Houghton-Butcher and Ensign Ltd ~ A Company History

Extracted from Amateur Photographer magazine dated 16th July 1958
An Old Name Goes

All photographers, and especially those whose memories that go back to pre-miniature days, will have felt a sharp pang of regret at the announcement that the old-established name of Ensign is to disappear from the photographic world. Old though the name is, the firm that bears it is older still, for under its original title of George Houghton and Son it was established in 1834, though of course not in the photographic field, for at that date neither Daguerre nor Fox Talbot had published the results of their experiments. Nevertheless, it is as long ago as 1886 that this firm first won acclaim by receiving the Photographic Society's (now R.P.S.) medal for a darkroom developing sink. So far as we have been able to find, George Houghton and Son were mainly dealers in photographic goods till 1893, when their first camera, the Shuttle box-form hand camera for plates, was introduced.

But of all the cameras they have made, the Sanderson was destined to be the most famous; it appeared first as a stand camera of rather crude design in 1896, and continued to be made, in one form or another, till the beginning of the second world war. Fashions in cameras have changed so much that it is difficult now to realize that for many years, perhaps from 1905 to 1925, the Sanderson hand camera was the instrument that almost every serious amateur either possessed or aspired to, unless indeed he preferred a reflex. It was a folding camera for plates; normally it was used on a stand, when its many movements, including very long extension, immense rise of front, which also had a swing movement, and provision for wide-angle lenses of very short focal length, made it by far the most adaptable and versatile camera of its day. The modern Speed Graphic, Linhof, or MPP cameras may fairly be regarded as being essentially Sandersons, though of course modernized in many ways and made of metal instead of wood. The Sanderson hand camera was introduced in 1899 and by 1905 had become so popular that there were six different models, most of which were available in several sizes. Of these six, the Junior, Regular, and Tropical Sandersons survived for many years; the Tourist, de Luxe, and Roll-film models did not last so long. By 1936 only the Regular was left.

The firm of Houghton, however, did not restrict themselves to this one series of models; they had in addition a range of less ambitious plate cameras bearing the name Klito, and in 1902 introduced their first roll-film camera which they called an Ensign. As the years went on, and roll-film slowly became more important than plates, the range of Ensign cameras ex-panded and eventually the name became adopted as the firm's trademark. The Ensignette, a very pocketable roll-film camera of 1909, proved a best-seller in its day, as did the Ensign Popular reflex when it was introduced early in 1914.

By the end of the first world war George Houghton and Son had become Houghtons Ltd., and in 1925 combined with the rival firm of W. Butcher and Son, makers of Cameo and Klimax plate cameras, Carbine roll-film cameras, and the Popular Pressman reflex, to form Houghton-Butcher Ltd. Just before the amalgamation, Houghtons produced one of the earliest roll-film reflexes, with f/6.3 focussing lens and a single shutter-speed. It was perhaps the best simple camera that has ever been made. A few years later, the combined firms produced the Ensign Speed film reflex, a fully-fledged reflex for roll films, and the Kinecam, a 16-mm cine camera of sturdy construction and moderate price. By 1930 the Ensign name had become so closely associated with their products that the firm was re-named Ensign Ltd., and in the remaining pre-war years (leading up to 1939) produced among other models the Ensign Midget (an attempt to repeat the earlier success of the Ensignette, to which it bore a family resemblance) and the first Autorange, one of the earliest roll-film cameras with coupled rangefinder.

After the war (post 1945) further changes of name followed the amalgamation first with Barnet Ltd., an old-established maker of sensitive materials, and then with Ross Ltd., the famous opticians and lens-maker; and during the post-war years a number of cameras, some of them of very interesting design, have been produced. Now, however, the demand for Ross products, and in particular binoculars, has made it necessary to discontinue the making of cameras. The photographic world must therefore bid farewell to an old-established firm that has served it outstandingly well in the past.


This page last updated: 17th April 2015