Houghton-Ensign A Short History
In 1836 George Houghton went into business with a Frenchman Antoine Claudet who had a glass warehouse specialising in sheet glass and glass shades at 89 High Holbourn, London. The new company called, Claudet and Houghton made various types of glass including optical glass as well as photographic materials. The company expanded increasing its range of photographic products and in 1867 George Houghton's son joined the company. In this same year Claudet died and the company became George Houghton & Son. In 1899 the company bought the adjoining building of 88 High Holbourn, London which became the company head office.
By 1903 they were producing Ensign daylight loading roll film and on 10th March 1904 George Houghton and Son became a limited company and Houghton's Limited was formed.
It was in this same year the Ensign logo first appeared. A typical Edwardian pun on the name, N-sign, a pub sign with the letter N.
In 1911 the logo changed to the now familiar Ensign flag. Famous as the flag flown from all Royal Navy ships.
Houghtons Ltd. built a factory for the production of cameras on the Fulbourn Road in Walthamstow around 1905, where they made cameras like this 'Triple Victo'
By 1908 the factory at Walthamstow was the biggest camera producing plant in Great Britain. It employed over 700 staff and the buildings alone had a floor space of 71,300 square feet. With offices in Holbourn and Hatton Garden in London and Glasgow, Houghtons had over 1,000 employees.
In January 1915, Houghtons Ltd. combined with W. Butcher and Sons Ltd. to form the Houghton-Butcher Manufacturing Company. Although their cameras were still sold under their separate company names, the new joint company provided a common manufacturing base.
1930 saw Ensign Limited floated and the company finally take the name of the cameras it produced. During the 1930's Ensign began production of it's first and last production miniature camera the Ensign Multex.
On the nights of the 24th and 25th September 1940 enemy bombing destroyed Ensign House, the offices of Ensign Ltd. at 88/89 High Holbourn in London. On Oct. 7th of the same year Ensign Ltd., the sales wing of Houghton-Butcher, was wound up and the sale of the remaining stock of enlargers, epidiascopes and cine-cameras was taken over by Johnson & Sons of Hendon. The Houghton-Butcher Manufacturing Co. Ltd. continued to trade under their own name, advertising the Ful-Vue along with other cameras in the B.J.A. until 1942, when they announced that they had sole right to the trade name "Ensign" and would be continuing the manufacture and sale of cameras and accessories using the trade name "Ensign". Camera production continued at the Walthamstow works, however due to mounting pressure to produce items for the armed forces combined with the loss of their sales wing and the general drop in demand for photographic goods, the retail photographic business took second place to their increasing commitment to the war effort. No new products were developed during this period apart from items that directly related to military needs.
On the 27th June 1945 Ensign Ltd.'s liquidators agreed to a company called Barnet Ensign Ltd. being floated. This new company was a union between the Houghton-Butcher Mfg. Co. Ltd. and Elliot and Sons Ltd. makers of Barnet films and plates.
1948 saw Ross Ltd. join with Barnet-Ensign Ltd. to form Barnet Ensign Ross Ltd. Clearly it was hoped that with the addition of Ross's quality lenses to their existing range of cameras B.E.R. would become a force to be reckoned with. Stating in their own publicity handout; " It seems, in fact, beyond doubt that as a result of, the Barnet Ensign Ross alliance the focus of photographic progress has shifted from the continent to Britain.".
It was around 1951 that the company changed its name again to Ross Ensign and it produced classic 50's roll film cameras, like the Selfix and Autorange, which are still popular today with many collectors. By 1955 Ross-Ensign had moved production from Walthamstow to Ross's Clapham Common factory, where they continued to produce cameras along with lenses and binoculars.
Unfortunately by 1961 Ross Ensign had faded away completely.
Ensign produced some of the best examples of folding roll film cameras available in the fifties. So what had brought them to this sad state of affairs? Ensign was constantly battling against the public belief that foreign cameras particularly those made in Germany were of better quality than British made cameras. By single mindedly attempting to develop high quality folding roll film cameras which would compete with these German companies they exhausted their research and development budget. The company completely ignored the publics growing interest in 35mm cameras never producing even a prototype 35mm camera, believing so strongly that the larger format of 120 roll film was superior and would never be surpassed. In a typically British way they looked back at their fine traditional range of cameras with pride, completely ignoring the changes in the camera industry and retail trade until it was too late. Ensign cameras were expensive and beginning to look old fashioned. Sales dropped too low to fund the research needed for new designs and Ross-Ensign found it could no longer compete with the new 35mm cameras being imported from Germany and the then expanding camera manufacturers of Japan.
An alphabetical list of H-B cameras (A work in Progress)
Ensign Catalogues of the Edwardian period
Ensign catalogues of the 'Roaring Twenties'
Ensign Catalogues of the 1930's
Research in progress
It has taken many years of research to compile the information in these pages. I am at present researching a new book on the company if you can help with any further information about Ensign Cameras or their manufacture or simply have any comments about this web page. Please E-Mail me at the ensign book project:
If You have any Houghton-Butcher/Ensign cameras in your collection could you take a moment to let me have some information about them? Visit my ON-line serial number data page.
Ensign Serial number Data Project
© Copyright 1997 Adrian Richmond. All rights reserved. Please seek permission before reproducing any part of the information here.