Wearside Echoes: Victorian engineer revealed as mystery photographer

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THE mystery surrounding a photographer who captured Sunderland in its Victorian heyday has finally been solved – thanks to a Wearside Echoes reader.

An album featuring dozens of images taken by Walter Binns in the late 19th century has been hailed as a “jewel in the crown” of Sunderland Antiquarian Society’s archives.

Roker on Easter Monday

Roker on Easter Monday

But, although his photos of street scenes, churches and river life proved a huge hit at Sunderland’s recent history fair, little was known about Walter himself – until now.

Wearside Echoes reader Frank Erskine, who is distantly related to the Binns family, has spent the past few days digging deep in Walter’s past – and finally solved the puzzle.

“Walter wasn’t a professional photographer, said Frank, who lives in Sunderland. “He was actually an engineer with an enthusiasm for travel.”.

Records show that Walter, the 10th child of grocer and confectioner Edward Binns, was born in Sunderland in 1873 and lived with his parents at 128 High Street.

OLD SCENE: St. George's Church, Stockton Road

OLD SCENE: St. George's Church, Stockton Road

“Edward had a shop/cafeteria at 37 Fawcett Street. This part of the street was later purchased by another Binns – Henry Binns – for his famous department store,” said Frank.

“Edward transferred his confectionery business to two of his sons, Edward and Alfred, in 1896. They carried on trading as Edward Binns until 1920, when the business was dissolved by mutual consent.”

Walter, however, left Wearside as a child to study at Ackworth School, a Yorkshire-based boarding school for Quakers, before becoming an assistant engineer with Newcastle Corporation Tramways.

“According to records held by Ackworth’s Old Scholars’ Association, he was later appointed as the superintendent electrical engineer for Reading Corporation on April 17, 1903,” said Frank.

PARK LIFE: Mowbray Park and a view of the town.

PARK LIFE: Mowbray Park and a view of the town.

“He went on to become a manager of the Para Electric Railways in Brazil in 1911, visited Russia as an electrical engineer in 1933 and then reorganised electric railways in South America and Yugoslavia.”

Walter, who is described in Ackworth’s archives as an “active mountain climber and enthusiastic traveller,” finally retired from the engineering business in around 1936.

Just one year later, he married Hilda Marjorie Timaeus in London, and the happy couple settled for several years in Santos, Brazil – before returning to England in 1951.

“Walter died on July 23, 1952, at Wootton Courtenay, in Somerset, after a long illness,” said Frank. “He left effects to the value of £100,220 6s 10d.

“Presumably his enthusiasm for travel inspired, or was inspired by, his photos of his home town.”

* If you have old pictures you would like to share with Sunderland Antiquarian Society, contact Ron Lawson on 520 0570.


THE children of Edward Binns and his wife, Margaret, followed a variety of career paths in life.

* George Welch Binns: Born in 1854. Started as a grocer’s as-sistant, married Emily Crowther in 1889 and employed as a commercial traveller in Stockton and Scarborough. He had five children and died in 1921.

* Annie Sophia Binns: Born in 1855 and married Henry Wardropper in 1875. The couple had six children and moved several times around Sunderland. Her final home was at 19 Belle Vue Park. She died in 1919.

* Lilian (Lilly) Binns: Born in 1858, she remained at home with her family at 128 High Street until her death in 1892. Buried in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.

* Margaret Eleanor Binns: Born in 1862. In 1901 she was living at 4 East Summerhill, in 1911 she was at 57 Cotts Terrace and in 1927, by now living at 20 Otto Terrace, she died and left an estate of £2,392.

* Florence Eveline Binns: Born in 1864, died in 1867.

* Edward Binns: Confectioner, born 1866 and educated at Ackworth. In 1911, he lived at 20 Holmlands Park and by 1920 he was retired. A lay preacher for 60 years, he died in 1951.

* Samuel Binns: Born 1868, died 1877.

* Violet Miriam Binns: Born 1870 and educated at Ackworth. Left home for India in 1898, where she helped “famine stricken orphans in the villages.” Died in 1948 at St Austin’s Mount, Woking, Surrey.

* Alfred Binns: Confectioner, born 1872 and educated at Ackworth. Married Eleanor Hodgson in 1903 and had four children. Moved from 10 Holmelands Park to Eaglescliffe on retirement in 1919. Died 1960.

* Walter Binns: Born in 1873, educated at Ackworth School and known to be 6ft 1in tall. Trained as an electrical engineer in Halifax, before travelling the world as an engineer.

* Eva Binns: Born 1876 and educated at Ackworth School. Lived with sister Margaret at 4 East Summerhill in 1901 and 57 Cotts Terrace in 1911. She was living at 57 Otto Terrace when she died in 1920.

* Elsie Binns: Born in 1879 and educated at Ackworth School. Married Walter Caldecott in 1902, at St Hilda’s Church.The couple had two sons and made their home at 5 Ashwood Street in 1911. She died in 1980.

** Details taken from the website: http://benbeck.co.uk/fh/collaterals/3K13cousins.html