Our new galleries are open!

Phew – it’s been an extremely busy few weeks since my last post, but I’m delighted to say that our new permanent displays of Olive Edis’ life and work are now open!

Our fantastic design and technical team have worked miracles in our little fisherman’s cottage, and completely transformed these two rooms. Despite having built new walls inside both rooms, somehow they have made them seem even bigger than before!

My personal favourite bit of our new displays is the big case full of Edis’ cameras, which you can see in the collage above (click for bigger versions). For scale, the photo backdrop to the case, showing Edis in the Canadian Rockies, is slightly larger than life-size, so the case is more than big enough to accommodate ‘The Countess’ camera mounted on its tripod, along with some of Edis’ other cameras and equipment. Whenever I go to a photography exhibition, particularly early photography, the one thing I’m often left wondering is how the photos were taken, what the process would have been, and what equipment would the photographer have needed. So when I learnt that Cromer Museum’s collection included not only the original glass negatives and prints, but the cameras that they were taken with, I knew I wanted those to be included in our new displays. I hope that now visitors will be able to get a sense of how Edis worked, and how much technical skill was required compared to the relative ease and speed of the digital age. When you see the size of ‘The Countess’, and realise that she carried something very similar around Europe along with a trunk of 200 glass plate negatives, plus all her developing chemicals and changing bags,it really does bring to life just how difficult an undertaking it would have been. Special thanks here to designer Katie Jeffs and conservator David Harvey, who designed and installed this wonderful display of equipment.

We also have a fantastic new touchscreen interactive designed by David Coles at Superia Commerce, which features photographs, video and audio. Visitors can listen to an actress reading extracts from Edis’ war diary (thank you to Kate Banks as the voice of Olive!), and watch three fantastic short films produced entirely by Film & Media students at Paston 6th Form College. You can watch the first film here:

Our next priority as a project team will be our travelling exhibition, The Road to Ypres: The War Photography of Olive Edis, which will be opening at the end of this month at the North Norfolk District Council Offices in Cromer. After that, a larger version will move onto Farnham Museum. For a full list of venues take a look at my last post.

We also have plenty of events coming up here at the museum – visit our Facebook page or pick up an events leaflet for more details.

If you’re new to the blog, don’t forget that throughout March last year I shared extracts from Olive’s war diary, posting each one on the day that they were written 98 years ago. Find out what she was up to on 8th March 1919 here.

Last but not least – happy International Women’s Day! Here’s to pioneering women of the past, present and future.

Hope to see you at the museum soon.


29th March 1919

I was up soon after dawn on the 29th, for our ambulance was to fetch us to the Quai at 7.45. We woke to a heavy snow-storm and a keen wind. The St. Andrew was being loaded up as hard as they could go. Stretcher after stretcher was carried from the train on to the boat by German prisoners…gently lifted on the lift which carried them smoothly and quickly to the deck below. This was the point I wanted to photograph. It was so dark I had to do it by flashlight…in the darkness it was hard to find anything to focus. When all was ready I called to them to stop the lift for ten seconds. The flash was slow to fire, and Major Kendall looked down the shaft and roared to the orderlies not to stop for anything, which meant me. However the flash went off, and so did I.

“I photographed the matron going round giving out cigarettes,” was Major Kendall’s parting shot; “You couldn’t do that.”

“No,” I meekly replied, “I only supplement.”

But he did not look so ferocious as he wanted to do, and I could not help laughing in his face.

[Back at Hotel Christol] I had the historic Post Office to do there by flashlight, and an Australian Commandant, Miss Fletcher.

Lady Norman looked in and said good-bye, for she was off by the 11 o’clock boat, whilst I had plenty to do until the sailing of the 5pm. We all felt very regretful that our interesting trip was over, although going at the pace we had done, I doubt whether we could have held out very much longer.

[That afternoon] the sun was shining and the morning’s storm was forgotten, so we had a delightful climb through the old town. The market place was full of flowers and buyers, and a very pretty sight… I got a lovely basket of mimosa and anemones to take home, as well as some camembert cheeses in boxes.

By the time we got to the quai the demobilized Army Sisters had already gone onto the boat, but I much preferred taking them there, and got a very pretty group arranged, with some of them sitting on a stairway.

Army Sisters

A group of demobilised army nurses embarked for home on the ferry at Boulogne © IWM (Q 7999).

This was my very last large plate, a fitting finish to the extraordinary varied set I had taken during this most eventful month, comprising surely of every kind of British worker who had set foot in France during this historic four years. Jolly, sporting, happy girls most of them were, though many of the older, however, bore marks of long and strenuous labour; but aged and tired as some of them undoubtedly were, I doubt if one of them would have foregone the privilege of working and toiling as they had done, and backing up “the boys” as they so splendidly had done.

So, we’ve reached the end at last. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these extracts from Edis’ journal as much as I have enjoyed choosing them. They are of course just short snippets of the full account, but I hope they give some idea of the character of the incredible Miss Edis.

I’m taking a short break from blogging now (I feel like I’ve just lived a month-long tour of Europe myself!), but I’ll be back soon to share more about her inspirational life and work. As always, comments, questions, suggestions are very welcome! Use the comment function on each post, or get in touch directly.

If you’ve just joined us, you can experience Edis’ tour of war-torn Europe from the very beginning by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the list. The entries were posted in date order so you’ll be working backwards from 2nd March.

28th March 1919

Next day, Friday 28th March, was a photographic field day. I hoped to get everything finished as we were to sail on Saturday, but that was far from being accomplished. I began by doing Miss Boycott, and went on with Dame Rachael Crowdy and Monica [Glazebrook], getting the two trusty allies together as they generally sat at the same desk working.

I then did Dame Rachael getting into her car with her chauffeur, a very serious and smile-less girl.

Dame Rachael Crowdy

Dame Rachel Crowdy, Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and Miss Figgis getting into a motor car, Boulogne © IWM (Q 7979).

The group then moved on to Wimereux, photographing a recreation hut, a billiard-room and a VAD General Service office. They then returned to Boulogne and photographed a group landing from a leave boat.

It had been a very stiff day’s work and the light was failing… But the day’s adventures were not over. Lady Norman had heard that the historic Hospital Ship, the “St. Andrew”, had come in that day, and was due to sail at 9am – loaded up – the next day. She was quite delighted at the prospect of being able to add this to our series of photos, though the photographer was much too far gone to relish any such proposal. But it was Fate, and the comical old skipper, Major Kendall, who professed to be a great woman-hater, and grimaced fearfully when we asked whether he had any Sisters on board, showed us around his splendidly arranged ship, where the big cabins were all turned into wards. He had a beautiful old face and snowy hair, but he loved to bark. I could have made a fine picture of him – even barking.

The exchanges between Edis and Major Kendall are some of my favourite parts of the journal. On this day and the next, Major Kendall does his very best to belittle, challenge and undermine our Miss Edis, but she counters him with good humour at every turn. She seems greatly amused by his apparent dislike of women and seems completely unfazed by the whole thing. As a woman making a name for herself in a traditionally male field, she must have encountered men like him before, and seems to have developed a very effective way of dealing with them!

I arranged to be down at 8am to take the photographs, though he remarked that they had had a “real professional photographer” on board, and presented Miss Conway with a bromide postcard of himself which was one of the results – a typical “real professional” card.

I can almost see the twinkle in her eye as she writes that last sentence!

[After dinner] I found Lady Norman and Miss Conway sitting over the dinner-table at the Folkestone [Hotel], and went in to join them. They told me that they had spent a long time discussing me. I said that I was fully aware of my shortcomings, and duly regretted them. They, however, had a different version and were most kind in their summings-up, quite recognising that they had nearly, as they said, killed me, and that my aimiability had unfailingly stood the test. I had many internal qualms, knowing that this had not always been the case. I hoped that I had at any rate been able to dissemble.

Rather a longer post than usual today – I wanted to include both Major Kendall and the ladies’ “summing-up” of Edis’ character. It struck me, reading through the journal to prepare these posts, how rarely Edis complains. She mentions the difficulties she faced from time to time, but this is always framed in terms of her own perceived shortcomings – saying that she was not ‘up to the task’, rather than complaining that the task was impossible, or unreasonable. But I liked that she included this passage in her journal. I think she was actually very pleased with their comments and I get the feeling that perhaps this was her rather modest way of saying how proud she was of herself. Sometimes it’s just easier to use someone else’s words of praise than it is to blow your own trumpet!

27th March 1919

When we had said goodbye to [Lady Norman and Nigel, who were taking a day trip to Passchendale together], Daddy Blow and I embarked on our day’s adventures…

The day grew rapidly blacker as Mr Blow and I set out for Boulogne. By and by the snow started, then turned to sleet, and in such a biting wind as neither of us ever remembered we forged along, hardly able to see or feel. I was thankful not to be responsible for driving, for the sleet cut one’s eyes and blinded one, and the glass had to be let down to see at all.

We put on the best speed possible and reached Boulogne about 3′ o clock, going straight to the Hotel Christol to let them know I had arrived and would like to start work there shortly.

I managed to get a hurried – very hurried – plate of Daddy Blow in the car before he started to leave Boulogne, which he hated like poison.


Daddy Blow and Henry Ford, © Cromer Museum (CRRMU : 2008.14.556)

The old man had brought us through our adventures as few would have done. The professional chauffeur would assuredly have arranged accidents or punctures at many critical points. But Daddy Blow, however much he disapproved – and he did disapprove very often – had somehow managed to keep Henry Ford up to the mark and had brought us over 900 miles of atrociously bad roads – in parts – without a single puncture. He had not enjoyed it all as we had, for he had already had plenty of war and hospitals, and did not pretend to be interested in all that we found amusing; but at Cassell he said he would not have missed the trip for anything, and spoke quite warmly of the interest it had been to him. He made it a very strong point of honour to bring us through successfully, and nobly he did it.

26th March 1919

On Wednesday 26th we started work early at the Salvation Army Canteen and went on to the YMCA canteen, where the light was impossible. They had to use electric light all day, and had not got the tent down which shared all the daylight from the door. I decided that the only thing to do was to arrange a group out in the Courtyard under the tent. So we got tables and goods out and a crowd of Australian and English soldiers came in, so it make quite a picturesque arrangement, even though the exposure was long.


Y.M.C.A. Group, Lille © IWM (Q 8094)

Our plan was to meet Nigel Norman [Lady Norman’s step-son], who was coming out on his motor-bike… Unfortunately for keeping out appointment we took the wrong gate out of Lille…it was the only time in the whole tour that we went amiss. It probably took us ten kilometres out of our way, but let us through some villages where it was evident there had been tremendously heavy fighting. Meppe is one that remains in my memory. The smell was very unpleasant even in passing through, and I heard afterwards that it had not been properly “cleared up” yet.

We did eventually get on to the road for Haasebruck. It was very cold and we arrived there fairly frozen, and eventually found out canteen – after much enquiry.

“I propose”, said Lady Norman, “that we photograph the canteen first, and have tea afterwards.”

To this superhuman suggestion, frozen and miserable, I did my best to rise, but I did not enjoy it. It was not the first time that I found myself hardly on an exalted enough level to enter keenly into the game when almost to still with the cold to unpack myself or the camera.

Poor Olive is really starting to feel the strain of the tour by this point. She had been on the go for 26 days straight, with only one real day of rest in Paris, and even then she was out running errands and writing to her family to let them know her expected return date. To be out working in the freezing cold, constantly travelling from place to place in a rickety old Ford (an open-top car, so no roof to keep out the snow) with no idea whether she would even have a real bed for the night would have surely been enough to wear down even the fittest young adventurer. Edis was 42 when they set out on their tour, the oldest of the group and a good 20 years older than many of the women she was sent to photograph, and was unwell for some parts of the journey – to the point where she was on the verge of being sent home and hospitalised at one point (see 8th March).

On top of the physical aspects of the tour, there was also the mental strain of almost reliving the war through experiences recounted by the people they met (see 23rd March), not to mention her own experiences of the sights and smells of the battlefield, the fields of makeshift graves, injured soldiers, widows, refugees, and piles of rubble that only a short time ago were people’s homes. It must have taken everything she had to come through that and still have the energy to keep going, keep photographing, and keep writing her daily journal. “Superhuman” indeed.

25th March 1919

I rose very early…the smell of fried bacon was very comforting and we consoled ourselves with breakfast before embarking on a big morning of photography.

At the first canteen I tackled, my camera had a complete upset, which resulted in a smashed focusing screen – the one accident I had not foreseen and prepared for. I worked with a gaping hole, taking the largest piece of broken glass and running it round the screen as near as I could guess to the connect level, and stopping down to cover risks. At No: 2 C.C.S. I got the radiographer to squeegee an oiled piece of tissue paper onto an X ray plate and screwed it into place, and on this quite satisfactory substitute I finished my tour.

On a plate camera like Edis’, the focusing screen was a piece of ground glass at the back of the camera on which the photographer could “preview” their shot before uncovering the plate and making the exposure. Stopping down means that she reduced the size of the aperture, allowing less light into the lens, to reduce the risk of over-exposing the plate in the absense of a proper preview of the shot. I love her ingenious replacement! She mentions that she had heard of another photographer went one step further in the same situation and coated a piece of glass with condensed milk…

We had managed up to this time to avoid Influenza wards, but I was here plunged into one before I knew, and took a plate of the patients.


The Tiled Ward at No. 22 Casualty Clearing Station, Cambrai © IWM (Q 8090)

[at Lille] Miss Conway and I made a sortie to get some tea, but we found the cakes which aimed at being decorative were not only outrageous prices but were anything but nice to eat.  The Mlle in our patisserie told us that milk had not been  heard of in Lille for years – the Germans had taken all the cows. She put a large supply of saccharine in the teapot when making the tea, which did improve the brew, but there was no sugar in any of the pretty cakes.

24th March 1919

At eight o’clock next morning we were loaded up and starting on our way…the Foret de Thiescourt, through which we passed, was very interesting. All this part had so recently been occupied by the Germans. The edge of the wood was absolutely honeycombed with little holes, scooped among the roots of the trees, looking hardly big enough to shelter any man. There were numbers of little graves, too, with a helmet stuck on the little cross.

Our next adventure was one of the most interesting of the tour. The ground we covered had been a good deal fought over near Péronne, and once more the shattered forests bore witness to the gun-fire. We knew that we were reaching the great “impregnable Hindenburg line”, and that forests of barbed wire in three strips would warn us of its neighbourhood… Perhaps half a mile on we passed more regular avenues of barbed wire, with trenches behind, all at right angles to our road. Beyond this the tidy little graves grew more numerous – German all of them. I noticed a few with cement borders and one indeed had a polished granite headstone. It was obvious that where the Germans had been for some time in possession and had the leisure, they took pains about the decent burial of their men. But it was equally true that in comparison with the French and British there were few German cemeteries. There is no doubt that when great slaughter occurred, their dead were taken away in bundles – “asparagus” as they were gruesomely termed – and as they were neither buried in France nor, as far as could be ascertained, in Germany, the inference was that the tales of the Corpse-Utilization factories were not unfounded. But here the Germans had been in full and leisurely tenancy, and they had not grudged the last honours to the dead, as they had not grudged them, in all honesty it must be allowed, to our British dead who fell at Zeebrugge.

This was a long day with lots of narrative but no photos taken, because “it was hopeless to think of getting a large camera down [into the mud], and my Kodak films were at an end”. I’ve chosen to share this section particularly because Edis mentions the grisly and, at the time, widely-believed myth that the Germans were building secret “Kadaververwertungsanstalt” (literally “Corpse-Utilization Factories”) to process the bodies of the dead – boiling them down to make fat for munition-making and to feed pigs and poultry. These rumours had been circulating since 1915 (Cynthia Asquith mentions it in her journal that year), but were solidified in 1917 by a “report” in The Times which claimed that German war dead were tied up in bundles (as mentioned by Edis above) and transported behind the front lines to be processed in factories. It was later claimed that the “report” was in fact planted by Brigadier General John Charteris, Chief Intelligence Officer at GHQ, who wilfully misinterpreted captions on two photographs which were recovered from German POWs, one showing German war dead being transported home for burial, and another showing dead horses being transported back so that fat could be obtained from them. Charteris allegedly paired the caption from the horse image with the image of the train carrying dead soldiers, and sent it to a newspaper in Shanghai. A week later the “report” was published in the Times. There are some doubts about Charteris’ claims that he personally invented the story, but there is no doubt that it was just that – an invention, probably inspired by the common practice of using animal corpses for fat production.

This horrific rumour was just one example of the propaganda machine hard at work in Britain during WW1. Like many people at the time, Edis evidently wondered whether there might be some truth in the stories. However unlike most of those who may have read the papers or heard the rumours back in Britain, she had the chance to see for herself a rather different story, and she felt it was worth noting in her official record.

References: Wikipedia, Spartacus Educational

23rd March 1919

Next morning, we were to visit a FANY unit which was commanded by a Miss Frazer…she had been severely wounded, getting a piece of shrapnel through her liver, and had several decorations. We found that the girls occupied a big farm house…the poor things were all having a slack Sunday morning in bed, and our early call was evidently anything but opportune. I ran into a charming lady in khaki pyjamas, half asleep, who looked very frightened at the sight of Daddy Blow in my wake, men-visitors not being allowed in FANY quarters.

After a long interval, Miss Frazer came in, and I felt most regretful that the girls should be dragged out of bed on their one free day to be photographed… She was to ride that morning with a French officer who was giving her a mount, and as the horses soon came round, we hastened to arrange a group, taking her standing by the cars in the garage, with some of her staff at work.

Miss Frazer

Miss Fraser’s unit of Field Ambulance Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), Compiegne. © IWM (Q 8084)

These girls lent us an ambulance for the day… We went out to see a very nice unit of the Comité Brittanique du Croix Rouge Francais, Service des Blessés et Refugiés, living in the Chateau de St. Anne at Pierrefond. They imported a great number of garments and household necessities for the refugees, letting them have things at very moderate prices. The dear old French cook was called in to pose as a Refugee customer, as was another charming little French girl, and I got a group of the workers at their work.

chateau st anne

Clothes and linen being issued to a French woman at a Dispensary of the French Red Cross Relief Unit at Chateau St Anne, Pierrefonds. © IWM (Q 8088)

After a long bumpy journey we got back to Compeigne, where to my great relief we were to have another night’s rest. There was a fair amount of damage to the town, and our own Hotel was knocked about and pitted with small holes. The memory of the glorious supply of hot water which drowns all other memories of that evening when I retired from public view for a few hours of real leisure, the like of which we had not known since we started our tour, remains like an oasis in a desert.

The continual “onwards and upwards” was getting a little much for any but the most robust…during that month we spent touring, in the course of which we saw practically the whole of French, British and Belgian fighting fronts, and met hundreds of men and women who had lived through the most thrilling experiences of the war and whose everyday tales were far more real and convincing than fiction, we practically lived through the period of the war. It was little wonder that we were sometimes humanly weary.

22nd March 1919

On Saturday 22nd we made for Chalons, where a Maternité run by Les Amis had done excellent work… Miss Pye had started this and devoted herself heart and soul to the work, and it was shortly to be turned over to the French to run, with a staff of nurses trained by herself.

Nearly 1000 babies had been born there, a recent pair of twins doing their best to mount up the figures. I photographed the original first ward, the twins sleeping blissfully throughout the exposure, whilst other infants howled and waved their little fists.


A ward of the Maternity Hospital. © IWM (Q 8082)

Miss Pye came in later, a most sweet and striking personality, with dark eyes and hair and a very worn face. She was really ill, and had carried through this fine piece of work under the most uncomfortable and difficult conditions.

Our next town was Rheims, to which I looked forward with peculiar interest. Nothing that we had previously seen could touch the scene of destruction it presented… In the whole of that great city on five houses remained intact.

I firmly refused tea, and Mr. Blow whirled me off in the car to the opposite end of the town, nominally to get letters at the Poste Restante and to find the lost Miss Conway, really because he was determined that I should get a plate of St. Rémy… I got an extremely expeditious plate of the beautiful side door…and had a look at the ruins; and we then once more risked other people’s lives and limbs in a dash back at top speed, picking up Miss Conway and the letters… We had a long jouney before us; but to be in Rheims and get no plates was more than could be expected of any human photographer.


Saint-Remi, Rheims, ©Cromer Museum CRRMU : 2008.14.272


21st March 1919

Our Verdun day…was almost too looked forward to to come up to expectations, as often happens.

The town itself was a most appalling heap of wreckage, evidently due to the heavy bombardment. The bridges remained intact, and I got a couple of views from the principal one by which we wentered the town. The view on the left included the meeting of two tributary rivers, and beautiful reflections in the water.


View of Verdun from a bridge entering the town, CRRMU : 2008.14.273 ©Cromer Museum.

The above negative was quite overexposed (you can see the original  version by clicking on the image) but I was able to adjust the levels digitally. I wonder what Edis would have made of that – it took me about 2 seconds, compared to the hours she might have spent getting a good image from it!

After getting these we bundled out of the car, and sought the American YMCA Canteen through absolute sloughs of mud… I found the desired group [photo] a very tiresome business, as the camera had to be almost in the doorway, in everyone’s way, and throngs of men were passing in. As I was working under extra difficulties…and as I was promptly “hustled” after securing it and not even allowed to get a single plate of the wonderful pile of ruins outside, in which the cathedral, or rather the skeleton of it, made a striking picture, I cannot look back at this visit with anything but vexation. The group was so particularly ugly, and quite unlike our usual working pictures, with a straight row of unattractive women, very much “set up” to be photographed, a style which with Lady Norman’s help I had so far quite managed to avoid.

Verdun YMCA

American YMCA Canteen at Verdun © IWM (Q 8077)

Edis was obviously feeling particularly frustrated with her work today. Based on my impressions of her character from the rest of the journal, it’s quite unlike her to use words like as “ugly” and “unattractive” to describe a subject. It’s interesting to read more about her style though, and her desire to avoid photographs that look set up, even though we know from earlier entries that many of the pictures from this trip were carefully arranged to get the shot she wanted. This is a skill she used in her portrait work too – she managed to set up quite technically formal portraits, but keep her subjects relaxed and very informal.

I have forgotten to mention our visit that afternoon to another Quaker settlement at Grainge-le-Compte, an old farm house which had at one time been the headquarters of the French army… We found that rabbit-keeping was one of the departments of the settlement, so I took a photo of a girl named “Bunny” Hall, so known from her school-days, and a most exemplary old rabbit named Rebecca who allowed to to take a 10 seconds’ exposure of her in the rather dark hutch-room.

Edis 002

Miss Hall rabbit-keeping at the farm at Grange-le-Comte, © IWM (Q 8080)