A while ago I was contacted by the late Pete James, a photographic historian taken from us far too soon, about the legendary prisoner photograph collection in the West Midlands Police Museum. Pete was particularly interested in what had been mistakenly referred to as our 'daguerreotypes'. The daguerreotype (named after their creator - Louis Daguerre) was the first publicly available type of photography, available between 1839-1860.
Pete examined our oldest photograph collection and informed us that they were actually collodian positives.
This sent us off on a journey trying to identify exactly which photograph was the earliest, when was it taken, what were the procedures for Birmingham Borough Police back then and how did it all evolve into what we know today?
The collodian positives in the West Midlands Police Museum collection number 27 in total. 23 in a framed collection and 4 loose. Some of them have writing on the back, giving brief details of the person captured in the image - some unfortunately have nothing and these details sadly are likely to be lost forever.
As part of the research Pete and I carried out, we found an article from the Birmingham Gazette on the 17th November 1949. This article informed us that Birmingham were the first police force in the country to record the images of people in custody, only beaten nationally by the police in Switzerland.
It stated that in 1860 Birmingham began to record these images and it showed two which it stated were the very first - from 1860. These two have not survived in our collection, however there are three photographs in the collection with earlier dates.
One with a good claim on the oldest is that of Isaac Ellery - he has two convictions recorded on the back of his image, one from 1853 and one from 1860. He also has a number - 102. None of the others seem to have previous convictions recorded so it is a natural assumption that 1853 is the date of the image - making it far earlier than the newspaper article.
Looking at the number (102), if one assumes this is a consecutive record of photographs taken by the Birmingham Police - you would have to assume that Ellery's pic is in relation to the 1860 conviction as we have earlier numbers showing, such as 67 for Catherine Legg with a date of 1858 and the smallest one - 49 - in relation to an image from 1859. Could one of these be the earliest image? Perhaps we will never know for sure.
Pete tragically died of organ failure last week. We had plans to write a book together to share all of this wonderful history of the early Birmingham Police photographs - which I still plan on doing, as a lasting tribute to him and his work.
In memory of Pete James