Photography has played an important part in shaping public understanding of the world’s armed forces since the mid-nineteenth century. John McCosh (1805–85), a Scottish surgeon and amateur photographer serving with the East India Company’s Bengal Army, created what are currently believed to be the earliest photographs of British soldiers between 1843 and 1856, a period which included the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848–9). Elsewhere, an unknown daguerreotypist photographed American troops during the American–Mexican war of 1846–8. Despite the obvious constraints of early technology, both photographers captured the combination of ceremony and soldiering that forms the essence of military life.
Other nineteenth-century practitioners soon followed in their footsteps. Roger Fenton, James Robertson, Felice Beato, Matthew Brady, Timothy Sullivan and Captain Linneaus Tripe photographed soldiers and sailors of various nationalities on and off duty in times of war and peace. However, it was not until the early twentieth century that a female photographer, Mrs Albert Broom, displayed more than a passing interest in photographing the military. Christina Broom worked primarily in the London area as a freelance photographer from 1903 until her death in 1939. Now recognized as the first woman to style herself a press photographer, Broom submitted news photographs to picture agencies for publication in magazines and national newspapers. However, the core of her business, and the key formative influence on her photography, was the British picture postcard industry, which peaked in popularity between 1902 and 1914.
Trading under her married name of Mrs Albert Broom and equipped with a medium-format glass plate camera, Broom developed a low-cost but lucrative style of postcard photography. Street scenes were supplemented by photographs of groups and individuals, shot primarily on location in the open air. Broom’s adept stage management, combined with a restrained yet natural empathy for her subjects, resulted in thousands of carefully composed photographs. Despite their prevailing formality, Broom’s photographs are consistently revealing and often possess a surprising intimacy. Christina Broom’s technique lent itself to military and ceremonial subjects.
In 1904, a chance assignment with the Scots Guards triggered a chain of events which culminated in Broom’s appointment as official photographer to the prestigious Household Division, comprising the Brigade of Guards and the Household Cavalry. In her memoir of 1971, Winifred Broom (Christina’s daughter and assistant) described the circumstances in which this came about:
My father was permanently injured in an accident, and Mother thought she, being unused to earning a living earlier, would invest in a ½–plate camera, and, learning that stationery shops wanted post-card local views, decided to venture in that line. We went to several districts with good results but – while at Chelsea – we noticed some sports taking place in Burton Court, and a soldier outside invited us to go in and ‘watch the fun’, giving us a programme. We thought it a chance to test the new camera’s shutter for speed, so took some snaps of tug of war, mop fighting. Having already taught myself the mysteries of chemicals etc. (and discharged myself from school as I was 14) I had prints ready next morning. Father said ‘They are good’ – ‘No good at all,’ said Mother – ‘Shops won’t buy these.’ ‘Why not send them to the head officer – after all, we had no permission – with our apologies?’ I said. So Mother did just that – sending them to the Commanding Officer of Scots Guards, Chelsea Barracks. Same day, we had [a] reply: ‘Would Mrs. Broom please come and photograph Guard Mounting tomorrow morning!!!’
As Winifred’s entertaining memoir makes clear, this first assignment was derailed by her mother’s complete lack of familiarity with military procedures and protocol:
Upon arriving at Chelsea Barracks at appointed time, Mother asked the Sergt. On Guard to tell her the procedure of Guard Mounting. He told her ‘men would form up, Officers would Inspect’, – and pointed to [a] place on [the] parade ground. So she fixed the camera on [the] tripod, and waited on the ground indicated. The bugle sounded, the men ‘fell in’, and Officers came, inspected, then walked up and down – Mother waited. Suddenly the Officers took their places – and all marched off! – Mother still waiting. Sergt. On Guard sent a man to enquire if she had ‘finished’ – Mother said ‘No, because the Officers had not stood still, but I suppose they will all be back in a minute!!!’
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Christina Broom was allowed to return and quickly established a working commercial relationship with the officers and men of the Household Division which endured until her death in 1939. The value of this relationship with the Division was recognised and sanctioned at the highest level:
Several months later, The Irish had a General’s Inspection. I told Mother I was sure it was Lord Roberts VC so Mother did not get too close with the camera – we did not wish to be in the way. After parade was dismissed, Lord Roberts, with two Officers, walked over to Mother – ‘Mrs Broom?’ ‘Yes, My Lord. I hope my camera was not in your way?’ ‘Mrs Broom, you are taking good photographs which you sell amongst the men at 2d. each, with an envelope so they can enclose a letter when they write home, and their relatives see men well fed, well shod, and happy. I have prayed and begged for recruits, and now the 3rd Scots and the Irish Guards, are suddenly flooded with recruits from their homes.’ Turning to the Officers, he added: ‘Gentlemen, where our prayers failed, these two women have shown us the way – I shall tell the King!’
Christina Broom’s pioneering legacy of military photography is now preserved by the Museum of London and the Imperial War Museum, where it is consistently accessed by researchers and lovers of photography. Examples of her work appear in new publications every year, and her memory is cherished by the Household Division. For the current generation of male and female military photographers, Christina Broom provides an enduring role model.
Hilary Roberts, Imperial War Museum Research Curator of Photography
This is an excerpt from Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom, the accompanying book to the Museum of London Docklands’ free exhibition – which runs between 19 June – 1 November 2015.