POLYSALES Photographic Ltd

 

 
The Polysales Story, as written by Alec Fry in November 2020

For my twelfth birthday, in 1949, I was given my first camera, a Coronet 12-20 Box, made largely of cardboard. I asked for this particular model because it offered a built-in sliding close-up lens and filter - already I was showing an interest in accessories! I proudly carried the camera with me everywhere, in a gas-mask box slung over my shoulder.

Two years later I graduated to an Ensign Selfix with f3.8 Ross Xpres lens, a wonderful folding camera with a superb lens at a clearance price of (if I remember correctly) £9.19s. 6d (£9 98p) from Westminster Photographic.

I started developing my own films from the outset, initially by the seesaw method using Johnsons Azol developer, but soon progressed to a daylight loading developing tank. For examples see here.

I was mixing my own formulae from the raw chemicals while still only about 15, the same year that I joined Streatham Photographic Society. Here I had to face up to the daunting task of producing 20x16 inch exhibition enlargements. So, together with my father, I made an enlarger using the bellows and lens from his old plate camera, and a body consisting of a large sweet tin fitted with a pair of cheap moulded condensers.

The price in 1950 of an Ensign Selfix with f3.8 Ross Xpres lens
was £18 plus a hefty £7.16s (£7 80p) Purchase Tax
Total £25 80p.
     

My most memorable early photos included several showing the construction of the 1951 Festival of Britain - the Skylon, Dome of Discovery and so on - in Battersea Park pleasure gardens when that first opened (see right).

I also captured on film the Last Tram Week in London. (Tram services were finally withdrawn on the 5th July 1952. From the early 1860s, through to 1952, various parts of London had a tram service. Initially pulled by horse, but later replaced by electric trams).

While at grammar school (1948-56) I was encouraged by the art master to revive the school camera club. During that time, I took a somewhat perilous series of secret photos in class (using a book with a hole cut in it for the lens), one of them picturing the strict French master with his cane forever ready for action!

I dabbled with Dufaycolor when I could afford it, home processed of course, and then became very interested in colour printing, and eventually mastered the (very tricky) trichrome carbro colour process, in which three separate images, in their additive colours, had to be floated off onto a temporary sheet, accurately superimposed and then transferred to paper!


I worked as a sales assistant each Saturday at Fotografia, a small but busy retail outlet in Streatham Hill, the income from which helped to fund my hobby. I dabbled in freelance photography and, while still at school, had a photograph published in Picture Post and other magazines, and won national and local newspaper photographic competitions.
   

From my late teens I must have subconsciously laid down the foundations for teaching others to gain greater enjoyment from photography, as I taught for several years in the local Sunday school. After three years of extended National Service (well recorded by my camera in all its grim glory) between 1956 and 1959, firstly during basic training in the RAF and then as an NCO radar fitter on 39 Squadron (Photo-Reconnaisance) in Malta, I was allowed to demob a few weeks early because the birth of my first daughter was imminent. So I set off into the unknown world of civvy street.

I decided to abandon my original idea of spending the rest of my life looking at bad teeth, despite having secured a promise of a place at the London Dental Hospital medical school three years earlier, so other avenues needed exploring. Spending ten days on the road as the world's worst vacuum cleaner salesman (not a single sale to my credit!) made me decide to look elsewhere, but I didn't fare much better as trainee manager at Woolworths in Brixton. So I took a fresh look at my better points - photography and writing - and began looking for a job which combined these.

Several letters later, I had gained an interview with Andor Kraszna-Krausz, Managing Director of the well-known West End photographic publishing house 'Focal Press'. The interview went well and I was offered a position as a trainee, where I would be given the opportunity of experiencing each department in return for the grand wage of £9 per week. I enjoyed working in the production department, in the days of cast-offs, galley proofs, printers' correction marks, page mark-ups, page proofs and finally the finished book. This tedious process was (much later) to be completely revolutionised by the computer and desktop printing! At Focal Press I ended up in the Editorial department as a book editor, which was as I'd hoped and which suited me even better.

 In my spare time I had entered a writing competition in 'The Observer' newspaper. Entrants had to write an amusing mock article based on one of their regular features, and I chose to write a pseudo-philatelic analysis of the Green Shield Stamp (Green Shield Stamps was a British sales promotion scheme that began in 1958. It rewarded shoppers with stamps that could be used to buy gifts from a catalogue or from any affiliated retailer).

This duly won a small prize and I thought no more about it. However, the day after it was published (Monday morning) I was summoned into the MD's office and was shown the article.

Thinking I was about to be told off for wasting my spare time, I was surprised to be offered the chance to edit their pocket-book-sized monthly photographic magazine, "Photoguide".

I was delighted to accept, and continued with this for the next year. Andor Kraszna-Krausz, or "KK" as he was known, was almost a father figure to me, his office door was always open if I had any problem.

"KK" was born in Hungary, subsequently worked and married in Berlin, but who came to Britain with his wife in 1937 to escape the Nazi regime. He was a great man in many ways, and - when he sadly died in 1989 - his wish was honoured to establish the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation, to encourage authors of books devoted to photography.

I was almost disappointed to be head-hunted by 'Amateur Photographer', but they needed someone (desperately as it turned out) to take over as their Technical Enquiries Editor. This job (early 1963) with the oldest and most-respected photographic magazine in the world was an opportunity not to be turned down. I well remember arriving there in all innocence, to be confronted by a huge backlog of over 700 unopened letters, and more arriving daily. I rose to the challenge, made myself unpopular by borrowing as many secretaries from other departments as I could muster, and set to with a vengeance. My experience in dictating "off the cuff" proved invaluable; three weeks later each letter had been answered with a personal reply.

Working at 'AP' (as Amateur Photographer is always referred) opened the door to many other opportunities, as invitations piled in to attend lavish press parties and some newsworthy events, and these were passed down the editorial line in order of superiority (me last, of course). Best of all, I had qualified for the all-powerful NUJ (National Union of Journalists) Press Card, which I used and abused more liberally than I should, at all manner of places and events - motor racing at Brands Hatch and Goodwood, and even a secretive trip out into the North Sea - sharing a rowing boat with Simon Dee - to board Radio Caroline, the pirate radio ship which was forbidden by law to either board, help or publicise in any way. I took some wonderful shots of the DJs at their marine turntables, people who later became famous on Radio 2, but at the time nobody would take the risk of publishing my results! I was also honoured, a year or so later, to be awarded Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society (ARPS), while working at AP, in recognition of my editorial work.

Mundane though it could be at times, daily life in the AP office wasn't without its amusing side. The amateur cine editor was a certain Norman Dyer, who had been there forever (I have an old copy from November 1937, the year in which I was born, and even this has one of his articles inside!). He was very pleasant in a gruff sort of way, but rather short when interrupted by a phone call. Then he would pick up the phone and answer "Dyer'ere". Inevitably there was a considerable pause while the caller wondered who had the upset stomach! We used to curl up laughing, but he never changed.

The Editor of AP (at that time) was A.L.M.Sowerby (Arthur Lindsay McRae Sowerby). He was totally dedicated to his work, a true fount of knowledge but impossible to get away from once he was in full flow. I remember one evening when he began chatting to me just as I was about to leave work; it was 7.30pm before I finally started for home!

I enjoyed working at AP and could probably have had a job there for life if I'd wanted one; I even quite enjoyed the commuting, which I did on my second-hand Lambretta scooter between Streatham and Stamford Street, Waterloo, in all weathers. Eventually, however, living and working in London was becoming less and less attractive and I decided to move to the green fields of Guildford, where the publishers of Practical Photography had their offices. I had met some of their editorial team at various press conferences and got on well with them, so this looked like my best escape route out of the smoke. As it happened, they were about to move to Redhill, but the cross-country journey there and back each day was very pleasant.

   

The Managing Editor of Practical Photography (PP), Alex Surgenor, was a likeable chap, with a background (I believe) in both the Royal Navy and Fleet Street. He had very fixed ideas about writing styles. Everything had to be strictly "do this, do that, 1234...". all very much in keeping with the group's "practical" and instructional theme. He lived in Rustington, on the south coast, where he kept the boat which occupied much of his leisure time. As a result, he left us very much to our own devices, but we took great care to see that everything was ready on time, and in line with his rigid standards, for when he did arrive.

The editorial staff included four journalists, who were responsible between them for writing every single word in both a thick monthly magazine and a feature-packed weekly newspaper ("Photo News Weekly"). Virtually no outside freelance contributions were ever accepted, apart from readers' photographs, which featured strongly. It was hard work, especially if one of the team was away on holiday or sick. We worked with some rather cumbersome old Grundig dictating machines which used flat, floppy, magnetic discs, and we spent virtually all day just spouting our words of wisdom into their microphones. Two secretaries spent all their time transcribing them. Each of us worked with a string of noms-de-plume of our own choosing, each pseudonym specialising in a separate field and doing its best to appear a different character. Several well-known photographic journalists had already started out in this team and it provided an excellent training ground.



Front cover of the Polysales 1973 'Pocketbook'.
Image sent by David Johnson of Speed Graphic.

One big benefit of working at PP was that the staff were allowed to use any spare advertising slots in the classified section for their own purposes, so some of us ran some small enterprise or another on the side. This, in fact, is how Polysales began - initially with a very limited number of items, plastic developing trays, darkroom blackout sheeting and a borderless printing easel. No capital was ever put into Polysales, nor any bank overdraft sought, and I never drew more than a basic living wage, even when its turnover became quite substantial. I have started and sold other businesses over the years since then, and always stuck to the same principle. To be honest, I would have felt greatly constrained by any big outstanding loan on a business or home - perhaps not the way of a keen businessman, but that was the way I was brought up through the wartime years.

Inevitably, the point soon arrived when the demands on my time meant that it was no longer feasible for me to work for anyone else; the decision to leave was made easier for me because the magazine was bought out by Robert Maxwell and was rumoured to be moving to Peterborough. So Polysales Photographic Ltd was duly registered at Companies House and launched its first "proper" mail-order catalogue, trading initially from my spare room at home.

One major addition to the new catalogue was a full range of interchangeable camera filters and holders, and the story behind this is interesting. BDB Engineering, who made these, were experiencing reduced interest because (a) dealers were having a great time selling cameras and couldn't be bothered to sell accessories, and (b) the Japanese manufacturer Hoya was flooding the market with ready-mounted filters. So David Gee, the MD, gave me £50-worth of filters on a sale or return basis, all on credit. His generosity and confidence were easily repaid when we rapidly sold out and re-ordered time and time again, eventually having our own brand name engraved on the new stock.

The first rented premises consisted of the shared first floor over a shop in a back-street in Guildford, which we outgrew almost immediately. So we moved to a complete floor above a shop at 125 High Street, Godalming. This had the advantage of easy access and free customer parking at the rear. However, we very soon needed even more space - proper warehousing, packing and office accommodation. A large, semi-derelict three-storey detached glassmaking warehouse had been on the market for some years, but no prospective buyer had been able to obtain planning permission for any change of use which was acceptable to the council. We spoke to them and they seemed to have no objections to it being used as a mail-order warehouse, so - on the basis of that informal chat - I took a chance and bought the entire block for £4,500 cash. With the aid of a builder friend, the building (of over 3,000 square feet) was repaired, re-roofed, re-wired, heated, insulated and divided into offices, and the stock was moved in; until the security could be installed, I even slept on the floor as Night Watchman!

Polysales specialised in offering a very wide range of accessories, but in particular in providing a high level of service, especially on technical support. The 76-page catalogue was supplemented by a quarterly magazine (Camerachat) and a dozen free 16-page technical booklets called Polyguides, covering all main aspects of the hobby. These separate guides were laboriously typed out on an IBM Golfball machine with a carbon ribbon to simulate proper printing, then pasted up by hand and reduced in size by our printers.

     

Soon we had built up such a customer base that we had 60,000 on the list. The service was provided by a staff of fourteen, including a manager, a team of packers, a book-keeper, receptionist, secretary and cleaner. Many of them stayed with us for years and it was nice to have so many familiar faces around.

Polysales survived everything that the government and the economy could throw at it during the recession: the imposition of 55% purchase tax, rampant inflation, the three-day week in 1974, even a whole month's postal strike. Sales took a dip at times, but always recovered.

As we became better organised and our service improved, accolades rolled in. Readers of AP voted us their joint winner (with Jessops) of the "Top Service Dealer Award" in 1981.

     

Trade distributors, too, recognised our efforts, in particular Technical & Optical equipment (TOE), importers of Russian cameras. I had always been keen to support cameras from the western Soviet Union - the basic Cosmic 35mm, the Zenith SLR and the Lubitel TLR - as their lens performance was excellent and they were ruggedly made, ideal for the beginner. These became best-sellers and eventually won the gratitude of the importers, by way of a three-week tour of the Soviet Union, starting with a voyage taking us through the ice into Leningrad in the flagship of the Baltic Line, then flying (at night, with blacked-out windows!) on to Moscow (where we saw the Bolshoi Ballet), Riga, Kiev, Sochi and then back home. It was particularly thrilling because it was at the height of the Cold War, when such opportunities were rare. Even so, they made no special concessions to this privileged party at their border controls, and upon arrival at Leningrad we were kept waiting for four hours in Customs while every piece of printed literature was removed from our cases and taken into a translation room. It left a deep impression on us all to realise that the mighty Soviet Union was so afraid of the power of the printed word.

While I was there behind the Iron Curtain. I had got into the habit of slipping away from the official guided party with its obligatory Intourist official, and exploring on my own, armed with a still and movie camera. On one occasion I came across a large stadium packed with members of their armed forces, practising a display of military strength and agility in advance of the 70th anniversary of the Revolution. I crept in unseen at the very back, set up my camera and started secretly filming. Suddenly I noticed that a high-ranking Soviet army officer had his eyes firmly fixed on me... and then he started walking towards me. To say I was scared would be a huge understatement. When he arrived, he pointed at the green bench seat behind me, on which I was about to sit. I looked.... and it was freshly painted. I breathed a sigh of relief, smiled and thanked him profusely (using one of my two words of Russian!) for avoiding ruining my best trousers with green stripes. On another occasion, I similarly slipped away from the group, caught a train in their magnificent underground, and set off exploring the suburbs of Moscow. Soon I was totally lost, so I found the nearest tube entrance and tried to back-trace my route. However, with the stations marked in Cyrillic characters, I was unable to recognise a single place! Returning to the street, I approached someone to ask the way to the Hotel Moskva. Eventually I found one who explained that he was a visiting Belgian seaman and fortunately I just about able to communicate in my schoolboy French.

To the left can be seen the front cover of Polysales' 1982/83 "Mail order catalogue of Britaiin's finest value in everything for photography". At this time their shop was at 10 Queen Street, Godalming, "just off the High Street, opposite the exit from a public carpark". Mail Orders went to The Wharf, Godalming, Surrey, GU7 1JX.

I suppose it was inevitable that the success of Polysales was not going to pass unnoticed, and one day I received an enquiry from the head office of a large international commercial bank. Their client, they explained, was looking to buy a successful mail-order company in the UK and wished to start negotiations. These duly took place and the resulting offer, from a Middle East consortium, proved too good to refuse; it also included a continuing position as MD, at an increased salary.

     

Under its new ownership, the photographic side continued, but it was totally eclipsed by a separate catalogue of relatively cheap, low-quality household goods, of which 13.5 million copies were distributed at a time. The two sides of the business did not fit comfortably together; the other catalogue might have done well if it had followed the trend for offering higher quality goods by mail-order, but sales proved disappointing. Eventually the turnover failed to offset the enormous costs of printing and mailing, and the company went into receivership. Despite my efforts to retrieve and revive the separate photographic side under a different name, and with a co-director from the photographic trade, it suffered a grave blow when the overstressed general manager was found to have been paying the cheques which arrived with each order. into the bank, but stuffing the order forms into the drawers of his desk!

I blamed myself for not having spotted the deception sooner, but the new office was a considerable distance from my home. The situation had been going on too long to recover from the blow and receivership was the sad result. Realising that the customers who suffered were those I had come to regard as friends over many years, I decided to send each a personal letter of apology, and a cheque from my personal account to refund their loss, rather than hide behind the shield of the Companies Act. Now, all that remains of the company are my mostly happy memories, some very kind letters of thanks from customers, and a sample of each catalogue and leaflet in a box that is rarely opened.

So, in this sad and ignominious way, the final glimmer of light of Polysales was extinguished, and its pioneering work came to an end. As for myself, I then became involved in many interesting projects. I freelanced, did some PR work for local manufacturing companies, edited the magazines of clubs devoted to Canon and Bronica cameras, taught photography at Adult Education classes, established a library of home computer software, wrote a few books and even managed a government-financed project to encourage employers to take on older applicants (which actually resulted in a minor but significant change in employment law with the introduction of "Work Trials" without loss of benefits).

Now retired to a life in the country, in a small cottage in the woods with commoners' rights, I have three grown-up children and seven lovely grandchildren, and thankfully a fascinating, varied and satisfying life to look back on in my dotage.

But then who knows what might lie just around the corner?

 

 

This page last updated: 12th December 2020 (previously 29th November 2020)