Remembering Harry Firth

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Guest article by James Firth.

I discovered Chris Butterfield’s content-rich website through his growing Facebook group Alfred Wainwright Books & Memorabilia. It was a pleasure to reveal to the group many signed Wainwright books and other collectables passed down through my family. After a short time, Chris kindly asked me if I would like to write a quick blog as a tribute to my grandfather; Harry Firth was the general printing manager of The Westmorland Gazette from the 1950s until his retirement in 1982. Harry was entirely instrumental in the early success of Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides and was heavily involved with the printing and marketing of them, which wasn’t easy during those early years.

So, who was Harry Firth? I have heard many stories about him being quite a formidable manager to those who worked with him. My mother-in-law remembers him being very quiet and polite when she worked in the Gazette shop as a younger lady. However, he was, of course, just grandad, kind and loving, cuddly grandad. I was about three years old when he retired, and by the time I was old enough to hold a conversation with him, the world of work was very much in the past. There was, however, a part of his working life that would stay with him forever. It resonated through my grandmother Kay and the rest of my family, and still does to this day…this was his close friendship with AW.

Although AW has always had a presence in my family, growing up fascinated with the books on my grandparent’s shelves. My interest was momentarily piqued a few years ago when the Wainwright Society interviewed my grandmother and father, Michael Firth. AW and Betty were mentioned often, and we even displayed some of AW’s original artwork on our walls at home. These drawings are now held at the Abbot Hall in Kendal. I feel like a relative newcomer to the world of AW.

However, when my father handed me our family collection of AW books and other memorabilia, it was recently that I seemingly became ‘hooked’. I wanted to know more and started looking for resources. I immediately found Chris’s Facebook group, where I found a lot of excellent Wainwright experts and enthusiasts, and not least of all, Chris himself. His encouragement to share stories and other items from my collection gave me the energy to search for even more. I soon discovered his website, an incredible resource and a culmination of detailed hard work. I enjoy reading the printing history of all the books and find Harry Firth mentioned frequently.

Among the books collection, I was delighted to find other bits and pieces, such as postcards from Wainwright to Harry, which I have shared with the Facebook group. My grandparents often spoke about their holidays to Scotland and Wales with AW and betty, and I found several photographs from some of these outings. At first, I was reluctant to share these photographs because I thought they were a bit poor, as many of them were taken from the back of AWs’ heads. Through my conversations with Chris, I have since learned that after reading Andrew Nichols’ brilliant book, Behind the scenes with Wainwright, this was just par for the course with AW! He didn’t always like his photograph taken. My grandmother commented that AW could be an awkward character at times. I have also realised that Harry doesn’t appear in any of them; he must have been behind the camera and just as shy as AW!   

At Harry Firth’s retirement dinner at the Wild Boar in 1982. Photograph courtesy of the Westmorland Gazette.

I want to share these rare photographs with you now, and what better place to do it than here, on this dedicated Wainwright website. The first photo is of a ‘Bothy’ in Lochcarron, where Harry and Kay stayed with AW in 1972. Harry and Kay often talked about their trip to ‘the Bothy’. It was the perfect base from which to set off on walking adventures.

The bothy at Loch Carron September 1972.

The next one is of AW and Kay on the summit of Ben Lawers in Scotland, one of very few where AW is facing in the right direction!

AW & Kay at the Summit of Ben Lawyers
Wainwright and Kay at the summit of Ben Lawyers.

This one is of AW Betty and Kay at the summit of Cnicht in Snowdonia in 1980. The trip produced source material for the book. I have posted some of the Snowdonia photos on the Facebook group, with the drawing from Welsh Mountain Drawings, which is believed to be of Kay at the summit of Tryfan.

Wainwright, Betty & Kay at the Summit of Enict
Wainwright, Betty & Kay at the summit of Cnicht
Kay at Aber Falls
Kay at Aber Falls.
The Summit of Snowden 1980
Kay at the summit of Snowden 1980.
Kay at Snowdonia in 1980
Kay at Snowdonia in 1980.

Chris and I did a little investigating, and we discovered that the below photographs were taken when Wainwright was working on the North Wales, South Wales, and Peak District Sketchbooks. Wainwright snapped away during these trips, and he even used the photo of the Saint Govan’s chapel in Pembrokeshire taken by Harry. Both AW and Kay are in the shot, but AW removed himself from the drawing. For those who own A South Wales Sketchbook, check out drawing No.63.

Wainwright and Kay at St Govans Chapel. Pembrokeshire, Wales
Wainwright and Kay at St Govans Chapel in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Wainwright and Betty
Wainwright and Betty at Dolwyddelan Castle.
Wainwright at Carmarthen Parish Church
Wainwright at St Peter’s Church, Carmarthen.
Wainwright at Chepstow Castle
Wainwright at Chepstow Castle in Wales.
Betty & Kay at Tretower House
Betty and Kay at Tretower Court and Castle in Wales.

The last two photos reveal AW in the Peak District, taking pictures as references for his final sketchbook published in 1984.

Wainwright at Bakewell 1983
Wainwright at Bakewell in the Peak District 1983.
Wainwright and Betty & Kay Goyt Valley 1983
Wainwright taking a reference photo for his book with Betty and Kay in the Goyt Valley in 1983.   

I certainly hope you have enjoyed seeing these photographs as much as I have enjoyed sharing them. Chris has informed me previously that my grandparents accompanied AW on various holidays for about 15 years, so maybe there are more photographs out there, and so my search continues.

                                                                                                            

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