Occasionally, we stumble upon a Sheffield character who has been air-brushed by time. This can be said for William Henry Babington, a striking figure, who was easily identifiable as he moved about the city with his long grey hair, moustache, and an old-fashioned flowing cape. He was seldom seen out of doors without his camera.
William was a photographer, and it is quite sad that an article about someone who loved his craft cannot be supplied by a photograph of the person himself.
He was born in Leicester in 1856 and ran away to London at the age of 14, arriving penniless and with nowhere to sleep. His final choice of resting place was under a slab at Billingsgate Market, until he was ‘washed out’ the following morning. Two days of this life in London were enough, and he found his way back home by the same means as before.
Afterwards his father always derived pleasure from recounting how “that mad son of his had ‘done’ London and back on his own.”
It was after experiences in Manchester, Derby, and Normanton, during which time he spent some years on the railway, that he came to Sheffield.
William worked at Pawson and Brailsford as an account collector, and in 1895 joined the Sheffield Telegraph, acting as manager of the Zincographic department and as a staff photographer. (Zincography was a printing process that used zinc plates) As such, he was one of the original members of the Sheffield branch of the National Union of Journalists. He eventually devoted his time taking photographs and left in 1917 to set up as a freelancer.
He was an ardent collector of old Sheffield prints, and at the time of his death had accumulated a collection of about 300 valuable negatives. Historians often turned to him for old photographs to illustrate their work, and lantern slides from his archive were often used by lecturers.
This charismatic person liked to entertain people with reminiscences and wrote a series of articles for the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star in 1930 with memoirs drawing on more than half a century as a camera man.
“In the early Press days there were but few daily newspapers that either had their own photographer or zincograph staff and plant. It was my good fortune,” he stated, “to obtain a position on the staff of a leading provincial daily paper. The Sheffield Telegraph and the Leeds Mercury being the first newspapers to attach a photographer to their staff.”
As an example of the high speed at which the press photographer worked, William recalled a photograph he took of Mr J.F. Hope when he was standing for Parliament. He took only 25 minutes getting it to the Telegraph office, and within ninety minutes it was published in the paper and on sale.
“At races, photographs of the finish did not worry me. I preferred to hunt about the crowd for well-known personages, who sometimes objected to being photographed, as they were supposed to be at business.
“When only one goal was scored at a football match, the photographer was always at the other end. That was no excuse when I got back to the office. The editor wanted to know why. When a reporter was late for an event it did not matter much, he could always obtain the story, but the press photographer who arrived late was finished. He had no second chance.
“The Sheffield police have done all they can to help me, so long as I did not try to photograph things, they did not want photographing.”
One of the more interesting of his recollections was an incident which occurred at the conclusion of a visit of a female member of the Royal family.
“I was the only camera man near,” he wrote, “when she was seated in her carriage, and I was offered without words the opportunity of a close snap. I don’t know what most people would have done. All my plates had been exposed but I took the opportunity given me on a plate already exposed. I could never disappoint a lady.” After that, whenever Royalty was in evidence, he always kept one plate unexposed until the departure.
“In my early days I had to rely upon the hire of any vehicle for transit. Eyam, historic for its plague epidemic, was holding a Sunday commemorative service, and a reporter and I were booked to attend. We hired an early edition of a motor-car, and, through some defect, had the pleasure of pushing it up most of the hills and running down to catch it when it descended on the other side.”
Such was William’s unique appearance in Sheffield that on one occasion a popular cartoonist, a friend of Babington, sent him a letter, the envelope of which bore a sketch of ‘Babs’, together with one word. ‘Sheffield.’ The letter was promptly delivered.
In his spare time, William was fond of the game of chess, and was a member of several old clubs, but as old age approached resorted to watching the game instead.
Today, we should be grateful for his work. Old images survive on Picture Sheffield, and books and magazines still use his black and white photographs. Many of the photographs taken of the Sheffield City Battalion while they trained at Redmires prior to World War One are attributed to him.
William lived at 59 Thompson Road, near the Botanical Gardens, and died, aged 76, in 1932. He was buried at Sheffield General Cemetery.
Finally, we have a mystery that somebody might be able to solve. Whatever happened to his extensive collection of old Sheffield prints and the vast library of photographs taken by him? Are they stored in an archive somewhere, or were they lost forever?
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