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Ambrose Henry Stickells, Premier Photographer of Crowborough by John Hackworth published September 2000

The name Ambrose Henry Stickells is synonymous with the early development of photography in Crowborough, a pleasant English town set in the High Weald of Sussex.

At the turn of the century, in 1901, the population of what was then a village amounted to no more than 3,081 inhabitants. A generation earlier, less than half that number lived within or close to its confines. In 1905, however, Crowborough's successful expansion in trade and commerce, created by men such as Stickells, led to its achieving self-administering status as a civic parish. Before, since 1883, it had been merely a part of an ecclesiastical parish carved out of a much larger area called Rotherfield, a name taken from a nearby ancient village settled since at least Saxon times. Today, Crowborough is officially a town (since 1988), still expanding, and with a population exceeding 20,000 residents.

There can be no doubt that modem Crowborough owes much of its principal development to the enterprise of the middle and late Victorians. Not only did they bring the railway to the area in 1868, along with Its accompanying trade, but also that very Victorian peculiar, a quest for the panacea of good health and bodily cure. Crowborougtt, you see, is set high on a ridge of the ancient Ashdown Forest, some 796 feet (243m) above sea-level. The sea, about 20 direct miles (32k) distant, provides an invigorating breeze that blows gently over the town from off the English Channel, quad on warm, summery days the air is filled with the fragrance of pine woodland and the abundant florae Of the surrounding high heathland.

It was an eminent resident, a Victorian doctor called Charles Leeson Prince, who promoted widely the healthgiving properties of Crowborough's alpine air and natural mineral springs, along with its glorious views and countryside walks. In its Victorian hey-day the area was advertised to be 'as bracing as the Scottish Highlands'. Such promotion soon established a thriving community, attractive not only to the rich and famous as visitors and new residents alike, but also to the many artisans of trades, the guilders and entrepreneurs, the assorted professionals - all of whom were necessary for the servicing and care of an expanding population. Not least, of course, they came to Crowborough to Prosper. And so it was, sometime during the late 1890's, that Ambrose Henry Stickells, travelling photographer, arrived. He liked what he saw, and was to remain for the rest of his days.

Originally from Cranbrook in Kent, where he was born in 1864, Ambrose Henry Bensley Stickells (Bensley being his mother's maiden name) semis to have come from a reasonably successful family background of traders and farmers, although it has been stated, but unproven, that his father was himself a photographer. However, in his late teens and with a keen interest in the emerging art of photography, Ambrose was given a sum of money by his father, along with a horsedrawn van, and packed off to earn his own living. The van was converted partly into living accommodation, with a separate section for a darkroom, and an area sufficient for a studio that opened onto the back of the vehicle to facilitate the use- of daylight. For several years, with his plate camera and equipment, he journeyed around his home county of Kent as a travelling photographer, learning more and more as he practised his skills. From time to time, his established rounds took him into East Sussex where, at Mayfield in about 1890, lie met and married his wife, Mary Ann Lade. Together, they travelled Ambrose's photographic rounds in their faithful horsedrawn van, settling here and there for longer periods whenever business was good. Then at Leigh, in Kent, Mary Ann gave birth to their first child, a daughter. Naturally enough, their thoughts soon turned to the prospect of a more settled life, and it wasn't long before they were persuaded to try their luck in Crowborough - by then very commercially attractive.

Ambrose was immediately fortunate in renting a cottage in New Road, just off the village's High Street, where he and his wife and child could enjoy a proper family life. [This cottage, along with a few others once situated behind the Woolworth store, was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a car park]. But although Ambrose continued to work from his custom-made van sited nearby, it wasn't long before his professionalism found the acknowledgement of a wider, appreciative clientele. His growing success thus decided his family's future once again, for in 1902 Ambrose Stickells invested in the building of a house, with shop attached, close to the village centre.

Today, in Croft Road, Crowborough, that Stickells' house is occupied by Paul Bysouth Funeral Services, while next door stands the Karenza Gift Shop - the old shop that once housed Stickells' photographic studio and darkroom. Look beneath the apex of the roof of the present gift shop and there can be seen an inset stone bearing the inscription: AHBS 1902.

Over the years, Ambrose Stickells produced a series of picture-postcards of the area - items now much sought after. Also, in his studio, he photographed almost every person of note in Crowborough, as well as visitors wanting a record of their stay. Although some of the actual scenic views and residential buildings he once photographed have not survived, he did, nevertheless, leave for us an excellent photographic record of those places and the shop and street scenes of his day. Recorded, too, were many of the local craftsmen at their work, and everyday folk going about their business. Thus, today, we have the opportunity to observe the dress and style of an earlier period. Without doubt, Ambrose Stickells was the premier photographer of Crowborough, and it was in that capacity he was to form an association and friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.