Thursday, December 10, 2009

When old images trigger reflections on times past

I am always delighted to be shown photographs of times past in South Kildare and am particularly pleased when given the opportunity of copying photographs such as that which appears with today’s article.

Nowadays with modern gismos such as scanners and computers, photographs can be scanned in seconds, while someone as far away as Australia can download the results via computer email.

Today’s photograph shows a happy group of bakery workers. They were employed in Bradbury’s Bakery which was established by Tom Bradbury in his Stanhope Street premises in 1938. Those photographed were confectioners and they produced the magnificent fancies and cakes for which Bradbury’s were famous throughout the length and breadth of Leinster.

The photograph which I am told was taken in the small back yard of the original Bradbury Bakery premises in Stanhope Street shows from the left at the rear Betty Whelan, Denis Prendergast, Nancy O’Rourke, Louise Harrington and Paddy Prendergast. In front from left are Mary Harrington and on the right Mary O’Rourke.

The man in the centre of the front row has not been positively identified, some claiming it was Laurence Church, others believing it to be a Murphy from Offaly Street. Strange to relate that the photograph shows no less than three sets of siblings, the Prendergast brothers from Milltown, the Harrington sisters from Woodbine and the O’Rourke sisters from Stanhope Street. Betty Whelan was from the Carlow Road where her father who worked on the railway lived with his family in the railway crossing gate cottage.

Old photographs can be difficult to date and sometimes nearly impossible to identify in terms of location and those photographed. Even as I wrote the opening lines of this piece I began to have doubts as to the accuracy of the claims made in relation to the photograph being of Stanhope Street vintage, rather than of the later Leinster Street bakery to where Bradburys moved in 1950 or thereabouts.

Paddy Prendergast I’m told was born in 1930 and he looks very much like a 20 or 21 year old in the photograph which would date it to 1950 or 1951. If either date is correct then undoubtedly the photograph was taken in the vicinity of the Leinster Street bakery. No doubt someone out there can solve the questions regarding the date and location of the photograph.

Recently I came across a reference to Henry Bettesworth Phillips, impresario and owner of the Carl Rosa Opera Company, who operated a piano and music business in Derry and Belfast for many years. He was born in Athy on 23rd December 1866, the third child of Henry St. John Phillips and his wife Jane who were both members of the Church of Ireland. His father Henry was the local Station Master and his son’s birthplace was recorded in the local Church records as Athy Railway Station. The Great Western and Southern Railway had been extended to Athy and beyond just 20 years previously.

Uniquely the Station Master with the double barrel name of St. John Phillips was described in the Birth Certificates of some of his ten children as a Station Master, Watchmaker and Jeweller. What connection, if any, had he with the St. John family who were jewellers and watchmakers in Athy?

The young Henry won a scholarship as a boy soloist in the Choir of the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Derry in 1877 and it was in that city that he finished his education. He soon became the head choir boy and on Christmas Eve 1881 he took the solo soprano role in a performance of the first part of Handel’s Messiah. A local newspaper described him as having “a voice of extraordinary sweetness”.

After leaving school he became apprenticed to a music business in Derry before setting up business on his own account in that city in 1891. Phillips Piano and Music Warehouse would remain an important part of the Derry business scene for many decades. In 1907 he opened a second music shop in Belfast just a short distance from the famous Ulster Hall. Henry promoted concerts in Belfast, Derry and Dublin and one of his first such ventures featured the visit Hallé Orchestra with Hans Richter.

He also brought eminent soloists such as Kreisler, Clara Butt and John McCormack to the Belfast stage but perhaps the high point of his impresario career was the performance he promoted in Belfast in 1909 of the world’s greatest tenor Enrico Caruso.

Following the outbreak of World War 1 Henry Phillips founded an opera company which however ran into financial difficulties before being taken over by the well established and more famous Carl Rosa Company. A few years later Phillips gained control of the company which he ran until his death in 1950. He had moved to England in 1911 but kept on the Derry and Belfast shops, the latter however he sold at the end of the war.

Henry Phillips continued his concert promotion work after the War and in 1935 and 1936 achieved great success with a number of concerts put on in Derry given by John McCormack, violinist Fritz Kreisler and American singer Paul Robeson. The impresario and opera company owner Henry B. Phillips who first saw life in the Station Master’s house in Athy in 1866 passed away in London in 1950.

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