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Research on 19th century publican clarifies date of Valentine photograph

Our commemorative Burns’ Day blog post included a late 19th century photograph published by Valentine & Sons of Dundee featuring the Robert Burn’s boyhood cottage in Alloway. Built by his father in 1757, the “auld cley biggin”, as Burns styled it, became a popular ale-house from the latter part of the 18th century to well into the 19th century. What intrigued me about the photograph was the sign to the right of the entrance bearing the name of the then publican, ‘M. Alexander’. Knowing who that was and how long the licence was held would assist in setting the photograph within a definite time frame. Dating early photographs can be difficult at the best of times. The Valentine collection is especially tricky.

Old photograph of Robert Burns boyhood home set in the village of Alloway in which the poet was born during a snowstorm on 25 January, 1759 (Valentine collection in a scrapbook album (VGA 101). This photograph has now been identified as having been taken sometime between 1867-1872, and that ‘M. Alexander’ was one Mrs Mary Alexander.
Portrait of James Valentine, c. 1850, possibly taken by Thomas Rodger (St Andrews Photographic Collection ALB6-81).

As previously noted, the original negative from which this print was taken was registered by the firm in 1878, the year in which Valentines first began registering their ever expanding photographic stocks and issuing each plate with a unique reference number (in this case JV-596). James Valentine (1815-1879) began his career as a lithographer and stationer, taking up professional photography in the 1840s and turning it into commercial success. His photographic work won admiration and gained royal recognition. His sons trained as fine photographers too and carried the firm forward through investment in photomechanical processes that catered for a growing mass market in prints, greetings and picture postcards and all manner of pictorial stock, based largely on original photographs.

Amongst the Valentine holdings are 40 original view registers dating from 1878. These stock books list reference numbers and titles ascribed to individual plates on registration and/or after editing. They generally note only the year in which photographs entered the books, not when taken or who by. They also indicate (via crossings out or pasted in title strips) where substitutions were made for less popular or obsolete photographs as reference numbers were re-used;  though, not always. Some substitutions were passed over in silence: it made perfect sense to a firm keen to ensure continued commercial success. To keep up with current trends and stay ahead of business rivals, several artists and editors were employed to update photographs as and when necessary. If that was not feasible or commercially viable, new stocks replaced unwanted material, taking on obsolete numbers. Photographs can, therefore, often pre-date registration dates, or may well be later. Could the Burns cottage photograph be earlier than 1878 or a later substitution? The only visible evidence for the date of the original in this case was the licensing sign. Everything hinged on tracing the licensee’s dates.

Two pages from an original Valentine & Sons register.

Both mysteries were resolved thanks to archivist Pamela McIntyre of South Ayrshire Council taking up the challenge with great enthusiasm and pursuing it to a fruitful conclusion. In concluding this excellent piece of research, Pamela kindly acknowledges assistance from Tom Barclay and Sheena Taylor of the Scottish and Local History branch of the Carnegie Library.

Here are the results of those investigations:

Reference B6/17/4

Register of Applications for Publican’s Certificates, under the Public Houses Acts Amendment (Scotland) Act 1862 covering dates October 1862-May 1882.

Mrs. Mary Alexander, takes over the license from James Allan on the 9th April 1867 as a new tenant.  From the licenses granted 1871/72, approved at a meeting dated 11th April 1871 she is then listed as Mrs. Mary Craig or Alexander.

There is a change in 1872/73. At a meeting dated 9th April 1872, John Hannah is granted a license for Burns’ Cottage, as a New Tenant or Occupant. There is then a further note that from the 2nd July 1872 this was transferred to Mrs. Agnes Littlejohn or Hunter, Burns’ Cottage.  So the dates according to the licensing register for Alexander are 1867-1872.

[Pamela Adds] “Wonderful records. I’m sure Burns would have approved of these women serving up the drinks in his old hoose.”

The overall result of these efforts is that we now know that our 1878 registered photograph actually dates from 1867-1872, less than a century after the death of the Bard. We also know that the cottage had a female licensee at the time the photograph was taken and also subsequently.  A win-win situation. Thanks to all those who dug deep into their records to help us resolve a very interesting conundrum and produce a double whammy!

Pam Cranston

Photographic Research and Preservation Officer

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