The Ottewill company has long been recognised as one of the best quality manufacturers of cameras and photographic equipment of the 1850s and 1860s. The Ottewill double folding camera is reputed to have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's poem Hiawatha's Photographing (1857).
The business of Thomas Ottewill was established in 1851 and as such can be considered as one of the earliest British specialist photographic manufacturers. It was listed first at 24 Charlotte Terrace, Copenhagen Street in Barnsbury, London, subsequently expanding to numbers 23 and 24 for the remainder of the firm's existence. The London Post Office Directory first records the firm from 1854 as Daguerreotype Apparatus Manufacturers, a listing that was expanded to Photographic Apparatus Manufacturers from 1856, until the firm's disappearance circa 1868.
The firm was listed as Ottewill & Morgan in 1855 before adopting the title Thomas Ottewill & Co from 1856-63. The following year it became Ottewill, Collis & Co until it was last recorded in the directories in 1866, although from other sources the firm seems to have remained active until 1868. The firm claimed in 1856 (Photographic Notes, 1 November 1856, np) to: 'have erected extensive workshops adjoining their former shops, and having now the largest manufactory in England for the make of Cameras, they are enabled to execute with dispatch any orders they may be favoured with'. The firm exhibited 'a Monster camera made by Mr Ottewill upon Capt. Fowkes' plan' at the Photographic Society's 1858 exhibition.
An 1865 advertisement (Yearbook of Photography 1865, adv) stated that the firm was photographic apparatus manufacturer to the governments of 'England, India, Italy, Switzerland, the Colonies, etc' and that a fresh infusion of capital, together with a general knowledge of the photographic art would allow it to supply every article connected therewith of first quality'.
The firm advertised regularly throughout its existence in the British Journal Photographic Almanac and Yearbook of Photography, the Journal of the Photographic Society and Photographic Notes. It's reputation was enhanced by the double folding sliding camera that it started making from the early 1850s. The design was registered formally on 25 May 1853 and attracted much favourable comment in the photographic press. The Journal of the Photographic Society (December 21 1853, p. 149) stated of the design that 'there is none which more fully combines the requisite strength and firmness with a high degree of portability and efficiency'. The design remained available into the 1860s. Other cameras advertised by the firm were equally innovative. Ottewill produced Captain Francis Fowkes's camera (British provisional patent number 1295 of 31 May 1856) in teak for the British government and an Improved Kinnear-pattern camera in 1859 that he claimed was the first to introduce a swing back. They also produced Frederick Scott Archer's folding camera which was registered in 1854. As with other manufacturers Ottewill produced boxform cameras in single lens and stereoscopic versions as well as studio and portrait cameras from the early 1860s. The firm claimed to have been the first to introduce the swing back in 1859. In 1860 the firm produced a miniature camera clearly inspired by Thomas Skaife's Pistolgraph of 1859 made from mahogany which was mounted on a box that contain all the parts.
Lewis Carroll recorded in his diary for 18 March 1856 that 'we [Reginald Southey who taught him to take photographs] went to a maker of the name of Ottewill, the camera with lens, etc, will come to just about £15'. The camera was delivered on 1st May. Carroll's £15 did not include the chemicals and associated processing equipment which probably came separately from the London photographic retailer R. W. Thomas of Pall Mall.
Carroll described the camera in his parody Hiawatha's Photographing:
From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid
The Ottewill firm supplied and advertised cameras and photographic equipment under it's own account. It also supplied several well-known London firms with cameras to be re-badged under their own name, including the firm of Ross who were primarily lens manufacturers. In an 1867 advertisement Ottewill & Collis state '15 years manufacturers to Ross the Optician. Mr Collis having had upwards of 13 years experience in Mr Ross's establishment'. Ottewill also employed Patrick Meagher who went on to successfully establish his own firm in 1860.
Although Ottewill's cameras may be criticised for their lack of innovation, there is no faulting the very high quality of craftsmanship with which their cameras were made and a contribution to British camera making which, in the words of the British Journal Photographic Almanac of 1898 (p. 640) 'may be regarded as the source to which the best school of English camera-making traces its origin'.