William Edward Wright - Forest Gate Edwardian photographer

Saturday 5 May 2018

We were contacted a while ago by Chris Roach, the Great Granddaughter of prominent Victorian and Edwardian Forest Gate photographer, William Edward Wright. Together, we have put together this article on the interesting life and work of this local entrepreneur and innovative photographer. He opened eight photographic studios in Forest Gate and west Essex in the thirty years between 1880 and 1910, and later, a further studio in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex.

Below, we examine his life and works, amply illustrated by many of them.

A short biography

William Edward Wright was born in Poplar in 1852, the son of a "colour maker". By 1861 he was living in High Street, Stratford, and given his occupation, his father probably worked in one of the then "stinky industries", based in what is now the Olympic Park.

A decade later, William was an 18-year old "head of household", living on The Broadway, Stratford, in "fancy sales" (small decorative gift items). He married Sarah, two years later.

In 1881 (aged 29) he was living at 3 Somerset Terrace in Godwin Road and had two sons. He was, by now, listed as a photographer. It is not clear where he was working then, or for whom, but a year later (1882) a Kelly's trade directory shows his premises to be a short distance away, at 1 Sebert Road, Forest Gate.

(Confusingly, there was another W Wright, photographer working in this area at about this time - he had studios in Stratford and Hackney. This may be the reason that "our" William Wright insisted in having "Edward" in the name of all his work.)

The 1891 census indicates that the family had relocated to also live in the Sebert Road premises (see contemporary photograph). By now there were three sons in the family, and it was prosperous enough to employ a domestic servant.

Sebert Road premises, today
The Sebert Road premises was spacious and has been used, over the years, for a number of light industrial purposes, including for a while - after the Wrights left - at the turn of the twentieth century, as a cycle manufacturers (see photo).

Wright's Sebert Road studio was a cycle
factory soon after his departure
W.E. Wright was clearly on the up, as a photographer.  By a 1896  he had moved business premises to the better located 65 Woodgrange Road - on the, by now prosperous, Forest Gate high street, just a couple of doors from the railway station. Wright had also opened up other branches of his photographer's in Leyton and Walthamstow (see advert from the Forest Gate Weekly News of 1896).
Advert for Wright's expanding business
in 1896 edition of Forest Gate Weekly News
The studio/shop's sign in Woodgrange Road can be seen on the undated photo, below. This  building was bombed during WW2 and is now the site of a Halal butcher (see recent photo, also below).

Woodgrange Road in the 1890's, with the
train station in the centre left.  Wright's
studio was immediately after the awning on
the left. A close up, below, just picks out
the lettering on the shop front - in an excellent
position next to the railway station.

65 Woodgrange Road branch, today.  Wright's
studio was bombed during WW2, to be replaced
by these rather dreary buildings
The family were living above the Woodgrange Road at the time of the 1901 census. All three sons were, by now, "photographic assistants", and their income clearly helped family finances enough to enable them to employ a cook, in addition to their general "domestic servant".

Although only 59 William, had retired by 1911, and with his wife, Sarah had moved to Cambridge Road, Southend.  They retained the services of a domestic servant.

Despite the fact that William and Sarah had retired to Essex, trade directories indicate that his Woodgrange Road studio was still operating, presumably under the management of one of his sons, until at least 1922. His great-grand daughter believes that many of the studio premises remained with the family - albeit, some with changed functions, until after Charles died in 1963. (We would be delighted to hear from any reader who has recollections of the premises in its latter days in family hands).

William and Sarah had three sons and the youngest - Charles, blog collaborator, Chris' grandfather - became a reconnaissance photographer during WW1, going up in biplanes taking photos on glass plates. He joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in April 1917 and rose to the rank of sergeant.  

He transferred to the RAF on its inception on 1 April 1918, as the subject of the merger of the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps.

See below for some of the photos taken by he and his colleague D Hardee, at the time.

The most spectacular (the German fleet, having surrendered, being escorted along the River Forth), was Hardee's.

German fleet being escorted along the River
 Forth on Armistice day 1918. The Forth
 Bridge can be seen in the distance. A bi-plane
 and a couple of air balloons are in harness
 to accompany the surrendered fleet.

Photo taken by D Hardee.

Ariel photo of the fleet in convoy.
Photo taken by D Hardee.

Reconnaissance photography, probably
taken in training of a bi-plane dropping a torpedo.

The plane was a Sopwith Cuckoo, of the 
Torpedo Aeroplane School, during trials 
at East Fortune, on 26 July 1918
Theoretically Charles shouldn't have kept these photos as they were "classified", but his desire to retain them as souvenirs is understandable! His son, Alan,  later sent copies of them and others to the RAF Museum at Hendon and at least one of them can now be seen on display.

In one of those odd twists of fate, Charles became an air-warden, during WW2.

After WW2 Charles, grandfather of co-blogger Chris, went into a related work area - optics. His son, Alan, followed him as an optician in Hamlet Court Road, Westcliff, the area to which William moved after WW1 and where he established his last studio

The coming of box brownie cameras and home photography meant people no longer used photographic studios to the same degree. They have subsequently diminished in number, and with their demise, the Wright family's involvement as professional photographers.

What follows are small collections of William Edward Wright's work as a photographer, interspersed with details of the locations of his studios and some of the styles that he adopted and captured.

A fine portfolio of transport photos

The family loved to travel in style and the Wrights certainly captured that in photography. Many of those below feature members of his own family - including the wheelbarrow one!

Studio openings, according to directories and census records

1882 - 1 Sebert Road (Kelly's)

Back and front of earliest surviving photo - Number 4 - from Sebert Road studio - approx 1882

1891 - 1-3 Sebert Road (Census)

1896 - 65 Woodgrange Road (Forest Gate Weekly News), also 223 Hoe St, Walthamstow and 254 High Road, Leyton (Forest Gate Weekly News)

Back of a Woodgrange Road photo

Back of a Leyton studio photo

Front and back of a Walthamstow studio photo
After 1906 - local branches were established in Pembroke Road, Seven Kings and at 31 Cranbrook Road, Ilford, as well as in South Street, Romford.

Six studios feature on the
back of this photo of young child
Later, a branch was opened at 162 Hamlet Court Road, Westcliff-on-Sea.

From 1912 - the 65 Woodgrange Rd branch has "and Sons" in the name

1922 - 65 Woodgrange Road still in business

1929 - 162 Hamlet Court Rd, Westcliffe (has "and Sons" in the name)

The Hamlet Court Rd, Westcliffe branch
in the 1950's, after it had been taken over
by his grandson, who was by now an optician.
The family joke was what would now be
called 'nominative determinism' -
an optician called CE Wright!
CDV photography

Most of William Wright's surviving commercial photographs are what are technically known as CDVs - from the French Carte de Visite - or visiting card. They often become available on EBay. 

The photos are of a fairly standard size - approximately 4.25" x 2.5". It was usual for the photographer to stamp his name, or that of the studio on the front frame of the photos, and give details of the firm, or its other branches on the back - see examples shown here.

The CDV form of photography was popularised during the American Civil War (1860's), as the photos were easier to take than previous, earlier methods of photography. The subjects in the early CDVs still needed to stay still for a considerable length of exposure time in the early photos.  Their popularity soon spread to Europe, in what became the beginnings of mass photography.

Initially CDVs were rather stilted, posed head and shoulder shots of their subjects, because of the length of exposure times required and the lack of inventiveness of the early photographers. By Wright's time, however, photographers could be more adventurous, with full length body poses, props, group shots and other gimmicks, to make them appear more interesting and alive.

Although many survive, unfortunately few still have the name of the subject on them, and none of Wright's business records would appear to have survived, to assist the process of identifying them. Some photographers dated their photos - but Wright did not, although some pencil markings on the back of some of his (presumably by one-time owners, or subjects) help.

The majority of the photographs illustrated towards the end of this post are CDVs.

More fashion-conscious people than us may also be able to date the CDVs with reference to the clothes worn by the subjects.

Other Wright photography

William Wright, of course, produced more than simple, high turnover, CDVs, and some of his output has a wider significance. Unsurprisingly he produced a number of innovative photographs of members of his family - reproduced and annotated by his great grand-daughter, Chris, see below. He clearly liked to own and ride impressive vehicles! (see above).

Wright also adopted the CDV style with items, such as postcards.  See below one he took of Godwin school pupils, in the 1880's. It is unlikely that he would have got the kind of sales from photos like this that school photographers get today - but doubtless it was a useful money maker (lots of potential sales from one shot).

School photo of Godwin school from 1880's -
the back of the photo suggests that it was
one of his early photos and one owner of it has
kindly noted (in pencil) that it was of Godwin
school. - see below  A rare little local find!

Another example of multi-sales group photography is to be seen in the undated one of local nurses, below.  Unfortunately, although we know the shot was taken by the Wright studios, locally, we don't not know which hospital it relates to. The old maternity hospital on Forest Lane must, at least be a possibility.

A Wright photo of nurses.  It could well have
been those employed at the maternity
hospital on Forest Lane.
The photo, below of the Black Sateens may have been another such photograph, or possibly a publicity shot for a vaudeville act.  Unfortunately, we have no further information about either the photograph, of the Sateens.

A Wright photograph of The Black Sateens
- a vaudeville or musical act, perhaps?
Group family photography

William Edward Wright also branched out into group family photography, of which weddings were perhaps the most regular and lucrative. 

The wedding photo immediately below was given to this website by someone who saw it dumped in a local fly tip, recently! It is large - 12" x 10" inches - and the group pose is great.  But the back-drop, with pylons and a railway and bridge is hardly the ideal setting for such an occasion!

A splendid Wright wedding photo, rather
spoiled by the railway bridge in the background.
Perhaps taken in the studio yard at Sebert Road?

A christening.  Note insert at top left
hand corner - presumably a significant family
member who was unable to be present on the day
An unknown vicar's wedding

The hats have it!
More commercial photography

In many descriptions of the work of Wright's studios he is described as an architectural photographer.  Unfortunately no examples of this seem to have survived - or at least have not found their way to the family collection.  Any sightings or offers would be gratefully received!

Other of his work was put to interesting uses, like the etching of the new Tower Bridge, under construction, below. It was used by the London Illustrated News, from a photograph of Wright's, in the 1890's, when newspapers were unable to reproduce actual photographs.

An photo-etching based on an impressive
photo of Wright's on the construction of Tower
Bridge, published by the prestigious Illustrated
London News. These photo etches were used at the
time immediately before newspapers had the
technology to reproduce photographs - in the 1890's
William Wright was undoubtedly a photographic innovator in his day - he was made  Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society - and a successful businessman, judging by the numbers of branches of his studios he established. He and Sarah spent their last years in Torquay. Although he died, aged 79 - perhaps fittingly in West Ham - in 1931. He was probably visiting a local friend or relative at the time.

Soldier photos

W Edward Wright's active time as a photographer covered both the Boer and First World wars. Then, as now, it was common for departing servicemen to have studio photos taken - often in uniform - as reminders, and unspoken of potential last images, for the families left behind. A fair number of these survive, a selection is shown below.  Unfortunately, few have names - we have added them, where they are available.

A Boer War soldier,
photo taken in Leyton

A Scottish regiment WW1 soldier
and sailor, photo taken in Forest Gate

Wedding photo of soldier groom
and bride, taken in Forest Gate c 1915
WW1 soldier, photo
taken in Forest Gate
Private ECW Constable
- taken in Forest Gate
Sergeant and companion -
photo taken in Forest Gate
Lance Corporal, with wife (?) and child

WW1 photo of soldier,
taken in Forest Gate
The good and the great

As a photographer of some distinction, Wright was called upon to take photos of a number of dignitaries. Scant details of some of them survive, but they may well be recognised by visitors to this site.

John Kettle, mayor of 
West Ham 1902-03

Unknown mayor 

Mrs Abednego Bishop, c 1901 of
76 Cranmer Road. Mayoress
of West Ham 1900 -1901
Unknown cleric - nb this would be
 a later photo, as Wright is now
 styled as a Fellow of the
Royal Photographic Society

Rev Cyril Ley, St Stephens church,
Upton Park, dated 1922

Mr and Mrs Burt - later
Forest Gate studio portrait

Alfred John Hill (1862 - 1927) -
Chief Mechanical Engineer,
Stratford GNER works

Interesting occupations

A coachman - Forest Gate

A scholar - Forest Gate

Two housemaids

A nursemaid with child -
interesting that it is the servant with
the child and not a parent - see below, also

Family portraits

A large number of these survive, today: what follows is a selection of the more interesting Forest Gate ones.

Cute kids

A speciality for as long as photography has existed - and Wright was no exception in producing these.  Again - literally dozens to choose from, but here is a selection of the more interesting Forest Gate ones.

More challenging adult photos

Some of the subjects clearly presented a problem for the Wright family is showing them in their best light, as some of the following perhaps indicate!

Footnote Thanks to William's great-grand daughter, Chris Roach for sharing some of the images with us.  Should any visitor to this blog have more information about William and his photography - particularly the subjects of the anonymous ones here - she and I would be delighted to hear from you.

We hope to be able to mount an exhibition of the work of William Edward Wright in Forest Gate later this year.


  1. Hi . My husbands mother recently passed away. We have found a large photo by W E Wright&Sons hidden behind an old picture in a frame. We are not sure if it is of family or could have been there when the picture was bought. Sadly we have no one left to ask.
    I wondered if you would like to see it. Kind regards Keely

  2. Hello, Keely. I'd love to see the photos and I'm sure his great grand-daughter would, too. We are planning an exhibition of Wright - the man and his work at The Gate, Forest Gate's library, in November - would be great to include the photo. E.mail me : john@E7-NowAndThen.org and we can fix something up.

  3. I found a photo marked W.E. Wright & sons today at an antique store and brought it home with me. It’s of two very cute toddlers.

  4. Hello!
    A fascinating insight into the lives of our ancestors, at the turn of the 19th/20th Century. My Grandad Leonard was born in Stratford Bow, and his cousin, Fred 'The Kid' Curtis, was born in Tooting; riding 'Speedway' for West Ham and Newcastle.
    Recently came across a 'Wright and Son' framed formal photo of a 'Youth' Football team, with Trainers. Could it be an early Upton Park, West Ham Junior team, or possibly a 'Works' team?
    Best wishes.

  5. Hello, I have found a photo in my family albums by this photographer, if you would like me to send a scan of it to you to add please let me know.

  6. Hi, “unknown”, it would be great if you could send a scan, and anything you know about the subject, name etc to info@E7-NowandThen.org. Thanks

  7. If anyone would like to contact me about my Great Grandfather's photos please email christine.roach76@gmail.com
    Also please note I have many more uploaded to Flickr here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/187564637@N03/

  8. I have a very large collection of cartes de visite - see www.cartedevisite.co.uk including some by W E Wright. Most interesting is an unusual one which APPEARS to be signed by the photographer in gold writing. If so, it is possibly a greetings cdv with a picture of the photographer himself.The image is weak but I thought it worth sharing. Would you like to see a scan of it and if so, how should I send it?

    Ron Cosens

  9. About 1882 Scottish soldier our family name Kyle with a photo by W. Edward Wright - Forest Gate & t Leyton

    I’d like to upload our photo for your records. Please contact me at lavonhigh@icloud.com

  10. I have just found out my great grandfather was a photographer at the Walthamstow studio and lived above . His name was Albert Edwin Owen if any one has any information or photos taken by him , I would be very interested to hear from them : elizabeth-anne-65@ hotmail.com

  11. I have an old photo from 65 Woodgrange Rd Forest Gate, and am thinking it may have been taken at the Coach and Bell Pub in Romford, once owned by a family member. deascent@gmail.com


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