A Glimpse of the Past

Early photographers on Grand Turk.

By Jeffrey Dodge

Edmund Neale Coverley, one of the most active early photographers on Grand Turk at the beginning of the 20th century, has been the subject of several past articles in the Astrolabe. He is well known because many of his photographs were used to produce early picture postcards.
The earliest postcards attributed to Coverley were probably produced and printed by the photographer himself in his darkroom on photographic paper designed with a pre-printed postcard back. These real photo postcards (RPPC) were produced between 1904 and 1906.

An Edmund Neale Coverley real photo postcard of a canal leading from the sea to salt ponds on Grand Turk in 1905.

At least five picture postcards of scenes on Grand Turk were produced in 1904 by the British firm John Walker & Co. Ltd. from photographs taken by Edmund N. Coverley or possibly an unknown photographer—probably an itinerant photographer who traveled throughout the islands on behalf of this company for the sole purpose of taking photographs that the company would use to produce postcards they would then sell to island merchants. John Walker & Co. produced picture postcards of Bermuda, Nassau and Barbados as well as Grand Turk during this period.

This John Copeland Crisson photograph shows the schooner David Morris on the beach in Grand Turk after the hurricane of 1926.

Although Coverley is the best known photographer on Grand Turk in the early 20th century, there were others. Some remain unknown, but two have been identified. In the 1920s, two residents of Grand Turk began photographing scenes on the island and turning some of their photographs into picture postcards. The photographers were John Copeland Crisson, a native of Grand Turk, and Robert O. Challis, a Londoner who moved to Grand Turk around 1925 in the employ of Imperial & International Communications, Ltd.
John Copeland Crisson was born on Grand Turk in 1864. He married Adelaid Spencer there in 1868 and they had two children, Charles Hayward and Herbert Spencer. John C. Crisson was the editor and proprietor of the Weekly Record newspaper which he started in 1892. However, it was short-lived and ceased operating 18 months later. It is not know what Crisson did prior to his work as a newspaperman.
The Crisson family left Grand Turk for Bermuda about 1896 where they had three more children, John “Jack” Ethelbert, Elodie Ophelia and Frank Noel. Exactly what John C. Crisson did while in Bermuda is uncertain, but it is documented that in 1907 he was first mate aboard the schooner Priscilla when it made a trip from Bermuda to Grand Turk to deliver a cargo of lumber and returned to Bermuda with a shipment of salt from South Caicos. John C. Crisson wrote and published the story of this journey, so it is possible he also wrote other articles or stories—possibly for newspapers. Descendants report that Crisson was involved in the salvage business while in Bermuda.
When John Crisson returned to Grand Turk is uncertain, but it must have been before he became editor of The Chronicle and Dependency News in 1924. The government retaliated against the newspaper for critical articles it published, forcing it out of business in 1930. In addition to his newspaper work, Crisson made numerous voyages between Grand Turk and Jamaica on his ketch Kariette. Denis Murphy in his memoirs, My Years in The Sun: Island Memoirs, referred to uncle “Johnny” Crisson as a photographer and amateur boat builder.
Most of the known John Copeland Crisson photographs are of the damage on Grand Turk caused by the hurricane of September 16, 1926. This storm, known as the Great Miami Hurricane, passed just 10 miles north of Grand Turk with winds of 150 mph. John Crisson captured the damage in a series of photographs. He used some to produce real photo postcards, probably printing them himself on Kodak AZO paper having a pre-printed postcard back. Some of these postcards he embossed with “Crisson Photo” on the lower right corner. It is not known how many photographs or postcards Crisson may have produced during his life.
Robert Challis photo postcard of Grand Turk’s Government Wharf in 1927. John Copeland Crisson was a ship’s captain, newspaper man, photographer and amateur shipwright. He could also play the violin and speak Spanish. John Copeland Crisson died and was buried on Grand Turk in 1939. His wife Mary died in 1944 and was buried in Bermuda—perhaps having moved there after her husband’s death to be near her daughter Elodie and son John “Jack” Crisson.
Robert Ormond Challis was born in London, England in 1907. He left England around 1924 for Jamaica and Grand Turk as an employee of Imperial & International Communications Ltd (renamed Cable & Wireless Ltd. in 1934). He married Kathleen Mable Murphy on Grand Turk four years later. Kathleen was the sister of Denis H. Murphy, the author of My Years in the Sun: Island Memoirs. In addition to his work as a “cable engineer,” Robert Challis was a photographer and a member of the “Cables”—the Imperial & International Communications Ltd. soccer team. It is interesting to note that Robert’s father, Ormond E. Challis, was a recognized photographer in the United Kingdom and a member of the Royal Photographic Society.
Most of the known Challis photographs were of general scenes around Grand Turk. For example, he took photographs of the salt ponds near Government Wharf, St. Mary’s Church, St. Thomas’ Church, the east side of Grand Turk, North Pond, “Little Bluff,” the cable office, etc. These were taken between 1925 and 1929. Challis used some of his photographs to produce postcards. Although the postcards were real photo postcards (RPPC), Challis didn’t print them himself. Instead, he sent his negatives to at least three different British firms to have postcards produced for him. Most of his postcards are only identifiable because Challis himself or a collector wrote Challis’ initials and the date on the back as well as a title identifying the scene pictured on the front. At least one of Challis’ photographs, titled “Sunset,” can be found in the collection of the National Archives UK.
Robert O. Challis and his wife Kathleen had two children—daughter Lorna was born on Grand Turk in 1931 and son David was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1936—about two years after Cable and Wireless Ltd. transferred the family to Canada. It is possible that the Challis family moved back to Grand Turk in late 1938, but records confirming this are lacking. However there is photograph of Robert Challis taken on Grand Turk in 1939 that was published in the Cable and Wireless staff magazine Zodiac. Sometime before 1947, the Challis family moved to Bermuda—possibly still employed by Cable and Wireless Ltd. Robert Challis died in 1959—his wife Kathleen passed away a year later—both are buried at St. Paul’s Church Cemetery in Paget Parish, Bermuda. Challis’ photographs of his years in Canada and Bermuda have not been found and it is unknown whether or not he continued his interest in photography after leaving Grand Turk in 1934.

All of the photographs and postcards by John Crisson and Robert Challis known to the author were found in the collection of the Turks & Caicos National Museum. There are probably many more as yet identified photographs by these two men in private collections.
The author would like to thank the following people for their helpful contributions to this article: Gwendolyn Crisson (related by marriage to John Copeland Crisson); Edward C. Harris, PhD, Bermuda Maritime Museum, Bermuda; Lisa Talbot, staff, Turks & Caicos National Museum.

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