University of Melbourne Archives

Uni Helps Benalla Recover Rich Legacy in Early Photographic Image Collection

by Jason Benjamin

(from UniNews vol. 15, no. 5,  3-17 April 2006)

An important collection of historical images documenting Benalla and its surrounding district is to be made available for the first time to the local community through a project launched recently by the University of Melbourne Archives in partnership with the Benalla & District Family History Group. The images are on dry plate glass negatives created by Benalla-based professional photographer William John Howship between 1904 and 1931. Jason Benjamin, a member of the University team working on the collection, tells here of Howship’s life and times and how his photographic plates were acquired by the University Archives. His account also describes how making the Howship Collection available to the Benalla and district community has provided local students with a valuable study resource, enriched local heritage appreciation, and may contribute to water management and flood mitigation.

A collection of 1250 glass plate photographic negatives of early 20th century Benalla and district held by the University of Melbourne Archives has become the centre of a multi-staged project which aims to raise funds from the local Benalla community to preserve and make the images more accessible to the public.

First proposed in late 2004, the project, based on the University’s Howship Collection, has seen the forging of an important partnership between the University and the Benalla community that will be highly beneficial for both parties.

Managed by the Archives, the first stage of the project consists of rehousing, listing and digitising of the collection.

The second stage will be managed by the Benalla & District Family History Group (B&DFHG) and will involve a community-based project to identify and add stories to the images.

The final stage will see the entire collection catalogued onto the Archives on-line photographic database, UMAIC, which will make the collection available both locally and internationally. Once on UMAIC the images will be available also on the national photographic on-line gateway, PictureAustralia, further enhancing the collection’s profile.

With the considerable help of the J J Merrigan Trust, the Tomorrow/Today Foundation and the Swanpool Directory Project Group, the B&DFHG has been able to provide the funds required for stage one of the project.

Work commenced on this stage at the beginning of the year with 400 plates so far being rehoused, listed and digitised. Funds for this stage have also been raised by the sale of a very popular calendar using images from the collection, which has been produced by the B&DFHG.

The Howship collection of dry plate glass negatives was created by professional photographer William John Howship between 1904 and 1931. Of great historical value, this rich collection documents early 20th century Benalla and the surrounding district in great detail.

The images include views of early buildings that have since been replaced, scenes of local events such as the great floods of the area, coronation celebrations and military ceremonies as well as a large body of portraiture.

The portrait work in particular is highly significant to the Benalla community as it includes images of many well known Benalla and district identities who frequented Howship’s studio, along with those of the lesser known whose descendents still live in the area.

Howship himself was a well known and active member of the Benalla and district community. Born in Collingwood in 1874, the youngest son of Charles Emanuel and Luisa Jane Howship, he left school at the age of 15 to work in his brother’s mount-cutting and photograph framing business in Little Collins Street, Melbourne. No doubt because of the nature of his trade he developed an interest in photography which led him to branch out by himself and open a photography and picture-framing business in Nunn Street, Benalla in April 1904.

Howship soon adopted a high profile in the community, married locally, and developed a successful business which included the sale of small-format Kodak cameras, a 24-hour film processing service as well as the actual photography practice, both studio and outdoor. Sporting goods and ‘fancy’ items were also sold by the business.

In 1914 Howship became one of the first volunteers in the Benalla district to enlist for the Great War serving as a transport driver carrying ammunition to the lines and as a dispatch rider.

Wounded in 1915, Howship was repatriated to Australia and discharged from military service in early 1916. During his time away Howship’s wife and brother-in-law ran the business.

Howship continued on with the business for another 15 years before being hospitalised at Caulfield Repatriation Hospital in late 1931 with a recurrent war wound which eventually took his life in 1932. After Howship’s death the business was sold and continued to operate until it finally ceased trading in 1964.

The glass plates taken by Howship remained in a trunk on the business premises until its closure, at which point founding University Archivist, Frank Strahan, acquired them for the UMA as an example of the output of an early 20th century photography business.

Having been lost to the area for many decades the return of these images will greatly enhance the visual history resources available to the community. Already the value of the collection for its documentation of the regular flooding of the Benalla township that occurred during this period has been recognised.

The information provided in these images will help the local community identify potential flooding risks created by proposed water management changes that are currently taking place.

One of the highlights associated with the project will be an exhibition to showcase the collection at the Benalla Art Gallery that is being sponsored by the B&DFHG and the University of Melbourne’s Goulburn Valley campus.

On display from 1 July to 13 August, the exhibition will consist of approximately 70 images representing the diverse and rich nature of Howship’s work. This event will also help raise further local interest in the community-based project to identify and add stories to the images which is being co-ordinated by the B&DFHG.

The exhibition is also providing an opportunity for local VCE students from Benalla College to become involved in the project as a part of their Community Service subject. The students’ involvement will include conducting research in the local community on the images to be displayed as well as assisting in the curatorship and mounting of the exhibition.


For further information on this project contact Jason Benjamin (UMA) on 8344 6848 or by email:

Jason Benjamin is Co-ordinator, General Reference and Outreach, University of Melbourne Archives.

References: Marjorie Cambell, Photographs from the Collection of William Howship – Calendar 2006, Benalla & District Family History Group; Roses & Thorns, March 2006, Number 58; Rodney Spark, The Howship Family (unpublished manuscript), 1985, UMA.

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