Alfred Charles Barker was the fifth child (fourth son) born to Joseph Gibbs and Sarah Pritchett Bousfield Barker in the London suburb of Hackney on January 5, 1819. His father, a wealthy linen trader, who later became an evangelist, provided a comfortable home for his large family, and his children received the finest educations available. At age 21, young Alfred enrolled at King’s College to study medicine. After acquiring his degree as a surgeon in 1845, he married family friend Emma Barker on July 1 of that year in a ceremony conducted by his brother, Rev. William Gibbs Barker.
Within five years, the family had grown to include three sons, and the young doctor was most eager to participate in the English immigration movement to the South Island commune of Canterbury, New Zealand. Accompanied by his wife (by now pregnant with their fourth child) and children, Dr. Barker boarded the Charlotte Jane, and as the ship’s physician, his family received free passage in addition to his salary. Arriving in Lyttelton on December 16, 1850, the Barkers set up housekeeping in a rustic tent, which the doctor dubbed ‘Studding Sail Hall’, in the neighboring city of Christchurch. At first concentrating solely on surgery, Dr. Barker is credited with several procedural innovations, including the use of surgical chloroform, and steam baths for therapeutic purposes. However, with several other English physician transplants competing for patients, the medical profession was not proving to be as profitable as the ambitious young surgeon had hoped. Fortunately, shrewd land investments enabled Dr. Barker to adequately provide for his ever-growing brood.
In 1858, Dr. Barker sustained a back injury after a fall from a horse, which caused serious injury to his back. That, coupled with the tragic death of his wife Emma shortly after the birth of their eighth child, forced him to leave medicine permanently and concentrate on his business ventures. It is believed that during this period, Dr. Barker became introduced to the wet-plate collodion photographic method, likely through his English colonial neighbor, architect Benjamin Mountfort. What began as a weekend pastime, photographing family and friends with his homemade camera (using a lens supplied by his brother’s telescope), turned into a family business, with his children acting as assistants and some eventually becoming accomplished photographers in their own right. He constructed a darkroom near his house and designed a four-wheel buggy, which was served as a mobile darkroom to develop and print stereographic landscape images. It was Dr. Barker’s ever-present camera that recorded Christchurch’s most newsworthy civic events. While the former physician had little use for artistic conventions, his works represent an important historical record of nineteenth-century colonial settlement life.
Fifty-four-year-old Dr. Alfred Charles Barker died in Christchurch from meningitis complications on March 20, 1873. A large collection of Dr. Barker’s photographs can be found at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. Although they have been criticized for lacking aesthetic appeal, Dr. Barker’s images (which also include handwritten descriptions of their historical significance) offer a rare glimpse into English colonialism and Maori culture. Today, he is widely regarded as one of New Zealand’s earliest photographers.
2019 Barker, Alfred Charles. Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand (URL: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1b4/barker-alfred-charles).
2019 Dr. Alfred Charles Barker, photographer,1819-1873 (URL: https://my.christchurchcitylibraries.com/alfred-charles-barker).
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 113.
1978 History of Photography, Vol. II (London: Routledge), pp. 123-133.
2015 ‘If we never meet again’: The Migration Experiences of Emma Barker in Nineteenth-Century Canterbury by Paulien Martens (URL: https://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10092/11486/Paulien%20Martens_401014_assignsubmission_file_Paulien%20HIST480.pdf;sequence=1).
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