Robert Forgie Hunter of R.F.Hunter Ltd ~ A Bit of History

   

The information below originally came to me from Andy (Andrew) Hunter, grandson of Robert Forgie Hunter.
Subsequently, further information has come from Robin Selby, grandson of Arthur Blackman & son of Jim Selby.
   



The UK photographic company known as
R.F.Hunter was formed by Robert Forgie Hunter (1880-1955). He was born in Newton Stewart in southern Scotland. He came from a large family and his father, named William Hunter, was a photographer.

Robert Hunter was in the Army with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) at the time of the Second Boer War (or Second South African War) (1899-1902). He subsequently married Maud May Clayton (1887-1937) on 29th October 1906. Maud was born in Alkborough, Glanford Brigg, North Lincolnshire. She grew up in Buxton in her Uncle's household. She and Robert had two sons, William Clayton Hunter (1908-1943; William was Andy Hunter's father) and Cyril Robert Hunter (1910-1994).

In April 1962 the Directors of R.F.Hunter Ltd, as appearing on their official stationery letter-head
(see above) are:
Arthur Blackburn (Chairman),
Cyril Robert Hunter (Robert Forgie Hunter's 2nd son),
Margaret Mary Hunter (widow of Robert Forgie Hunter's first son William Clayton),
Jim Selby (Finance Director); Jim was Arthur Blackburn's son-in-law and a chartered accountant,
and C.H.Tortonese (another chartered accountant)

Andy thinks the ALB initials adjacent 'Our Ref' may belong to Mr Binstead, office manager/company secretary, who daily commuted into Gray's Inn Rd from Princess Risborough, Bucks.

Another member of staff was Mrs Hislop, who "worked the switchboard, opened the hatch to visitors and sorted the files".

The Hunter family set up a photographic shop in Buxton, which was later sold to Boards (circa 1920), a company that was still trading in the 1970's. Maud was a confectioner and had another shop in Buxton.

During the First World War (1914-1918) Robert Hunter served with the Royal & Mechanical Engineers, remaining a Sapper throughout his service. Meanwhile, Maud stayed at home looking after the family businesses.

Soon after the 1st World War (circa 1920) the Hunter family moved to Doughty Street in London where they set up business trading as R.F.Hunter Ltd. They gave this as their address in 1930. Arthur Blackburn (affectionately known as 'Blackie'; god-father to Andy Hunter and grandfather to Robin Selby) was with the company from 1924 (date ref: correspondence from Robin Selby).
For more regarding Arthur (Blackie) Blackman, see here.

Later the company moved to Celfix House 51/53, Gray's Inn Road, London WC1 (see below) with premises on both sides of the road. There was also a projection screen manufacturing factory in Leighton Buzzard, managed by a Mr. Baker.

Andy believes that 'Blackie' may have owned "The Starlight Screen Company" and merged this enterprise into R.F.Hunter Ltd.

The two sons, William and Cyril, were educated at Sutton Valance in Surrey. William went up to St John's in Cambridge and became a school master and documentary film maker at Dartington Hall. Cyril joined the family firm and learned German (possibly by contact with Franke and Heidecke of Rollei manufacturing fame), as this was about the time that Paul Franke is believed to have had a conversation with Robert (Bob) Hunter along the lines of "if I make these (meaning the Rollei TLR camera) can you sell them?"


Taken from the rear cover of Dollonds 1961~1962 catalogue of Photographic apparatus and accessories.

Andy recalls there was a fire at the Leighton Buzzard screen factory around 1955, so these pictures (and lower right) are probably of the rebuilt premises. The 'Main Warehouse' was new in the early 1960s.

Robin Selby has film showing the smoking ruins of the factory and also construction of the new factory, with his grandmother laying the new foundation stone.

Maud May died in 1937 and Robert (Bob) Hunter then married Ella Braun, who had been his secretary at Hunters. They had three children.

During World War 2 (WW2), William Clayton Hunter was with the RAF Photographic Interpretation Unit at Medmenham. He died in 1943 and is buried in the war graves part of Halton church yard. Cyril Robert Hunter was with the Army and saw service in Italy. He left the army with the rank of Major.

During the early part of WW2, Robin Selby relates that Bob and Ella lived in a house which he thinks was called Heightley, in a village called Redbourn in Harpendon. Robin's mother lived with them for maybe 6months. Robin retains memories of the house having expensive decorations. He also has some film of the gardens. Later, but still during WW2, it seems Bob & Ella returned to Egremont, near Newton Stewart, the town in southern Scotland where Bob had been born. This left Arthur Blackburn to run the firm until Bob's son Cyril came back at the end of WW2. While Cyril Hunter was in Italy, his wife Polly and their daughters lived with Bob and Ella in Scotland.

Robin Selby recalls that Jim Selby (his father) put up £3,000 to purchase the Manor House in Leighton Buzzard, where the firm of R F Hunter operated from during WW2. Arthur Blackman ran the firm alone during WW2, after Bob & Ella Hunter had moved to Scotland, and this remained the case until post-WW2 when Bob's son Cyril returned home. Arthur told Robin that the firm scraped a living during WW2 by repairing RAF photographic equipment.

By the late 1940's Donald Paterson and Cyril were firm friends. Donald Paterson had qualified as a Dentist and then as a Lawyer. His connection with R.F.Hunter Ltd was as an inventor of do-it-yourself (DIY) developing and printing equipment, which he marketed through R.F.Hunter under the brand name of Paterson Products. Donald had a small workshop in Hunter's premises opposite Celfix House in Gray's Inn Road, where the camera repair workshops were managed by a Mr Sampson. Here Donald employed his own toolmaker, by which means he kept ownership of all the tools and dies for the injection moulding processes. The rest of Donald's production was subcontracted.

R.F.Hunter famously became the UK distributor for the prestigious Rollei Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) 12 on 120 roll film camera range. In 1962 this range consisted of the 2.8F, the 3.5F, the 'T', the Tele and Wide Angle Rolleiflexes, the 4x4 'Baby' Rollei (12 on 127 film) and the automatic Rolleimagic. About this time the Rolleicord Va became the Vb.

Regarding Rollei, Amateur Photographer magazine for 12th February 1969 reported in its 'News of the Week' column (compiled by George Hughes):
Rollei Sell to State
The Braunschweigische Staatsbank, completely owned by the Federal State of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), has "taken over" Rollei Werke Franke & Heidecke - in terms of the financial balance. The Staatsbank has acquired a 60 per cent interest in the famous firm, makers of the Rollei range of cameras.
Rollei turnover has doubled in the past five years, and the move has been undertaken in a bid to inject sufficient capital into the company to allow an expansion of production. The firm point out that the only way to increase turnover in the coming year is to produce more cameras - the scheduled production for 1969 is already completely sold. The present managing director Horst Franke retains his 31.66 per cent share in the firm, with co-director Dr.Heinrich Peesel holding 3.33 per cent. Mrs Ella Franke, widow of Rollei founder Paul Franke, will continue to hold a 5 per cent interest. George Hughes commented "That lot makes 99.99 per cent. I wonder who's got that missing .01 per cent-even that should be worth quite a bit!"
"Cyril Hunter, head of UK Rollei distributors R.F.Hunter, tells me that the revised financial footing of the German company will make no difference to marketing strategy in this country."

But the Rollei Twin Lens Reflex fixed lens roll film design eventually became 'dated' and lost its market share. To read a rather ascerbic account of Rollei by December 1979, go to the end of this page. The text is taken from the opening paragraphs of a review in 'SLR Camera' magazine of the newly announced 35mm Single Lens Reflex, the Rolleiflex SL35 E.

   

In 1951, Andy's mother, Margaret Mary Hunter, widow of William Clayton, joined R.F.Hunter Ltd as export director.

In the early 1950’s Margaret Mary Hunter lived at 49 Fitzroy Road NW1, next door to Geoffrey and Theodora Gilbert, who lived at No.47. The Gilbert's had twin girls (born in late 1940’s?). Geoffrey Gilbert was a photographer and on at least one occasion worked on advertising shots in Andy's house. The one Andy especially remembers was for furniture polish, which used lots of tricks with reflecting layers to enhance the impression of shininess. Geoffrey Gilbert designed a simple box style camera around 1953, which was called The Gilbert Camera and was distributed by R.F.Hunter. Geoffrey Gilbert later (1955) moved to a house on Haverstock Hill at the junction with Parkhill Road, where he had a garden with over 1000 different species of plants, especially alpines. Andy reports that 'Google street view' shows that this house has since been replaced by a block of flats.

Robert Forgie Hunter died in 1955 and in 1960 R.F.Hunter was 'floated' on the London Stock Market underwritten by Old Broad Street Securities, becoming R.F.Hunter (Holdings) Ltd. Jim Selby, Arthur Blackburn's son-in-law and an accountant, then joined the company as Finance Director. In 1964, Margaret Mary Hunter retired.

In 1965/6, Johnsons of Hendon purchased R.F.Hunter (Holdings) Ltd. Stanley Houghton was the chairman of Johnsons at that time. Cyril Hunter and Arthur Blackburn were retained in their previous posts for a short period before they both retired.

Following the Hestair take-over of Johnsons in 1972, Stanley Houghton left the company. In 1975, Donald Paterson drowned trying to rescue a youngster while on holiday in Scotland.

As a footnote, Andy adds:
I think it is unlikely that Robert Hunter ever lived in Exeter (a statement that Robin Selby agrees with). However there is a strong Exeter connection within the family.
The parents of Margaret Mary Hunter (née Reid), Andy's mother, were Church people and Grandfather Reid was a Vicar and Prebendry of the Cathedral in Exeter. William Clayton Hunter and Margaret Mary Reid were married in Exeter Cathedral in 1936 in "rather a grand ceremony".

Andy continues "My parents were both on the staff of Dartington Hall School, Totnes, where they met. Andy was born at St. Mary Arches Rectory in Exeter in 1938. After William Hunter died in February 1943, Margaret Hunter returned to her parents home in Exeter, where she and Andy lived for a year. A daughter, Joanna was born to Margaret in May 1943.

Perhaps the above connections with Exeter explain why R.F.Hunter is sometimes believed to have lived there in 1943.

Andy believes that Robert Hunter and his second wife Ella moved to Egremont, Nr. Newton Stewart, Scotland direct from London in the early part of WW2. While Cyril Hunter was in Italy with the army, his wife Polly and their daughters lived with Robert (Bob) Hunter and Ella in Scotland.


The text and picture below are taken from a review by 'SLR Camera' magazine in December 1979 of the newly released 35mm Rollei SLR, the SL35 E.

By this time, despite being the most desirable of cameras during the 1950s and 1960s, the bulky and somewhat inflexible fixed-lens TLR Rollei design had become out-dated. Enthusiastic amateurs, and certainly professionals, wanted the versatility of an interchangeable lens system with through the lens viewing and metering. For most subjects, the ubiquitous Japanese made 35mm SLR had become 'king', though the rangefinder Leica system still appealed to many where money was no object and rangefinder focussing and noiseless operation were paramaount. Professionals seeking ultimate quality for studio or location work, used roll film cameras like the Hasselblad or larger.

In the story below, the writer compares Rollei to the failing British car manufacturing organisation, British Leyland, which became BL Ltd before being sold, first to BMW and then to a short-lived management buyout.

The Hunter logo in December 1979.

They were then:
Hunter Division, Rollei (UK) Ltd.
Denington Estate, Wellingborough, Northants, NN8 2RG

The review reads:

Here is the story of a company. A company whose workers raised the cost of their wages until, while the company was willing to pay them, the world was not. Since the world was their real paymaster, the company began to shrink.

Cold blooded bankers lent the Company money. At least the bankers thought of themselves as being cold blooded, but they were not. If they had been, they would never have lent the money which kept the company from the bankruptcy courts. They made the loans because they were of the same blood as the workers of the company and they were proud to share that blood. They and the workers knew that the company had a heritage and that the skills they had inherited from their fathers and grandfathers could not be taken up quickly by mere foreigners. The sales force also knew that the company had a great name and that its products could only be matched by a very few. The sales management were arrogant with the same belief and they treated their dealers with scant concern for their well-being, bringing out a wealth of new models when the old were not yet cleared from the showrooms. It all had to end somewhere and apart from the managing director's ulcers, the first to suffer were the workers.

Making it clear
Did you think I was writing about British Leyland? l was not. I wrote of the company which used to be known as Franke & Heidecke, of Brunswick, known throughout the world as the makers of the Rolleiflex, that original of the twin lens reflex world.

The dear old 'Rollei', as it was known throughout photographic circles, finally gave its affectionate name to the company itself several years ago. By that time the company was in deep financial difficulties. Even its home market in Germany was swamped by the Japanese invasion. In fact, the history of the company could almost be written as a film script, and only the names would need to be changed to make it a topical 'In Depth' study of British Leyland (oh, it too has suffered a change of name, it is now BL Ltd). Only the part of the BL story which tells of the government intervention would have to be changed. In the German case this activity was taken up by the banks.

The subsequent story of the Rollei company might even tell the story of the future of BL. Rollei went into a loose partnership with its conquerers and set up a factory in Singapore which is where this camera and its lenses were made. There are a lot of unemployed ex-Rollei workers in Germany and a lot of very employed citizens of Singapore doing the work in their place. It is uncanny to notice resemblance after resemblance in the two cases. The bland unconcern of the sales management in the two cases. The singular lack of after-sales back-up. The charging of the press with 'an unhelpful attitude' when their shortcomings were pointed out, at first politely and with a later degree of anger and point as the criticism was unheeded and even resented.

Sticky period
In one respect Rollei were even worse than BL, for they had a habit of bringing out new models at a high price and then, when the sales of the highly priced units was to say the least sticky, they dumped the remainder on the market through discount companies at a fraction of the original asking price. At a stroke they successfully made enemies in the photographic public and the trade. Who could feel friendly towards a company which had sold him a camera for over £100, then within six months, place the same camera on the market for £35? And what dealer would be anxious to place a stock order with that company when he had bought from them cameras which were still on his shelves, cameras which were now being sold down the road retail at a price well below what he had paid for them wholesale?

It was not that the cameras were poor quality. They were not. In fact they were of uniformly high quality. On the whole they tended to be a bit behind the opposition in features and a long way behind in value for money.

But Rollei have had on the market for some time a camera which makes the Hasselblad seem Iike an out-of-date tin can and there at least we are puzzled, for it should have wiped the floor with the opposition. One is stunned when first you hear the price, but when you add up all the extras needed (and bought), for the Hasselblad to bring it up to the Rollei standard, then by contrast the Rollei is a good buy and a far better camera. Maybe it is yet another blow-back due to the old Rollei sales techniques.

But concerning the SL35E
Brunswick farewell, good day Singapore. This camera is entirely the product of the Far East, and Raffles, that old freebooter who founded the place, would have nodded with approval. A good product and his people are well employed. That the natives of Singapore are better educated technically than the British is something which shows up in the statistics. It is something that is not taken in when merely read about. It is something which strikes chillingly home when a mere two years after examining the first lens products from the old colony you have its latest product on the test bench and discover that all the faults you discovered in the early lens (and wrote about in SLR Camera), have disappeared from the latest lenses.............

Encouragingly, the reviewer concludes his test of the Rollei SL35 E by saying "We were quite surprised to note that we parted with the camera with some sadness when the test period was over."

This page last updated: 23rd August 2016