A talented photographer and artist who brought Todmorden’s past to life

Roger Birch
Roger Birch

Roger Birch, who died on Wednesday, February 6, aged 72, was a discerning photographer and an equally important Todmorden historian.

He was the author of six unique books on the subject as well as being an artist of exceptional skill. His early publications have become collector’s items and much sought after, writes Bill Birch.

He was born in Todmorden on January 16, 1941, and was educated at Shade Primary School and, from the age of eleven, at Calder High School, Mytholmroyd. Some years later he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then spent a six month sojourn at Ville Franche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera, sketching and painting and selling his work to tourists and passengers making calls there on majestic cruise liners. The Zaca, a three-masted schooner owned by film actor Errol Flynn was moored there and Roger was twice taken on with other locals to spruce up the vessel’s appearance.

His thirst for adventure took him first to the Channel Islands as a harbour maintenance worker. Twelve months later when he was 19, he plumped for a life-on-the-ocean-wave and joined the merchant navy, working at different times for ‘P’ and ‘O’ and ‘Cunard’. Between 1960-1967 he sailed the seven seas on the cruise liners Orsova and Oriana (‘P’ and ‘O’) and Caronia and Queen Mary (Cunard), his travels taking him around the world 14 times to more than 60 countries.

Towards the end of 1967 he met his future wife Carol Duffield and, determined to continue his education, enrolled at Percival Whitley College in Halifax where he gained his A-levels. Thereafter he took up a 12-month foundation course in Graphic Design at Rochdale College of Art and then, after three years studying at Manchester College of Art and Design, graduated in 1972 with an honours degree in Graphic Design.

He had married Carol in the summer of 1970, their sons Nathan and Daniel born in 1973 and 1974 respectively. Both are keen photographers and have more than a passing interest in creative art.

In 1971 Roger started researching and collecting local photographs and, during his time at Manchester College, produced his first historical book “A Way Of Life - Glimpses Of Todmorden Past”. It was published in October, 1972 and he entered it as a thesis towards his diploma. Press reviews were excellent and with only a modest print run that quickly sold out, the album is now exceptionally collectable.

In 1974 Roger secured a position as lecturer in Graphic Design and Photography at Rochdale College of Art where he worked through to his retirement in the early 1990s. He was a long-standing member of the Todmorden Photographic Society and the official photographer for many Mayoral portraits that are displayed within the Town Hall.

He was also active with the local Conservation Group and often gave informative talks to the Antiquarian Society. Roger’s photographic and artistic work has been exhibited throughout the country, including the Yorkshire Arts Association, The Photographer’s Gallery in York and the National Portrait Gallery in London.

He has painted, drawn or photographed many local people, a speciality being forgotten characters of yesteryear. The former major employer, Charles Openshaw of Halifax Road once commisioned a quantity of large format calendars from Roger, printed in crystal clear monochrome, that featured a number of these individuals. They were very well received and were a major talking point with customers at home and abroad.

He contributed almost a hundred photographs for other local publications, notably “The Fieldens of Todmorden” by Brian Law (1995); “A History of Todmorden” (1996) by Malcolm and Freda Heywood with Bernard Jennings; and “A League Of Their Own” (2011) also by the Heywood family.

Since retiring he learnt and adapted new skills using up-to-date technology in digital photography, computing, book printing and all the latest hi-tech gadgets. Nor did he extinguish his wanderlust for foreign parts. Perhaps as well, for in the winter of 1996 he was in Palm Springs, California, somewhere he especially loved visiting and living amongst film stars and giants of the music industry.

A chance meeting and conversation with a stranger he met one morning over breakfast brought him an experience he could never have imagined and one that few outside of the “Hollywood Rat Pack” would ever witness. That person was the caretaker of the Frank Sinatra compound at Rancho Mirage, a place that Roger was hoping to get close enough to photograph the outside of.

“How would you like to see the inside of it?” he asked. “Frank’s out of town and the place has been sold to a wealthy Canadian.” Roger immediately lost his appetite and the photographs he was allowed to take that morning were astonishing and remained high up in his proudest memories.

Although a very public person in Todmorden he was a very private person and in accordance with his wishes was buried at Lumbutts Church on Friday, February 15, with only his family and closest friends present.