The Beken Collection: Windows into the past
A stunning collection of glass plate negatives brings the RNLI’s lifesaving history into a new light
The RNLI’s Heritage Team are always on the look-out for artefacts and materials that document the lifesaving work of the institution. With such a long and storied history at locations all across the UK and Ireland, it’s easy for important pieces of the past to get lost over time. So when an opportunity to acquire a part of RNLI history comes along, the Heritage Team are quick to take it.
The Beken Collection is one such opportunity - a set of 850+ glass plate negatives of lifeboats, taken on the waters in and around Cowes by the Beken family.
Beken of Cowes
Based on the Isle of Wight, Beken of Cowes consists of three generations of photographers world-renowned for their stunning portraits of boats, yachts and other watercraft. Their long association with maritime photography began in 1888, when Frank Beken moved to the Isle of Wight with his family, who opened a pharmacy in Cowes.
‘He looked out of his bedroom window and saw these beautiful yachts sailing past,’ says Kenneth Beken, Frank’s grandson and the last in line of photographing Bekens. ‘He looked at these yachts and said: “I can’t draw, I can’t paint, but I’m going to use this new invention we sell in our pharmacy called a camera.”’
Heading out onto the water to take photos of the boats in the harbour proved difficult, with the glass plate cameras cumbersome and prone to damage from seawater and rough weather. Getting a clean, crisp picture was tricky.
‘He had to invent his own new style of camera, a twin lens device that enabled him to hold it at arm’s length and absorb all the movement of his boat and the yacht he was photographing,’ says Kenneth. ‘He wasn’t the first photographer, but he was a great innovator. He couldn’t fire the shutter with his thumb or fingers, because it jerked the camera, so he built a rubber tube which he put in his mouth, with a big rubber ball on the end that he would bite, and that would fire the shutter. People laughed, but the image of him with his camera became famous at the time.’
Frank was joined in the family business by his son, Keith Beken, in the 1930s. Like his father, he trained as a pharmacist to work in the shop. His budding photography career was interrupted by the onset of the Second World War, where he served as an air-sea rescue pilot. When Frank died in the 1970s, it was decided that the pharmacy side of the business would be sold to focus on photography, with Kenneth joining his father and the famous Beken of Cowes being formally established.
Beken’s own full archives have almost a million images documenting the changing face of maritime photography across the 20th century. Some of the most iconic names in maritime history were documented by the Beken family, including the Titanic and King George V’s racing yacht Britannia. Among these world-famous vessels, Frank Beken also photographed lifeboats.
From the late-19th to the mid- 20th century, more than 400 lifeboats were built in Cowes, mostly by two famous shipbuilders – JS White and Co, and Groves and Guttridge. The Beken family took photos of these lifeboats as they rolled out of the shipwrights’ and when they were trialled on the water, amassing a collection of stunning photographs that cover 1918 to 1969.
With more than 850 glass plate negatives of 250 lifeboats, the Beken Collection of lifeboat images is an incredible record of the lifeboats built on the Isle of Wight throughout the early 20th century. These stunning photographs capture a moment in time with an incredible amount of detail.
‘Lifeboat building on the Isle of Wight is an important part of our technological history,’ says RNLI Heritage Archive and Research Manager Hayley Whiting. ‘We really see this as a snapshot in time of different classes of lifeboat and the development of our lifeboats. In some cases, these are the only images of these lifeboats that exist. When we heard that the collection was going up for sale, it was a fantastic opportunity to get a slice of RNLI history.’
The team then approached the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to see if they could help with funding a project. ‘The HLF were extremely enthusiastic about this project,’ Hayley says, ‘and their funding has allowed us not only to clean and digitise the plates, but to run an exciting programme of events and activities for the community here and beyond.’ Generous support was also given from an RNLI donor.
Before the images could be displayed at exhibitions and online, every single glass plate negative would need to be carefully cleaned, digitised and catalogued. To do this, the RNLI Heritage Team put out a call for volunteers.
Recruited specifically for the task, five volunteers have been working to prepare, clean, digitise and catalogue each of the 850+ plates in the collection. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, some with a special interest in photography, others just keen to get involved in an important project.
Cleaning and digitising each plate was a slow, delicate process. Carefully handling the glass plates, the volunteers would clean each plate with de-ionised water, before brushing the surface to remove any dirt and debris that had accumulated during storage.
‘When using the glass plates, you have to be very, very careful with how you handle them,’ says volunteer Corinne Lewis. ‘You’ve got to hold them on the edges and be careful when placing them into the scanner. It’s quite a delicate process.’
Volunteer David Craigmyle adds: ‘I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this completely different challenge. Volunteering is something that I’d never done before, and I’ve really enjoyed meeting new people. The RNLI are a fantastic organisation to volunteer for. They look after you really well, and it’s been a fascinating project to work on.’
A selection of the Beken photos are on display at Poole Museum, Dorset, from 26 January until 22 April 2019. You can learn more about the collection by visiting RNLI.org/beken.
Interested in volunteering? Find out more about the opportunities available at RNLI.org/volunteer.