Port Elizabeth of Yore: James Edward Bruton-An early photographer

Invented in 1816, the first device that we recognize as a camera, was created by Joseph Niépce. The camera swiftly attracted devotees and rapidly spread across the world. In the Cape Colony, James Bruton was amongst the first photographers practicing the art of photography in Port Elizabeth shortly after its introduction. William Ring might have been the first practitioner in the nascent field in Port Elizabeth, but James Bruton was more prolific.

This blog mainly covers James’s life but it does also provide several snippets on this family.

Main picture: Thomas and Charlotte Bruton, the parents of the photographer James Edward Bruton

Settler heritage
The Bruton family from Devonshire England, comprising Thomas and Charlotte Bruton and their eldest child, were members of the Thornhill Party which sailed from the Downs in Kent on the 12th of February 1820 aboard the Zoroaster. James Edward Bruton was the ninth and last child of Thomas and Charlotte Bruton and the eight to be born in Port Elizabeth on the 6th of April 1838.  In the Port Elizabeth Directory of 1849, Thomas Bruton is listed as a storeowner in Market Square. One can presume that James initially followed in his father’s footsteps, hence his initial listing as a shop owner.

On learning about the novel career of photography, Bruton changed occupations, opening rooms on the 11th of February 1859. Later that year in December, he relocated to Jetty Street near the two-storeyed Palmerston Hotel where he worked as a photographer and tobacconist.  

Redgrave emphatically states that “Bruton, the earliest photographer in the Bay, carried on his business of “taking likenesses” of people in a small room”., Adjoining his shop, the “habit maker” Tom Staines made suits and coats for the elite of the town. Factually Redgrave’s characterisation as “earliest” is erroneous as a recent arrival in the town, Ledger, taught a local inhabitant, William Ring the technique of photography. Subsequently Ring and Leger even entered into business jointly.

Property in Rodney Street
Charlotte Burton, James’ mother, owned the building opposite a sand dune in Rodney Street, which she leased as a temporary hospital. In those days prior to the construction of railway line, the bottom of Rodney Street was in effect the shoreline. After the construction of the first Provincial Hospital on Richmond Hill, she subsequently leased the building in1860 to Mr. Kirkwood who had started a business as an auctioneer. Due to the growth of his business, Somers Kirkwood would expand his business by taking over the building on the southern corner of Rodney and Main Street.

The temporary hospital in Rodney Street shown in the circle before the construction of the original Provincial Hospital on Richmond hill. This building became the original premises of Kirkwood’s Auctioneers. AE Marks later became a partner.

Prior to the construction of a bridge across the Zwartkops River at Zwartkops Village, the first location at which a river crossing was possible 24 hours a day was at the drift at Perseverance known as the Zwartkopswagendrift. The lessor made a living by charging a fee for the use of the drift as well as providing accommodation to travellers. In September 1860 William Bruton, James’ brother, and his wife Cornelia took over the Zwartkops Inn in September 1860 but the new bridge in the Zwartkops Village must have diverted most travellers away from the drift. In order to augment his dwindling income, William Bruton commenced advertising for hunting and fishing parties.

A Mystery Solved
Perhaps if the Town Hall had not possessed any redeeming features, or Thomas Bowler, the painter of the building, was a second-rate artist, the fact that the painting depicted a small cupola or clock tower supported by pillars on top of the town hall would have been dismissed as an imperfect artist’s impression of the building in progress. Instead, a controversy arose.  

This squabble apparently arose as one of the lithographs by Thomas Bowler entitled Main Street, Port Elizabeth was produced during a visit to this area in 1861-62 depicted this non-existent feature. What was most mystifying was that such a structure never existed and could not have been visible to Bowler. As such there has been much speculation why Bowler made this change.

Photograph by James Bruton of a painting of the Town Hall and Market Square

It was a Dr. Joseph Denfield who discovered the answer. In an article he explains that at the time of Bowler’s visit to Port Eliabeth, the Town Hall was still shrouded in scaffolding as it was not quite completed.  Another photographer, William Roe, produced a volume of views of the town using the architect’s original drawings. It was this drawing which reflected the super-structure as Bowler depicts it. Dr Denfield maintains that it is evident that Bowler must have been influenced by the original plans or the photographic copy. Dr Denfield also suspects that the Main Street buildings depicted in the print were sketched from a photograph by James Bruton which appeared in the Eastern Province Magazine and Port Elizabeth Miscellany of September 1861.   

Freemason’s investiture ceremony
Freemason lodges were prolific in the 19th century. Many of the celebrations and ceremonies were led by the Freemasons using Masonic nomenclature and dress. To get a sense of how ingrained these norms were in the activities, read my blog on the unveiling of the Queen Victoria statue in front of the Public Library. James Bruton was a member of the Lodge of Good Will No 711 which held its monthly meeting on the first Tuesday of every month at the Temple in Parliament Street on the Hill.

Masonic Hall , Parliament Street

The journal entitled The Freemasons Magazine and Masonic Mirror describes one such ceremony at which James Edward Bruton was invested as follows:   St John’s Day was celebrated by the brethren of Port Elizabeth with all due honour. The installation of the W.M. [Worshipful Master] Bro. J.C. Kemsley and investiture of the officers of the Lodge of Good Will 711 took place at high noon. The W.M.  appointed the following brethren as his officers for the ensuing year: Bros. S. Bain S.W.; Jas Kemsley J.W.; JE Bruton Treas; J.E. Whiley, Sec: J.E. Wetton S.D.; Sidney White J.D.; E. Dunsterville I.D.; James Morley O.G.; George Gordon and E. Dunsterville, Stewards. After business the Brethren formed in procession and headed by the Port Elizabeth Volunteer Band, marched to St. Paul’s Church [at the foot of Cooper’s Drift] for the purpose of hearing the Divine Service. A capital sermon was preached by the Rev. S. Brook, and the choir, under the leadership of Mr. Day performed appropriate sections in an admirable way. The foundation stone of a porch and spire for the church was laid with full masonic honours. About 70 of the brethren partook of a banquet in the evening. The greatest good feeling prevailed.  

The Masonic Hall now renovated by and used as the offices of the architects The Matrix


19th century Masonic attire

Several of Bruton’s photographs were printed in: ‘Cape Monthly Magazine’, ‘Eastern Province Magazine and Port Elizabeth Miscellany’, ‘Cape Farmers’ Magazine’ and ‘Illustrated London News [May 26th, 1866]’. His images were also included in the jubilee publication ‘On the landing of the British settlers of 1820 in Algoa Bay’.

Extract from the British Journal of Photography
This magazine contains a letter in the Correspondence section about the writer’s encounter with a Cape Town based photographer by the name of James Bruton. The year of this encounter is unknown

“Mr.  Bruton is one of those genuine photographers who love their art and consider no sacrifice too great to further its progress. So he was shortly going to introduce some photo-mechanical process into the colony and intended visiting England very shortly for that purpose. I regretted not being able to accept the proffered hospitality of Mr. Bruton and visit his country house, but not wishing to make a longer and forced stay at Cape Town, I returned to my quarters having brought away with me a material memento of my visit to Mr Bruton in the form of some  very nice cabinet portraits of Stanley, the African traveller, and some of his Arab attendants.

I could not leave the Cape without expressing my surprise that the Government should not have followed in the steps of our other colonies and introduced photography into their various departments, it elsewhere proved so successful. We bid adieu to the Cape Colony and were soon being rolled about in one of those big seas only to be encountered in the neighbourhood of the Cape.

Family and personal life
Bruton married Mary Ann Woodman and eventually had five children. In 1874 he moved to Cape Town. Between 1876 and 1897 his studio was located at 74 Adderley Street, Cape Town. In te 1890s Bruton closed his business in Cape Town and moved to Douglas, Isle of Man where he died on the 9th of August 1918.

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
A Mystery Solved by Khitab [Looking Back Volume 7 Number 2 Page 56]
Bull and Denfield 1970, pp.189-90.
Bensusan 1963, p.227
Facebook page on the Burtons

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.