‘Chum’ Skilton ~ Accidental Historian

Is it ever surprising to find, in some quiet suburban street, at least one seemingly ordinary citizen creating marvels of excellence?

Pictured ~ Photographer’s wife, Alma, and children, Bruce, left, and Ian, stroll along Market Wharf past the tug Heroine, towards Nobbys. September, 1950.

So it was in Henly Street, New Lambton, in the middle of last century, where husband, father of three, and respected B.H.P. Steelworks employee H. G. Skilton tended his thousands of photographic negatives.

Henry George “Chum” Skilton (“HG”) was born in 1916 at Windsor, N.S.W. Chum was a name given to him as a baby by his maternal Grandmother - a moniker henceforth adopted by family and friends.

Henry Skilton’s methodical approach exemplified by his content and handling notes for a single roll of Kodak Super-XX. A bonus is some eventful news of the day – four inches of rain (100mm) fell upon Newcastle beween 8 and 10 am on Monday, 11th September, 1950. -Click to enlarge

Educated at Maitland Boys High, HG joined BHP as a cadet in 1935, reaching a senior post in Works Research by retirement in 1978. 

HG bought his first camera, a Voigtlander, in 1936, and over the years had other Voigtlanders and a fine Leica. With no professional training in photography, his images expressed a natural eye for a wide range of composition and subject. The camera, sometimes two, accompanied the family on every outing. 

It’s a tribute to his nature that each roll of film registered a fine balance between family and ambience – regularly combining them to fine effect, making an otherwise dry historic snapshot into photographic art.

Some recordings – such as, of the Stockton Beach erosion of June, 1948 - show no sign of wife or child. It is likely HG made this excursion far from home for the sole purpose of capturing the effects of a violent winter storm on the Hunter coastline.

Erosion of Stockton Bight shoreline following a severe yet typical mid-winter Hunter storm. Photographed on Sunday, 20th June, 1948

Chum did all his own developing and printing – son Bruce recalls the developing process took place on the kitchen table! - and maintained a meticulous record of each film over five decades.

Pa was very selective in what he actually printed. So most will never have been seen. I estimate that less than 5% actually made it to printing.
He did his developing and printing using a magnificent, huge pre-war enlarger. Many were the nights that I watched and assisted in the old kitchen at Henley Street.
~ Bruce Skilton

Lacking a dedicated darkroom space for the developing process, HG’s images are routinely populated by tiny hairs and dust particles, with various streaks and blemishes.

Overall, however, these are found insignificant against the quality of composition, exposure, handling difficulties in the field, and subsequent resultant negatives.

Image left ~ click to enlarge

One particular field trip – a day on the Myall River north of Hawks Nest – resulted in noticeable degradation of the emulsion. Chum always developed within a week or so of filming, and would have kept the exposed film in proper storage until then. It was a very warm February day and the open vessel provided little relief from a hot sun.

Sunday, 1st February, 1959 ~ A day on the Myall River in neighbour Gil Voysey's speedboat Quicksilver (degradation of emulsion was on most of this roll). Quicksilver was used in the "Dutch East Indies" during the 1950s to transport airline pilots for the Dutch airline across Jakata bay. The 21ft stepped-hull teak vessel was powered by twin 40hp Evinrude outboard engines.

Press and professional photographers do have the advantage of a fast return to base and same-day processing – plus the inordinately expensive cameras and consumables. Amateurs handling the entire operation themselves whilst maintaining a family, a job, and their lives, do well indeed to present a collection of largely successful images over many decades.

We are all saddened by a powerlessness to preserve our parents’ memory and legacy. Too often, they and it are forgotten within a single generation - their lifetime of creation turns to meaningless clutter. It is our wish at NewcastleOnHunter to add the remarkable lifelong efforts of one tireless and unassuming Novocastrian to the historic record of our town.

Chum died aged 85 in 2001 at Allendale, N.S.W.

As images herein also show, Henry Skilton kept his portfolio in individual small brown envelopes (pay envelopes) onto which he recorded details of the shoot, equipment, film, environment, and the processing. A reminder: click the images to view enlarged. They also play as a slideshow after a brief duration.

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