THIS month marks the end of an era for Berwick, with the Photo Centre in Bridge Street set to close its doors for the last time.
Run by Ian Smith and his wife Ellen, the photography shop will close its doors to the public nearly sixty years after Ian’s father David moved his news and photography business into the premises.
Speaking from his office in the Bridge Street building, as a mammoth packing job goes on around him, Ian tells me that his mother and father, Charlotte and David Smith, moved from Perth to Berwick in 1939 to take up positions on the Berwick Advertiser. “Mother worked as a reporter on the Advertiser throughout the war, and after the war my father came back and became editor,” Ian says. David later joined rival paper the Berwick Journal, before setting up his own news and picture agency Smiths of Berwick.
“He set himself up in the back of a plumbers shop in Marygate before moving to Hide Hill and then Bridge Street in 1953,” Ian says. “He had reporters and photographers based here, and, of course, the shop.”
Following in the footsteps of his mother and father, Ian was destined to become a journalist. His training began aged 11, when he would help out at the agency in his school holidays.
“I did all sorts of jobs,” he says. “That’s what I did - when I was in Berwick I was here. All the time I was being trained.”
A chip off the old block with a deeply embedded sense for news, Ian had his first front page story on a national newspaper at the age of just 15. He officially started work at the agency at 17, where he covered anything and everything across Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, from council meetings to football, criminal courts to weddings and murders.
“One of the jobs I remember covering when I officially started work was the homecoming celebrations for Jim Clark in 1965, after he had won his second World Championship,” Ian says. “Only three years after that he was killed in a race in Hockenheim, Germany, and I was back in Chirnside again to cover his funeral.”
Other prominent moments over the years include Berwick Rangers’ historic 1-0 victory over Glasgow Rangers in 1967; and the notorious Lord Lambton affair in 1973, when the former Berwick MP was forced to resign after liaisons with prostitutes were revealed. “That story was broken by a German publication,” Ian remembers. “We had lots of pictures relating to Lord Lambton in the files. My father was in hospital at the time, and I had to arrange for the negatives to be sent to Germany. The demand for photographs was so great that I didn’t leave the office for 48 hours!”
Sometimes luck has favoured Ian, placing him in the right place at the right time. “I remember going to Amble one night with a photographer when an RAF launch boat had overturned in the harbour, and there were servicemen drowned,” he recalls. “For some reason myself, another reporter and a photographer had decided to go to a different part of the harbour from the rest of the press.
“The rescuers managed to get a serviceman out of the hull and they brought him to the slipway where we were. There was noone else there and we got the exclusive picture.”
Other times it’s been Ian’s sense of which surreal moments will appeal to a reader that has stood him in good stead. “A story to that end that sticks in my mind was a case I covered at Duns Sheriff Court in 1973, involving a young lady charged with causing cruelty to a prawn! It was picked up all over the world,” he says.
Ian cultivated good relationships, particularly with the police. “I was the unofficial police photographer for a long time,” he explains. “There was a strict understanding that as soon as I had taken the photographs I handed the film over but the advantage for me was that if something had happened, I always knew about it first!”
In that capacity he came across some grim scenes – “I remember being in a car parked opposite where the Barn at Beal is now, taking photographs of a senior executive of a tobacco company, who was dead in the passenger seat having shot himself in the mouth with a double barrelled shot gun,” he says – but the only photography jobs to ever faze Ian were, surprisingly, weddings. “The only thing that worried me over the years was taking wedding pictures, because my father was always a perfectionist,” he admits. “When it came to weddings 95 per cent wasn’t good enough.”
Over the years, a vast archive of photographs and footage has built up at the Bridge Street base dating back to 1951, which has now been acquired by the Berwick Records Office. “There was interest shown by private collectors, but Ellen and I wanted the archive to remain in Berwick,” Ian says.
Now, as Ian and Ellen prepare to shut up shop for the last time, Ian thinks the time is right to wind it up. “It’s been a huge part of my life and a real family business,” he says. “My sister Ailsa worked in the shop for a spell, my brother David worked as a reporter for several years and my wife Ellen got involved nearly 30 years ago.
“It will be strange not coming here every day, but it will be nice to have some free time – I worked six and a half days a week for thirty years – and I’ll still be doing bits and pieces.”
Ian will continue to cover some news items for radio, as well as the rugby and Berwick Rangers home matches, where he can no longer resist the digital age.
“I have to take a lap top and a dongle to the Rangers games now,” he says indignantly. “I never dreamt it would come to that! Now my telephone list has to double up as an email-ist!”