Sixties Hartlepool through the lens of international photographer John Bulmer

Published Tuesday, 9th January 2024

Photographs by renowned British photographer John Bulmer capturing the fortitude of Hartlepool people during the hardship of the 1960s will receive their first-ever showing in the town in a major exhibition of his work.

Born in 1938, John Bulmer is best-known for his pioneering colour photojournalism in the Sixties, when he worked for, among others, the Sunday Times magazine and famously shared the cover of the very first issue of the ‘Colour Section’ with David Bailey.

Over the next ten years, he would travel to over 100 countries around the world to document historic moments ranging from Queen Elizabeth II visiting Ethiopia to life under the regime in North Korea.

In 1960 he had been assigned by Town magazine to document the bleak industrial centre of Nelson, Lancashire, and contrast it with the up-and-coming town of Watford, and his talent in capturing the gentleness and humanity in an otherwise grim situation elevated his images beyond any typical reportage-style photography.

He continued to return to the north of England, and in the winter of 1962-63 he visited Hartlepool for Image magazine, taking more than 40 photographs.

It is those images which will feature in the new exhibition called Northern Light which opens in Hartlepool Art Gallery on Saturday 27th January and runs until Saturday 4th May.

Copyright Popperfoto

Copyright Popperfoto

At the time of Bulmer’s visit, during a bitterly cold winter, Hartlepool was suffering from mass unemployment. Gray’s shipyard had just closed with the loss of 1,400 jobs and the future looked bleak.

His images record the town before it changed, but also the daily life of men and women who were out of work and gathering sea coal from the beach, waiting in the dole queue or visiting the labour exchange.

The article the photographs were used for tried to make the case for more targeted Government intervention in places like Hartlepool where poor infrastructure and low investment meant businesses were more likely to set up in the already prosperous south-east.

Despite the hardships people were facing, Bulmer’s photographs convey a sense of resilience, humour and even optimism, and although the landscape appears bleak and hard he remembers the warmth of the people he met.

By the end of the 1960s the landscape of the town had changed immeasurably as a result of slum clearance and the closure of shipyards and steelworks, and new employers moved in and grew in place of the old.

Copyright Popperfoto

Copyright Popperfoto

John Bulmer said: "It’s sixty years since the ‘big freeze’, when Hartlepool had a record cold winter which corresponded to having the highest unemployment in the country. The shipyard had just closed, and I made my first trip to Hartlepool.

“The faces of the people showed an extraordinary fortitude, which is a reminder sixty years on of the strength of the people of the North East.

“It is wonderful to show this now in a new Hartlepool!”

Copyright Popperfoto

Copyright Popperfoto

Complementing the exhibition will be images by photography students from the Northern School of Art, capturing what Hartlepool means to them, and reminiscences of the 1960s contributed by local people.

Councillor Bob Buchan, Chair of Hartlepool Borough Council’s Adult and Community-Based Services Committee, said: “We are privileged and delighted to be able to showcase this exceptional series of photographs by John Bulmer for the first time in Hartlepool.

“The people of Hartlepool are renowned for both their strength and their friendliness and these images capture both.

“The photographs provide a remarkable and very poignant snapshot in time of a town which in the intervening years has changed massively and is currently undergoing further major regeneration.”

Hartlepool Art Gallery is located in Church Square and is open Tuesdays to Saturdays 10am – 5pm and entry is FREE.