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East London Advertiser.
Saturday, 21 October 1933.

Fifty Years a Corpse Photographer.


Limehouse Manís Memories.

There are streets and streets of houses in Limehouse which look very much alike, built to the same type and at the same time, but the people who live behind their identical walls have personalities widely different one from the other. The experiences of many invite the mind and the pen of the novelist.

At No. 34, Canton-street, there lives Mr. Martin, who at 82 can look back on a long and eventful life, for fifty years of which he was official photographer of corpses for the police. Born in Stepney, he had no education after he was nine, and very little before. He was supposed to attend a Spanish and Portuguese school, but they only called the role at the beginning of the year, and for most of the rest of it he was missing. "I used to take my twopence to the Tower Hamlets Swimming Bath and learned to swim," he told an "East London Advertiser" representative. "I attended at another time, the Ragged School in George Yard, where they had a drum and fife band. Playing in that band had its compensations, for when other schools had outings we were invited to come along and play for them. When I was nine I stopped going to school because my father wanted me to help him in his photographic business. He was rather a severe master, and I soon became tired of working for him at 6d a week, and when Derby Day approached I determined to run away from home. On the day before the race I left Whitechapel and walked as far as Brixton before I plucked up courage to give a performance on the flute outside a public-house. I was ravenously hungry, and after going round with the hat I spent some of the money on a meal I can remember yet. It consisted of two bloaters, six doorsteps and a pint of coffee. Epsom Downs was reached by three oíclock on the next morning, where I slept until daylight in the tent of a caterer.

Profitable Days.

"There I joined three other itinerant musicians, and believe it or not, we made £20 from collections during the first race day." Mr. Martin added that he stayed with them for two years, during most of which time they played to crowds attending functions at the Crystal Palace before his father traced him and hailed him home.

In the 20 years that followed, Mr. Martin became quite well known on the music halls, taking part in a double turn and touring the country. He also played in orchestras and at functions attended by the late King Edward and King George.

Afterwards he set up in business as a photographer at Cannon Street-road, later moving to 62, West India Dock-road, where he was 44 years in business. It was then that he was appointed official photographer to the Metropolitan Police, his duty being to photograph the bodies of unknown dead persons in the Metropolitan Police area which covers 700 square miles. It was a task he carried out for 50 years, giving it up last year when he met with an accident (reference to which is made in a report on page 3, col. 7.) He has had some gruesome experiences in this task. It fell to his lot to photograph the features of those unfortunate women who met their deaths in the narrow alleys of Whitechapel and Commercial-road, through the knife of "Jack the Ripper". He has had to take heads severed from the body, but all his experiences have not been quite so grim.

The Corpse That Walked.

He once entered the mortuary to photograph the body of a man who had been found drowned. He approached the coffin and saw it was empty. He heard a footstep, and turned round to see a dishevelled figure, who shouted, "Where in the ____ am I?" "You clear out," said Mr. Martin, and the man did. Later, when he described the visitor to the mortuary keeper, the latter said, "Thatís the man who was found dead on the edge of the tide." Apparently he was not dead, but dead drunk.

The Deputy Who Ran.

On another occasion, Mr. Martin was asked to take a photograph at one mortuary when his presence had previously been asked for many miles away. As he could not do it, the authorities called in a photographer who had never performed the task before. He propped the coffin up against a wall, and getting behind the camera, focussed it, the face then appearing much bigger than it actually was. He had not propped up the camera sufficiently with the result that it rocked and fell forward. Seeing this huge face coming rapidly towards him completely unnerved the photographer, who dashed out of the building. He could not be induced to return, and Mr. Martin was called in to take the photograph the next day.

The "Princess Alice" Disaster.

Mr. Martin often used to play in the orchestras of the steamships that went from London Bridge to Southend and Margate. He was on one occasion asked to play on the "Princess Alice," and his sister and brother-in-law, who were arranging a day out, agreed to take tickets on the same boat. On the evening before the day, his employer told him that he would require him to play at the Holborn Restaurant instead. He was disappointed that he could not get in touch with his relatives, but he went to the restaurant. He finished playing there in the early morning, and whilst on his way home called at a coffee stall. There, men were talking of the tragedy of the sunken ship and the many lives lost. "I walked home stunned," said Mr. Martin, "and thinking of the fate which must have overwhelmed my sister and brother-in-law. To my great amazement, when I went to the house of a relative to ask if any details had been received, I met them face to face. I said, "I thought you were dead," and they replied "We thought you were." It transpired that they were held up on the way to Woolwich, and when they arrived, the steamboat was already in midstream. I consider that the miracle of my life".

Related pages:
  Joseph Martin
       Dissertations: Who was the Mortuary Photographer? 
       Press Reports: East End News - 29 December 1933 
       Press Reports: East London Observer - 30 December 1933 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 23 December 1933