Syd Roberts (he was known to all except his mother as “Syd”) was born on 10th December 1924 and, like many city children, he was evacuated from Liverpool to North Wales on the outbreak of WW2 but returned after a few months to complete his studies, initially at school and later at Liverpool University.
During his evacuation time in Wales, he explored the Penrhyn Quarry Railway and other lines by bicycle, using a 35 mm camera which he borrowed from his older brother. During this time, he made friends with some of the staff and talked of riding on the footplate of a train of empties up to the quarry on a Saturday morning, returning on the workmen’s train at lunchtime. The driver’s name is thought to be John Roberts. Fortunately, a good proportion of his photographs show scenes not recorded by other photographers, even in later years, and at a time when amateur photography was difficult.
After the war, Syd obtained a second hand Novaflex SLR with a Meyer Trioplan lens and Compur shutter, the latter with nominal speeds down to 1/1000th of a second although subject to the usual limitations of the focal plane shutter blinds. He modified the camera to take 120 roll film, initially using ex-RAF surplus film which he cut up into strips and rolled into backing paper in his improvised darkroom (probably the cupboard under the stairs!). This film, at this time, being optimised for its intended purpose was not panchromatic i.e. not sensitive to reds and greens the way later commercial monochrome film was.
Syd bought a cine camera in about 1960, a wind-up Bolex 8mm model with a three-lens revolving turret – no zoom lenses or Super 8 film in those days! The Novaflex was showing its age, so he bought a twin-lens reflex, one of Dixon’s own “Prinz” label. Barry will notice the change to vertical format for the negative strips. It wasn’t too successful – tended to show tramlines on the negatives – and was eventually replaced with a Yashica TLR. He also changed to Ektachrome colour transparency film, which we used to develop ourselves in the kitchen.
The process was a bit more complex than monochrome processing, the film had to be taken out of the tank and re-exposed under a photoflood lamp to effect the “reversal” or dye-development stage before completing processing in the tank again. His final camera was a Pentax SLR, marking a change to 35 mm film and such luxuries as a zoom lens and TTL metering.
About 1965, Syd and his son Richard produced many sets of prints of some of his photographs as a fund-raising scheme for the Maid Marian Locomotive Fund and these were sold widely at the time. During these darkroom sessions, there were many discussions, while waiting for the picture to appear in the dish under their fingers, and of the happy memories Syd had of his visits to the Penrhyn Quarry Railway.
We are indebted to Richard Roberts for placing his late father’s negatives with The Transport Treasury and for assisting Robin Willis of the Penryhn Quarry Railway Society for his assistance in compiling these notes.