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Whitby photos – colour and sepia


Strange case of suicide in Victorian Whitby

Reverse side of a John Harrison Dawson photograph. Dawson took over the Pier Portrait studio in Khyber Pass after the suicide of John Waller by cyanide poisoning at the age of 42. Waller had become increasingly ill and depressed due to a severe lung disease caused by years of breathing in toxic fumes from the chemicals commonly used in early photographic development.

A female sitter. Not sure of the precise date of this photograph but would guess that Dawson took it in the late 1880s.

Dawson gave evidence at the inquest. The Northern Echo on January 3rd 1880 reported on this tragedy under the heading: “Strange case of suicide in Whitby.” From the inquest, as reported in The Northern Echo it said:
“ John Harrison Dawson, assistant to deceased, deposed going down to the studio on the morning of New Year’s Day and finding the inner door locked, with the key inside. Witness called, but receiving no answer got on the roof of the studio, and through a clear glass saw deceased laid on his back on the floor. He went to deceased’s wife, explained to her the circumstances, and asked advice, which was that he should break in. He did so, and found his master dead. There was an empty tumbler near…”

Dr E P Mead said at the inquest:
“All the vessels of his face were gorged with blood, and the pupils of his eyes were dilated. On the desk near the body was an empty tumbler, which smelled strongly of prussic acid.”

Useful reading on John Waller, John Harrison Dawson, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and other Whitby photographers:
Whitby Photographers – Their lives and their photography from the 1840s by Ruth Wilcock (Towland Publications, 2011).


Old Photographs

These are some old photographs that I have collected over the years. As far as I know they are very largely from the Victorian period. One of the photographs was taken by the distinguished Friese Green (this photographer is covered in another post)


Port Mulgrave

This can be reached by a pleasant and scenic walk along the Cleveland Way coastal footpath from either Staithes or Runswick  Bay. For anyone wishing to visit the tiny harbour the path down to it and ascent is fairly arduous.

Old Abandoned Farming Machinery



A bench to sit on and gaze at the magnificent view


Ludicrous or Miraculous?

The American Museum of Photography in their section Do You Believe? Science vs. Séance has a selection of Victorian ghost photos. It states:

“Many of the images presented here have been studied and debated for nearly a century. Whether they are ludicrous or miraculous is in the eye of the beholder.”

To me  the photographs are little more than crude and unconvincing fakes. But have a look at these photos (clicking on American Museum of Photography above) and form your own view.

These are a few extracts from a source receptive to Spiritualism and the authenticity of spirit photography:

The Veil Lifted

Modern Developments of Spirit Photography

J.Traill Taylor

Whittaker & Co, London, 1894

Criticism of Science

“The materialism of today is dogmatic and active; it claims science as its hand maid, it boasts that it has sounded the universe and found in it nothing but the material husks of existence, that all spiritual beings are nonentities – the product of diseased brains – of superstitious minds, in that man passes at death into cold oblivion, into blank nothingness.”


Support for Spirit Photography

“We know that there is no such thing as death, that what we call by that name is really a birth into a higher sphere – or state of existence – an entrance into a holier and happier region…”

“Before many months are over, I think it will be admitted by every candid mind that the persistence of the individual after death, and the possibility of communicating with that individual, has been well established on a scientific basis as any other fact in nature.” (W.T.Stead, in The Review of Reviews Jan. 1893)

Brighton Case Study

“Only the other day I was told of a young lady who went to Brighton to an ordinary photographer. She sat as an ordinary sitter, suspecting nothing. The plate came out blurred all over; the photographer surprised, and on the point of casting plate aside, when sitter begs to see it, and further begs to have it printed off. Result – photo blurred all over, sitter unrecognisable; when subjected to high magnifier, milky way of blue reveals innumerable faces, but all the same face. Recognised by the young lady at once as face of dead lover. This is the kind of story which is becoming tirelessly common and often bewildering well evidenced.”

‘Authentic’ ghost photos

“The most authentic ghost photos are the hardest to get hold of. They are in the hands of private amateur photographers, who are shy of lending or showing them because they are shy of being accused of fraud or folly; besides, to them these photos are often sacred, or they seem to portray the features of the beloved dead.”

These are a few extracts from a source highly sceptical about Spiritualism and the authenticity of spirit photography:

A Magician Among the Spirits

Harry Houdini

Harper Brothers, New York, 1926

About Houdini (1874-1926)

He was a supremely accomplished magician and escapologist as well as a determined debunker of fraudulent spiritualists and photographers. In this book from 1926 he outlines the various tricks that mediums and spirit photographers would employ. This book was also instrumental in ruining his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a strident and somewhat uncritical believer in psychic phenomena.

“There are various methods of producing Spirit photographs. One is to have a table prepared so that a developing pan is placed where an X-ray penetrates to the negative. This produces a ‘Spirit light.’ Another is to fix the side of the plate with some luminous substance, shape, or flash, and it is astonishing what these things look like. You get forms and frequently recognise faces in the splotches…A simple method is to have something concealed in the hand and hold it over the lens instead of a cap…”

Phineas Taylor Barnum who testified for the prosecution in the Mumler trial

“I want to go on record as believing that Mr Barnum told the truth in the Mumler case.”

Acquittal of Mumler

“Although acquitted, it is significant that Mumler refused an offer of five hundred dollars to reproduce his pictures in another studio under test conditions…he seems to have vanished entirely after the publication of his book in 1875.”


“I once gave a séance while I was touring in England. It was a dark séance and just at the psychological moment a Spirit came through the window and walked around on the wall and ceiling of the room and then out of another window. The explanation is simple. On the bill with me were two acrobats, hand to hand balancers. One took off his shoes and the other sneaked up to him. He pulled down the window and then did a hand to hand balance with his partner and walked around the room. He then went back to his seat, put on his shoes, and looked as innocent and meek as possible under the circumstances when the lights were turned on. I told every one present that it was only a trick but as usual they insisted that I was a medium.”



 “We were coming home for dinner, and had come to the top of the steps up from the West Pier and stopped to look at the view, as we generally do. The setting sun, low down in the sky, was just dropping behind Kettleness.”

[Dracula by Bram Stoker]

Kettleness can be reached by a superb walk along the Cleveland Way coastal path from either Runswick Bay or Sandsend. The Romans built a signal station here and alum was once extensively quarried along these cliffs.

A train service commenced in 1883, but was closed to passenger traffic in 1957. This remote hamlet became even remoter as a result of this pre-Beeching closure. The recent photograph shows the old railway station and the green grass where the railway tracks once had been.

The desolate Kettleness Point (shaped like a crocodile’s head) has been the source of many stories. Many shipwrecks occurred here. In 1829 the entire village fell into the sea, but fortunately without loss of life. There have been odd stories about encounters with a Black Dog in this area that could possibly have inspired Bram Stoker in having Count Dracula arriving in England in the guise of a black dog. The Black Dog phenomenon has resurfaced in more recent history. In the 1950s Reverend Dr Donald Omand, received a letter from a school master outlining his experience with such an apparition and requesting an exorcism.

The photograph below shows a dense sea fret over Kettleness Point  moving towards Runswick Bay


Captain James Cook and Whitby

After he left Staithes James Cook served his apprenticeship with John Walker and lived in the top floor room at his house on Grape Lane. One can imagine him studying hard on navigation and the skills required to be a seaman late into the night on a regular basis. The photograph shows the house.


John Walker’s house now is the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, which includes displays on Cook and his voyages, together with other interesting Whitby exhibits.






The photograph below is taken from the rear of John Walker’s house.



Staithes is probably the place Captain James Cook began his life-long love of the sea. He was born in 1728 and aged 16 worked at William Sanderson’s general store, where he stayed 18 months. His cottage is on Church Street. The original building was dismantled in 1812 since it was in peril of being swept into the sea. The materials were reused to make a new shop, which was later converted into a home known as Cook’s Cottage . The photograph of the cottage with the plaque to the right of the window was taken in March 2012.

Most men in Staithes worked in the fishing industry. It once had a bustling harbour. The picturesque village also attracted a number of artists in the nineteenth century.

Staithes in 1745 is depicted in exhibits and street scenes in  the Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre. This is on the High Street in a former Methodist Chapel. Tel: 01947 841454. Web address: (photograph and contact details as of March 2012)

Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre


The image of a face in a waterfall – Simulacra, Pareidolia

Simulacra means a likeness, for example, seeing the semblance of a face in a waterfall.

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon where a random and ambiguous image is perceived as being significant – mistakenly thinking there is a face in a waterfall or in jagged rocks. The human mind is highly sensitive to perceiving such patterns – in particular it is said (by Carl Sagan and others ) to be  ‘hard-wired’ to recognise a human face.

In recent years there have been numerous claims to see such images – ranging from a man on the moon or mars, to the image of Jesus in a cloud formation.

A number of photographs posted on the internet showing odd or ghostly images phenomenon are also illustrative of simulacra and pareidolia.

Cheese Sandwich: 

One of the most bizarre examples occurred in 2004 in an eBay auction for a grilled cheese sandwich that was said to have the likeness of the Virgin Mary – it was sold for $28,000.

Flying Saucer

This random and ambiguous image could perhaps (after several pints!) be mistakenly believed to be a flying saucer. It is, in fact, nothing more than a modern day illumination light.


Favourite View in Whitby

This photograph is taken close to St Mary’s church at the top of the 199 Steps in the early evening.

Mina Murray’s journal in Dracula by Bram Stoker:

“This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbour and all up to the bay to where the headland called Kettleness stretches out into the sea…There are walks with seats beside them, through the churchyard, and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here often myself and work. Indeed, I am writing now, with my book on my knees, and listening to the talk of three old men who are sitting beside me…”


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