Memories of R.N.S.O.P.

By Bob Lomax


I can’t even visualize what they do in the modern “Joint Services School of Photography”, with its Mega pixels, Zoom Lenses and Laser printers but I can offer some memories of the Royal Navy School of Photography of nearly sixty years ago and how “would-be-phots” were trained at Ford.


In early 1949 some 30 young Naval Airman would arrive at RNAS Ford from various air stations around the country where they had received their basic training.   Either by luck or being bright in initial training they have been fortunate to be selected for  Naval photographic training. This was to be 6 Course and would later be whittled down to 24 bodies at the "dreaded 8th week" exam.


Our course and Divisional Officer was Commissioned Photographer “Wally” Gresham with C.P.O. “Biffer” Nash and P.O. “Ratfaced” Brown together with the younger Mr. Jack Barber (one of two Barber brothers who were civilian instructors) would see us through our nine month course.  At various times usually when the C&POs were sleeping off their tots  Ldg. Phot Len. “Low-angle” Brown  would read to us from the Ilford Manual of Photography,  detailing the various chemicals required to make up a developer. !! This we had to write down and memorize, ….it was Instructional Technique of the highest order!!…. I still remember  “Silica Gel absorbs moisture with avidity”. I didn’t discover for years what avidity meant and I’m sure Len who later became a good chum never did know!!


We were housed in a clapped out wartime wooden hut with corticine on the floor in places and two wood burning stoves for heating, the lucky ones grabbed beds near the stoves and our class leader “Shorty” Walker ex TAG took up residence in the cabin at the end.  5 Course who were in the next mess became great rivals as to who could find most wood for the stoves, usually by breaking pieces off each others huts.


If we were lucky we would travel down to the school in a 3 ton lorry, all of us !!! But if we'd been “stroppy” we were marched all the way with no talking as we passed the Wardroom and so-called married quarters, all  in about 6 to 8 semidetached houses. Quite  a sight with “Shorty” calling the steps.


The school buildings were outside the airfield perimeter on the lane leading to Yapton from Ford railway station. Once within the school the discipline became even more relaxed , the C.O. a Lt. Cdr Taylor together with Lt “Scruffy” Manley-Cooper let the Commissioned Phots. get on with running  it,  and stayed in their offices which with stores and classrooms lined one corridor joined to another corridor of darkrooms  by two contact  printing rooms.


Most of the first eight weeks were spent in the classrooms “absorbing” the basics of optics and Photo-chemistry theory,  with spells mixing chemicals and learning the rudiments of the Watson half-plate and VN press camera. with simple contact printing all this leading up to dreaded 8thweek exam.  I must confess I spent the exam week in hospital in Chichester and on my return found the class cut down to 24.  The rest returned to Lee for other duties.

Whether I would have passed myself we shall never know but Wally Gresham said I could stay if I forego my sick leave to which I readily agreed.


Having missed out on some of the training whilst in hospital I was given my own personal instructor for contact printing!!! One P.O. “Soapy” Watson !!!!  He wasn’t too happy about this extra work and his method of teaching me is worth relating.


“Now we have three sorts of paper,.. hard, medium and soft.  I want you to expose separate  sheets  to this negative for 3 , 6, 9 and  12 secs for each grade a total of 12 sheets which I want you to develop for 2 and a half minutes at 68 degrees then pick the best print and produce for me 12 matched prints".

  With that he promptly retired to a corner of the darkroom to sleep his tot off. An hour or so later with a sink full of prints I finally managed to achieve his required matching dozen and got a bollocking for waking him up when I’d finished. Whenever I went into a darkroom for the next 50 years I still remembered it and was just glad “Multigrade” paper hadn’t been invented at the time.


We were instructed on the Watson camera by Jack Barber,  who thought it important that we know how to find out the focal length of a given lens if  not on it.  "Somebodies" law he called it and it meant we spent a day in the fields at the back of the school focusing two marks on the ground glass screen on distant fence poles,  lines were drawn on paper under the cameras baseboard and the point they intersected measured from similar marks on the paper was the focal length of the lens !!!!! A fact that was on the lens barrel !!!! And you know in nearly fifty years in professional photography I never came across a lens without its focal length being marked on it…….but at least its was a nice break in the sun.

Loading glass plates was another trick he passed on.  To check which was the emulsion side he told us to put the corner of the plate in your mouth !!! The side that stuck to your lip was the emulsion and all the class were left walking around with purple lips from the backing that was on the reverse of the plate.


There were four types of emulsions available to us, fast Pan at 4000H&D, slow Pan at 2000 H&D,  fast orthochromatic at 2500 H&D and Blue Sensitive for copying at 50? H&D.

Hurter and Driffield was the speed rating system we were taught before ASA became the standard and Jack explained we had to give the prevalent light an “actinic value”…. Dividing the “A” value into the H&D rating gave you your exposure at F 8 !!..magic when you knew how to rate the light, but as most of us developed our plates by inspection, and with Farmers Reducer available we usually came up with a printable negative…. what its gradation was is a matter of luck. But eventually we got used to using the system and it was in practice until light meters became available.


Interiors were a different kettle of fish, and required us to consult our “magic card”, a series of numbers on a square grid, not unlike a suduko card. If memory serves me right we noted the aperture at which the darkest object on the focusing screen disappeared, this was transposed on our card to another figure which was the exposure at F8.!!!  True it worked.  I had three cards worked out for the different pan emulsions and fast ortho.  Sadly it didn’t work for copying and that meant lengthy calculations also taught by JB.

 Mike Adams on 5 course had the first exposure meter I ever saw, ..a Beemeter (?) and I had him check my estimations until his course left Ford.

 Certain subjects became standard for our Watson work and I think most of us did the interior of Climping church as our test. Once somebody got the right exposure the info was passed on, The vicar of Climping must have had 100s of prints given to him.


When we got our hands on the VN press camera we really thought of ourselves as photographers. With one member of class riding  a bike up and down the lane outside the school we’d practice “action shots”….. who could get a sharp bike with a blurred background through panning ?. We were very lucky insomuch as there was no limitation on materials, so we tried until we got a decent shot. It was only at exam times that our plates were limited by having them signed in the darkroom by an instructor prior to exposure.


 We were allowed quite a lot of freedom which led to three of us getting Commanders Report.  We had gone into Littlehampton to practice with the VNs.  Really it was an excuse to take pics of the local girls, so with caps flat-a-back in Jolly Jack style we roamed the streets looking for the local talent….only to be confronted by the Station Pay-bob complete with escort going into the Bank to collect money!!!!. Suitably “bollocked” by the Pay-bob and told we were to be reported for being “improperly dressed” and placed on Commanders report.  We confessed to P.O. Brown on our return who immediately went bonkers and said he would see what  could be done.

 Next day prior to going in front of the Commander he told us we were to say we had to push our caps back so we could get our eyes close to the viewfinder and that having promised his Tot to  the P.O. in charge of the escort,  who would agree we were taking photographs.  When we offered this excuse the Commander asked if this was so, to which the P.O. gave a very good impression of somebody using his hand to see through the waist level viewfinder of a box camera !!!!  We all nearly fell about laughing….but we still got away with it…..but it cost us quite a few pints to both P.O.s.


We  progressed to more applied photography and the first highlight was to cover a gun shoot with the Low Angle Marking Camera.

 A monster of a camera, body of cast aluminum, tripod of solid steel with a “Pendulum” a  cast iron weight swinging between the tripod legs. It all came in three wooden boxes which required a man each to carry them, and it only used 120 roll film *(or 70mm).

Our party traveled down to Portsmouth the night before the shoot  in the charge of CPO Biffer Nash who deposited us at Vernon steps to go aboard on the towing tug  HMS Antic,  the last coal fired vessel in the RN,   whilst he disappeared home to Tipnor.


 As most of the tugs crew were “Rationed ashore” we were left to sling our hammocks wherever we could find space. I didn’t fancy down below so decided the small bridge was an healthier space, until about 6.0am in the morning when the skipper, an ex-lower deck Lt. came aboard  found me, tipped me out of my hammock and said I should go below and act as cook-of-the-mess and get the breakfast ready for the crew and those “b….. photographers.

 Trying to redeem myself I opened the tins of Herrings in Tomato, laid them out beautifully on a plate,  then buttered the bread and laid it all out on the mess table, … went off to wash and shave.  On my return every cockroach in Pompey had decided to come to the party and the table and all the food was covered with the creepy cockroaches. I tried quickly picking them off and throwing them on the deck.  When the crew returned they wanted to know why all the cockroaches on the deckhead were covered in tomato sauce. I hadn’t the heart to tell them!!!! Nobody went down with the plague and were none the wiser until I told the rest of my fellow phots. on our return to Ford.


 Then we had to process and  plot the results. Low Angle Marking was the first and only time I used Colour photography in the Navy. It was Dufaycolour, a roll film with three screened layers which required rather complicated processing.  The school had a splendid new shiny chrome plated electric driven processing machine installed in a small darkroom which had no ventilation.

 Higgy Higginson and I were  entrusted with processing the film and warned that in no way were we to “cock-it-up” or we’d go back to Whale Island and  explain ourselves !!

 We dutifully mixed the prepacked chemicals as instructed, darkened down and loaded the film onto the machine. All went well until we reached the bleach stage and  Higgy collapsed to the floor, the bleach chemistry contained a lot of Ammonia and that had overcome him as he leant over the machine.

 What do I do?…. I daren’t open the door letting light in and spoil the process, so dragging Higgy as near the door as possible I started banging and shouting until “Soapy Watson” heard me, opened the door and crushed Higgies fingers… he came round very quickly!! Fortunately the film survived the light from the door as the next step in the process was the exposure to light for the reversal stage!!!!

The resulting “colour” images could record the different coloured splashes from shells fired by different guns or ships….if you were lucky. The transparency film had no other use as the screens in each layer made projection impossible.


We progressed to Aerial photography through classroom calculations to produce “line-overlaps and mosaics and memorised various formulae to give the required results. T he only one I remember being “wrens have few virgins” which translated to   “Width x height over focal length x velocity “ !!!  Also some reason we were made to memorise the cycle of operations of the F24 camera gearbox and believe it or not I could still recite it until a few years ago.

The highlight of this part of the course was a trip to Tangmere to fly in RAF Ansons and practise what we had been taught.  I think 7 at a time boarded the aircraft and we all took turns at shooting hand-held obliques through the rear window and then crawling into the nose of the Anson to do a “line overlap”. Favorite “targets” were Arundel Castle and the railway line to Barnham station.

Which leads to the legendary story of the trainee phot instructing the pilot   “right,right , left steady, steady and then the famous “Back a Bit”!!!!….. a modern phot in his Helicopter might get away with it but certainly not in an Anson.


We had to print and lay down our own line overlaps and also printed and laid down mosaics from other negs, which required some skill in matched printing.

Other aircraft mounted cameras such as the GSOP gun sight camera, the G45 gun camera, both 16mm and the F46 a torpedo tracking camera which used 120 film and had a Louvered shutter which was different. We practiced loading 16mm film onto racks which would have been processed in practice in 20 gallon tanks.

The 5inch wide F24 film was processed by winding from one spool to another by hand at an even speed, quite an accomplishment for 8 minutes but somewhat easier than trying to load the same film into a large spiral for “rapid processing”. The processed film was then wound onto large rotating drying frames and air dried as the frames rotated.


Moving to Movies !!  We were taught how to load magazines and service Vinten K,  Newman Sinclairs and Morigraf 35mm cine cameras though our actual film shooting was limited to 16mm Kodak cameras with which we attempted to make  a short film albeit only in negative form which was ruined the first time we projected it. The National Service Phot course running at the same time as ours went one better……whilst attempting a tracking shot down the main corridor on a bike….. ran into the CO's. Secretary carrying coffee into his office splashing both him and her with hot coffee.!!!


Two other characters worth recalling at the school were Bill Roadnight, a civvy cleaner who was also a bookies runner, so he catered for the gamblers and "Hooky" Fairhurst, a leading phot who ran the stores. He catered for the 35mm film requirements of the civvy photographers who photographed visitors in Trafalgar Square and the pigeons. He would lend you an AGI handheld 120 Observers camera with an enormous wooden pistol grip to take on weekend to London if you would deliver the 200ft of 35mm film to his "friends", who would reward you with a fiver to take back to Hooky, who in turn usually lost it to Bill Roadnight. .


The last weeks before our final exam were spent refining our camera and printing skills on the 8308 enlargers,  learning how to use flashbulbs with the VN press camera which entailed synchronizing via an antenous release to a push-on Compur shutter.

One had to mechanically sync up the shutter set at1/50th to a Sashalight flashbulb which had a duration of 1/75th second and that was if the bulb fired!!! Those bulbs caused phots many an embarrassing moment on shoots as they were quite likely to explode and even after they were coated with plastic they still caused nasty burns to the fingers if you changed them too quickly.


There must have been lots of other techniques and practices that were explained to us which have disappeared from my memory, I don’t even remember the final exam but I do know we celebrated it in the “Farmers” at Yapton with the Landgirls who regularly beat us at Darts whenever we gave them a game.


 The Royal Naval School of Photography had a happy atmosphere and the knowledge I gained there served as a very good basis for the remaining 50 years of professional photography.


If I could wind the clock back I’d go back there tomorrow… even use plates again… beats this modern digital stuff !!!. Whoever got pixels stuck on their bottom lip ?. 


Item Description. Article

Remarks/People Involved.  Memories of RNSOP Ford

Ship/Place/Originator. Bob Lomas

Original Reference.

Date/ Date range.c1949

Submitted by.  Bob Lomax

Now Held By. Bob Lomax

Historians No. Hist 437