James Speight was the youngest of six photographer sons of Edward Hall Speight, a Rugby photographer. In July 1898 he took up a position with Jasper James Wright of King’s Lynn. He stayed there until the spring of 1900, when he left to work with one of his brothers and, subsequently, set up his own business. Speight kept a series of diaries, and John Frearson has kindly allowed access to his transcription of the entries covering the King’s Lynn years. The
following notes all derive from the material he has supplied.
Speight was employed to work with Wright at the King’s Lynn premises, to accompany him on assignments outside the studio and to take some responsibility for the smaller outlying studios.
Mr Turner was employed as a retoucher. Miss Porter and Miss Hammond were employed in roles that are not made clear, but Miss Hammond was probably the Margaret Hammond recorded as photographer in the 1901 census. Lewis Reeve appears to have been serving his time as apprentice.
Electricity reached the town of King’s Lynn in August/September 1899, and Wright was keen to have electric lighting for his studio as soon as possible. On 28th Feb 1900 Speight noted that work had started on the building of a new studio in Lynn, adding that it was not before time. Since no new Lynn address subsequently appeared in trade directories, it seems likely that the new facility was an extension of, or significant alteration to, the premises at 125/126 London Road.
Speight also worked at Wright’s studios in Swaffham, Hunstanton and Fakenham. The Swaffham business (described by Speight as a ‘small branch studio’) ran a Saturday-only operation on the town’s market day. The Fakenham studio is described as ‘a little place built on some allotments’.
Work was also undertaken outside the studios. Speight records attending the town's Lifeboat Day celebrations and also mentions a projected trip of some distance, which had to be abandoned when the pony bolted and the trap was smashed.
Wright appears to have attracted business from across the social spectrum. Speight records making portraits of the Mayor of Lynn and (at Hunstanton) Lady Meredith’s baby. But the Swaffham branch evidently did good business among the farmers and labourers who came onto town on Market Day. (On 1st September 1899, when a holiday mood apparently marked the completion of harvesting, 20 sitters turned up to have their pictures taken, and the failure to reach a higher figure was attributed to the onset of rain.)
The Lynn studio had its busiest day during the Mart (the town’s annual fair) on 21st January 1899, when 65 sitters presented themselves.
In August 1998, while working at Swaffham, Speight left the lid off a box of exposed cabinet plates, thereby fogging them when the door was opened.
Speight worked from Monday to Saturday, with two Friday afternoons off in three. His starting pay is not known, but a renegotiation of salary in May 1999 led to an increased sum of 35 shillings a week. For his first Christmas with Wright he was given a holiday from 24th December to 2nd January, and he received a Christmas box of 10 shillings. (This, the same amount as Speight received from his parents on his 20th birthday, was a not ungenerous sum.)
Each January Wright held a party at which around 100 guests enjoyed games, dancing and music on the gramophone. Speight was invited on these occasions, but it’s not clear whether the other employees were also present. A further indication that Wright could be an indulgent employer is evident in his willingness to give Speight time off from photographing the Lifeboat Day celebrations to go and watch the boat being launched. There is also the implication that he was at least tolerant of wild staff celebrations when news reached the studio that Ladysmith had been
He was, however, able to take uncomfortable decisions. In November 1999 he had to tell Turner, the retoucher, that he couldn’t afford to keep him on after Christmas.
To visit John Frearson’s website and discover more about the Speight family of photographers, click here.