Franz Heinrich Losel was born in Germany in 1858, and moved to England some time before his 23rd birthday in 1881. He was unmarried, and called himself Francis in the census. He learnt his trade as an assistant to the photographer John Hunt (who was aged 68 in 1881), Losel may well have served as an apprentice to Hunt during the late 1870s. Hunt was an experienced photographer having started his business in 1851. In 1881 Losel lived in with his employer John Hunt (born in Preston) and his wife Mary Hunt (she was born in Sheerness) at Mile Town, the rear of High Street, Isle of Sheppey, Kent.
It seems likely given his age that Hunt retired soon after 1881 or even died, leaving Losel to run the business, certainly Losel was set up with his own studio at some time before 1888. Here Losel produced good quality carte-de-visite photographs, and probably the larger cabinet cards, his style seems to be usually head and shoulders only or a seated pose. The small albumen print photo was pasted on a green or white card, with his name displayed in gold lettering on the lower front. The back was plain, and provided with a fold over tissue protector cover. Having a foreign sounding name was not a disadvantage to a photographer in the 1880s and actually sounded professional, as many photographers had such names: J.Von Dollhopff and Fehrenbach in London, Guttenberg in Bristol and Lombardi in Brighton.
Three examples of Losel's carte-de-visite work in the 1880s (people unknown).
After about 1902 the world-wide demand for carte-de-visite and cabinet card portraits declined, and Losel had to find other types of photograph to sell - many went on to the popular postcard format, but I have no evidence that he did. In the early 1900s Losel was living by Beach Fields in Sheerness, his studio was a large conservatory attached to his house (since demolished) and facing the sea, the glass provided the natural light needed for good photographs and he had a large telescope. Each morning he would set off along the sea wall carrying his camera in one hand, and tripod and black camera cover, in the other, to take what photographs he could of the ships he had spotted through his telescope - this I assume is how he could tell if a ship had docked, and he often got the crew to line up in front of their ship, sometimes a warship. By simply taking one group photo, he gained the opportunity to sell to each crew member one to six copies of the same photograph. These they would send to friends and family, and with a large crew it would be well worth the effort. We are fortunate that an elderly lady, Ivy Russell, when aged 90, could still recall Losel and his morning walks on his way to take these photographs:
He would appear in the distance, he seemed a sinister, menacing figure, causing Ivy to panic and grasp her father's hand tighter. In her fright she would gasp, It's German Losel, it's German Losel ! and stop dead in her tracks. Her father would placate her and urge her to carry on and answer politely when he greeted them, as he always did, with great politeness, addressing her as 'Missy'.Later with war looming, another local resident Mrs Lily Filby, at 87 years old, recalled Losel
as a harmless, unprepossessing character, he was a solitary man with whom no one, because he was German, would associate. Nevertheless he addressed everyone he recognised with a mild. mannered, polite Good Day.
In a government document of 1909*, mindful of the then relationship with Germany and the possibility of spying, records that in 1904 an officer was sent to have a look round, one of the list of suspect things he reported was:
At Sheerness there is a very suspicious German photographer named Losel who spends a good deal of money and does little or no business. He is, however, known to be a doubtful person, and his opportunities are, therefore, not great.*April, 1909 Proceedings of the sub-committee of the committee of Imperial Defence appointed by the Prime Minister to consider the question of foreign espionage in the United Kingdom - copy in the British Library..
Losel had run his studio for almost thirty years, and this profession usually did provide a good living, and profits were usually high enough to allow most photographers to make investments. By 1904 his studio trade had fallen off because of trends beyond his control. Later on he seems to have lost trade simply because he was seen as German, even though he had lived in the area for more than thirty years. So he probably lived off his investments and what trade he could get from the passing ships.
After about 1910 guns and searchlights were placed along the sea front and later troops were drafted into the town, the people of the town following the invasion fever of the times, muttered that Losel might be a German spy, people wondered where he got his money from when his business had so few customers, so they gossiped that his photographs of ships and details of their crews found their way to Germany and that he was paid as a spy!
Although no one could actually produce any proof that his wanderings with his camera were other than innocent walks, the rumours of spying were widely believed. When war was declared in 1914 Ivy and Lily clearly recalled that a contingent of children Smashed Losel's conservatory to smithereens
It certainly would have been a very foolish and perhaps defiant act on Losel's part, as a German national, to continue to take photos of warships on the very outbreak of war - if that is what he did - but that was how he made his living, and it got him into trouble - see the extract below.
Where he went next, neither ladies were sure, but Mrs Philby says he was taken away by the Military and interned for the duration of the war. The question remains, was Franz Heinrich Losel a spy, or was he taken away for his own protection? Opinion is divided. He never returned to Sheerness to supply the answer. (more added below 2005)
Extract from the Sheerness Times, 8th August 1914
A sensation has now been occasioned at Sheerness by the arrest of the photographer of German nationality, who for some years, has posssessed a studio and workshop on the recreation ground, this being none other than Mr Franz H. Losel. He was brought before Mr A.J. Tassell, Stipendiary Magistrate at Sheerness Police Court on Wednesday charged on suspicion with taking certain photographs to be used by an opposing beilligerent state. In the case against Losel evidence was given by Albert Page, a Lance Corporal in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He said he was on duty on Tuesday night and had misgivings as to the prisoner's movements.
...He saw the accused standing on the embankment overlooking the sea wall . . He went up to him and asked him to show him his photographs. The accused showed him some family groups he had apparently taken but refused to show him the plates . . He said there was nothing on the plates adding it would spoil them to take them out in the dark. It was announced that he was to be remanded until Saturday.
Sheerness Spy Mystery continued:
From SHEERNESS TIMES
15 August 1914
LOSEL AGAIN IN THE DOCK
FURTHER INVESTIGATIONS HAVE GOT BE MADE
As was fully reported in our columns last week, Franz H Losel, the local photographer of German nationality, who has so often figured in the eye of the local public, was arrested for carrying a camera on the sea wall between Sheerness and Queenborough at eight o’clock at night and, after evidence had been taken, was remanded on bail, as the simple test of development proved that his plates had not been exposed.
The remand was granted until Saturday, and on that day Losel duly appeared to answer to his bail. When his name was called he stepped briskly into the dock, with a courteous bow to the magistrate, (Mr. Tassell) Without looking up from an official document which he had been perusing, Mr. Tassell observed: 'In this case further investigations have to be made and I accordingly remand you into custody for one week, or, rather, until next Friday'.
Losel seemed surprised that bail should be refused this time, but when a policeman touched him on the shoulder he stepped from the dock without a word, and followed his custodian into an ante-room from which he was subsequently taken to the police station prior to being conveyed to Maidstone later in the day.
HOME SECRETARY ORDERS PRISONER’ DEPORTATION
When Franz Heinrich Losel was brought up in custody this ( Friday ) morning to answer for the third time to a charge of carrying a camera along the sea wall near Queenborough at night, Superintendent Crowhurst stepped into the witness box and said that he had reported the case fully to the Attorney- General, and he had received a letter from him containing instructions not to offer any further evidence. He, therefore, had to ask his Worship to discharge the prisoner, who be immediately rearrested on a warrant issued by the Home Secretary, who had ordered him to be deported.
Mr. Tassell: very well. (To Losel) You will be discharged. No sooner had prisoner stepped from the dock than he wa shown to a seat at the rear of the court, and there he sat whilst the Superintendent read to him the terms of the Home Secretary's order. Losel then expressed a wish to speak to the Magistrate, and upon the fact being communicated to him, Mr. Tassell at once said 'Certainly, I will what he has to say!'
Losel then went into the witness box and addressing the Stipendiary said 'Can you advise me what to do with my property?'
Mr. Tassell (sternly) 'I can give you no advice' Losel: 'I have done nothing' Mr. Tassell 'You are out of my hands. You are a prisoner of war and that is the end of it'.
And now a footnote sent by Paul Dummott:
This week on Thursday 14 July 2005 our local paper 'The Sheerness Times Guardian' printed the following story. From our files100 years ago [July 1905]
'Franz Losel, a German photographer living in Bluetown, was subjected to a great deal of humiliation not least from children knocking on his door or cat-calling after him. His patience was exhausted when 12-year-olds Freda Bidgood and Mary Ryan hurled stones at his window. He chased after them, incompletely dressed, and arrived at one girl's home, only to be verbally abused by her father for his lack of clothing. The case against the girls was heard by Sheerness magistrates and dismissed. Mr Losel was told to be properly attired at all times'
And another footnote sent by Paul Dummott:
From our file Room 100 years ago: (Sheppey Gazette, August 2005)
1905: German photographer Franz Henrich Losel landed himself in hot water over an incident straight out of a James Bond film. The snapper had lived in Sheerness for more than 30 years when he made the foolish decision to take pictures near the Ravelin Battery - a war defence in the recreation ground. A special court was set up for Losel under the 1899 Official Secrets Act, where he was accused of passing the photographs on to other European countries for the benefit of war. Witnesses said they had seen Losel taking pictures at the Battery and that he ran away after being spotted. The German disputed this claim and presented images he had taken in a direction away from the Battery. Losel said the accusations astonished him and he was bailed for £200.
Assembled from the articles in Bygone Kent and the 1881 census together with photographs in my collection and a website on spying.
Roger Vaughan 2005 -2012.
My thanks to Louise Buss (in 2004) and Paul Dummott (in 2005) for drawing my attention to this story.
Anyone know how this sad story ends? Has anyone got one of his ship photos?
German Losel by Irene Collier in Bygone Kent. Vol. 11. 524-7
Roger Vaughan Personal Collection 2012