How do you put a price on history? I am always amazed at how cheaply you can buy a historical artefact. I love visiting antique shops. When I do, I see such amazing things, clothing, furniture, crockery, items the function of which has been forgotten. I particularly like old photos and postcards, they will often have a little writing on the back the name of the person in the photo or, if a postcard, will have a little note written on the back by the sender. If it was displayed in a museum it would look priceless but in an antique shop the price be very small.
I personally enjoy visiting antique shops better than visiting museums. In an antique shop you can touch things, pick them up, turn them over and look at what’s underneath. Maybe, if the shop keeper isn’t looking, you can also give things a little shake or see how they smell.
I bought this photo on ebay a couple of years ago for $10. It’s a handsome photo of a very well dressed mature man with, what I thought, was a sympathetic face. ‘Rev F L Kelly’ was written on the back. On the front it had the photographer’s name ‘Brenton R Rice’ and the location of his studio: North Sydney. As a local history librarian I thought this would be a great one to research and add to North Sydney Library’s photo collection.
The surname Kelly is not the easiest name to research but the fact that he was a Reverend narrows it down quite considerably. It is a cabinet card photograph. I thought, from the quality of the photo and backing cardboard, probably taken in the late 1890s. I looked in the Sands Sydney directory of the time and found nothing. I tried the Trove website and looked through library files on the various churches that were in our area. Nothing there either.
I thought Rev Kelly might have only been visiting North Sydney when he decided to get his photo taken here. But where was he visiting from? I approached the nearby archivist of St Mary’s Church (North Sydney) but he knew nothing. What was going on here? I was completely stumped.
I thought I’d try researching the photographer. Even if I couldn’t find the subject the photo would be a great artefact of a local North Sydney business.
You might know that the best reference sourcebook for this kind of thing is a book entitled, ‘The Mechanical Eye in Australia: photography 1841-1900’ by Alan Davies & Peter Stanbury. It really is the bible of Australian historical photography. It has a complete listing of every commercial photographer in Australia, when they operated and what address their business operated from. Every photograph that was commercially produced back then had the business name of the photography studio printed on it. This can be really helpful when dating old photographs and finding where they were taken. This book is now out of print but there is usually a copy kept in the reference section of most libraries. The information in it is priceless I don’t know why they don’t reprint it.
Unfortunately ‘Brenton R Rice’ was not listed in that book as a photographer anywhere in Australia. I was amazed.
A friend pointed out to me something else mysterious about the photograph. Under the words NORTH SYDNEY were the initials C.B. What did that mean? CBD would have meant Central Business District but it was only C.B.
It was during breakfast when I was pouring some maple syrup on my pancake and about to tuck into a large helping of chocolate moose that I realised that there is another city named Sydney on this earth. That city is located in Nova Scotia, Canada. Looking on Google Maps revealed that it is on an island in Nova Scotia named Cape Breton island – C.B. and sure enough Google Maps showed there is a North Sydney there too.
I contacted Ian MacIntosh the librarian at the Cape Breton Regional Library in Sydney Nova Scotia and he said the photographer was from Cape Breton island and that the Rev Fenwick Lionel Kelly was a local of North Sydney, Nova Scotia.
Not only, it turns out, was Fenwick Lionel Kelly (1863-1944) a prominent local he was prominent nationally as, at one time, the Liberal Party member of the Canadian parliament for the seat of ‘North Cape Breton and Victoria’. He was part of Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King’s government from July 1923 – September 1925. He has his own brief Wikipedia page if you are interested.
I don’t know if the person who sold me the photo thought he was being clever by advertising it as being from North Sydney, Australia. He certainly wouldn’t have thought he was clever if he realised that he only got $10AUS from me when he could have got more like $50CAN from someone else if he knew who Rev F L Kelly really was.
I, in the end, did what I always intended to do and donated the photo to the North Sydney public library photo collection for the inhabitants of North Sydney to enjoy in perpetuity. Of course that is the North Sydney public library in Canada not the North Sydney public library here in Australia.
I had the hopeful thought that someday, if a local history librarian over there should happen to find a photo in their collection of, for example, a kangaroo hopping down one of the main streets there in Nova Scotia, that they might realise it came from an erroneous ebay purchase and send it here to add to the photo collection of Stanton Library, so that we, the inhabitants of North Sydney Municipality, could enjoy in perpetuity instead.
Ps I never found out why someone wrote he was a ‘Rev’ on the back of the photo. Any ideas or info about this is welcome.