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Friday, 5 December 2014

Which moneyed New Zealand photographer and phrenologist had an aunt who lived next door to Charles Dickens?

Herbert Henry Vorley 1839-1880


In January 1879 Herbert Henry Vorley of Westport received a cablegram from London notifying him of the death of his paternal aunt, Frances Sharp. She was the widow of a solicitor, Edmund Sharp, and for over a decade had been a neighbour of the author Charles Dickens when he lived in Devonshire Terrace, Marylebone. Anxious to claim his share of his aunt’s ₤50,000 estate (NZ$6 million at current values), Herbert Henry immediately packed up his belongings and together with his family set sail for England.

Despite an affluent background, Herbert Henry had since 1867 pursued a humble existence earning a living as a photographer and phrenologist on New Zealand’s West Coast. Born in London in 1839, the commercial activities of his father, John Iliff Vorley, a former ship's officer and merchant, had taken them both to Melbourne, Australia by 1860. Here Vorley junior married 17 year-old Margaret Wood in February 1863. But the successive deaths of his father in July 1863, his one year-old son Edmund Sharp Vorley in 1865, and infant daughter Frances Caroline Vorley in 1866 prompted a radical change in direction. The recent gold discoveries in New Zealand had Melbourne buzzing, and Herbert Henry and Margaret joined the exodus of diggers from Victoria headed for the West Coast.

Vorley eventually settled in Westport, and in 1873 was one of the signatories to a petition calling for the town to be constituted a borough. But it is evident from the birthplaces of his children, and from his cartes-de-visite, that he did not limit his activities to the town, at various times operating photographic rooms at Camp Street, Charleston, and in Broadway, Reefton.

Vorley’s Westport studio adjoined his house in Palmerston Street. As was usual at that time, it had an expansive glass roof to provide natural lighting. However, the roof was susceptible to the weather, and suffered substantial hailstorm damage in December 1875. Much to his annoyance and distress, Vorley’s premises also abutted a roller-skating rink. In October 1876 he successfully prosecuted the proprietor of the rink, hotelkeeper George Clark, for nuisance, claiming that skaters’ jeers and catcalls, and a noise like a perpetual Ethiopian clog dance, frequently lasted from morning until 11 or 12 o’clock at night. The clamour interfered with his calculation of exposure times, and disturbed sitters, often necessitating the taking of additional negatives. Not only was the din detrimental to his business, it had also affected his health. The judge agreed with the plaintiff, and awarded damages of £10 10 shillings, plus costs.

This was the first mention of health problems. Soon after, in March 1877, Vorley was compelled to cut short a business stay in Reefton because of illness. His aunt’s bequest was therefore very opportune. But he had little time to enjoy his good fortune, dying in London on 17 November 1880.


Herbert Henry Vorley was one of many 19th century New Zealand photographers who combined their art with other occupations, offering both portraits and phrenological assessments at his Charleston studio. This phrenological chart of Sir George Grey by P Besomo is dated 1891. Note the beer bottle by his right temple! (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 7-C65)

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