Richard Von Dix – Photographic Artist, etc.
In the 1870s, Alston Moor had its first professional photographer, who was also a bit of a character. Many of his photographs survive, mostly portraits, usually taken outdoors, probably in a booth set up at fairs and other events. Fortunately, some photos are in the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives and available for public viewing. They include a group of girls barely repressing their giggles, a group of plasterers in clean work clothes, a husband and wife, where the husband looks a bit worse for drink, people who appear stiff and nervous in front of the camera, and so on.
Although this article is about Richard von Dix, it also shows how people were entertained a hundred and thirty years ago and what the sense of humour was like – at least that which reached the press.
The first appearance of Richard Von Dix in Alston is in the 1869 trades directory, where he is listed in the ‘Miscellaneous’ section as, “Von Dix, Photographic Artist”. In 1871 Von Dix was 37 years old and living as one of four lodgers in a house in Edmunds Lane in Alston. He had been born in Swansea in 1834 and at the time of the census he was single and his sole declared occupation was that of photographer.
Most of the information comes from trawling through the ‘Alston Herald’ newspaper. On April 18th 1874, the Herald reported,
As will be seen by reference to our advertising columns the dull tedium which at present holds almost supreme sway over our quaint little town is to be relieved by an entertainment of a miscellaneous character, under the auspices of Mr. Von Dix, and under the patronage of several distinguished members of the Howard family. We understand that arrangements are being made with some performers of high standing in their professions, but as Von Dix is a host in himself so far as conjuring, &c., is concerned, we have no doubt but that the entertainment will be worthy of a good house, for such enterprize ought to have its reward.”
The advert read, “THE TOWN HALL ALSTON – GRAND MISCELLANEOUS ENTERTAINMENT ON FRIDAY APRIL 24 1874, For the benefit of M. Von Dix under the patronage of Hon. C. Howard, MP, Mr. & Mrs. George Howard, &c. For further particulars see handbills.”
What a pity that at least one of the handbills didn’t survive.
On 2nd May, “VON DIX’S ENTERTAINMENT”, which can only have been highly entertaining, was reported in a typically tedious Victorian fashion, the gist of which was that, “The previous reputation of the performers, together with the novelty of the programme secured a good house” on the Friday night. Instrumental music and songs and conjuring went down very well, but he high spot of the night was an act called “Spiritualism Unmasked”(!), or, the “Cabinet Performance”(!), which was evidently a show stopper, but the paper gave no details. By public demand part of the performance was repeated on Saturday night, which was also very successful.
An advert appeared on 25th April, announcing
“VON DIX’S PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIO,
Will be open for the season on and after
Saturday May 2nd 1874.”
This ran until 20th June when there was a new advert.
“HULLO! STOP! LOOK HERE
If you intend having your PORTRAIT taken,
come at once, as I am about to remove to
Halton-lea-Gate for the remainder of the season.
VON DIX 17th June 1874.”
A less likely spot than coal-mining hamlet of Halton-lea-Gate on the way to Brampton can’t be imagined if one had to go anywhere “for the season”. However this advert ran without change until the 10th October. Halton-lea-Gate must have had a long season.
By the 17th October, Von Dix was back and telling his public that, “The dark days of winter seem summer to me!
M.R. VON DIX, ARTIST
Begs to inform his Friends and Patrons
that his splendid CRYSTAL STUDIO will
be open all year round. PHOTOS
TAKEN IN ALL WEATHER.”
The advert ran until February the following year.
By spring 1875, Von Dix was back in the entertainment business. It was reported on 3rd April that the Alston Mountain Rifles, a volunteer corps, held a church parade with military exercises and displays, followed by sports and dancing. In the evening there was an entertainment in the Town Hall organised by Von Dix.
As part of this celebration, Von Dix had organised a conundrum competition with prizes for the best entries. On 17th April “The Herald” said, “We compliment M. Von Dix on his bringing to light so much ingenuity”.
The best conundrums were published a couple of weeks later. They make Christmas Cracker joke seem absolutely hilarious by comparison. Two or three were about Von Dix himself. One ran, “Why may Von Dix be called the farmer’s friend? – Because he will supply any one of them with a new ‘carte’ for a shilling”. (Von Dix printed ‘carte visites’ photographs, a bit larger than the old cigarette cards, for local people, hence the play on words.)
In February 1877, Von Dix moved to the Sportsman Inn, now houses, on the Penrith road. He placed an advert in verse (?) in the newspaper.
WHERE ARE WE IN 1877?
Why at the Sportsman Inn, LOW BAILES?
So call and see this little man
That lives under the hill
Who sells pure spirits, direct
From the still
Also Rosy Rosina and
And splendid Mild Ales brewed
By John and George Gill
He still keeps good fires with
He has Shag and Twist Baccy
Your Pipes for to fill
So, if you’re passing that way
Don’t forget to call in
And taste his Mild Ale brewed
By John and George Gill
RICHARD VON DIX,
This effort even prompted a response a week later!
We’ve been up and seen the lal lad on the hill
And tasted the beer that’s brewed by John Gill
We had four or five glasses, then felt in a fix
And were sorry to part from Richard Von Dix
I am &c., J.F.
14th April advert in Alston Herald
R. VON DIX
ANNOUNCES that his PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIO is NOW OPEN at Low Bailes, within a few minutes walk of Alston Railway Station. He has secured the services of Mr. JOSEPH CORNISH, of London, with whose assistance he will be able to execute work of the highest class.
26th May. Von Dix’s Quoit Handicap, for which a pig was to be the prize, had to be postponed due to bad weather.
In the 1879 trades directory, Richard Von Dix is still at the Sportsman’s Inn, while still practising as a photographer. He appears again as ‘Von Dix Photographic Artist’ in the ‘Miscellaneous’ section.
At some point, probably after 1879, he went into partnership with someone called Smedly, about whom nothing is known. The fancy printed card backs became an untidy scrawl. Perhaps business declined and Von Dix moved away, for he is not to be found in the 1881 census, John Goodfellow now ran the Sportsman’s Inn, nor was he in the 1884 trades directory. He seems to have departed as suddenly as he arrived, but he left us with wonderful pictorial legacy of Alston Moor folk of the 1870s.
(Further information has been discovered about Von Dix, as revealed by Peter Wilkinson of Frosterley at a talk at the Alston Moor Historical Society, in particular, Smedly was the girlfriend of Von Dix and they moved around the north of England together.)