Rhodes: Old Chatham photograph provides some interesting clues
Brantford The Expositor
My friend, Francis Peter Vink, recently sent me a photo of a Chatham fireman from the 19th century.
It is a stunning creation from the early days of local photography.
At the outset, I should say I have not been able to identify the subject of the photo but the portrait does, nonetheless, tell a substantial story.

Let’s now look at the Who and When of the picture. There are some clues.

The helmet has a large No. 2 affixed on the badge with the word “HOSE” imprinted below the number. The No. 2 would indicate that he is a member of No. 2 Union Company, Chatham Volunteer Fire Brigade.

Previous to 1880, fire protection for the town was provided by three volunteer companies. They were No. 1 Excelsior Company, south of the river; No. 2 Union Company, North Chatham; and No. 3 Victoria Company, East Chatham.

In the event of a fire, it was common for all three companies to respond.

No. 2 Union Company was stationed in a fire hall which was located on Thames Street, between what are now the offices of the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority and the northeast approach to Fifth Street Bridge.

The fire companies were the pride of the community and greatly respected by the citizens, but they were somewhat political.

In his book, Romantic Kent, Victor Lauriston states that elections for the executive positions were often as intense as those for municipal office.

After the creation of the new paid department and the new central fire hall on 6th Street, the old Union Station became a police station and Magistrate Court, although it was primitive, small, rickety and wooden, not much better than a fire trap.

The word “HOSE” is indicative of the fact he was a member of the pumper team which were hand-operated fire engines commonly used before the steam engines were introduced.

Each of the three companies had one of these hand pumpers.

The date of the photo? It would be sometime between the arrival in Chatham of photographer J.S. Butler, just before 1874, and 1880 when the paid fire department was created. A date of 1876, though speculative, would be reasonable.

The photo is stamped as having been created by J. S. Butler. He was a popular Chatham photographer in the latter quarter of the 19th century.

Joseph S. Butler was born in England in 1844 and is listed in the local directory of 1874 as having a photography studio in the Post Office Block, Fifth Street entry, southeast corner of King and fifth streets.

The Post Office block was not a government-owned facility, the postal service just rented space within; thus the name.

The Post Office Block survived until the mid-1920s when it was removed and replaced by a bank.

The Post Office Block was a beautiful and old building which I will tell you about in a future column.

In the latter 1870s J. S. Butler married a local woman known as Anne Eliza Oswald (1858-1951 ) with whom he parented four children.

He continued to operate his photography business, from the Post Office Block, until his passing in 1900.

He reposes in Old Ward H, Maple Leaf Cemetry.

I believe that his former studio was later operated by photographer Neil C. Gibson. I have featured him in this column previously.

A special thanks to Peter Francis Vink for providing the substantial photo that I have included with this story.


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