Sidney Fletcher


THE MYSTERY OF THE UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER

In 2008 while working in a Charity Book shop, John Thomson noticed seven wooden boxes being earmarked for disposal. On investigating their contents, he discovered several hundred glass photographic negatives. Not wanting to see history destroyed John rescued the collection for posterity with the intention of cataloguing them at some future date.

That day came in September 2018 when John started the mammoth task of developing and publishing this window into the past. Initial inspection of the negatives revealed views taken in England, France Egypt and India. Ships, the seaside and ports featured in many of the photographs and, perhaps more importantly, groups of people and individuals posing for the camera. These would eventually lead to the identity of the mystery cameraman.

To help him in his quest to discover the person behind the shutter John enlisted help via Social Media. A ‘Twitter’ account (facesinthelight) was set up solely for the purpose, and the results were overwhelming.

The internet was not the only medium that helped the story to unfold. Several local newspapers ran John’s story and he was also interviewed on Local Radio.

‘Sleuths’ all over the country took up the task of trying to discover each location as well as trying to identify the personalities. John received confirmation of many sites accompanied by modern day comparisons and suggestions for other locations. Some photographs had clues incorporated in them such as signposts, shop signs and advertisements. Some of these were in French which was another good location indicator.

Other clues were found on the wooden boxes themselves. One box carried the inscription ‘Yapton’ and ‘Holyrood School’ which was a school in Victoria Drive, Bognor Regis, now demolished. Another inscription said ‘St Valery’, a village in Normandy, and a scrap of paper found in the bottom of a box had scrawled on it ‘Norfolk Broads 1911’.

Some photographs needed no ‘sleuthing’. Amongst the gems that John discovered were shots of the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids of the Nile along with the Sphinx.

So who is our mystery photographer? He or she had to have been fairly rich and enjoyed travelling. An expensive taste in cars is also evident.

Enter ‘Yapton & Ford Local History Group’

One of the first actions John took was to follow up the obvious clue, ‘Yapton’ written on the side of one of the boxes. Amongst the results thrown up by Google was the Yapton & Ford Local History Group’s web site which proved a good place for him to start his search.

There followed an exchange of emails with some possible local photographs which he hoped we might be able to recognise. Bingo, five or six frames were instantly recognisable, including our distinctive church and a view of Church Road covered in snow. If more evidence was needed, one of the subsequent views was of a cart in a farmyard with the name Sparks, our local engineering company, painted on the side.

Perhaps more importantly were two shots of church bells lying in the church yard. This dated the photographs exactly, as they were removed from St Mary’s Belfry following a fire in March 1909.

While these exchanges between John and ourselves were taking place He was busy publishing each new image as they were developed, on his Twitter account. These along with newspaper articles and radio interviews created a great deal of public interest.

Many people took up the challenge to locate the views and put names to the faces caught on camera, some even travelling to the continent armed with copies of the prints. Several names were put forward as possible contenders for the identity of our elusive cameraman but none of them totally fitted the facts.

Logically, as there were so many local photos, including a series of our local school’s sports day, he or she must have lived locally. All indications were that the person was fairly well off so there was a good chance that they lived in one of our grander homes, especially as several of the pictures contained images of adults and children posing in front of a large building with extensive gardens.

In our History Group’s library, we have a copy of the 1911 Census Return. So, armed with the few pieces of information available to us a search of the document was undertaken. One family stood out above all others. Sidney John Bush Fletcher, 52 and born in Merton, Surrey, a retired Stockbroker and his family were living in Berrea Court, one of the past Manor Houses of the village. The Census also recorded that his wife, Annie Isobella, 35, was born in Bombay (photos of the Taj Mahal were in the collection!). A seven-year-old son, Geoffrey Benton, born in Willian, Hertfordshire, was listed among the residents along with two servants. When comparing some photos with the house today it is a definite match. 

The Search Starts In Earnest

Now, armed with a name, the army of researchers went into overdrive. Old newspapers were scanned, photos were studied more closely for clues and Google was increasingly consulted as further information was uncovered. The French Hotels whose names were legible, street names and views all came under scrutiny. While all this was going on, John was busy printing and publishing new images on Twitter as fast as possible.

It was discovered that in 1901 Sidney Fletcher was living at 6, Oakhill Road, Surbiton. This was confirmed by an announcement in the Surrey Mirror that the wife of Sidney Fletcher had born him a son on 11th January 1901. It was while living here that he placed an advert in the London Standard newspaper on the 27th August 1902 asking for ‘a country house in a bracing locality for a rent of £80’. He appears to have found a suitable place in Tankerton on the Kent coast (a suburb of Whitstable) recognised from road names caught on camera. Also captured on a photograph was a house named Benicia, circa 1903, located in Wynn Road, possibly the result of his advert.

 The Family Move To Yapton

By 1907 Sidney and his family were residing in Berrea Court in Yapton according to the Kelly’s Directory of that year. He is also recorded in the subsequent directories published in 1909, 1913 and 1915 but had disappeared by the time of the 1918 edition.

An advert appeared in a paper which read: ‘Cook-General and House/Parlour-maid Wanted, August 22nd; friends not objected to; lady nurse and between-maid kept; no boots or knives; bicycles allowed; ages 21 to 30; wages £22 and £20; aprons, caps etc., found.-Mrs. Fletcher, Berea Court, Yapton, Arundel’.

Sidney John Bush Fletcher

The eldest son of John (d.1874), a successful Milliner with a shop in Southwark, and Emily (nee Bush) (d.1883) Fletcher, Sidney John Bush Fletcher (1858–1933) became a Stockbroker and went into partnership with Charles Danbeny Tudball and Esmond Thomas Grosvenor trading under the name “Knight, Fletcher and Co.” with premises at 2, Tokenhouse Buildings, in the City of London. The company was dissolved by mutual consent on the 25th March 1909.

Sidney had two brothers and a sister, Percy George (1864–1929) who was an ironmonger with a shop in Sidcup. The youngest of the family, George Henry Benton (1866–1944), who preferred to be called Benton which was the maiden name of his grandmother, became a Major in the Sherwood Foresters. He was also an accomplished artist and assisted with drawing archaeological finds in Egypt between 1903 and 1914 (photos of The Pyramids were in the collection!). Their sister, Emily Jessie (1859–1932) married a Commercial Traveller.

Sidney married Annie Isabella Alsen (b. 1876 in Bombay – 1931) in 1900. Their son born a year later was christened Dennis John Alsen. A second son was born to the couple in 1904 his name was Geoffrey Benton Fletcher and his place of birth recorded on the 1911 Census was Willian in Hertfordshire.

Sidney was a keen cyclist and once was a prominent member of the Kent Bicycle Club and competed in their races. This sport also took him to the USA where he assisted in time keeping for fellow countrymen in a 100-mile race.

In the time that the family lived in Yapton, Sidney became a Church Warden in the village church, St Mary’s which was confirmed by an item published in a local paper on 16th April 1913, “The Vestry Meeting was held on Tuesday, when the church accounts were presented by Church Warden, Mr. J. B. Fletcher, and showed a small deficit”. He also served as a School Manager (Governor) of the village school.

Dennis was not entered on the 1911 Census, presumably because he was a boarder at Holyrood School, Victoria Drive, Bognor Regis. The name of the school was found written on the side of one of the boxes containing the glass negatives along with that of Yapton. The school prepared young boys for a career in the Navy. A course that Dennis didn’t take. He joined the RAF and was sadly killed in a flying accident in 1942 while serving as a Flying Instructor in India. He left a widow, Mary Gordon (nee Devitt) (1898–1986).

After Holyrood School, his education continued at Sherbourne School and Corpus Christi, Cambridge where he was photographed winning the mile race in 4 minutes 52 seconds.

Geoffrey (1904–1980) - at the time of the 1911 Census, Geoffrey, a schoolboy aged seven, was recorded as living at Berrea Court.

He married Gwendolen (nee Merry) (1910–?).

The Bognor Regis Observer, in its 2nd April 1913 edition carried a notice that ‘Mr and Mrs Fletcher of Berea Court, Yapton had returned after nine weeks visit to the South of France’.

Another Newspaper, this time the Reading Mercury dated 18th August 1917, carried the notice that the Freehold Property of Berea Court, Yapton, had been sold along with stabling and several acres.

There are other newspaper items referring to Sidney and Annie’s trips abroad, especially to the continent which they appear to have frequently visited, especially to St Valery, Normandie as illustrated by the number of photographs that were taken there. It is no surprise that they both died in France, could they have moved there in later life? Perhaps, in the fullness of time, the full story of Sidney John Bush Fletcher, Yapton’s Mystery Photographer, can be discovered for future generations to take a peek into our past.

A Brief History of Berrea Court

Down through history Berrea Court has been spelt in many ways. Some of the variations recorded are Gerecourt, Berri Court, Bercourt, Berecourt, Bury Court, Berry Court, Berea Court and Berrea Court.

The manor of Bercourt was associated with another manor of Yapton, Wildbridge. They first appeared under these names in the mid-14th century. The manors were taken over by Sir John d’Arundel around 1365. They passed to his son John, Lord Maltravers, and became one manor shortly after he became earl of Arundel in 1415.

Bercourt with Wildbridge were granted by Henry FitzAlan, earl of Arundel, to John Edmunds in 1568. The ownership passed through several hands until Ann Billinghurst bought the manor and lands in 1771. Upon her death, around 1800, the manor with 131 acres of land was sold to James Penfold.

In 1840 the farm was owned by by John Boniface and later by Ann Boniface. Land included Dyer’s Croft field on the opposite side of Main Road (now the site of Dyer’s Croft house). The manor house itself was often let out to various tenants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There was a manor house recorded in 1460 and the current building has seen much re-structuring since the 18th century with evidence that some 17th century materials have been reused.

Notable owners or tenants:

1907 – 1918 Sidney John Bush Fletcher, a retired Stockbroker.

1918 – 1919 John Charles Umney, a ‘Fellow of the Chemical Society’

1929 – The Right Hon. Lord Russell of Liverpool was in residence.

1938 – Vernon Hay Armitage, commander of the local Home Guard, was in residence until after WW2. He allowed British Legion to hold fetes in the grounds after the war.

1954 – 1960 Major John Derby (Yorkshire Regiment), Lord of the Manor of Whaplode Abbatis, Lincolnshire.

 

Allen Misselbrook
August 2019

©2019 Yapton & Ford Local History Group


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