This year marks the centenary of the deaths of two Birmingham men who certainly made their marks on their times.
On July 2, just hours apart, Joseph Chamberlain and Sir Benjamin Stone died in their respective homes in London and Birmingham. Once opponents and later allies in the political struggles of the day, Chamberlain and Stone knew each other well. They were undoubtedly very different men. Whilst Chamberlain was restless and with no interests outside politics other than his orchids, Stone was contented and his mind often on his various pursuits. For one thing, Stone was the most famous amateur photographer in the country.
The Library of Birmingham holds a huge collection of his prints and negatives. He was also an intrepid traveller, journeying around the world in 1891 and almost 1,000 miles up the Amazon in 1893.
John Benjamin Stone was born in Duddeston in 1838 and educated at King Edward’s School in New Street. He co-owned a glassworks and paper mills in Duddeston and Nechells, making enough money to indulge liberally in the expensive hobbies of photography and travel. In 1877, Stone was able to move, with his Yorkshire-born wife Jane and six children, into a fine five-bedroom house in Erdington. The Grange – now the John Taylor Hospice – was fully equipped with all that a curious gentleman-scholar and collector like Stone might require – it had a smoking room, a billiard room, a fernery (ferns and mosses were his favourite plants), an observatory and a library. When The Grange was emptied after Stone’s death, all sorts of collector’s items were put up for sale – a sarcophagus from Egypt, boomerangs from India, Zulu shields, the skull of a crocodile. All of these Stone had collected on his travels around the world.
Stone was the great champion of the Conservative cause when Birmingham was a town dominated by Joseph Chamberlain and the all-conquering Liberals. When the Liberal Party split over Irish Home Rule in 1886, the two men became allies in the new Unionist alliance of anti-Home Rule Liberals and Conservatives. Before he was elected MP for East Birmingham in 1895, Stone played an important part in local government. He was one of a tiny band of Conservative councillors (1869-78). He served as chairman of the Aston Board of Guardians, which, among other things, supported a workhouse in Gravelly Lane that was never much short of 800 occupants (1882-7). He was the first mayor of Sutton Coldfield (1886-90). It was Stone’s reputation as a businessman who managed money carefully that led to his appointment as mayor of Sutton. The highlight of Stone’s mayoralty came with the celebrations that marked the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in June 1887. Jubilee medals were distributed to local children, and, in Sutton Park, all sorts of activities were organised, including sports, dumb bell lifting, maypole dancing, dinner for the elderly and the planting of two oak trees.
Stone formed strong friendships with like-minded men. Indeed 40 of these enquiring men came together to establish the Vesey Club – named after Bishop Vesey – in Sutton Coldfield in 1888. As well as meeting each month to discuss scientific and antiquarian matters, the club organised outings to historic towns in Britain, and, in 1890 and 1892 respectively, visits to Norway and Switzerland. These were two of Stone’s favourite destinations, where he greatly enjoyed studying the flora.
Though Stone had a real expertise in botany and geology, he did not write about them and will always be remembered, first and foremost, as a photographer. He began collecting photographs in the mid-1860s, and it was not until the late 1880s that he took up the camera himself. Stone believed very strongly that photography could preserve for posterity centuries-old sites and customs that were in danger of disappearing.
With William Jerome Harrison, he launched the Warwickshire Photographic Society in 1889 and a small army of amateur photographers set about recording the churches and manor houses of the county. Within four years they had taken a very impressive 1,300 photographs. In 1897 the scheme was extended across Britain with the launch of the National Photographic Record Society. When this was dissolved in 1910, almost 5,800 photographs – 1,500 of them by Stone himself – had been presented to the British Museum. Stone had great enthusiasm for historical photography, but, it has to be said, wasn’t himself the most skilled practitioner – on at least one occasion he photographed his umbrella as well as the building he was interested in.
* Sir Benjamin Stone 1838-1914: Photographer, Traveller and Politician by Stephen Roberts is available for £7.99 from Amazon and other booksellers. The publication of this book has been made possible by the award of a grant to the author by Sutton Coldfield Charitable Trust.