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Jim Halsall
img292 Halsall Jim 300 px for CT.jpg

(c) ​BwDBC 

They carried out the task with forensic skill and patience.  Day after day in the old local history room tucked away at the back of Blackburn reference library, they examined, identified and catalogued hundreds and hundreds of pre World War One glass negatives.


They were like Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – Jim Halsall and Ken Hampshire.  Jim's enthusiasm and determination could not have been exceeded by Holmes on his most baffling cases and Ken's steadfast support matched anything Watson supplied.  Between them they had an impressive knowledge of Blackburn's past and they were not lacking too when it came to places further afield – they'd both travelled widely throughout Lancashire.

It was a chance conversation that set the game afoot.  Jim had spotted the scores and scores of boxes containing the glass negatives and asked about them.  A staff member explained it was the Shaw collection donated to the library in the 1950s.  John and Alfred Shaw, father and son, had been photographers and postcard publishers at a time when communication by postcard was as widespread as mobile phone use today. You could send a card in the morning, it would be delivered at lunchtime and you could have the reply by teatime.  The Shaws travelled all over Lancashire and beyond taking views and publishing them. Jim realised this was a treasure trove and asked the obvious question.

“Are they catalogued?  Do you know what's in all these boxes?”

“No there's never been enough staff time to look at them.”

That got Jim going – the thrill of the chase!  All those hundreds of glass negatives!  What gems there might be!  Maybe even Jim's Holy Grail; a photo of a Queen's Park tram. Jim was a photographer himself and one of the country's leading tram enthusiasts.  He'd published a book on Blackburn trams.  His grandfather had been a tram driver and photographer.


“What about me going through them and making a list?” 

The library was more than happy to accept the offer.

Ken Hampshire was a regular in the reference library.  When he got wind of Jim's latest case, he offered his services.  He was a valuable recruit, able to help with the clerical process and the identification.

Jim didn't find his Holy Grail but he found many photos of considerable technical and artistic quality.  There were many photos of Ribble Valley and Dales beauty spots. There were Preston scenes and Fylde scenes. There were Lake District views and Derbyshire views. There were shots taken all over Blackburn but hardly any of Darwen, Bolton, Wigan and south Lancashire towns. Were some of the negatives missing? Were other postcard publishers operating in those areas? Might they not have taken kindly to seeing the Shaws setting up equipment on their patch?

There was now a list of the collection, but the case wasn't closed.  Now came the task of producing good quality prints.  In this Jim was aided by Cottontown supremo Andy Kirman, himself a former professional photographer.  Andy caught Jim's enthusiasm and became determined to get the images on to the Cottontown website.

Someone else who got caught up in Jim's enthusiam was publisher Bob Dobson.  Bob had already published Jim's tram book and 'Blackburn in Times Gone By', a book of photos culled from local newspapers.  He proposed publishing a book of Shaw images alongside modern photos of the same view.  Jim had discovered that he could zoom in on detail in some of the Shaw images and produce little cameos of Edwardian street life: children playing, women cleaning, men up ladders. Jim suggested including these.  Bob agreed and in 2002 'Blackburn in Focus' was the result, to be followed a few years later by a similar volume of Ribble Valley images.

Jim's home at Intack was the nerve centre, his base for all his investigations and tram related activities.  The front room was floor to ceiling with books and files of work.  Upstairs was a tram layout, all of it, trams, buildings, figures, scenery, painstakingly constructed by Jim.  Upstairs from that was his dark room.  Behind the scenes was his wife Marie, absorbed in her TV programmes.

Jim retired in 1997 from his job as a tool maker at British Aerospace.  Now, he could devote more time to local history and  trams.  Alas, not long after he retired he was diagnosed with Parkinsons.  For someone who needed fine motor skills for model making this was not good news.

Whether Jim was daunted in private he never let it show.  He was invariably cheerful, always full of enthusiasm for the next task.  He was the kind of person it was always a pleasure to meet, someone who could enliven a dull day.  He devised a series of talks and slide shows based on the Shaw collection and this kept him busy.

His wife Marie died in 2010.  The effects of Parkinsons became more noticable and debilitating. Jim went to live in the Birch Hall Care Centre.  He never lost his sense of humour. He died on December 27th 2016.

His legacy lives on.  His tram layout went to the British Transport Museum.  His volumes of notes and research went to Blackburn Library.  His books are still available and his finest bequest – the Shaw collection of photographs, which would not be available without all his work, has just been restored to Blackburn library's Cottontown website.

It would be good to think that somewhere Jim lives on, that somewhere Jim's out and about with his camera on a sunny day at Intack, recording the passing scene.  Maybe Ken Hampshire's there with him as a tram hoves into view.  Jim gets ready with his camera.  The tram comes clanging along.  Can it be? Jim's face shows he can hardly believe it.  Can it be true at last? The smile on his face shows it is.  He aims his camera and focuses, as a Queens Park tram hoves into view.

Alan Duckworth, July 2020

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