Striking shots of Downham’s past and the man behind the camera

Capturing everything from festivals and fishing to fires, Herbert Raby used photography to document the history and character of his delightful home town

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’; it’s an adage that will always ring true. Images have been used to preserve memories and record significant events for centuries and, following its development in the 1830s, photography has played an important role in deepening our understanding of the past.

Pictures bring vanished moments to life, adding a new dimension to history by making it feel more tangible and real. Many locations and communities are filled with enchanting stories that might have disappeared without the power of photography, a perfect example being the delightful town of Downham Market.

Thanks to the rich visual archive compiled by remarkable former resident Herbert Raby, we can enjoy a valuable glimpse into lives past, important events, and forgotten places. Featuring everything from local carnivals, parades, weddings and fishing competitions to disasters such as accidents and shop fires, the Herbert Raby collection is one of Discover Downham Heritage Centre’s greatest treasures. Carefully collected and preserved, these powerful prints form an excellent record of every aspect of town life over a period of about 30 years.

Born in Downham Market on 16th June 1888, Herbert Amos Raby is perhaps one of the town’s most significant lesser-known historical figures. The fourth of eight children, he lived with his family in Bridge Street – just a few doors away from the letterpress printer and photographer Royal Watson. It’s not known whether the pair crossed paths, but it’s possible that Herbert was apprenticed to Watson due to their close proximity and shared creative flair. This experience would’ve likely sparked his passion for photography and given him a good grounding in techniques.

Herbert Raby came from a family of shopkeepers, with his grandfather running a pork butcher business in Bridge Street for more than a decade before passing it on to his parents (Amos and Martha Raby) in the late 1880s. His eldest brother owned a shop nearby and, inspired by his love for capturing snippets of local life on camera, Herbert launched a business of his own.

In a picture taken by the keen photographer himself, the striking Raby shop can be seen brimming with records, ‘untarnishable’ photo frames, dolls, Meccano and much more. Handbags, fireworks, and ‘useful presents’ are also advertised in the window, presumably bringing a splash of colour to Bridge Street and capturing the attention of passers-by.

When he wasn’t merrily manning the counter at his charming shop, Herbert would venture out around Downham armed with his trusty camera. He lived at a time when the technology of photography was being developed and popularised; it was an art that still enthralled and astounded members of the general public. Smiling townsfolk proudly posed for him at local events, and many requested his skills at weddings, anniversaries and meetings. In around 1920, newspapers began to routinely use photographs and the King’s Lynn media companies became important customers. Every fête, shop opening, civic ceremony and disaster became a money making exercise, and Herbert’s pictures soon started appearing in numerous local publications.

“One of the most remarkable things about the Herbert Raby collection is the fact it’s so comprehensive. He chronicled Downham Market’s development through the Edwardian era and the Great War, creating an incredible archive of daily life, work, transport and leisure pursuits,” says Christine Austin, who organised Discover Downham’s special Raby exhibition in 2021. “Herbert was born with what is known as a club foot, which made it difficult to walk, so he always had to wear a raised boot. He was also quite short, maybe just over 5ft, and both of these features would’ve precluded him from the forces during the war. This meant he was able to stay in Downham Market, capturing the spirit of the town during the most challenging of times.”

An inspiring man with a passion for the place he called home, Herbert Raby devoted much of his life to preserving his town’s unique heritage and character. He died aged just 54 in February 1943 ‘after only a few day’s illness,’ whilst staying at his eldest sister’s house on the High Street. He may not have lived the longest life, but he’s left behind an everlasting legacy. His captivating photographs are still admired and treasured today, with many of them having been taken more than 100 years ago.

“The extensive body of work that Herbert left provides a tremendous record of the buildings and people that shaped the story of our wonderful market town,” says Christine. “His photographs show a vibrant community that knew how to enjoy themselves, and we take pride in displaying a collection of these images at the centre. Without this plentiful archive, our history would be considerably poorer.”

Leafing through Raby’s enthralling pictures and pondering the places and faces immortalised within them is a truly extraordinary experience. Once taken merely to celebrate their present, they now help us to understand the past.

To learn more about this fascinating local figure and to view a collection of his marvellous work, visit the Discover Downham Heritage Centre (open 10am-4pm on Thursdays & Fridays and 10am-1pm on Saturdays).

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