An item which always causes debate in the abbey archives is the first known image of the Downside community. Was it taken in 1854, 1855 or 1857?!

Many copies of the image exist here at Downside, but each one is labelled with a different date. However, the image which hangs in the monastery bears the date 1857, and this is the date which we acknowledge as being right. 

The photograph contains many monks who would go on to prominence at Downside, including Prior Norbert Sweeney, Dom Benedict Snow, Dom Wilfrid Raynal (later Prior of Belmont) and Dom Alphonsus Morrall. 

One question also remains about the photograph-where was it taken? It is assumed it must have been in front of a building long ago pulled down, perhaps what used to be a farmhouse at the back of Old House. 

We can only assume the state of interest and perhaps excitement that having a photographer on site may have elicited. Being a relatively new practice, the art of photography would have been something that would have been met with curiosity by many members of the community. 

The final part of the image’s story which causes debate is who took it. One of the theories, although never proven, but passed down through generations of monks, is that it was taken by renowned photographer Henry Fox Talbot. Alas, we have nothing to back up this story in the archives, but it is an intriguing thought that the first photograph of a Downside community may have been taken by one the art’s early pioneers. 

You can find out more about the abbey’s heritage by clicking here, or maybe click here to discover more about a monastic vocation.