The Oldest Photo in our Image Archive

Did you know that Ipswich boasts some of the earliest surviving photographic images?

Our Image Archive includes images taken directly from original 3’ x 2’ wax paper negatives which have been identified by the Fox-Talbot Museum of Photography as outstanding examples of some of the oldest and rarest of images in the world. These photographs were taken by local chemist John Wiggin, one of which shows the newly completed Custom House, seen below.

Customs House c.late 1840s

This photograph we believe was taken between 1845 when the Custom House was completed and 1851 when it was submitted by Wiggin to the London Salon Exhibition. It is from a period at the very start of photography, and though we cannot be precise, experts from the Fox-Talbot Museum believe it to be from the late 1840s.

The earliest surviving negative image in the world was taken in 1835 by William Henry Fox Talbot with the first camera. By 1839 Louis Jacques-Mande Daguerre polished a sheet of silver-plated copper, treated it with fumes to make it light sensitive and exposed it in a camera to produce a daguerreotype image. In 1840 Talbot processed faint, or invisible, images from the camera in a dark room to chemically develop them into a full image, introduced as the calotype or talbotype process in 1841. This process works through the activation of silver salts by light making them darken. If these salts are soaked onto a film, then light exposed areas darken to produce a negative of the image being taken. When light is shined through a transparent calotype negative it can make a positive image. Before the invention of acetate, celluloid, or plastic films, these negatives were made from paper soaked in wax to make them transparent. Often this was applied evenly with an iron. By 1851 though Gustave Le Gray had published and improved the method for creating waxed paper negatives.

John Wiggin also collaborated in photography with his friend Richard Dykes Alexander who became Chairman of the Ipswich Dock Commission. Richard and his friend Thomas Clarkson played a major role in the local Quaker community, and both shared their work on the campaign to abolish slavery. Alexander’s own interest in photography has given us yet another collection of maritime images in our Image Archive.

Some of you may also be wondering why the clock is missing in the Customs House if it was completed in 1845. Well there was a long delay in the clock towers completion, as at first the clock tower was an late addition to the design by the architect, John Medland Clark. Though the story goes that during this period, in the 1840s and 1850s various local dignitaries fell out over the funding of several public works, including the water fountain in Ipswich’s Arboretum. One of the aldermen involved in the issue with the water fountain seemed to also be involved in the clock tower. As he wanted and demanded his name on a plaque or plinth of each public work in the town, including the clock tower which was originally due to be completed in 1851. But due to the arguments between local officials and a variety of other issues the clock wasn’t actually fitted until 1861, with the plaque dedicating it stepping around the delay by showing the completion date as 1851.

The Missing Clock in the Custom House Clock Tower

We have so many great historic images in our Image Archive and are always looking for volunteers to help us caption and research our vast collection. If you are interested or know someone that might be please get in touch with us.

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