Christina Broom (1862-1939)

Born: Christina Livingston; also known as Mrs Alfred Broom

Sector: Media (Photography)

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Although photography was a booming profession for women before the First World War, Christina Broom was unusual because she worked on the street rather than in the studio. Armed with a tripod, glass plates and a weighty camera, she spent her days out in the open air, looking for people, places and events she could turn into mass-selling postcards, rather than creating pictures for family mantelpieces.

As a result, her work looks very different from the portrait-dominated portfolio of her contemporaries like Alice Hughes and Olive Edis. Not only did Christina Broom build a successful business, she created a visual history of Edwardian London, as electric tramways transformed above-ground public transport and airships floated high in the skies.

Christina Broom came to photography as she turned 40. She was born in London on 28th December, 1862. Her father, Alexander and maternal grandfather and were both boot-makers and one of her brothers, Robert, also went into the family profession. Christina’s first home was 8 King’s Road and she was educated in Chelsea, attending a school nearby at 69, Oakley Street. When the family later moved to 146, Oakley Street, they were able to keep their King’s Road property. Her family was well-known in the area and her father was chair of Chelsea Vestry, the forerunner of the local council.

Christina’s father died in 1875, her mother, Margaret, nine years later in 1884, leaving an estate valued at the equivalent of £1.6m today which presumably was dispersed between her five children. The family rented out 146 Oakley Street to Oscar Wilde’s mother, Jane Francesca Wilde, who wrote under the name Sperenza. A blue plaque commemorates her nine-year stay.

On 15th August 1889, Christina married Albert Broom at St Saviour’s Church. Albert was one year younger than her and another Chelsea resident, whose parents lived a couple of doors down from writer, historian and founder of the London Library, Thomas Carlyle. They had a rather noisy black dog which was one factor in Carlyle’s renowned but unsuccessful attempts to create a sound-proof room where he could work in peace. Albert’s father was an ironmonger and Albert followed him into the family business. They moved to Fulham and had a daughter, Winifred, in 1890. At this stage, they were in financial good health, able to afford both a nurse and a servant. However, in 1896, Albert, a keen amateur cricketer, was struck hard in the leg by a cricket ball and was so badly injured that he was left unable to work. The ironmongery business failed. In 1902, the couple bought a shop in Streatham to generate income but this also seems to have failed and Christina needed to find a way to support her family.

One product that had sold well in their Streatham shop was postcards. Up until 1894, only the Post Office had been allowed to print and issue postcards, complete with pre-fixed stamps. Then the market was opened up to competition. In 1902, the divided back was introduced, so that an address could be written on one half and a note on the other. With low postage rates and a frequent delivery service, in large cities up to nine deliveries a day, the postcard became a cheap, easy and attractive way of sending short messages: it was possible to send a note in the morning suggesting a drink, receive a reply by the afternoon and meet up that same evening. During the early 1900s there was an explosion in postcard production.

Christina was quick to see the potential of postcards. In 1903, she borrowed a camera and set out to photograph the opening of Westminster Bridge, printing the photographs herself at home. She had an early success with a photograph of a Derby winner so bought her own camera and tripod and loaded down with equipment and glass-plate negatives equivalent to the weight of a four-year old child, she set out to find subjects. She was soon able to send out to potential buyers a ‘List of Interesting “Snap-Shot” photographs’. Among the first twenty-five images were the opening of Kew Bridge, winning jockeys and famous rowers, the Band of the Scots Guards in Pall Mall and shots from walking races, which were very popular during this period. She had a clear pricing strategy, with a small volume discount and included her payment terms: ‘All my cards are published at the same price, 7/0 per gross, 3/9 per half gross, 8d per dozen, carriage paid. Nett cash at 7 days’.

The eye that Christina was bringing to her work was therefore a wholly commercial one: what would make popular images? Some of her subjects are those still seen in popular images today: celebrities; the Royal Family; places around London; events of national celebration and moments of national mourning, from the State Opening of Parliament to the funeral of Edith Cavell.

Clockwise from top left: Group shot: King Edward VII; Queen Alexandra; The Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary); Princess Victoria of Wales (1908); Suffragette March in Hyde Park (23rd July 1910) with L-R Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison; HRH Prince Edward (1914) Lily Elise (1904). All images (c) National Portrait Gallery

An early success was an image of the Household Cavalry which quickly earned her a credit as ‘official photographer’. She gained access to army locations around London – the Wellington Barracks by Hyde Park, the Regent’s Park Barracks and Chelsea Barracks.

2nd Life Guards at Regents Park Barracks. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205313822

These army postcards were definitely important to Christina – in 1910 she advertised herself as a Military Post CArd Specialist with 70 postcards available of the recent Army Pageant, ‘all different’.

Christina was also interested in what women were up to and realised that the suffrage movement could be a good topic. Were it not for her work, we would have a much poorer visual record of the activities of the different suffrage groups. Looking at the images in the mainstream press, taken by men to support news stories written by men, we see stern-faced or angry women, fighting, in conflict with politicians and the police. Christina’s images show a different side of the struggle, the creativity and solidarity of women across all ages and classes.

She had no particular allegiance, covering events by all the main suffrage groups. In April and May of 1901 she photographed the Green, White and and Gold Fair of the Women’s Freedom League, the Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions that Shelley Gulick organised as part of the International Suffrage Conference and the Women’s Exhibition at Prince’s Skating Rink, organised by the WSPU.

This last event was a two-week mix of propaganda, commerce and entertainment that raised £6,000, or nearly £750,000 in today’s money. One of the gimmicks was a polling both where each day an issue was put to the vote. On the last day the question was whether or not there should be a Channel Tunnel and the majority was in favour. Sadly, none of those voters would have been around to see it open in 1994…

The Sweets Stall at the Women’s Exhibition, Prince’s Skating Rink, May 1909

Christina was able to create a stable income from this business. When in 1911 Albert died, she and Winifred moved to Munster Road and continued to work together.

The announcement of war created a new stream of demand as men signed up, got into uniform and prepared to cross the Channel. Christina photographed the men as they left and those that made it back.

The first contingent of 1st Life Guards ready to leave Knightsbridge Barracks for the War. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205316573

At their busiest, the mother and daughter team was producing 1,000 cards a day and Christina’s stand at the Women’s War Work Exhibition in 1916 is full of her work, with the photograph seen above of Prince Edward taking pride of place.

Christina Broom, photographed by her daughter at a stand at the Women’s War Work Exhibition, Prince’s Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, London, May 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: © IWM HU 51891 http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205088323

The mother-daughter partnership was very successful and Winifred was awarded the title of Best Printer in London in 1920. Between the wars, the popularity of postcards started to wane and Christina’s health made it harder for her to get around. She continued nonetheless and her images were used in Bystander and Tatler, with ten of her photographs included by the Daily Sketch in its Silver Jubilee supplement in 1935.

In 1937, a local reporter went to interview ‘a silvery-haired, dignified little lady’, where he was surrounded by hundreds of prints and thousands of negatives. Christina photographed the Boat Race every year and she had just sent the Duke of Windsor prints of that year’s crews. ‘He’s always been very nice to me’, she said. He was in Austria, staying at the Schloss Enzesfeldt as a guest of the Baron de Rothschild, no doubt planning his wedding to Wallis Simpson for which Constance Spry would do the flowers three months later. Christina had just received a telegram from his private secretary in acknowledgement. Christina was looking forward to the upcoming Coronation of King George VI, promising to be out and about with her camera, looking for the less ordinary shot.

In what little spare time she had, Christina was a keen angler and would head down to Margate, often with Winnie, to complete in angling competitions. She died on 5th June 1939, leaving effects of just £65 and the house where Winifred continued to live for the next thirty four years. Winifred spent her final years securing her mother’s legacy by re-housing her negatives and the Imperial War Museum, National Portrait Gallery and Museum of London all hold Christina Broom’s work in their collections. Winifred died in 1973.


Sources include: Votes for Women 4/6/1909; Westminster and Pimlico News 16/4/1937

‘Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom’ by Anna Sparham (2015); ‘The Other Observers: Women Photographers in Britain 1900 to the Present’ by Val Williams (1991)

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