Francis (Frank) Thompson of Crown StudiosFebruary 15th, 2019
Turnbull Gallery's final exhibition of 2018, Goodbye to all that: Armistice 1918.
The final exhibition in the Turnbull Gallery for 2018 featured a photograph of nurses and soldiers participating in a bucket race in Oatlands Hospital grounds, Surrey, England, from the large collection of images in the Crown Studios collection. What wasn’t explained was how a Wellington photography studio came to be in possession of images of soldiers in England.
As the First World War came to an end, some of the soldiers that were left behind were the amputees, known to each other as the ‘limbies’, who were offered opportunities for rehabilitation in England before heading back to New Zealand. One of these was Francis Thompson who was to go on to run Crown Studios, one of Wellington’s most successful photograph studios.
Born in England in Yorkshire in 1895, he came to New Zealand in 1914 and worked briefly as a nurseryman in Palmerston North. In an interview with the Evening Post, 21 March 1969, he talked about having had two toes amputated when he was about 14 years old because he had hammer toes. Despite this, he was still considered suitable to enlist in the war, and in 1916 he was heading back to England with the New Zealand Medical Corps.
He spent the next year working at Hornchurch Convalescent Hospital in England before being transferred to Field Ambulance No 4 in Rouen and then was detached to the 3rd Battalion Auckland Infantry Regiment on 13 July 1917 as a stretcher-bearer. A month later on 16 August he was so severely wounded that he was to spend the rest of the war in and out of various hospitals. Arriving back in England a month after receiving his injuries he was admitted to Walton-on-Thames Hospital where he was required to have his left leg amputated and have several operations on his right leg in order to eventually save it. Apart from short stints of leave, he remained in hospital for another 18 months.
As part of their rehabilitation, the soldiers were given the opportunity to learn new skills, either for employment opportunities after they went home, or just to occupy themselves while in hospital.
Arts and crafts class at the New Zealand Convalescent Camp in Hornchurch, England, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013994-G
A bookkeeping class at the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital in Hornchurch, England, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013970-G
Thompson realised that his previous labouring occupations would be difficult with one leg. He had been interested in drawing at school and so in March 1919 began training as a photographer and retoucher at Speaights studio in Bond Street, London. The studio was owned by the brothers, Richard and Frederick Speaight, and known for its portraiture, particularly of royalty.
Thompson’s skills as a photographer are documented from this time, by the many photographs in the collection that were taken by him while he was still in England. His photographs include the 1919 Peace Day parade in London; the huge crowds waiting for the arrival of airmen Harry Hawker and Commander Grieve after their failed attempt to cross the Atlantic; a rugby match between New Zealand and France; events at his hospital, and more domestic scenes of picnics, friends and family.
Amputee soldiers in one-legged race. Crown Studios Ltd: Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/2-203683-F
New Zealand vs. France, rugby match, 1919. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/2-203624-F
Church in Yorkshire, identified as ‘Dad’s church’. Crown Studios Ltd . Ref: 1/2-203695-F
London crowd scene, waiting for the arrival of Harry Hawker. Ref: 1/2-203664-F
He finally left for New Zealand on the S S Arawa on 5 October 1919, arriving in Auckland, 15 November. The trip on board ship is also documented through his photographs, with images of both former soldiers and civilians.
Nurses, civilians, and soldiers waving to train passengers. Ref: 1/2-203698-F
Crowd on deck of ship, watching men bobbing heads in buckets. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/2-203720-F
Crowd watching boxing match on ship. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/2-203713-F
In 1920 he was living in the Soldier’s hostel at 44 The Terrace (coincidentally the same number on The Terrace as the Alexander Turnbull Library in the 1970s and 1980s), and working for the photographer Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew. S P Andrew bought Crown Studios from the previous owner (listed as Percy K Dawes in the 1919 Wise’s New Zealand Post Office directory), and by February 1921 Thompson was installed as the new manager of the ‘well-known’ Crown Studios in Cuba Street.
Ad for Crown Studios, Evening Post, Feb 28 1921
Premises of Crown Studios, photographers, above Hope Brothers, corner of Dixon and Cuba Street, Wellington. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/1-038757-F
Fifteen years later in 1936, he bought the business. The Crown Studio’s large premises meant that he could accommodate up to 150 people in one shot, and he quickly became established as a specialist in group and studio photography. Wedding groups, sports teams, social groups and graduate nurses all feature in his photographs. He also took many photographs of street scenes and events.
Bebe de Roland, dancer. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/2-191336-F
Third Echelon troops marching down Cuba Street. Crown Studios. Ref: 1/2-204463-F
Wellington College 3A XV grade rugby team of 1958. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/1-035412-F
Pacific Islanders Congregational Church, Wellington, women's basketball team. Ref: 1/1-036020-F
All Black team photo, 1978. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/4-108669-F
Quentin Donald, All Black rugby player 1924. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/2-190977-F
He was particularly proud of Crown Studio’s role as official group photographer of the All Blacks, which was maintained for over 50 years, from 1924 until 1978. He took individual portraits of the All Blacks as well.
He was also proud of his work during World War II, setting up a second studio and taking thousands of images of soldiers at Trentham Army Camp, but more about that later!
In his personal life, he married Edna Kathleen Bartlett in February 1922 who he had met while in hospital in England, and had two sons; Frank, who was to join him in the business in 1940, and Laurence. He lived in the Wellington suburb of Karori for the rest of his life. He retained an interest in the New Zealand War Amputees’ Association, including taking pictures of its annual picnic in Wellington, and received a Gold Badge and life membership from the Association in 1962 in recognition of his long and distinguished service to war amputees. The Library holds the certificate that he received in its collections (MS-Papers-9633-2).
Party game, Limbless Soldiers' Picnic. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/2-204888-F
New Zealand War Amputees' Association. Crown Studios Ltd : Ref: 1/1-031848-F
Frank Thompson of Crown Studios, Wellington. Dominion post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1969/1209/4a-F
Francis Thompson retired in 1969 and died in 1977 at the age of 82.
Although he had announced in the Evening Post article that the business would wind up at the time of his retirement, Crown Studios was to continue running for another nine years under the care of his son, Frank Charles Thompson.
North Island rugby football team of 1973. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/2-197379-F
Nurses, Wellington Hospital, State Final, 10th November 1971. Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/2-192367-F
After Frank Thompson’s death in 2001, the collection of over 23,000 negatives, two albums, and 37 daybooks and negative registers, was bequeathed to the Alexander Turnbull Library (PA-Group-00349). This had also been his father’s wish on his retirement in 1969. None of the Studios’ images of the soldiers taken at Trentham Camp during World War II appear to have been included in this bequest, although the daybook and negative register are in the collection. In the 1969 Evening Post article, Mr Thompson had also talked about throwing out over 50,000 negatives in preparation for his retirement, so maybe the Trentham Camp photos were part of the negatives that didn’t make it.
The albums, at PA1-o-1636, and PA1-q-1092, date from his post-World War One days in England and on the ship coming back to New Zealand. As many of the prints are captioned and dated, they provide a useful history of this part of his life. One of the albums also includes a few sketches by his future wife.
In 2009, almost the entire collection of negatives was digitised as part of the Library’s ‘Pictures Online’ project. The images can now be viewed on the National Library website.
Additionally, the Library can provide high-resolution digital copies for $30.00 of any of these images by simply clicking on the ‘Order copy’ button of the desired image. The image files supplied are large enough so they can be printed out (by you at home, or take them along to your local print shop) at up to A3 size with no loss in resolution.
The daybooks and registers are currently being digitised. Once completed, the records and digital copies can be viewed here: Ref: MSY-8357.
Most of the information about Thompson has come from the Evening Post article, 21 March 1969 page 16, or from his military record. An obituary was published in the Evening Post, 13 June 1977, which covers very similar information to the 1969 article.