Nicole Grant 09/08/2021 11:54:35
An enquiry from a colleague about a Victorian photography studio in Parkstone led to me discovering more about the life of photographer Florence Chant.
Florence Chant was born at St. Pancras in 1857 to parents James John and Ellen. James John was a historical engraver; more can be discovered about his career here on the Epsom and Ewell History Explorer blog. https://eehe.org.uk/?p=68445
Florence and her father lived in Parkstone from at least 1895, on the 1901 census their address was Portland Cottage, Sandecotes Road, Florence was an artist and photographer. The family also had a servant, Sarah Ann Julia Ruberry.
Alfred Russel Wallace, who was an eminent naturalist, brilliant scientist, and author, settled with his family in Parkstone in 1889. Here the family found a small house to let called Corfe View in Sandringham Road. On 13th October 1898, Wallace wrote to his daughter, Violet, and included the following:
“Miss Chant has been taking some rather good photos of me lately, & has sold the negative of one to a London firm, who want it for illustrations in an American magazine.” Epsilon: WCP316
Florence often photographed Wallace, some of her photographs can be viewed here: Florence Chant - Person - National Portrait Gallery (npg.org.uk)
The image above was captured by Florence in 1908 and is credited to- Alfred Russel Wallace by Florence Chant, platinum print, April 1908, NPG x5116, © National Portrait Gallery, London.
In his later life Wallace supported some very Victorian theories, several of which now seem eccentric. He was a spiritualist, and his letters reveal that Florence also shared this passion.
Wallace wrote to Violet on the 20th November 1898;
“Miss Chaut [sic] with Mrs. Coucher[sic, Should be Comber] & her neice[sic] are having weekly seánces, & have already got the table to tip, and move, and roll about and fall-over, and they are very much astonished. Now they have had words and sentences spelt out by a wineglass on which they put their fingers with the letters of the A.B.C. placed all round it, and it moves towards each letter even when they do not look at them and once when they letters were placed face-downwards!” Wallace Letters Online WCP317.317 - Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk)
The spiritualist movement originated in New York in 1848, at the centre of this was the belief that the dead communicate with the living. This happened in séances through a medium, often a woman.
“In 1852, the American medium Mrs Hayden came to London to conduct séances with many of the great and good of London society: this was one of the bridge-heads for the spread of Spiritualism to England. It found particular favour in the industrial north of England, where dissenting religion was already strong. Importantly, Spiritualism contested doctrines of eternal damnation for a much more liberal conception of the afterlife. Many men of science were also converts, most famously the evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, partly because Spiritualism was consistently figured in terms of new magical technologies like the telegraph or telephone.” The Victorian supernatural - The British Library (bl.uk)
Evidently Florence and Mrs Comber were converts to spiritualism. Looking at the 1911 census, it is possible to speculate that Mrs Comber is Caroline Comber, age 68 of Pentone, St. Peter’s Road, Parkstone. Born Caroline Fuller in Bridgwater, Somerset, she moved to Parkstone with her husband William Andrew who died there in 1898. Did she turn to spiritualism soon after his death for comfort, or was she already practicing?
Florence’s father died in 1902 and she remained at the house in Sandecotes Road. An example of her strong-willed character can be found in a report in the Western Gazette on 6th February 1903:
“Poole Police Court- Handcarts and Bicycles on the Footpath, Florence Chant of Parkstone also failed to answer a similar charge [riding her bicycle on the footpath] – P.C. Goddard said he had great trouble in obtaining the defendant’s name- fine of 2s 6d and 5s 6d costs.”
On the 1911 census Florence was listed as a photographer, working at home and her address given as The Studio, Penn Hill Avenue, Parkstone. Sarah Ann Julia Ruberry was with her but an assistant photographer now, no longer a servant.
Florence ran her business from The Studio on Penn Hill Avenue (sometimes listed as Spur Road) until at least 1921, when she appeared on the Jury List for Dorset, to be a juror she had to own enough property to pay the poor rate (a tax). By at least 1930 Florence and Sarah had moved to Newey Selant, in Cornwall. On 25th June that year Florence died, in her probate she left her effects to Sarah.
Theses snippets from different resources help piece together a picture of a successful businesswoman, respected in her community, and also a woman with an independent streak and, for the time, relatively new beliefs.