Rare Glass Plate Negatives Unveil Thai Princes Who Attended Harrow In London Over The Century
King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of the Chakri dynasty whose reign has been recognised for steering Thailand towards modernisation, was also known for his enthusiasm for education. Here the revered monarch is shown standing outside one of Harrow School’s buildings with some of the princes
In Thailand, Chakri Memorial Day is observed in early April every year. Although traditionally considered a commemoration of the coronation of King Rama I, Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, it has become associated with honouring the much-revered dynasty that continues to be the nation’s ruling house.
It is a dynasty that has seen much history as we discovered when we talked to Tim Boswell, British CEO of Danang-based Ocean View real estate firm. Boswell and his brother recently became involved in an intriguing find that touches on the history of Thailand’s royal family—an old archive of glass plate negatives originating from Harrow School in London, some of which depict Thai princes who attended or visited the school from the late 1800s onwards. The plates were created by Hills & Saunders, a leading photographic firm founded in the Victorian era.
Before the invention of photographic film, using glass plate negatives was the most popular method of capturing images. There were two formats: the collodion wet plate negative and the gelatin dry plate. In 2013 a trove these precious artefacts was found in an old building on a small farm in Gloucestershire, UK. “Peter, my brother and partner in this project, has always had a keen interest in digitising old negatives,” says Boswell. “In fact, it is Peter who discovered the archive and got me to fly to the UK to investigate further.”
It was immediately evident to the brothers that the negatives had to be moved to a safer environment with the right storage conditions. “After the archive was purchased, the plates were transported to a photographic storage facility in Warwickshire,” Boswell explains. “A year later, they were carefully relocated to Dubai.”
In the years that followed, the brothers and a team of professionals devoted themselves to the colossal process of cleaning, assessing and conserving their precious finds. But the hard work has paid off. “The size of the collection was daunting. But over time, recognisable names and faces began to appear, including Winston Churchill and Nehru, the first prime minister of India,” the Briton says. “You can imagine the excitement when we realised just what we had. But it wasn’t until some time in 2016 that first negatives portraying the Thai princes were uncovered.”
To put things into perspective, Thailand has enjoyed long lasting diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom dating back to the 17th century. It should also be noted that under the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), great importance was given to education as part of a greater effort to reform and modernise Thailand, then the kingdom of Siam. In an effort to steer the country forward and foster development, the king implemented numerous changes within the country, with educational reform and military conscription being among the foremost.
His Majesty sent many of his sons and grandsons to be educated in Europe, including Prince Chula Chakrabongse, who is one of the royals shown in the Hills and Saunders glass plates. Others depicted in the archive are Phra Ong Chao Bhanubandh Uyala, who was said to have attended Harrow between 1926-1929, and Mom Chao Sudhasrinothai Devakula, who was there from 1897-1901. They also discovered a picture of King Chulalongkorn himself standing outside a Harrow building (opening photograph), although the exact date of his visit to the school remains unclear.
Mom Chao Kachorn and his brother Mom Chao Iddidhebsan Kritakara, the grandchildren of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and the nephews of King Chulalongkorn, are also shown in the plate glass pictures. Studying abroad was, and continues to be, encouraged in Thailand and then just as now it was mostly the children of the well-to-do who were sent to receive Western schooling. History also records that among other Harrovian nobles was Prince Mahidol Adulyadej of Songkhla—the father of His Majesty the late King Rama IX—who attended the school in the early 1900s before continuing his studies in Germany. Prince Purachatra Jayakara, another son of King Chulalongkorn, also went to Harrow in 1894. Founded in 1572 under a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I, the school has seen an abundance of prestigious names from across the globe attend as pupils since the 19th century, including 23 Thai princes according to the records.
In our day and age dominated by instant digital images, we tend to forget how difficult it was to capture and produce photos some 120 years ago. Given the thoroughness it entailed, each photo was precious—even more so today. These fragile historical items require scrupulous care. “Luckily, my brother is experienced in handling historical photographic assets,” says Boswell. “His team is highly adept in conservation. The negatives have been carefully cleaned, repaired, digitised and conserved in our archive.” He admits that the discovery of a box containing the original Hills and Saunders hand-written photography notes helped immensely to identify each glass plate. Moreover, the notes are proof that the brothers are now in possession of the entire historic photographic archive of Harrow School.
“There are 90,000 glass plates in total. We are halfway through them and have found 47 related to the Thai royals. But according to our meta data there are around 40 to 50 more still to be discovered. Our research continues. There are 45,000 plates left to work on,” says Boswell. For someone who has a keen interest in history and collecting historical objects, finding the glass plates is something Boswell likens to finding hidden treasure.
“Truth be told, I didn’t have much knowledge of the Thai princes attending the school prior to working on this archive but I have become fascinated by them,” he says. “Eventually, I would like to find a safe home for them in Bangkok so that perhaps in the future they can be exhibited to the public. I want the collection to remain whole. When we discover more glass plates related to the Thai princes, they can be added to the collection. It is a great honour to be able to share these historic images with the Thai people.”
(See also: A Look Back: Bangkok's High Society Scene In The Past)