Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Ilford Witness: How Bolton almost became the Wetzlar of England

Ilford Witness: How Bolton almost became the Wetzlar of England

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  From Bolton with love: The Witness with the rare f/1.5 Dallmeyer 2in (50mm) Septac lens
From Bolton with love: The Witness with the rare f/1.5 Dallmeyer 2in (50mm) Septac lens

There was a post-war British-made camera which was alleged to be superior to the then-current Leica IIIc and IIIf or the Zeiss Ikon Contax, offering a sleeker, more modern design, solid build quality and a unique hybrid screw/bayonet lens mount system.

The Ilford Witness seemed to have everything going for it. Leica and Contax cameras were virtually impossible to obtain after the war and required a special import licence which was granted only to those with a professional need. My friend Don Morley outlined the problems he had at the time in ordering a new Leica IIIf in an article on Macfilos.

  A reet bobby dazzler: With original case, which is even rarer than the camera, and the collapsible 5cm Daron f/2.9 which was designed by Robert Sternberg. The case was the only part of the outfit inscribed with the
A reet bobby dazzler: With original case, which is even rarer than the camera, and the collapsible 5cm Daron f/2.9 which was designed by Robert Sternberg. The case was the only part of the outfit inscribed with the “Ilford” name

Interrupted thread mount

The Witness was a precision-made camera in a similar price bracket to Leica and it bore an internationally recognised brand. At the time Ilford was perhaps second only to Kodak in brand recognition. 

The unique lens mount is based on a standard L39 screw mount mechanism but includes an ingenious ‘interrupted thread’ bayonet modification. On both the camera and the lens mounting threads, three grooved channels machined at 90 degrees to the threads enable the lens to be pushed (instead of being screwed) directly into the camera mount. A simple ‘quick twist’ then engages and secures the ‘interrupted threads’. Standard L39 screw-thread lenses could also be fitted.

  Witness with Daron. The f/1.5 Dallmeyer Septac, to the right, displays the unique
Witness with Daron. The f/1.5 Dallmeyer Septac, to the right, displays the unique “interrupted-thread” mount which allowed the lens to be pushed into the mount and secured with a quick flick of the wrist

By a curious quirk of fate, the Witness was designed by a former Leica employee who was able to live in Britain only because, as a Jew, he was helped to emigrate from Germany by none other than Ernst Leitz II. If things had gone well, Ilford could have turned the Witness into a major success. Perhaps it could have out-done Leica in the end. Sadly, it perished not because of quality or reliability issues, but largely because of poor marketing. 

  With two of the three lenses — the f/2.9 Daron and the f/1.5 Dallmeyer Septac. The close-focus Daron, shown here ready for action, possibly owes much to the original Leitz 50/3.5 collapsible Elmar
With two of the three lenses — the f/2.9 Daron and the f/1.5 Dallmeyer Septac. The close-focus Daron, shown here ready for action, possibly owes much to the original Leitz 50/3.5 collapsible Elmar

Persecution

The story starts in 1933 when 18-year-old Robert Sternberg was fortunate enough to be taken on by Leitz as an optical-design apprentice. As a Jew he had been denied a university education and the position at Wetzlar provided a great opportunity for the young man. By 1936 Ernst Leitz II was actively engaged in aiding Jewish employees and local neighbours to emigrate. He got away with it in large part because his company was vital to the German armaments industry. This aspect of the Leitz story is well documented, particularly by my friend and fellow Leica enthusiast, Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith.

  Unlike contemporary Leica cameras, the Witness had an integral back and bottom plate which made film loading easier
Unlike contemporary Leica cameras, the Witness had an integral back and bottom plate which made film loading easier

In 1936 Leitz offered Sternberg, then 22, the chance to get away from persecution. He was introduced to the Ensign Camera Company at Walthamstow in London. Thanks to Frank Dabba Smith we are able to reproduce a more general reference outlining Sternberg’s career and signed by Dr. Leitz himself. 

As early as 1908, Ensign was the largest producer of cameras in Great Britain and this was clearly a great opportunity for young Sternberg, both in terms of career progress and, as it later turned out, in preserving his personal safety.

  A closer view of the Witness with back removed. The dial on the bottom of the camera body offers adjustment of the delay between firing the shutter and the firing of the flash. It could be moved between zero and 30 milliseconds
A closer view of the Witness with back removed. The dial on the bottom of the camera body offers adjustment of the delay between firing the shutter and the firing of the flash. It could be moved between zero and 30 milliseconds

Design concept

After arriving in England in 1936, Sternberg became acquainted with another German refugee, Werner Julius Rothschild, a former Zeiss employee. Towards the end of the war, the two Germans developed a design concept for a new camera which would combine the best features of the the Leica and Contax rangefinder models. In 1947 Rothschild approached Ilford with their idea and it was agreed to start manufacture. 

  The mount in close up. The interrupted thread mechanism can be clearly seen on the lens. It offered the convenience of a quick-release bayonet mount combined with the ability to accept standard screw-thread lenses. Note the corresponding grooves inside the camera mount
The mount in close up. The interrupted thread mechanism can be clearly seen on the lens. It offered the convenience of a quick-release bayonet mount combined with the ability to accept standard screw-thread lenses. Note the corresponding grooves inside the camera mount
  The Peto Scott television, an unlikely production companion for a precision-made mechanical camera
The Peto Scott television, an unlikely production companion for a precision-made mechanical camera

Rothschild was already a successful businessman in his own right, operating as Northern Scientific Equipment in Bolton. He had also founded the Daroth camera company of which little is now known. The initial prototypes were produced in that Lancashire mill town — interestingly for me, little more than five miles from where I grew up. Sternberg also designed the original f/2.9 Daron 5cm (50mm) lens, presumable named after Rothschild’s Daroth company.

Usually, the Witness was supplied with the Dallmeyer Super Six 2in f/1.9 lens. An alternative was the now extremely scarce Dallmeyer Septac 2in f/1.5. Some early examples were accompanied by an f/2.9 Daron lens, made by Rothschild’s company but designed by Robert Sternberg.

Unfortunately, however, Northern Scientific turned out to be incapable of series production and delays set in.

By the time the camera became generally available, in the Coronation year of 1953, manufacture was handled by Peto Scott Electrical Instruments in Weybridge, Surrey — a company then best known as a leading manufacturer of television sets. Unfortunately, the camera arrived on the market a little too late. Sales were slow and were not helped by the rather high price of £121 16s 8d (£121.85, but about £3,250 in modern money, depending on how it is calculated). It was therefore a specialist item, appealing to professionals and well-heeled amateurs. A bit like Leica today.

Pedigree

Undoubtedly, though, one of the main problems for the Witness was the lack of pedigree in terms of accessories and lenses. Both Leica and Zeiss Ikon had such pedigree by the truckload. Also, at this time, importing was becoming a little easier and, within a few years, there would be no restrictions. And in 1954 at Photokina, Leica introduced the ground-breaking M3. Even if the Witness had continued in production, therefore, there is no guarantee it would have been a success. 

  Robert Sternberg left Wetzlar with the blessing of Dr Ernst Leitz II. Apart from providing an introduction to the Ensign Camera Company in London, Dr. Leitz wrote this to-whom-it-may-concern reference. It reads: 
Robert Sternberg left Wetzlar with the blessing of Dr Ernst Leitz II. Apart from providing an introduction to the Ensign Camera Company in London, Dr. Leitz wrote this to-whom-it-may-concern reference. It reads:  “We herby confirm that Herr Robert Sternberg, born in Limburg on 19 January 1914, has been employed by us since 6 April 1933, firstly in our Research Department and then in the Projection, Micro-calibration, Micro-photo, Mineralogy and Leica Repair department. In addition, he was trained in our Photographic Studio and in the Laboratory. He attended two winter training courses on the theory of optical instruments.  “Throughout this time Herr Sternberg has shown himself to be an intelligent and industrious employee, and has conducted himself impeccably. We wish him every success in the future.”

Opportunity

Ilford decided to concentrate on cheaper cameras and production of the Witness ceased later in that same year of 1953, with the stock being sold off by Dollands at £80 a pop. Interestingly, buyers who had paid the full price complained and eventually received a refund of £40.

  Only last week this Witness set sold for £11,500 at an auction in Cambridge
Only last week this Witness set sold for £11,500 at an auction in Cambridge

Robert Sternberg continued to work with Rothschild (who at some stage changed his surname to Ryden) at the Bolton factory. In 1956 he switched to a consultancy role and forged a new career as an academic at Manchester University. Later, he was a lecturer in the Physics Department and became an expert on optical spectrometers. He died in 1991 at the age of 77.

It is believed that as few as 350 Ilford Witness cameras were made. So it is no surprise that they are now much sought after and very expensive. My friend Dunk Sargent (see below) suggests, a little tongue in cheek, that the Witness with its total production of 350 and few survivors. is rarer than a Stradivarius, of which 512 examples survive.

  Above and below: Another superb Witness, this time with the third lens, the Dallmeyer Super Six, which was sold by London dealer  Peter Loy  (Photos © Peter Loy)
Above and below: Another superb Witness, this time with the third lens, the Dallmeyer Super Six, which was sold by London dealer Peter Loy  (Photos © Peter Loy)

The accompanying product photographs were taken by two Witness (and Leica) enthusiasts, John Dodkins and Dunk Sargent, using John’s Canon 5D DSLR. You can actually see a Witness in the store museum at Red Dot Cameras, 86 Goswell Road, London, EC1V 7DB. 

The Witness was a sleek design with modern lines and, even after 65 years, is still capable of exciting that indefinable want-want factor. Only last week a Witness with Dallmeyer Super Six lens and various accessories sold at auction for £11,500. Now if only I had a spare twelve grand or so…..

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks to Dunk and John for these lovely example shots. This camera proves that rarity and quality combined can greatly influence value. There can be other factors. Last November a Witness in A/B condition with a Super Six sold at Westlicht €20,400 whereas in the same auction a Witness in A- condition with a Daron and a leather case sold for a mere €7,200. The Collectiblend auction averages in dollars for a camera with lens (unspecified) are average 9,500-10,000, very good 13,000-13,500 and mint 22,000-23,000.

    John Henry Dallmeyer who was an Anglo German optician born in Loxten Westphalia, was a contemporary of Grubb and worked with Ross in London. There were some arguments about who designed what, but Dallmeyer was the inventor of the Rapid Rectilinear lens in the 1860s. When John Henry became ill in later life, his son Thomas took over the business. The Dallmeyer name remained a sign of quality for many years and it is good to see that it was associated with one of the finest cameras ever produced in Britain.

    William

  2. Thank you for another very entertaining article Mike and thanks to Peter Loy for providing the additional Dallmeyer Super Six photos. Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith’s contribution is of particular interest and a ‘scoop’ as regards Robert Sternberg’s move from Wetzlar to England. The Witness was years ahead of other 135 format rangefinder designs and it’s such a shame that production and marketing inexpertise prevented wider recognition. Few other (if any) 1950s 135 format cameras have such a pleasingly sleek and smooth design; its ergonomics are better than e.g. the famous 1960s Pentax SLRs*.

    William, Dallmeyer Super Six lenses are still avidly sought after and for Far East collectors the Dallmeyer Septac is a grail optic; their British image footprint is ‘different’. The Daron lens is not so well known or appreciated and is deserving of greater recognition not only by virtue of its compactness/collapsibilty and 15" close focus capability, but also because it is the original Sternberg designed Witness lens. The successful WestLicht €7200 bid was a real bargain.

    Best wishes

    dunk

    • In the 1960s there was a series of Pentax adverts urging potential buyers to, "Hold a Pentax for a minute and you’ll hold it for a lifetime" …and illustrated with famous Pentax owners’ cameras e.g. Spike Milligan and Alan Whicker. Had Ilford adopted a similar marketing strategy during the early 1950s then maybe the Witness could have elevated Ilford’s reputation and Bolton and Weybridge may well have rivalled Wetzlar!
    • Thank you, Dunk, for helping with the background and also proofreading, not to mention your cooperation with John Dodkins in producing the excellent shots. Mike

  3. Thank you, Mike, for this important historical cameo from the awful 30’s to what should have been a sunny tale in the 50’s. Just the photos of the camera give great æsthetic pleasure.

    • Many thanks, John. It was a fun article to write and I did have a lot of help from people who know much more about the subject than I do.

  4. Mike , what an interesting and well written and illustrated story.

    It seems that we should consign the Witness to that British "if only" file along with the Fairey Rotadyne,the Blue Streak ICBM,the BRM V16 racing car,the TSR2 fighter and the biggest of them all the Bristol Brabazon airliner.
    Any chance of persuading Red Dot cameras to let you run a film through their Witness so that we can see what it is/was capable of?

    • John,

      That’s a wonderful suggestion and I will speak to Ivor. I’d better find bodyguards to accompany me on a street-shooting meander around London. Mind you, a modern M10 and Noctilux is just as pricey…..

  5. Thanks Mike
    Hope you enjoyed France – Im now back in NY
    But your post reminds me that – I was brought up just outside Ilford- and my Father coveted the Witness and brought one home to show us – my mother dashed his hopes and made him take it back. I saved up Kellogg’s box tops and received a 120 warner Brothers knock off of the Zeiss Ikon – with a Zeiss lens however
    That started me off at age 15
    Best
    Tony Vidler

    • So near, so far. That’s an amazing story and it’s very easy to image that if your mother had been more accommodating you could now be the owner of a legacy Witness. From £126 to £12,000-plus in sixty years — it sounds a brilliant investment until you take inflation into account. £126 was a huge amount of money in the 1950s, well beyond the reach of the ordinary man-in-the street. It was a time when you could rent a council house in northern England for 10s (50p) a week, so the thought of splurging £126 on a camera was something for the fairy tales. In reality, as I pointed out in the article, the Witness is now selling for roughly four times its original cost. So it would have been a useful windfall but not as dramatic as the bare figures suggest.

      It’s also fascinating to think of you in Ilford and me in Bolton. Another coincidence.

    • Hilary, many thanks for your kind comment. I certainly think your father deserves more recognition and I was grateful to Frank Dabba Smith for helping give a personal aspect to the story.

      Mike

  6. My father worked on the press tooling for the body of the Witness when he was toolroom foreman at Ritherdons (sheet metal). The company moved from Bolton to Darwen in the 50’s, I was apprenticed to my dad in the 60’s. I had a basic brass body for many years but it eventually went missing.
    Regards
    Alan Southport
    Darwen..

    • Dear Alan, Many thanks for this additional information which I will add to the file — I will also tell Frank Dabba Smith and Dunk Sargeant who are both interested in this story. These little bits of information all add to the story as it is refined over the years and I am grateful to you for getting in touch.

      Mike

  7. I tripped over this by accident. My grandfather, Thomas Melia, ran a haulage business, Melias Transport Ltd, based in Bolton. They had a contract with, who Melia’s staff called, ‘The Witness Camera Company’, to haul product around the country in the 1948 – 1950 period. I can remember my own father owning one of these in the 1960s, and assume he got it from his own father. Alas, it disappeared at some point in the 1970s. Another one of those ‘if only’ moments….

    • Thanks, Ged, that’s fascinating and I suspect it is a new bit of information to add to the Witness story. Since this is now an old article the comment possibly won’t be seen by various friends who helped me write the story, so I am forwarding your message to them. Mike

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