The ironmonger who became a well known Watford photographer

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Harry Robert Cull, ironmonger turned self-taught photographer, captured images of people, places and events in and around Watford from 1904 until 1934.

A gentle, unassuming man, he was born in Carisbrooke, on the Isle of Wight, in 1868, son of the island’s Chief Solicitor General. He left home in his 20s and while in Haslemere, Surrey, married Emily (Maud) Tatchell from Stepney. In the mid-1890s the couple took over a small ironmonger’s shop in Chesham, which proved so successful that in 1901 they moved to 203 St Albans Road, Watford. The only ironmongery source in the immediate vicinity, they were soon sole supplier to Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa factory in Sandown Road. By 1903, the Culls had a daughter, Dorothy, and two sons, Victor and Eric.

Harry & Maud Cull c1933

Harry Cull painted in his scarce spare time and hung paintings in his shop for decoration, which customers admired and, to his surprise, bought. His interest in the arts extended to photography and in 1904, after a customer told him that his talents were wasted in ironmongery, he sold his stock and moved to more spacious premises at 169 St Albans Road, opposite Wells’ Brewery. The house was converted into a double-fronted shop by Judge Building Contractors of Willow Lane. ‘H. Cull’ was hand-painted above the shop front, with ‘Carisbrooke Studio’, after his place of birth, on the door.

The two upper floors were used for family accommodation. In the backyard was a large wooden studio with a north light; perfect for art work. The cellar became a workshop, with a mechanical saw on a large bench for frame cutting and supplies of glue pots, nails and hammers. There was a rack for standard mouldings and a wide gulley at the bottom of the stairs for special carved and enamel mouldings that Harry Cull purchased from a wholesaler in Old Street, London EC1.

Watford Observer:

Harry Cull’s studio, 169 St Albans Road, c1910. In front, C. Brice mineral water lorry. At the wheel is driver/owner Charlie Brice, later founder of Watford’s Pride charabancs

He would leave home at 7am, catch the train to Euston and return after lunch, weighed down with mouldings, which he loaded into the guard’s van. His elder son Victor accompanied him between 1908 and 1911 and told me that glass was then 3d a foot and timber for mouldings was a halfpenny a foot. A day return ticket cost 9d (3½p).

Soon after the studio opened, Sgt Woodward from St Albans Road police station requested photographs of the constables for display in the building. Before long, wedding parties from the Primitive Methodist Church next-door-but-one wended their way to ‘Mr. Cull’s’ to have their ‘likenesses’ taken, some of which he delicately hand-coloured.

Harry Cull’s application to detail and tireless efficiency overcame a lack of formal photographic training. He worked six days a week without paid help, with Maud fixing frame backings and acting as part-time receptionist for the first few years.

He used two second-hand cameras on tripods, one for outside visits, and was partial to Zeiss lenses, of which I have one, as well as boxes of his exposed glass photographic plates. In 1906 his Carte De Visites cost 3/6d (18p) or 4/6d (23p) a dozen, with larger mounted Cabinet Cards at 6/6d (33p) or 7/6d (38p) a dozen. Framed enlargements cost 8/6d (43p).

Watford Observer:

Harry Cull’s brass portrait lens by A. Laverne & Co., Paris dated 1877-1887, when Gasc and Charconnet partnered Laverne

He travelled to weddings and special events in Croxley Green, Chorleywood, Bricket Wood and Leavesden and photographed Sunday School ‘treats’, using a carrier on his bicycle for the equipment. He captured sports meetings, tugs-of-war between Watford and St Albans police forces and the winning Watford team at the end of the 1912/13 football season, developing a small trade in penny postcards of local events and ‘disasters’, such as a damaged taxicab after the ‘Great Storm’.

During World War One, when the Norfolk Regiment was stationed in Watford, he photographed them on their parade ground and individually at his studio, often against a backdrop of a grey woodland scene he had painted.

Watford Observer:

Harry Cull’s photograph of a charabanc rally c1920, Market Place, Watford. It appears on the cover of Lesley’s father’s book

After the war, when money was in short supply, he concentrated on framing and woodwork then, in 1934, relinquished his photographic business to sell wood, glass, paint and general hardware to the early DIY brigade.

In 1938 Harry and Maud sold the business to Marsh & Russell and retired to 39 Mount Pleasant Lane, Bricket Wood. Harry remained fit and active, cycling around the village and walking his dog Bonzo until Maud died in November 1956. Thereafter he fell into a decline and died on July 30, 1957, shortly before his 90th birthday.

The above details stem from a conversation with Victor Cull, who told me about his father shortly before his own death on December 7, 1979.

Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at www.pastdayspublishing.com and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.

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