Bruno Lancel Hamel (1837-?)
When in January 1859 the Auckland Provincial Government prevailed upon the geologist Dr Ferdinand Hochstetter of the visiting Austrian survey ship Novara to abandon his colleagues and undertake an expedition into the province’s vast interior, 21 year-old Bruno Lancel Hamel was recruited to act as the expedition’s photographer.
Hamel, of French Huguenot descent, was born in Tamworth, England in 1837, but had spent some years in Victoria, before returning to Britain in 1855 after the accidental death of his father at the Mt Blackwood goldfield. Unable to settle, Bruno and his mother left for New Zealand on the William Watson in August 1857, arriving in January 1858 in Auckland, where Bruno set up a photographic studio in Edward Street.
Hochstetter’s expedition proved a gruelling 1000 kilometre, 79-day journey by foot, horseback and canoe, and even with the assistance of four Maori porters, sections of the trek were deemed much too rugged to safely transport Hamel’s photographic equipment. Consequently while Hochstetter and his companions took a southerly route from the Waipa Mission Station to the Hot Lakes district via Lake Taupo, Hamel travelled directly eastward, rendezvousing with the rest of the party at Lake Tarawera. Despite this shortcut, Hamel still managed to arrive back in Auckland with a collection of some 60 glass plate negatives.
Within weeks his return Hamel had taken over John Nicol Crombie's former Shortland Street studio, now known as "Hamel's Atelier", and was offering for sale albums of photographic views from his recent trip. But Hamel's advertisement in Laurence's Auckland Almanac for 1860 (published in December 1859) gave as much prominence to his work as a musical instrument repairer as to his activities as a photographer. In March Henry Frith acquired Hamel’s premises, and this may well have spelt the end of Hamel’s photographic career in New Zealand. The following month the expedition camera used by Hamel was put up for public auction.
Bruno had married 17 year-old Caroline Umbers at St Patrick's Church, Auckland on 23 January 1860. But in September 1861 he arrived in Sydney on the Fortune, apparently leaving his young wife behind in Auckland. The following year Caroline, travelling alone, was caught up in the wreck of White Swan, en route for Wellington, where she appears to have settled, if temporarily. As for Bruno, in April 1863 the Maitland Mercury noted the brief appearance in West Maitland (New South Wales) of the photographers Sanders & Hamel. If this was Bruno, it could be the last confirmed sighting of him. In March 1866, Bruno’s mother advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald for her son to contact to her. After her death in November 1873, the family solicitor in Tamworth also advertised for information about Bruno’s whereabouts. Caroline, however, had already decided that Bruno was dead, and she remarried in December 1869, at the time describing herself as a widow. Despite her certainty, no trace of Bruno Hamel's death has ever been found.
In July 1859 the Auckland Provincial Government paid Bruno Hamel £10 for an album of photographic views taken on the Hochstetter Expedition. This album is now in the Sir George Grey Special Collections at the Auckland Central Library, and is prefaced by a portrait of Ferdinand Hochstetter, and by this panoramic view of Auckland – the earliest known view of the city’s waterfront. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 755-Album-40)