Norm Barney was a journalist with a passion for history and for the Hunter Region. Through his books, his newspaper articles and columns, he brought local history to life for thousands of people.
But it was probably through his discovery, interpretation and preservation of a huge catalogue of historical photographs that he made his biggest mark – and not only in Newcastle.
Born in Alton, England, in 1933, Norm came to Australia with his family in 1949, joining his ex-Royal Navy brother who was living at Coal Point, Lake Macquarie.
In 1950 he first worked for The Newcastle Herald, taking a job in the business and advertising department before moving to the photographic department in 1952.
About this time he met and married his lifelong partner Daphne (nee Mulligan) who worked on the Herald’s telephone switchboard. He and Daphne were married in 1953, and at this time Norm was also performing National Service with the Royal Australian Engineers.
In 1953 he was employed by cinema company Northern Amusements Corporation where he worked for 15 years managing theatres and cinemas, including the Lyric and Victoria. He loved the old Victoria Theatre and would have been thrilled to see it being restored in 2018.
In 1968 he went back to the Herald, this time as a journalist, and by the 1970s had begun to focus on local history features. By the time he left again in 1984, Norm had written countless articles and columns on local history. He did a immense amount of work on the history of the Lake Macquarie area, recorded in the pages of The Lake Herald, a replated edition of the main paper that is now almost impossible to find.
When I met Norm in 1984 he was acting Chief-of-Staff of the Herald’s newsroom and I admired him for his modest attitude and obvious competence. He was easy to work with and for, and he often steered history-related stories in my direction.
But Norm didn’t really like the quasi-management roles he was obliged to perform at the newspaper and he left in late 1984 to take a job for the next four years as an electorate officer with a local politician.
Norm was good friends with Bert Lovett, a local amateur historian and collector who had amassed an impressive collection of material, especially photographs relating to Newcastle’s maritime past.
It was Bert Lovett who changed Norm’s life with a telephone call.
To quote from a talk that Norm prepared years later:
“In August 1988 the late Bert Lovett, who was a great collector in Newcastle of old photographs, received a call from a member of the Snowball family inviting him to come and get ‘about 2,000 glass negatives’ which were under the house.”
This cache of old negatives under the house in Clarence Road, New Lambton, represented the legacy of long-dead professional photographer Ralph Snowball, and it turned out to be a treasure trove beyond the wildest dreams of either Norm or Bert.
“The condition was unknown but there was a hint that if we didn’t go they’d be taken to the dump. Bert called me and we went to the Snowball house and the rest, as they say, is history. We found somewhere in the vicinity of 8,000 glass negatives. We didn’t do an exact count because at least 2,000 had lost the images and had to be taken to the dump. I can remember we made three trips to the dump just to get rid of the glass,” Norm wrote.
Those who saw the duo at this time described them as being like “two kids in a lolly shop”.
Over the next year the pair spent two or three days a week sorting through this huge collection, which occupied about 700 mouldering boxes, most of which had not been opened in a century, and many of which crumbled to dust as soon as they were handled.
Dominant themes in the collection were gravestones and picnics, obviously produced for widely differing paying clients. Most of this material was separated and passed on to Newcastle Region Library as a potentially important family history research resource.
“Sometimes we’d look at and note up to 50 negatives a day if we came across things not of great interest to us. Other times it was only a dozen, sometimes even less, as we slowly studied these negatives. We had the boxes there and we’d just pick up the next box and go through it. We were itching to get to next box, but we actually disciplined ourselves not to walk in and take one out of this box and one out of that box before we started to do things and we decided we’d do it in a proper way, and that’s how we got through them. As we slowly studied these negatives, we got quite a few of them printed and a pictorial history of the Newcastle area between the mid-1880s and about 1912 unfolded before us.”
The Snowball discovery: “two kids in a lolly shop”
Before this discovery, Norm and Bert had been planning to co-produce a series of books using the estimated 20,000 photographs and negatives they already owned between them. Their first thought, when they started working through the Snowball collection, was that it would provide extra material for those planned volumes. But it didn’t take long before the pair realised that Ralph Snowball deserved a book or two all to himself.
Norm became fascinated by Ralph Snowball, and he gathered much information about his life and times.
To quote Norm again:
“Ralph Snowball was born in Durham in November 1840, and came to Australia in 1870 with his wife, Mary, and two-year-old son, George, aboard the ship Ninevah. The records of the time list him as being a platelayer, aged 30. He came to live at New Lambton and he lived all his life there.
“By the early 1880s he was working as a miner at the Lambton Colliery which, again was just down the road only walking distance from where are, and we also know that he received his last pay as a miner in June 1883.
“We have no idea if he had any early intentions or any ambitions to be a photographer, but there is evidence that he took his first photographs some time in 1884. His own records, which include notebooks, suggest his first professional engagement could have been March 2, 1885. He didn’t stop taking photographs until he retired in 1915. He set up a small studio in his home, possibly more as a processing area than as a photographic studio.
“In 1887 he purchased a photographic business in the Borough Markets from a Mr Roberts for 30 pounds and two shillings. The business included all the usual props to be found in studios in those days and later. Also in that collection, (and Ralph probably just put them to one side and probably never opened the boxes) were about 130-160 negatives of families, pictures taken by Roberts in the short time that he was a studio photographer.
“Ralph, as far as we know, didn’t even use the studio to take photographs, but he had a city address, and that made all the difference. He was an outdoors man and would take any regular assignment; he really set himself up as an architectural and landscape photographer. He became a very familiar figure in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie areas. He travelled with his horse and wagonette and by steam tram, horse-drawn bus, trains and boats.
“For about 30 years he concentrated on Newcastle, the surrounding townships which are now suburbs (like New Lambton) and the areas of Lake Macquarie to which he had access. Travel then was difficult and time-consuming, and Ralph had to carry a lot of cumbersome equipment. As his family grew up – and he and Mary had seven children – they were called on to assist in the business, in the darkroom, in delivering completed orders to customers and in carrying the equipment. To the children this was very tiresome, and one of them is on the record saying it stopped them from enjoying a normal childhood. This may have directly contributed to the saving of what is today known as the Snowball Collection, because when Ralph died, the family rarely if ever touched the negatives. They just didn’t want anything to do with them. And that’s probably why the collection stayed together.
“Ralph died in 1925, just a few weeks short of his 76th birthday. His cameras and his negatives were stored under the family house and were rarely touched over the next 63 years. Just occasionally one of the grandchildren would go in there and perhaps show some of his mates. Some were taken out and printed but not very many, just a handful.
“The Snowball collection is unique in one vary special way: Ralph dated his work, or most of it. He told us the day on which the photographs were taken, and that is a huge help as you can understand. Not every one, but about 80 per cent of the negatives were dated. We found this out from his notebooks which I found scattered underneath the house in bits and pieces, on the box covers as I mentioned, and on the negatives themselves, not only writing on the front sometimes in white, but also on the back of the negative in pencil at the top. He marked the day, the date, and often the place. If he didn’t mark that, he marked the box number. The only problem we had was that while he did all this he didn’t really have a great system as far as the boxes were concerned, because you would have four boxes marked ‘48’.
“The best photographs of Ralph Snowball hint at the ephemeral quality of life and some have a romantic timelessness about them, as do a lot of other photographs. They all, in one way or another, untie the past and allow us a glimpse of what life was like in one place at a time that has now gone forever.”
Sam Hood maritime photographs and Charles Kerry collection
After the Snowball discovery, Norm’s next great coup came in late 1988 when a woman from the Blue Mountains – who had a copy of one of his books – phoned him to invite him to view a collection she owned. The woman was Gladys Hood, daughter of another prolific photographer named Sam Hood.
Ms Hood was in ill-health and she and her family were keen to sell the huge collection of negatives in her possession. Having been intimately involved in her father’s business (it’s understood she took many photos herself and helped manage the business), Gladys was well aware of the enormous value of the collection.
Sam Hood worked tirelessly at photography from his teens in the 1880s until his death in 1953. Most of his work was done in Sydney, but he also took a lot of photographs in Newcastle – particularly of ships in the harbour.
One of his sales techniques involved taking photos of ships, then selling prints, or paintings made from the prints, to the crews of those ships.
Thousands of Sam Hood’s maritime photos were on the verge of being sold, and it appeared they might go to overseas buyers when Norm Barney intervened. He told his former employer, Federal MP Peter Morris, about the extraordinary collection and its rather high asking price. Mr Morris made representations for funds in many directions, including shipping companies, and ultimately the collection was kept in Australia.
Some Sam Hood images of ships in Newcastle can be seen in our book, Travelling Through Time.
Yet another Norm Barney discovery came with a phone call from Mayfield, where a person was keen to dispose of hundreds of glass negatives by renowned photographer Charles Kerry, who had visited Newcastle around the turn of last century.
Norm described the collection briefly in a talk he gave years later:
“I went into the caller’s garage and there were about 700 negatives, a lot of which are Newcastle at the turn of the century when Mr Kerry was here. He mostly took panoramas, but not often people. He went to the harbour, took photos of hotels, houses, buildings, etc.”
These photos, Norm said, would “become available in the near future”. It isn’t clear, however, what became of this particular trove.
Bert Lovett died in late 1989, the year he and Norm published two books. Bert Lovett’s Between the River and the Sea was the book on which Norm and Bert were working when the Ralph Snowball collection changed their lives, and With Camera, Horse and Wagonette was the first book of Snowball images.
Norm Barney died in 2003, aged 70.
The remainder of the Ralph Snowball negatives that remained in Norm’s hands were donated to the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Collections. Many have been scanned and made available online: