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Emile Zola - Photographer of Victorian Norwood

Author: John W Brown

See also the article on the Quality Hotel for one of Emile's photographs.

A unique collection of old photographs depicting Norwood in the late 1890's has been published by the Norwood Society, writes John W. Brown.

This fascinating collection of late Victorian views were taken by the famous French novelist, Emile Zola, during his visit to Britain in 1898-99 when he stayed at the Queens Hotel (now known as the Quality Hotel) in Church Road, Upper Norwood.

Emile Zola was born in Paris in 1840 and became one of France's leading writers and literary critics. It was in 1877 that his standing as a first-rate author was established with the publication of "L'Assommoir", his study of alcoholism among the French working classes.

But literature was not his only passion in life. On a six week holiday at Royan in 1888, his friend Victor Billaud introduced him to photography.

Zola quickly became fascinated by the subject and it was not long before he had acquired his own camera and was a keen enthusiastic photographer.

In 1897 a Jewish French army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely charged with treason, and on being found guilty by the courts was sentenced to life imprisonment on the notorious French colony on Devils Island.

Zola was moved by the injustice surrounding the Dreyfus case. On January 13, 1898, he wrote a letter headed "J'accuse" which was published in the French press. His letter detailed the many irregularities in the trial and accused the authorities of a fragrant miscarriage of justice. In order to avoid severe backlash and criticism which erupted in the months following the publication of his letter, Zola decided to move to Britain and arrived here on July 19, 1898.

After a brief stay at Wimbledon and Weybridge, he moved to Norwood on the 15th October 1898 where he took up residence at the Queens Hotel.

Zola knew the area from his previous visit to Britain in 1893 when, as a quest of the Institute of Journalists, he had visited Crystal Palace. There a dinner was held in his honour after which he had the pleasure of seeing his profile and name illuminated in the magnificent firework display put on in the grounds as a tribute to his visit.

Zola stayed at the Queens Hotel until June 4, 1899, when the Dreyfus case was reopened and it became safe for him to return to France. Whilst in exile in Norwood he continued to write and to help pass the time he also pursued his hobby of photography.

He regularly toured the neighbourhood with his camera and took over a hundred photographs in and around Norwood, many of which now form the fascinating collection of views published by the Norwood Society in their book "Emile Zola Photographer in Norwood, 1898/99".

The book costs "8.99 including postage and packing and is available from The Norwood Society, 63 Bradley Road, London SE19.3NT.


Last modified: 14th January 2013 - Copyright Canning and Clyde Residents Association