it was noted that; "Mr Cameron is generally admitted to be one of the best animal photographers in New Zealand" and one unmarked photograph I hold would definitely highlight this ability. Hopefully we can build up more of an accurate 'picture' of this rural Southland photographer but it does appear that much of his earlier work is unattributed.

"St John De Mar at His Sod Hut, Heddon Bush".
Photographer possibly W. Cameron of Winton.
Watson Collection - held by the Writer

Where was the Photograph taken?

Here we are assisted by the second photograph, being clearly taken at the same time as the first and thus by the same photographer. This photograph is from a different collection and has only come into my hands through a much later family marriage. The poles leaning against the chimney are in the same position in both images although Mr De Mar now appears to be in residence and has lit a fire.

The Isolated and Forested Area at 'Heddon Bush'.
From a Survey Map dated 1865
[Source : Sir George Grey Special Collections]

On the back of this board mount my Great Aunt has usefully written, "St John De Mar at his Sod Hut, Heddon Bush". That it is even Heddon Bush narrows the location down to one specific place within the district. Despite the name inferring that the district had been "bush" this was in fact definitely not the case, there being only one forested area in the whole of the Central Southland Heddon Bush - Oreti area.

"Township of Heddon Bush",
Surveyed 1866
[Source : National Library of NZ]

This forested area, being named "The Heddon Bush Township Reserve" and comprising of around 140 acres, had been surveyed into 28 five acre sections in 1866 to serve as the future site of a settlement in the district. The area of forest is usefully delineated by a wavy line on the plan. The sale of the timber prior to the sale of the sections would have been intended to help defray costs. But there appear to have been few purchasers for these blocks and the settlement, being on the north west corner of the Drummond-Wrey's Bush Road and Hundred Line intersection, ultimately did not flourish, soon being abandoned. Remnants of this area of mature native forest were extant in 1900, and quite surprisingly, remain to this very day.

A Close-Up of St John De Mar by his
Canvas and Sod Hut, Heddon Bush

Finally, Who was St John De Mar (or De Maur)?

Considering we now know so much about the photograph content we know surprisingly little about the rather enigmatic St John De Mar (or De Maur). We know that around 1900 he was living in a makeshift hut somewhere on the Heddon Bush Township reserve. Only an expensive search of 28 land titles would possibly confirm excatly where. Or he may simply have been 'squatting' and perhaps paying the then landowner a nominal rental.

The earliest published reference I have found is "St John De Maur" listed as a voter in the Wallace Electorate, Southland for 1896. The only other references are when "Mr St John Demar" sang the solo, "Red White and Blue" at the Heddon Bush Bachelors' Ball held on the 13th October 1905 and "St John De Maur" gave a recitation at a farewell function to my Great Uncle and Aunt at Heddon Bush on the 10th February 1909 (BTW, I still hold the gold watch presented at this evening). But here the trail goes cold as there is no record of his burial in Southland, no record of his death in statutory records, no will or probate, and no record even of his birth or arrival into New Zealand. Could he even possibly, and for whatever reason, have assumed this name?

If it is in fact correct, the name De Maur would appear to have English origins, especially with the given Christian name of "St. John". To give a recitation he would appear to be well educated and appreciate prose, and that he sang also indicates that he had at least some ability in this respect. My belief would be that he was an itinerant farm worker, picking up seasonal work when available and just living relatively quietly. Why he chose Heddon Bush is unknown although he may have earlier found work here and just liked the district and the residents. He certainly appears to have engaged with the local community and was no hermit. Overall I feel that there is more of a story to be told about his life so if anyone can provide further information on this mysterious gentleman I would be delighted to hear from you. Strange things can happen when I write about individuals and my feeling is that this will not be the last we hear of St John De Mar (De Maur). My email link appears in the right hand menu bar.

All Rights Reserved.

Sources :

- Papers Past / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- Personal family archives and photographs
- Watson family photographs (held by the writer)
- Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Public Library
- Alexander Turnbull Library / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa

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