Mrs. Broom’s Boys: Photographing History

Pic 1
Christina Broom, then aged 76, with the 1938 Oxford crew.

Tim Koch writes:

Anyone interested in the history of the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race will be familiar with the work of Christina Broom, a.k.a. Mrs Albert Broom, even if they do not realise it. Mrs Broom has been dubbed ‘the UK’s first female press photographer’ and for more than 30 years until her death in 1939 she photographed every Boat Race crew, both formally and informally.

Pic 2
F.A.H. Pitman and the ultimately unsuccessful Oxford crew of 1914 go afloat, an example of Broom’s ‘reportage’ photography, the style that came to define photo-journalism. Pitman rowed at bow in the 1912 race, did not row in 1913 and was stroke in 1914. His father, Frederick I. Pitman, was an equally eminent rower and Blue and he also umpired the 19 Boat Races between 1903 and 1926 including the two that his son took part in.
Pic 3
One of Bloom’s carefully arranged pictures, again showing Frederick Pitman in 1914. He is standing next to an obviously new set of oars made for ‘fixed pin’ rowing, possibly produced by the firm of Aylings which was sited a few yards down the Putney Embankment. Compare them with the well used sets of blades in the background. Also, I wonder what the significance is of the little badge on Pitman’s lapel?

In 1903 a series of failed business ventures forced the 40-year-old Christina Broom to look for a new way of making a living. She borrowed a camera and taught herself the basics of photography with the idea of making and selling postcards. In late Victorian and Edwardian London there was a postal delivery every hour between 7.30am and 7.30pm so postcards were reliably used as the SMS ‘texts’ of the time. Initially she photographed local scenes but it soon became apparent that, not only was she a gifted photographer, but she was a shrewd businesswoman and a very persuasive character. Her ‘big break’ came when she talked her way into photographing the winning horse at the Epsom derby and this got her much notice. She then somehow got permission to set up a postcard stall in the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace. This led to her appointment as the official photographer to the Brigade of Guards and through this she gained access to Royal occasions. Eventually, the best known publications of the day such as the Illustrated London News, The Tatler, The Sphere and Country Life used her work. She did not, however, neglect her booming postcard business – in one all-night session she printed 1,000 of them.

Pic 4
Cambridge, winners in 1914. At this time, the only way to get a ‘close up’ was to get ‘close up’.

History will probably mostly remember Mrs Broom for her Suffragette pictures. For both ideological and for commercial reasons, she captured the demonstrations, marches and events of the Suffragette Movement in a series of striking photographs. The website ‘Exploring 20th Century London’ says:

Broom’s suffragette photography is arguably her best, but her other work includes a detailed record of 30 years of the Cambridge and Oxford boat races, the first women police, Nurse Cavell’s funeral, Shackleton aboard Nimrod, the funeral of King Edward VII, the coronation of George V and portraits of other royal and titled dignitaries.

Some examples of Christina Broom’s finest work are shown in these online editions of the Daily Mail and, with some duplication, the Huffington Post.

Pic 5
The 1931 Cambridge crew. It has been suggested that Brooms pictures stand out because of the relaxed nature of the subjects and perhaps they were thus because the photographer was a diminutive and elderly woman. Whatever the case, by the time that this picture was taken, Christina Broom was an established Boat Race institution.

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