Ralph Snowball

With a modern smart phone in our hands we can easily and at negligible cost snap high-resolution pictures and instantly send them around the world. It’s a vast difference from the rigours and expense of photography in the late 19th century when Newcastle’s celebrated early photographer Ralph Snowball worked.

This month marks 95 years since Snowball’s death in August 1925. He was born in 1848 in Leadgate, Durham (UK), where he worked as a miner before coming to Australia and settling in New Lambton around 1879 to work at the Lambton colliery. An accident meant he could no longer continue in mining, and he took up photography in 1885. He established a studio at his home in Clarence Rd, where his work included portraits and visiting cards. He also travelled extensively in a horse drawn wagonette, carting his bulky equipment to capture landscapes, buildings, and public events, sometimes selling his work for publication in newspapers.

In 1887 Snowball set up a studio in Hunter St Newcastle, near Market St, where he was well placed to document the bustling harbour city and sell his services to visiting sailors.  In 1888 he referred to the rigours of his trade, writing “My work keeps me from home from 8am to 7pm, and sometimes later.” This must have been a huge strain on his wife Mary, at home raising eight children.

Snowball was an active participant in civic affairs, and was appointed the first town clerk of New Lambton in 1889. He also served in a number of churches and friendly societies. He retired from photography around 1912, and died in Wallsend Hospital on 4 August 1925, aged 76.

Snowball’s glass plate negatives then remained in the cellar of his Clarence Rd home, forgotten for over 60 years until rediscovered in 1988.  The bulk of his collection is now held by Newcastle Library and the University of Newcastle, providing us today with a priceless legacy of thousands of detailed pictures of our past.

Snowball with his horse and wagonette. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.
A portrait photo of Ralph Snowball, advertising his “Market Studio” in Hunter St Newcastle. Living Histories @ UON.

The article above was first published in the August 2020 edition of The Local.


Additional Information

Birth and Death

Name:Ralph Snowball
Birth date:19 Nov 1848
Birth place:Leadgate, Durham (UK)
Death date:4 Aug 1925
Death place:Wallsend
Burial site:Sandgate Cemetery
Burial Long,Lat :151.70677,-32.87043 (KML File for Google Earth)
Burial date:6 Aug 1925
Grave site of Ralph and Mary Snowball

Grave site of Ralph and Mary Snowball

Headstone of Ralph and Mary Snowball

Headstone of Ralph and Mary Snowball

Market Studio

In 1887 Ralph Snowball set up a photographic studio in the Newcastle Borough Market Building in Hunter St Newcastle. The foundation was laid in 1870, and the building opened in December 1871. The building was located at 121 Hunter St. It was demolished in September 1915, and a picture theatre erected in its place.

Ralph Snowball’s photographic studio on the upper floor of the Newcastle Borough Market building, 21 January 1891. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.
1886 map showing location of Newcastle Borough Market Building. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

Many years later, the “Market Square” building was erected on the site.

Construction of Market Square. Photo by Peter Sansom. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

It is unclear how long Ralph Snowball had his Market Studio in Hunter St, but it would seem that he vacated prior to 1901. In the 1901 Federal Directory of Newcastle and District, Snowball is not listed among the photographers of Newcastle, but is instead listed in the New Lambton section, as being on Gwydir Rd. (Note that Snowball’s property that contained his home and studio, stretched between Gwydir Rd and Clarence Rd, with the house facing Gwydir Rd and the studio backing on to Clarence Rd.)

The location of the Newcastle Borough Markets building in August 2020.

Clarence Rd Studio

Ralph Snowball’s studio, New Lambton, NSW, 11 April 1902
Ralph Snowball Studio, Clarence Road, New Lambton, NSW, [n.d.]

Box listings

Some idea of the time period that Snowball worked as a photographer can be gleaned from the handwritten labels he affixed to the front of his boxes of glass plate negatives. Many of these have been scanned and are available on the University of Newcastle Cultural Collections site.

Snowball glass plate negative box listing – Box 2 from October 1885. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

I have compiled an index  of Snowball photograph box listings, ordered by box number and year. Note that there are two series of numberings. The first series begins in 1885 (box 2 in Oct 1885) and goes to box 349 in 1905. In 1906 Snowball began numbering boxes from 1 again, with box 7 in February 1906. The numbering of this second series is somewhat strange and not necessarily in date order. After 1906 the highest numbered box label I could find was box 139 in January 1910, but the latest date is box 55 in September 1912.

The earliest Snowball photo I can find in the University of Newcastle collection is of Thomas Croudace’s house, listed on the cover of box 2.

The home of Thomas Croudace in New Lambton Heights, October 1885. One of the earliest Ralph Snowball photos. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

Links to Other Sites

Newspaper articles

Article Date Event DateNotes
21 Apr 1885First mention of Ralph Snowball in the newspaper, in a letter he writes to the editor regarding political matters. In the letter Ralph states that he has been a miner in the employment of Thomas Croudace at Lambton colliery for five years.
9 Dec 1885
5 Dec 1885
A report of the battalion parade of the Newcastle, Wallsend, and Lambton Volunteers in the Recreation Reserve states that "Mr. Snowball was there with his photo-apparatus ... [to photograph] a grouping of the whole. However, the matter fell through, as Mr. Snowball considered the light very unfavourable-thick clustering of clouds and no sun to take a picture with proper effect."
4 Dec 1886
19 Nov 1886
A Ralph Snowball photograph appears in a story about a pitfall at Wallsend that wrecked the Exchange Hotel.
23 Feb 1888In a letter to the editor complaining of the actions of surveyors executing their work on the Commonage, Snowball writes … "My work keeps me from home from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and sometimes later."
20 Aug 1889
28 Mar 1889
"BOROUGH OF NEW LAMBTON NOTICE is hereby given that Mr. Ralph Snowball was, on the 28th March, 1889, appointed Council Clerk of the above Municipality, THOMAS CROUDACE, Mayor."
21 Mar 1892WE, the Undersigned Photographers of Newcastle, have agreed to charge the following prices on and after March 21st, 1892:-1 Dozen Cabinets, plain, 16s, Half Dozen, plain, 12s 6d: 1 Doz Cab. Enam. 21s, Half Doz. Enam. 15s; 1 Doz. C.D.V.S., plain,8s; 1 Doz. C.D.V.S., Enam., 10s 6d. (Signed) C. Drinkwater, H. B. Solomon, G. C. Woolston, Eddie J. B. Hutchison, Harry Charleston, and Ralph Snowball."
C.D.V.S - abbreviation for "Carte de visite"
6 Aug 1925
4 Aug 1925
Death of Ralph Snowball, age 76.
6 May 1942
22 Apr 1942
Mary Snowball, widow of Ralph, dies, aged 90.

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