The insatiable thirst for knowledge, patriotic passion and deep pockets of a photographer born 174 years ago has handed Birmingham one of the most remarkable image collections in the country.
Wealthy Birmingham industrialist Sir Benjamin Stone made it his life’s work to collect and take photographs to create a historical record for generations to come as the world went through drastic changes during the rapid industrialisation of the late 19th century.
His passion took him from festivals in Abbots Bromley and Sutton Coldfield to Australia and China, spending more than £1 million in today’s money in a quest to create a vast visual encyclopaedia of the ancient and modern world.
It led him to amass 22,000 photographs, 2,500 lantern slides, 17,000 glass negatives and more than 100 albums and scrapbooks, which will soon be housed at the new Library of Birmingham – and gave him the nickname ‘Sir Snapshot’.
Pete James, head of photographs at the Library of Birmingham, said it was the passion – and preparedness to spend his time and money in the cause of making a vast historic record – which made Sir Benjamin, who represented Birmingham East as an MP, so special.
He said: “He represents the great tradition amongst Birmingham worthies of accumulating knowledge for the purpose of sharing it for the benefit of other people.
“To me he is one of those extraordinary driven people.”
He added: “He was a man of private means who had a seemingly insatiable desire to gain knowledge about the world.
“He reflected the Victorian positivist philosophy which suggested that if you have knowledge about something you can control it and harness it for the advancement of society.
“He was a local and national politician, he had a wide range of business interests and he supported a number of local philanthropic initiatives such as Mason’s Orphanage.”
Sir Benjamin, who was knighted for his services to politics after serving as an MP for 15 years, was inquisitive from an early age and began collecting scientific specimens and built up his own museum of sorts as a young man.
He was fortunate to have been able to invest his private wealth, derived from the family-owned paper business, which became today’s Smurfit Kappa, in his search for knowledge.
He is thought to have spent as much as £30,000 on photography during his lifetime – a figure equivalent to more than £1 million today. He used it to create a record of things changing rapidly as a result of industrialisation, and often focused on collecting and taking photographs of buildings which were set to be demolished and customs and festivals in danger of extinction, to preserve a photographic record for future generations.
His pictures of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance – a 1,000-year-old tradition thought to be the oldest traditional dance in the country – are among his best-known.
And he sometimes went further than merely documenting British festivities – in some cases he rescued them. In 1887 he was credited with being instrumental in reviving the ancient maypole dance in Sutton Coldfield.
Mr James said that it was his hunger for knowledge that led Sir Benjamin to photography, as he could not always buy the images he wanted.
He said: “From 1860 to 1880 he travelled and collected commercially produced images.