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Colin O’Brien, Photographer

May 30, 2011
by the gentle author

Observe this tender photograph of Raymond Scallionne and Razi Tuffano in Hatton Garden in 1948, one of the first pictures taken by Colin O’Brien – snapped when he was eight years old, the same age as his subjects. Colin forgot this photograph for over half a century until he discovered the negative recently and made a print, yet when he saw the image again, he immediately remembered the boys’ names and recalled arranging them in front of the car to construct the most pleasing composition for the lens of his prized box brownie.

Colin grew up fifty yards from Hatton Garden in Victoria Dwellings, a tenement at the junction of Faringdon Rd and Clerkenwell Rd – the centre of his childhood universe in Clerkenwell, which Colin portrayed in spellbinding photographs that evoke the poetry and pathos of the forgotten threadbare years in the aftermath of World War II. “We had little money or food, and shoes were a luxury. I remember being given my first banana and being told not to eat it in the street where someone might take it,” he told me, incredulous at the reality of his own past,“Victoria Dwellings were very run down and I remember in later years thinking, ‘How did people live in them?’”

Blessed with a vibrant talent for photography, Colin created images of his world with an assurance and flair that is astounding in one so young. And now these pictures exist as a compassionate testimony to a vanished way of life, created by a photographer with a personal relationship to all his subjects. “I just wanted to record the passage of time,” Colin told me with modest understatement, “There were no photographers in the family, but my Uncle Will interested me in photography. He was the black sheep, with a wife and children in Somerset and girlfriends in London, and he used to come for Sunday lunch in Victoria Dwellings sometimes. One day he brought me a contact printing set and he printed up some of my negatives, and even now I can remember the excitement of seeing my photographs appear on the paper.”

Colin O’Brien’s clear-eyed Clerkenwell pictures illustrate a world that was once familiar and has now receded far away, yet the emotionalism of these photographs speaks across time because the human detail is touching. Here is Colin’s mother spooning tea from the caddy into the teapot in the scullery and his father at breakfast in the living room before walking up the road to the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, as he did every day of his working life. Here is Mrs Leinweber in the flat below, trying to eke out the Shepherd’s Pie for her large family coming round for dinner. Here is the Rio Cinema where Colin used to go to watch the continuous programme, taking sandwiches and a bottle of Tizer, and forced to consort with one of the dubious men in dirty raincoats in order to acquire the adult escort necessary to get into the cinema. Here is one of the innumerable car crashes at the junction of Clerkwenwell Rd and Faringdon Rd that punctuated life at Victoria Dwellings – caused by lights that were out of sync, instructing traffic to drive in both directions simultaneously – a cue for Colin to reach out the window of their top floor flat to capture the accident with his box brownie and for his mother to scream, “Colin, don’t lean out too far!”

At fifteen years old, Colin’s parents bought him Leica camera. “They couldn’t afford it and maybe it came off the back of a lorry, but it was a brilliant present - they realised this was what I wanted to do,” he admitted to me with an emotional smile. My first job was at Fox Photo in the Faringdon Rd. I worked in the library, but I spent all my time hanging around in the dark room because that was where all the photographers were and I loved the smell of fixer and developer.” he recalled, “And if I stayed there I would have become a press photographer.” But instead Colin went to work in the office of a company of stockbrokers in Cornhill in the City and then for General Electric in Holborn -“I hated offices but I aways got jobs in them” – before becoming a photographic lab technician at St Martins School of Art and finally working for the Inner London Education authority in Media Resources, a role that enabled him to pursue his photography as he pleased throughout his career.

Over all this time, Colin O’Brien has pursued his talent and created a monumental body of photography that amounts to over half a million negatives, although his work is barely known because he never worked for publication or even for money, devoting himself single-mindedly to taking pictures for their own sake. Yet over the passage of time, as a consequence of the purism of his approach, the authority of Colin O’Brien’s superlative photography – distinguished by its human sympathy and aesthetic flair – stands comparison with any of the masters of twentieth century British photography.

Members of the Leinweber family playing darts at the Metropolitan Tavern, Clerkenwell Rd, 1954.

Girl in a party dress in the Clerkwenwell Rd, nineteen fifties.

Solmans Secondhand Shop, Skinner St, Clerkwenwell, 1963.

Colin’s mother puts tea in the teapot, in the scullery at Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

Linda Leinweber takes a nap, 117 Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

Colin’s father eats breakfast before work at the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office.

Jimmy Wragg and Bernard Roth jumping on a bomb site in Clerkenwell, late fifties.

Accident at the junction of Clerkwell Rd and Faringdon Rd, 1957.

Mrs Leinweber divides the Shepherd’s Pie among her family, Victoria Dwellings, 1959.

Rio Cinema, Skinner St, Clerkenwell, 1954.

Hazel Leinweber, Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

Fire at Victoria Dwellings, mid-fifties.

Colin’s mother outside her door, 99 Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

Boy at Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954.

Two women with a baby in Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954.

Cleaning the windows in the snow, Clerkenwell Rd, 1957.

Cowboy and girlfriend, 1960.

Nun sweeping in the Clerkenwell Rd, nineteen sixties.

Colin’s window at Victoria Dwellings was on the far right on the top floor.

An old lady listens, awaiting meals on wheels in Northcliffe House, Clerkenwell, late seventies.

The demolition of Victoria Dwellings in the nineteen seventies.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

54 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    May 31, 2011

    Oh wow – what a photographer! These images just sing.

  2. Ana permalink
    May 31, 2011

    I love these types of images that essentially show the evolution of an urban landscape. These images make me want to step through them just to experience what that era was like. The people within are so expressive.
    The portrait of Hazel is a favourite.

  3. May 31, 2011

    Another stunning post. I loved this. And how terrific that Colin’s parents had the vision to support his creativity. Not to mention the price of bananas have come full circle and could well be snatched by another in the street! I don’t always have the time to leave a comment but I always enjoy receiving your posts by email.

  4. sam taylor permalink
    May 31, 2011

    enjoyed with some saddness these lovely evocative shots thankyou

  5. Adrienne permalink
    May 31, 2011

    Aren’t these the most evocative photos? Black and white images really do capture the past. Brilliant record of London life.

  6. May 31, 2011

    I love these black and white pictures especially of ev eryday life in the kitchen.
    A fabulous record.

  7. Jose Cadaveira permalink
    May 31, 2011

    What a brilliant photographer, I certainly love these days when such great work appears to the public and is able to say in your memory forever.
    Great work, thanks for this fantastic post.

  8. Margaret Lambert permalink
    May 31, 2011

    A few years ago I conversations with an artist who had grown up in London and described it in detail. These photos seem to closely depict the life he described…they are so striking, a window into that time and place.

  9. June 2, 2011

    Wonderful pictures. They really do speak a thousand words.

  10. June 3, 2011

    every single picture contains so many many details that it is impossible to read this post in one sitting

  11. Barry cole permalink
    June 5, 2011

    Fabulous photographs!

  12. Lynne Smith permalink
    June 8, 2011

    Thankyou so much for these wonderful pictures. I have been busy with genealogy and find that my great-great-great grandparents lived in Skinner Street. The family also lived in Northampton Road. The 1901 Census gives details that my great-grandparents and their baby daughter, with my great-great-grandfather, lived at 43 Victoria Dwellings.

    Due to the fact that these buildings have been demolished, I had given up hope of ever really finding out exactly where they were – until, sitting up late tonight and just about to give up searching for anyting else – I found these pictures. I just searched for Victoria Dwellings, Clerkenwell and AT LAST got some results. I could not have hoped for a better glimpse of the area and although these pictures were taken many years after my family left Victoria Dwellings, at least I got to see what they looked like and where my family lived all those years ago.

    I can’t tell you how very pleased and thankful I am that these pictures were taken – it makes me feel closer to my family just to see where they lived. I will be making a bit of a pilgrimage to Clerkenwell to see the Italian Church (St.Peter’s) that they attended (they weren’t Italian however), and to search for other clues to my own history.

    Thank you once again.

    Lynne Smith

  13. Samantha King permalink
    June 9, 2011

    Brilliant. My mum was born in Ferringdon rd buildings and her grand parents lived in victoria Dwellings in the 1920-1950. My great grand parents lived at number 98 victoria dwellings where my great grandad died in 1933. . now i know how it looked and thats made my day. Thanks.

  14. John Powell permalink
    June 28, 2011

    GR8 photos, they are just how I remember it. Mum Italian (Napolitano) and lived there, I walked in the Poss. in the 50s and my older Bro. still does (40 years ) mum 86 will be there again this year with all the family. again good to see all the old places..
    John Powell

  15. Colin Thomas permalink
    July 19, 2011

    Colin’s father worked at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office at the same time as my Grandfather, Fred Sced! He used to cycle every day from Mount Pleasant Villas, Crouch Hill It’s weird staring at the photo of Colin’s Father thinking that he probably knew him.

  16. john page permalink
    August 10, 2011

    Great to see the photo of the Rio Cinema,
    spent time in this old place when a boy , brings back memories.

    john page

  17. August 26, 2011

    my mum lived in victoria dwellings before, during and after the war her father was italian (decosimo) and she was married in the italian church, her uncle owned the cafe opposite the church. She has on many occassions talk about her life there. These pictures bring to life her stories and now that she has dementia i will be able to show her these photos as her long long term memory is all that she has.

  18. Jackie Gavaghan (nee Gibbons) permalink
    October 16, 2011

    Really enjoyed looking through these photo’s, me and my two brothers went to school on the corner of Herbal Hill, St Catherine Laboure in the 1960′s, there were quite a few kids that lived in Victoria Dwelings that also went to the same school, Great memories of those school days.

  19. Linda Fazzani permalink*
    December 4, 2011

    I just love your website, at first glance it is so personal to me. My nan and grandad lived at 113 Victoria Dwellings, that may well have been the flat below yours. Most of my family are Italian and my mum lived there until she married in St Peters in 1937, I went to the Italian School as did most of my relations, thank you so much for bringing back so many lovely memories.

  20. Mike Collins permalink
    May 11, 2012

    What a fantastic moment for me to see these pictures…Went to St Catherines in Herbal Hill, served on the altar at St Peters and remember fondly what it was like in the mid 50′s and early sixtees. These photo’s are sweet memories. Thank you.

  21. Dave permalink
    July 4, 2012

    Hey brilliant pics ! My Great Grandfather George Elliott Moore lived at 27 Victoria Dwellings in 1878 together with the Tagg Family.

  22. Ann Godden permalink
    July 4, 2012

    Thanks. My mother grew up in Victoria Dwellings in the 1910s and 1920s. This is the first time I’ve seen a photo of them.

  23. ahmed fett permalink
    July 13, 2012

    i remember living at number 26 victoria dwellings. playing in the bomb sites,an old piece of stick as a playhorse, and going to the catholic school oppersite.all this in 1960, i was a boy of 6.

  24. Jean Robbins (Nee Hollingdale permalink
    September 16, 2012

    Brilliant photos. My family lived at 92 Victoria Dwellings long before I was born. My Grandparents (Lizzie and Denis Donoghue) lived there , I don’t know when they moved there but they were married in St. Peters in 1894, as did my parents(John and Elizabeth(Lizzie) Hollingdale) after they were married at St Peters Italian church in 1921. My older brothers and sisters were all christened at St. Peters and went to St. Peters Italian school and were evacuated with the school. Although I wasn’t born there I can remember going to see my grandad up until 1955 and the smell in the flat from the tobacco factory oposite (I think it was the ‘Old Holborn’ factory). We always went back for the Italian procession.

  25. Gene Robertson permalink
    January 9, 2013

    Absolutely wonderful! Having spent the first few years of my life in Edwardian tenement housing in East London during the early ’60s, I am now fascinated at researching the history of tenement and social housing within the City of London boundary (mainly Farringdon, Clerkenwell, and Holborn).

    I would love to see more pictures of tenement housing in these areas during the ’50s and ’60s, and am particularly keen on early pics of the Bourne Estate, Leather Lane, Cavendish Mansions, Clerkenwell Road, Grays Inn Buildings,Grays Inn Road, and Sandringham Buildings in Charing Cross Road. Colin was indeed gifted from a very young age. His work is so evocative of the City of London during that bygone era.

    Gene Robertson
    London

  26. Ann Mercer permalink
    February 4, 2013

    I went to the italian school and was married in the Italian church, what memories your photos bring back, Miss Moloney and many of the nuns especially Sister Agnes , I also remember there was a murder in the building opposite the school, the old lady who sold the religious pictures and rosarys, I will have to take a trip back up there to refresh the many good memories of the area , shame the old Holborn smell won’t be there now

  27. Gloria Watson permalink
    February 19, 2013

    Colin’s photographs are fantastic and bring back a world I had forgotten. I’m from South London and these pictures could just as easily have been taken there. Congratulations Colin

  28. Sheree Green permalink
    March 16, 2013

    Thank you for your lovely photographs which are very nostalgic
    We lived at No. 81 Victoria Dwellings from autumn 1962
    until December 1962 but my parents remember the properties
    very well.
    It was nice for my brothers and myself to see where
    we lived so thanks for sharing your photos.

  29. April 25, 2013

    What a treat to see the old rio cinema again.. I lived in whiskin street during and after the war,the rio was just around the corner to where I lived ,it’s good to see photos of the good (and not so good) old days.

  30. Roger Tiller permalink
    June 10, 2013

    Fantastic, my father had a Cabinet makers corner shop in Clerkenwell called W J Burts opposite Temple press, does anyone no if the road is still there.

  31. July 4, 2013

    I remember st catherines and our head mistress miss maloney…leatherbys where my Dad worked Leather lane where we lived..4th finsbury cubs i was in……st peters church i was an alter boy…..Gamages….Little italy……herbal hill…..woolies in exmouth market and the man on the corner selling standard standard….Oliver retter a family freind who worked at mount pleasant…Attneve street where we also once lived……Much much more…Lovely memories

  32. July 4, 2013

    Can i also add.i lived in Attneve street from 1957 62…..Used to watch the punch and judy shows in the small park there…..In leather lane lived in langdon house till 68……As a 10 year old i used to help the man put away the stalls in the lane……I loved that area and have been on the nostalgia trip there twice..i too was part of the italian procession around 65…..Father mario was the main preist in my day…..Told my mum when i was supposed to serve on the alter but “bunked off” to play on an old bomb site……The 4th finsbury cubs was held in catherine laboure school on tuesdays if i rem correctly….Love this…Anyone remember any o these names Maria malvese..Lorraine mackenzie….franco capocci…………

  33. July 10, 2013

    Just discovered this website. One of my brothers was born in Victoria Dwellings and that’s where we lived when I was born. My eldest brother went to St Cathrine Labore and was in the Italisan Procession and we were all christened and mum and dad were married in the Italian Church. These photographs are wonderful and its very moving to be able to identify with the places and memories left by all the other people from the area, especially the cinema and playing on the ruins!

  34. David Fackler permalink
    July 18, 2013

    You have brought back so many wonderful memories. In 1943 I was born at 115 Victoria Dwellings,I was baptised in St. Peters church and went to the Italian school.I was an altar boy
    at 4 years of age .I took part in the annual procession accompanied by my dad uncle
    and grandfather. my mum’s family came from Italy and her maiden name was Fazzani.
    You have already received comments from my cousin…Linda Fazzani

  35. michael migliorini permalink
    August 20, 2013

    I understand the procession still goes on….I remember the first time i wa in it around 1965 ish i was told to wear sandals for the event by father mario..I wore hushpuppies and he was none too pleased

  36. Paul Grant permalink
    October 12, 2013

    I was researching my family history and came across your site. I was so surprised to see pictures of Victoria Dwellings. My parents both lived there before they married in 1931. My mother at 19 and my dad at 98. I can remember in the 1940s looking out of the window of 98 and seeing the tops of the trolleybuses. Do you have any more pictures of the building? I am also looking, so far without success, for pictures of the “Metropolitan” pub which adjoined the building at the corner of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road. I can still see myself standing outside with a glass of lemonade in one hand and a packet of crisps in the other. Thank you for sharing your pictures. They have brought back memories of my childhood visits to my grandparents.

  37. Angela Mansi permalink
    August 10, 2014

    Wonderful blog and photos. Take me back to a different world. My family lived in there for many years, we went to the Italian Church school and in the processions. The photos are so evocative of what seems like another world. Victorian Dwellings was opposite my school, with the High Holborn tobacco factory across the road. Thanks for recording all of this!

  38. John R Brockhurst permalink
    September 11, 2014

    Incredible to see the old Rio, what memories. Northampton buildings, Hugh Mydleton school, memories from decades ago. Thanks

  39. John O'Brien permalink
    October 11, 2014

    Great memories of the area , We used to live in Griffin mansions Clerkenwell rd from 1961-67, Hatton gdn , St peters (i had my 1st communion there ) Katherine Laboure , home made go carts going full pelt down the hill outside the school , Happy days .

  40. November 22, 2014

    My Italian grandparents came to London in 1911 and found a place to live at 1 Little Saffron Hill, just around the corner from St Peter’s Italian Church. My mother was born there and told me many wonderful tales of her life growing up there in the 1920′s, 30′s and 40′s. I am in the process of creating a website, dedicated to my mother, where I would like to write about my mother’s memories of that special era in Clerkenwell. I am in search of photos to illustrate these stories wonderful stories. Colin O’Brien’s photos are so wonderful, capturing the moment so succinctly, they are truly amazing. I wonder if Colin is still alive? It would be wonderful to talk to him. Well, if you can assist me in any way with my Clerkenwell project I would love to hear from you and appreciate any help you could give. Kindest regards, Louise.

  41. Patricia Rogers permalink
    February 8, 2015

    I was wondering if you knew the names of the children in the photograph called “Cowboy and girlfriend” or where the photo was taken please.

  42. achmed fetti permalink
    April 4, 2015

    hi the boy is my brother shefki and the girl I think is hazel and they are in ray street at the bottom of herbal hill he got the hat and gun for his birthday

  43. Sharon Barry permalink
    May 25, 2015

    Fantastic photos, my Grandmother lived in Victoria Dwellings as a young girl, never moving very far away, just to Clerkenwell Green. All my family went to the Italian School and I have very fond memories of my time there, especially of Miss Maloney. What a difference she made to so many children . I can remember Angela Mansi (who has commented above ) giving a rendition of “There’s a hole in my bucket” at a school assembled. These photographs have brought back so many memories. It stills feels like a very special area.

  44. Robert Vietro permalink
    June 22, 2015

    Fantastic photos they made me cry with joy as it brought back my lovely childhood!

    My Mum Queenie my Dad Tony brother John and Sister Susan all lived at 389 Northampton Buildings and our ground floor flat looked out onto Skinner Street and the Rio (I never thought that I would see the Rio again)

    I went to Sir Hugh Myddleton School just behind the Rio and now live in Surrey but visit the Clerkenwell/Finsbury area as much as I can and I walk through Clerkenwell visit the Italian Church walk through Exmouth market and around the former site of Northampton buildings and the Rio.

    I am so pleased that I had an upbringing in Clerkenwell/Finsbury.

  45. Paola permalink
    August 26, 2015

    loved these photo’s especially the one of the nun sweeping the Street outside the St. PETER’S ITALIAN CHURCH were I was baptised in the 60′s.

  46. Con Rea permalink
    September 7, 2015

    I saw a comment from a Linda Fazzani above – I went to S.Catherine Laboure School next to St. Peter’s Italian church and I knew a Linda Fazzani – we were both prefects there about 1958-59, and she was my “girlfriend” – a very innocent time as I recall – I don’t suppose we even had one kiss!! I’d love to send her an email but I have no idea how to get in touch. Any suggestions?

    Con Rea

  47. Con Rea permalink
    September 7, 2015

    I noticed a comment by Michael Migliorini … I wonder if you were at St. Catherine’s the same time I was there – 1957 – 59 ? I remember the head mistress Miss Maloney and Mr Donovan was the Head Master … it would be good to hear from anyone who was there back in “the good old days” .. the photos are wonderful (I only have a few pictures of my class from that period that I could share)

    Cheers,

    Con Rea

  48. Yvonne Attridge permalink
    December 2, 2015

    Can’t believe I found these photos! I, too, was brought up in Clerkenwell in the sixties. I lived in Corporation Buildings in Ray Street, The Guardian offices are now there. So many memories!

  49. Lidia Sorenti permalink
    January 5, 2016

    I love this site – I came to London in 1959 and attended St. Catherine’s with Mr Donovan as the Headteacher. I remember the playground on the roof and us girls had to stand by the wall whilst the boys played ‘Bulldog’ ! I also remember being sent out to the café across the road to fetch sandwiches for Mr Byrne, the Geography teacher! That couldn’t happen now! I also remember when the old lady selling holy pictures got murdered – an article appeared in the newspaper next day (Saturday) with a picture of a wedding taking place at the Italian Church – does anyone know who got married?
    The following year the school got transferred to Gifford Street off the Caledonian Road.
    I still am in touch with school friends and a teacher from back then and it’s great to read all the old memories on this site.
    Keep it up!

  50. Aliye mehmet permalink
    May 28, 2016

    Amazing pictures was very nice to see brought back some memory’s I was born at number 3 Victoria dwellings back in 1962 lived there till they where demolished I remember dragging the old tin bath from the back yard boiling the water on the old stove on bath nights which we had to take turns in! Thanks

  51. Mary Reese permalink
    June 26, 2016

    Came across this site whilst looking for something else and it brought back so many memories. Miss Maloney the Head walking around with her little dog following on , Sister Agnes and the rocking horse in the infants. Remember going to mass through the back door in the school and one day the door swung back and broke my two front teeth. Don’t live locally anymore but went back to see the Procession last year but sorry I did as it was so much smaller and then I went around to see the old school but it had become The Central School of Ballet in 1982.. I was there 1954 until the 11+ remember Collette Barton and Susan Henagan.

  52. Linda Smith permalink
    October 2, 2016

    I lived in Bourne Estate during the 50′s and 60′s I went to Hugh Myddleton School and had my photo taken on May Day with Robert Vietro mentioned above, I met my ex husband in the Metropolitan Pub in Clerkwenwell Road and went on to spend the beginning of my married life living just off Clerkenwell Green, I have tried for many years to trace one of my friends from Bourne Estate, Barbara O’Loughlin who had a brother called Paddy but cannot find her, such lovely memories had come back seeing these photos

  53. Mary Ellacott permalink
    December 11, 2016

    Dear Colin got the book as a present I could not put it down, the lovely and sometimes sad memories it brought back to me where wonderful. I was born in Skinner Street in 1946, the Rio Picture House was a big part of my life in more ways then one, one side entrance was used as our goal the other side entrance was where I kissed my boyfriend Peter who later became my husband good night. Thank you for the wald down memory land.

  54. John James Price permalink
    February 27, 2017

    I was born in Northampton buildings, think No 304 in 1943. We looked out to the Rio cinema. We moved to the new estate at spa green when I was about 5. I went to High Mydelton primary school.Now live just outside Cambridge, I intend to visit clerkenwell in near future to bring back memories.

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