“I was looking for Blackfriars Street, and a meeting I never found … I walked down many streets, all stoney and treeless, between the two-storey houses that look painfully alike. In all the windows were shabby lace curtains, and against the light you could see from time to time a man or woman silhouetted, bent over a washbowl, or stretching and yawning, ready for sleep after a hard day.” The Lord will Provide for England, by Martha Gellhorn, Collier’s, September 1938.
Imagine London, the confident, smoky, industrious centre of the British Empire, the location of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the meeting place for Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims.
Now focus your mind south of the River Thames on the district of Southwark, where a short stroll from the site of the tavern in which Chaucer had his Canterbury pilgrims gather you will find the birthplace of the much loved English photographer, Bert Hardy.
Bert was born on May 19th 1913, the first of seven children to carpenter Albert ‘Seagull’ Hardy and Blanche, his charlady wife. The family home consisted of two small rooms at the top of Priory Buildings on Webber Street just off the Blackfriars Road, where they slept at night packed like sardines into one double bed.
Photography became part of Bert Hardy’s life in 1927 when the young Cockney got a job as a messenger and developer and printer at the Central Photographic Service, which was run from a gloomy basement near Charing Cross Station.
Twice a day Bert went on a round of West End chemist shops collecting and delivering film and prints, often jumping onto the backs of passing lorries and carts to save on bus fares.
When he heard that a photographer could earn good money on Fleet Street – then the heart of the British newspaper industry – Hardy bought a plate camera for 50p from a pawn shop on The Cut opposite London’s Old Vic Theatre.
Having taught himself about apertures and shutter speeds by trial and error, and how to gauge distance by pacing between lamp posts, Hardy’s career as a photographer began with a photograph of royalty.
What the grand occasion was may be lost in the mists of time, but King George V and Queen Mary were in regal procession down the Blackfriars Road in an open carriage when spotting the young Hardy with his camera among the cheering crowds, the monarch turned in acknowledgement.
Steadying the camera on his sister’s head Bert pressed the shutter.
From a slightly blurred black and white negative Bert printed 200 postcards which he sold to friends and neighbours at two and a half pence each. Before long he was turning a decent profit with group-shots of pub-outings – ‘beanos’ – to the resort of Southend-On-Sea.(page