Before cameras came along, police had to rely on an artist’s impression or their own memory to identify a suspected offender. ‘Sitting for a portrait’ involved the entire police watch crowding round the suspect, staring into his/her face to memorise distinctive features for future reference. That alone would have put many off a life of crime!
But by the late 1840-50s, commercial photographers had been brought in to provide a rather more reliable service in the form of ‘mugshots’. In those early days, studio photographer William Eagle was used by Birmingham police, and you can admire his craft from the many collodium plates at the proposed West Midlands Police Museum on Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham’s notorious former Lock Up. They have a genuine rogues gallery of mugshots on display.
Murderers and thieves were accorded the same careful attention from Mr Eagle, as would a visiting dignitary: he would pose his ‘clients’, providing a screen behind them and one can imagine him positioning their elbow on a dainty table, next to the elegant pot plant used for his paying customers. His mugshots even included a gilt frame!
By the time CID officer Charles Muscroft became police photographer at Birmingham Lock Up in the 1930s, things had changed quite a lot. Yorkshire-born Muscroft relished his new role, delivering regular lectures to local photographic societies and happily offering his portrait services in a private capacity. So when he was accepted as an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, you can imagine his pure delight. He knew the intricate skill – talent, indeed – that was essential to capture scenes of crime accurately and comprehensively, and to produce reliable mugshots for use by police and the courts. He felt his photography was capturing the truth.
Sergeant Charles Muscroft features in Behind Bars – Ghosts of the Lock Up – which is being performed on site at the Lock Up this July 12/13th and 20th/21st. Last autumn, the first run quickly sold out and many eager visitors missed out. So now the museum has recommissioned the event, also inviting attendees to look round the Lock Up after the show.
Other ‘ghosts’ you’ll meet include notorious Brummie drunkard Tommy Tank, pioneering policewoman Evelyn Miles, and world-famous Sarah Bernhardt, the French singer and actress who had to sign the ‘alien register’ at the Lock Up during her UK tour in 1916.
References & more information
The Burden of Representation, J. Tagg. University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
Under Arrest (A History of Twentieth Century in Mugshots), G. Papi. Granta Books, 2006.
‘Photography as I see it’, Midland Counties Photographic Federation Lecture given by C. Muscroft ARPS, 1939-40.
‘In the Frame: Early Police Photography in Birmingham’, lecture notes from P. James for Birmingham Central Lock Up/Ikon Gallery event March 2018.