My First Cameras & Darkroom

In 1957 I saved pocket money to buy a Bakelite VP Twin (16 on 127 roll film) from Woolworths. It cost 7/6 pre-decimalisation, which is 37.5p. The VP Twin was difficult to use successfully, especially by an inexperienced 11 year old. Its open frame viewfinder could lead to catastrophic framing errors and the shutter release was awkward, so that camera shake was commonplace. I still have prints supplied by Gratispool from a holiday at Blackpool in 1957 which amply demonstrate the framing and camera shake errors I suffered.

The history of the VP Twin, manufactured by E.Elliott Ltd based in the West Midlands, has been excellently researched by David Gardner, resulting in a comprehensive article in the magazine Photographica World, issue No.108, 2004/2, of the Photographic Collectors Club of Great Britain (PCCGB).

Interestingly, correspondence within my family, dating to May 1935, talks about a camera having just appeared for sale in Woolworths, taking 16 pictures on a roll of film normally sized for taking 8 pictures (so presumably 127 size). This reference to the first appearance of what is almost certainly the VP Twin agrees exactly with the 1935 date found by David Gardner in his research.

Woolworths sold this camera until 1959 (or maybe the early 1960's. Ref: email from David Burrin, July 2018, who believes his was purchased from Woolworths in 1963) when competition from other low cost, but superior cameras, forced it out of production. But by then some half a million had been sold by Woolworths alone. (Above picture from Charlie Kamerman;

Thanks to, below can be see the front & rear pages of the VP Twin's instruction leaflet.

Quoting from David Gardner's PCCGB article:
"The camera body was made in the Midlands by E Elliott Ltd, (
Edwin Elliott) a well established Bakelite moulder in Birmingham, and the lens was made by a subsidiary of Elliott's, BOLCo, the British Optical Lens Company. On 23rd May 1936, a private limited company was formed to acquire the two companies (E. Elliott and The British Optical Lens Company) from Edwin Elliott. BOLCo became a wholly owned subsidiary of E. Elliott Limited and Edwin Elliott became Chairman and MD of the new Company."

"Although produced mainly in black, the VP Twin camera was given a facelift (quite literally) in the early 1950s by fitting a metal plate to the front with the BOLCo name and 'L-Yacht' trademark ('L' in a Yacht = Elliott) proudly displayed (see above). Another famous British camera manufacturer joined the VP Twin story in the 1950s when the VP Twin was marketed by K G Corfield Ltd both in the UK and abroad. This collaboration came about as a result of Edwin Elliott having provided financial backing for Kenneth Corfield to develop the Lumimeter (enlarging exposure meter, late 1940s) and subsequently his range of Periflex cameras (from spring 1953) The most important aspect of this collaboration was the work of Frederick Archenhold, the chief optical engineer at BOLCo, who designed and led the manufacture of the lens elements for the 50mm f/3.5 Lumar (1953), 50mm f/3.5 Lumar-X (1955) and 100mm f/4 Lumar (1957) and 150mm Lumar lenses."

An interesting piece of additional Edwin Elliott and BOLCo information appeared as 'Letter of the Week' in Amateur Photographer magazine for 14th September 2013. It was written by Antoni Kowal. He was involved in the final days of Voigtländer as a manufacturer of cameras and lenses in 1972/73. Antoni initiated the purchase of the contents of the Voigtländer lens production plant while he was working for BOLCo in Walsall. He says:
"...BOLCo was being run by Fred Archenhold, son of the founder of the Archenhold Observatory in Berlin, a Jewish refugee lucky to escape just before persecution turned really nasty (even for illustrious scientists such as Archenhold Snr.). Fred was the saviour of BOLCo (owned by the Elliott Engineering Co) and kept the business going throughout the 1970s."
"I informed Fred of the announced cessation of production by Voigtländer and arranged for him and myself to travel to Braunschweig in 1973. We agreed that BOLCo would buy the contents of the factory, with emphasis on the lens side (grinding, polishing, lapping and coating equipment, and so on). The equipment was duly delivered to BOLCo by Kuehne and Nagel and employed in production at the Walsall plant. Thus Voigtländer's lens production plant became part of a British business."


By coincidence, 1957 also saw the appearance of the Ilford Sportsman camera range. The first Sportsman cost over £13, about the same as an unskilled working man's weekly wage. It was far too expensive for my shallow pockets at the time. In 2005 monetary value, the original Sportsman cost £200 !

Another 1957 happening, on a less happy note, was the death on January 18th of a famous name in photographic equipment marketing. Wallace Evans Heaton, Ph.C died at the age of 79. He started his first photographic business in Sheffield in 1902 and opened in Bond Street, London, in 1919, the capital's most exclusive shopping area. He bought the five 'City Sale and Exchange' shops in 1929 and in the 1930s he opened his two other West End (London) shops. A Royal Warrant (suppliers of photographic equipment to their majesties the Queen and the Queen Mother, and H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh) was first granted in 1938. Wallace Heaton had several full page advertisments right at the front of Amateur Photographer magazine every week by the 1950s and these continued for many years after Wallace Heaton's death. By 1969 there were 9 branches, a processing laboratory, commercial studios, repair workshops and a Proving Dept testing new equipment before it was offered for sale.

I was always impressed by these adverts, so much so that I visited the 127 New Bond Street premises of Wallace Heaton Ltd while in London on a 6th Form school trip around 1962. All I could afford was a single half-plate developing dish, but I was proud of making a purchase in such a prestigious shop. Wallace Heaton was the premier photographic retailer in London. At that time, the Wallace Heaton chain was being run by Wallace Evans' son John Wallace Heaton, born 5th September 1907.

Alongside is a photograph of Wallace Evans Heaton, printed in Number 4 of Wallace Heaton's "PHOTO GRAPHIC and PHOTO NEWS" quarterly magazine (price 3d = 1.25p) that commenced publication in Spring 1947. Wallace Evans is holding David John Wallace Heaton, born 21st February 1947, 2nd son of John Wallace Heaton. The text reads "In a world of shortages....we have made sure of a continuous line of Wallace Heatons for three far. Proof: The photograph shows Wallace Heaton senior with Wallace Heaton junior's youngest son". The "shortages" referred to in the text is a reference to the extreme austerity in post-war Britain (at that time).

Alan Owens worked at Wallace Heaton in New Bond Street from July 1957 to April 1962 in the enlarger dept on the first floor. He tells me "I sold my Hornby Dublo (electric train set) to finance my introduction to photography (a friend had a Trix-Twin). I joined Wallace Heaton from leaving school at age 16 and after 6 weeks in the stock room entered the enlarger dept. My first manager was Dave Milne, but he left to become sales representative for Photax Ltd. Dave Milne's successor was Val Bidlake followed by Michael Hazelman and then Jim Fry, who was manager when I left. I was a self-employed photographer from 1966 to 2006, as Alan M Owens, L.B.I.P.P., L.M.P.A., L.R.P.S. but have now retired, and reacquainted myself with my interest in Hornby. My first camera was a Ross Ensign Fulvue, taking 12 on 120 roll film".


The Wallace Heaton chain was eventually purchased by Dixons in 1972, by which time there were 15 shops in the Wallace Heaton chain.

In the logo alongside, from the December 1947 issue of PhotoGraphic and Photo News, the text reads "By Appointment to His Majesty The King, Suppliers of Photographic Equipment". In 1947 this text referred to King George VI.


Other 1957 happenings:
On 3rd January, the Hamilton Watch Co. introduced the first electric watch.
On 14th January, Hollywood film actor Humphrey Bogart died of throat cancer.
In February, The Rank Organisation announced plans to introduce a 'while-you-wait' copying service for dcuments etc; operated by Xerography (electro-static photography).
On 25th March, The Treaty Of Rome (Patto di Roma) eastablished the European Economic Community (EEC) - "The Common Market".
On 4th October, The Soviet Union (Russia) launched the earth's first artificial satellite,named Sputnik, into a stable earth orbit. This upset US prestige and started the 'space race' which culminated in the Apollo 11 mission landing Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin on the moon, 20th July 1969.
On 13th November, the 'laser' (light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation) was invented by Gordon Gould.
The Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock was released (Elvis was, and remains, the King of rock & roll).
'Puttin' On the Style' was a summer 1957 hit for skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan; the last UK chart-topper record to be solely issued in the 78rpm format. It was also recorded live on July 6th 1957 by John Lennon's group called (at that time) the 'Quarrymen'. The same day, Lennon met his songwriting partner Paul McCartney and went on to form the world famous 'Beatles'.

While indulging in the nostalgia of the 1950s and 1960s, take a look at John Chenery's site, especially the page where he shows pictures taken on Ilford film at Butlins Clacton in 1964, when he was a lad of five. In 1964 Ilford had a 50% interest in Butlins Photographic Services Ltd. which operated photographic services at seven holiday camps, two hotels and a beach outlet.

I sold my VP Twin, after about 12 months ownership, to a cousin for 5/- (25p) and purchased a Coronet Flashmaster (or similar 12 on 120 Coronet) by weekly payments via my mother's Burlington home shopping catalogue. According to the 1956 BJPA, it cost £1.11s.3d (£1.56p). My success rate was immediately transformed.

The picture shows the Flashmaster equipped with its CoroFlash flashgun, which has a proprietary 2-pin fitting. The 1957 price was 13s.1d (65p).

From David Gardner's research it seems that Elliotts may have produced Bakelite bodies for Coronet cameras, as the two companies are known to have collaborated in the 1930s when their factories were in close proximity.


It wasn't long before I wanted to try developing my films and making my own prints. So, around 1959, I purchased a Johnsons of Hendon Home Photography outfit, containing the sort of simple equipment shown alongside. To see an Amateur Photographer magazine advertisement for an even simpler Johnson 'Print -a-Snap' pack, in September 1955, click here. To download copies of the leaflet shown left (May 1961), click here, and for the Print-a Snap leaflet, click here.

There is a black Bakelite contact printing frame (RHS, back of picture) to produce prints from negatives up to 2½" x 3½" (as 8 on 120 or 620 roll film), a set of See-Thru red masks in order to produce white borders around prints down to 35mm, two ¼ plate developing dishes (black & orange) and two print forceps (black & orange). It also contained a Johnsons instruction booklet: 'How to start ~ Printing your own Photographs', some contact paper and packets of developer and fixer. Johnsons first introduced their Bakelite contact frame at the end of 1947 to replace a wooden version; wood was prone to warping.

An advert in Amateur Photographer (AP) for December 1956 shows this Junior Kit retailing at 13s/6d (66p). The same advert shows Outfits of increasing complexity, rising to the No 4 at £5.12s.6d (£5.63p)

 My kit contained two additional items; a battery powered dark red safelight, giving sufficient light to enable orthochromatic roll films to be developed by see-sawing them through developer and fixer in open trays, plus a copy of the 4th Edition of Johnsons 'Home Photography'. It was that booklet which inspired my growing interest and made me long to own an enlarger. My regular Wednesday copy of Amateur Photographer, full of tantalising advertisements, was a regular 'read'.

Enlargers were too expensive for me and I looked at possible sources of 'bits & pieces' to enable me to build my own. Everything was more expensive in those days relative to most ordinary working folk's purchasing power (1960) and it wasn't unusual for people to try to build equipment. I enjoyed trying to make things, but my skills were relatively crude and I had no metal working facilities. Hence, I bought the cheapest enlarger on the market, the Agilux, Agiscope. A full page Agilux Ltd advert in AP, 24th October 1956, gives a retail price of £7.5s (£7.25p) but by May 1962 it was being sold at £6.5s (£6.25p). It was complete with a simple lens, which would otherwise have been yet another on-cost.

The Agiscope was made by Agilux, Croydon, and was sold through various of the larger photographic retailers. I think I purchased mine by post from Sands Hunter. It was a plastic bodied enlarger with a 15" x 13" wooden baseboard and 22" inclined metal column. Light diffusion was by a sheet of flashed opal glass (no condenser lenses) which also held the negative flat within the carrier. It came with masks to enable enlargements from 35mm to 2½" x 3½" negatives.

The lens, permanently moulded within the plastic helical focussing screw, consisted of a simple fixed aperture rapid rectilinear doublet, operating at about f8. This was a major disadvantage as the combination of flashed opal diffuser and an f8 lens gave a relatively dim image, awkward to focus and without any facility to stop down the lens to accommodate focussing errors.

After struggling to focus my Agiscope using various special focussing negatives, I saw a Harringay Photographic Supplies Ltd advert in AP, offering enlarging lenses at the very low price of £1.9s (£1.45p). These lenses, available in either 3½" or 4½" focal length, had apertures f6.3 and f11 via a sliding plate with two holes and 'special barium glass component'. I reasoned that if I could substitute one of these lenses (3½" probably) for the lens in my Agiscope, I would be able to focus at f6.3, having a brighter image, and stop down to f11 for the exposure, enjoying some focussing latitude.




Harringay eventually became part of the Phototec Group

I proceeded to cut away the Agilux lens from within its helical focussing mount (the red plastic knurled item visible in the ebay picture to the left) and substitute the lens from Harringay.

No doubt what I did was constructionally very crude, but I managed to fix the new lens in position and align it such that I then used the new set up for several more years.

My first 'serious' camera was a relatively low cost, and simple design, 12-on-120 film twin lens reflex made in Poland, named the 'Start B'. It was imported from June 1961 by Apparatus & Instrument Co.Ltd (A.I.C.O. Ltd) of Aico House, 36 Grove Road, Hounslow, Middlesex. It had a matched pair of 75mm f3.5 Euktar lenses, a shutter speeded 1/10th, 1/25th, 1/50th, 1/100th, 1/250th & B, and the usual TLR collapsible hood and built in focussing magnifier above a ground glass screen. It cost £12.16s.4d plus £1.19s.9d for the ever ready case.

I'd sold my Trix-Twin electric train set (rarely played with any more) to fund purchase of the Start B, but was never really happy with the camera. The side-mounted focussing knob seemed accurately enough set to give good focus on the viewing screen and on the negative, but it moved noticeably past infinity. These days I would simply take the item back to the retailer for repair or replacement, but I was young, naive and mechanically inquisitive enough to fiddle on, trying to reset the focussing myself and ended up damaging the camera to the point I lost interest in it.

By the summer of 1964 I was earning a small wage, sufficient to enable me to purchase (by weekly installments) a fixed lens single lens reflex (slr) called the Mamiya 'Saturn' (originally sold by Mamiya as the 'Family' in the US and the 'Penta' in the UK) from Dixons in Union St; Birmingham. The 'Saturn' was also sold by Bennetts in New St. Birmingham, as the 'Korvette'.

The Mamiya 'Family' (aka 'Penta', 'Saturn' & 'Korvette') and most all Mamiya 35mm cameras, are shown on Ron Herron's excellent site.

Later I 'upgraded' to a Russian Zenith 3M slr with an interchangeable f2 Helios lens (see below, left), augmented by a Hanimex 180mm f3.5 telephoto. To download the instruction booklet for a 1974 Zenith E (similar to the 3M but with a built-in selenium exposure meter) click here. The booklet is available courtesy of Tasker Dunham. See his blog "Tasker Dunham's Yorkshire Memories".

By 1969, fed up of carrying around the heavy Zenith with two lenses and an exposure meter, I simplified my picture taking by trading in the Zenith for a Minolta ALF (see right) and started taking just 35mm colour slides.

In mid-1970 I left home to pursue my career. I took my AL-F with me and gave up darkroom work. 40+ years later I still have the AL-F, tucked away in its original box and packaging.

In 1981 I purchased a Durst M302 35mm enlarger with colour head from Jessops (Hinckley Rd, Leicester, in those days) and tried my hand at colour printing negatives from my Canon AE1 slr. I purchased a f2.8 El-Nikkor enlarging lens and gradually became proficient at subtractive colour printing. However, home colour printing was a time-consuming and error prone process that, on many evenings, kept me from spending time with my family. It was a way to exercise control over the finished print on those rare occasions when a 'shot' was a particularly good one, but could never replace commercial processing for speed, cost and convenience. In the early 1990s, when I stopped colour printing, no one knew the image quality that would become possible by digital colour inkjet printing. Now (2007), inkjet print quality is amazingly high, and is the only sensible route for the amateur.

I still use my enlarger and el-Nikkor occasionally, though now only for Multigrade black & white printing.
Update, March 2010: I have to confess my Durst enlarger and el-Nikkor are now sold. I am purely digital these days, though retain two Paterson developing tanks, fluid measures, thermometer etc in case I come across an unprocessed film in an old camera.

Read about my Colour Printing experiences: 

This page last revised: 2nd July 2019