Thomas Begbie is known mainly because of the discovery of a cache of glass plate stereos in St James Square Edinburgh in 1955. These stereos from the late 1850s, the work of Alexander McGlashon, were incorrectly assumed to have been the work of Begbie. This post attempts to tease out what is known of Begbie
Census and other registration records point to him being born in 1841, (e.g. the 1901 census taken on 31st March gives his age as 59). The family business was that of lapidary and it seems that he probably trained as a lapidary. Thomas’s father died in October 1855 and the business had ceased to exist by mid 1856.
The 1861 census lists Begbie as a lodger in 121 Rose Street, a crowded two storey property, suggesting that he was probably struggling a bit financially; his occupation is given as photographer, the earliest such reference. However it is extremely unlikely that he would have been able to carry out any photographic activities in such cramped accommodation so perhaps the enumerator has used a generic term whereas in reality photographic assistant would have been more accurate.
At some point after April 1861 Begbie moved to London and was living in Hill Street when he married Sarah McDonald in 1864. By August of the following year when his daughter was born he had moved back to Edinburgh. Very interestingly her birth certificate gives Begbie’s occupation as photographer’s assistant as is the case on each of the birth certificates of his following three children. As, with one exception, these certificates bear Begbie’s handwritten signature, they can be taken as an authoritative statement of his occupation. The exception is signed by his wife and also states that he is a photographer’s assistant.
In April 1867 Begbie became a member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society
By 1871 he is living with his wife’s family; her brother, whose occupation is a lapidary, is listed as the head of the household, again suggesting that he is still struggling to progress in photography.
Begbie’s circumstances improved during the 1870’s as he moved to a two roomed house in 7 Leith Street in Edinburgh, at last the head of his own household. From 1874 he is listed in the Post Office Directory at that address as a photographer and in the 1879 and two following directories he has placed a small advert for his photographic business. However after 1881 there are no further entries although he is still listed as a photographer in the 1891and 1901 censuses; by 1901 he has moved into another two room house in 23 St James Square in Edinburgh; both his sons are in the jewellery trade. He is retired in the 1910 census.
Begbie died in St James Square in March 1915, two months after his wife’s death.
There are few contemporary references to him. A detailed search of the online British Newspaper Archive failed to produce any references, and there seems to be scarcely any surviving photos bearing the Begbie name; personally I have encountered only a few cdvs. It is reasonable to assume that he was not particularly successful as a photographer.
Intriguingly at the time of his death his two sons were in the jewellery trade. An obvious question is why didn’t they follow their father into the photographic profession – indeed did Thomas Begbie continue a parallel career in the jewellery trade, helping to make ends meet, and passing these skills on to his children?
Begbie is a shadowy figure who clearly had aspirations as a photographer but success seems to have eluded him; had it not been for the misattribution of the McGlashon photographs Begbie would likely have been no more than a footnote in photographic history.