I think the very essence within all our obsessions with film cameras is the romance of holding something in your hands that could tell many stories. It’s the unknown history that we hope to add to. What memories did it create? Family holidays, friends on a night out or maybe gritty social scenes from a time that has been resigned to the history books as it fades from human memory. Unless we are lucky, we’ll never hear those faint whispers and will just have to rely on our imagination. I buy and sell a lot of cameras and will always look for one with a receipt or maybe even an import docket, something that puts a name and possibly a place to a camera. It always makes it that little bit more desirable.
The camera I’ll tell you about today is a Rolleicord IIe, made between November 1949 and September 1950. It was bought from our favourite auction site, in working condition, and with its original case, which is always a nice addition. What really caught my eye, was a luggage tag attached to the case. I couldn’t really make it out on the listing, but obviously had the name of a ship, and possibly “Amsterdam”. I’m a sucker for anything to do with Holland as I worked there many moons ago.
Intrigued, I made an offer that was duly accepted.
Now this is where it gets interesting. There’s always apprehension when you first open a package containing a camera from ebay. It’s a bit like a first date. All the excitement and anticipation, that often ends in sudden, crushing disappointment. It doesn’t stop the rush of blood or the conviction that this time it will be the one. This Rolleicord may not have been the one, but it was a contender. It was in good condition, with only the slow speeds fairly useless, which is common with a camera of this age. Nothing a good CLA wouldn’t solve. The camera had obviously been well looked after. The tag didn’t look recent, so the camera had probably been stored for some time, which was probably the reason for the slow shutter speeds.
The tag had writing on both sides:
“Passenger SS Togokust – To Amsterdam (last bit unreadable)”. The Togokust was a cargo vessel built in 1959 for N.V. Hollandsche Stoomboot Maatschappij , Amsterdam. It was used on the Holland – West Africa routes. It was sold to a Greek shipping company in 1971, and changed its name to MS Akra Rion. It was broken up in 1984. So from that bit of information, it seems the camera was on the ship between 1959 and 1971.
Does that also mean that it hasn’t been used since at least 1971? It seems highly unlikely that a cardboard tag, attached with a piece of string would still be attached to the case, after 50+ years.
The address side read:
“Miss L Bown, Woolstaston Hall, Leebotwood. Shrewsbury. UK“. I may not be Columbo, but I figured that this must be the previous owners name. A quick search, and up popped good old Wikipedia: Woolstaston – Wikipedia
Would you believe it, there in front of me, at the bottom of the entry about Woolstaston, was the name “Lalage Bown (1927-2021)”, surely the recently deceased once owner of the Rolleicord. It added that she was an “educator, feminist and women’s literacy advocate in Africa”. Intrigued, my search continued. Again, wikipedia helped: Lalage Bown – Wikipedia
Lalage (pronounced Lallargy and taken from an ode by the Roman poet Horace) was born in Croydon UK, on April 1st 1927. She had quite a life. Lalage was educated at the Somerville College in Oxford and took her first teaching post in Ghana in 1949. That was quite a jump for a young lady from Britain at that time. She went on to become a passionate advocate for education on the African continent and in particular the acquisition of literacy skills for women. In 1997, she was hailed as “the mother of Adult Education in Africa”.
You can read Lalage Bown’s obituary from The Guardian here. This on the V&A website is also worth a read. A truly remarkable lady, who did so much in a time when women had to fight for every opportunity, and to do so much for the African people. I am truly humbled by the fact that I have her camera. Even though she is not known as a photographer, and I cannot find any reference to any photographs taken by her, to know it was by her side and travelled with her is quite amazing. I urge you to read more about this great woman in the two links I’ve provided. I think she was a true visionary at a time when there was prejudice towards woman and the African continent in general.
Sadly, Lalage passed away on 17th December 2021 at the age of 94. I can only assume that the camera was maybe obtained as part of an estate sale or house clearance. As it looks like it was not used since at least 1971, I assume it had been long forgotten. I contacted the seller but unfortunately received no reply.
There’s a possibility that you may come to own a camera that has a recognised past owner, but the beauty with vintage film cameras that they all have previous owners that created their own history, and that’s why we love them. So, keep on searching for those hidden gems. Just remember that every camera that passes through our hands was once someone else’s pride and joy, and that we are just looking after it for them.
This was never going to be a camera review. It is the story of one camera and documenting the life of its extraordinary owner. But, I suppose after all of that, I should really talk a little bit about the camera itself. A Rolleicord IIe TLR camera from 1949-50. Perhaps Lalage bought the camera to celebrate her graduation in 1949. The Rolleicord was considered to be for the keen amateur. Still a good choice for someone moving to the African Continent for the first time. Lalage lived there from 1949-81.
It has a 75mm f/3.5 lens, which in 35mm terms makes it a roughly a 48mm lens, a great “normal” lens. It has a coated Schneider Kreuznach Xenar optic and it takes beautiful 6×6 images. Looking down through that lovely waist level finder makes you think hard about framing your photo by forcing you to think square. Rollei got it right a long time before instagram. Needless to say, it is a great camera.
If a camera feels right and the images are good, then it will get a thumbs up from me, and I would happily recommend this TLR, and any like it, to anyone. Rollei knew how to make a camera and that’s why they are still taking images after all these years.
I’ve included a photo taken on a cold, frosty morning in December, 2021. It was taken with Ilford HP5 @ iso 400 and developed in ID11 using massive dev chart for times. I hope it speaks for itself. Great Camera. Great story. Inspirational lady.
Finally, I would like to say thank you to the lady who helped me obtain the photos of Lalage, Kate O’Donnell Assistant Archivist & Records Manager Somerville College
I also have a Rolleicord Va currently being serviced by Newton Ellis, and will be gushing my love for it very soon.
Thanks for reading,
If you are looking to take your first steps into film photography, or just love film cameras as much as I do, please pop over to my etsy store to see a few select film tested cameras that are available to purchase.
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