Houghton Ensignette

This is almost certainly my oldest camera. Until now, that has been my 1918 ICA Icarette.

(C) John Margetts

This Ensignette was patented in 1907 – patent number 28484. This information is embossed on the front of the camera. However, I am reliably informed that the camera started production in 1909, just before Christmas and continued in this form until 1920.

The body of the camera is made entirely from brass sheet. It is painted matt black inside and black gloss outside. The struts and fittings are plated (I think nickel, but I cannot be sure). I have no idea as to the base metal.

P1030268The camera measures 98 by 48 by 20 mm (as this is a British camera, I shall give this in the old Imperial units as well: 3 7/8 by 1 7/8 by 25/32 inches), when closed and extends to 80 mm ( 3 3/16 inches) when open for use. It weighs 220 g (7 3/4 oz) with no film inside.

The front of the camera is embossed “ENSIGNETTE” in an arc above the lens. Below the lens is “MADE BY HOUGHTONS LTD LONDON”. On the right (looking at the lens) is the Ensign logo of a Royal Navy ensign flag with the word “ENSIGN” on the flag and the words “British Made” below the flag – all in an embossed circle. To the right of the lens, and slightly below it, is the aperture control. The apertures are Waterhouse stops (holes is a movable strip of metal). Available stops are f/11, f/16 and f/22. At the lower left of the front is a rotating lever. On my camera, this is clearly not attached to anything. The only purpose I can think of is a leg for the camera to sit on, maintaining the camera level.

On the top left are two controls. These have a clear function. The right-hand one points to either T or I (Time or Instant). With T, the shutter remains open while the shutter release is pressed. With I, a short exposure is given (short usually means around 1/25 to 1/40 seconds with these old cameras). The other control at the top is the shutter release. On my camera, the shuter is in pieces – the loose pieces are rattling around inside the front of the camera. So, this shutter release is doing nothing. I don’t usually like broken cameras but this camera was an important innovation in its day and the film (E1 or Kodak 128) is no longer available.

The back of the camera has a central red window with a plated surround – this is to allow the user to read the frame numbers off the film backing paper when advancing the film. As film in 1909 was not sensitive to red light, any light entering the camera through this window would have no effect on the film. Above the red window is the legend “Harrods Ltd London” which tells me that this camera was retailed by Harrods.

P1030257When the front of the camera is extended for use, the bellows leather is straight (the usual thing is for the bellows to retain their concertina shape to maintain some rigidity in the fabric). To give some rigidity to these straight bellows, there is a rectangular brace half-way down the bellows. The bellows are leather and are no longer light-proof (the leather is over 100 years old and is holding up remarkably well, but it is not perfect).

The front of the camera is held in place by a chrome plated strut at each corner. These are held in place by small screws, one of which is missing from my camera – so, the front is held in place by only three struts. It is still rigid. When the front is extended, the eye-piece of the viewfinder is revealed. This is a Brilliant type finder and is seriously corroded inside, rendering it next to useless. To be honest, I find Brilliant finders to be next to useless when in good condition.

The back of the camera removes in one piece. There is a sliding catch on the left end of the camera (left end as in when using the camera). The other end of the camera back is held in place by two small pressed lugs.

Inside, the back is painted matt black. There is a stamped serial number (P1153) and two pencilled numbers. One is ’37” ‘ (37 inches?) and the other is ‘866’. The first might be the length of the film or the closest focus distance (or might be neither). I have no idea for the other. The top and bottom edges of the back have each a long (7/16 inches or 11 mm), thin pressing to provide some grip when removing the back.

On the body of the camera at the opposite end to the catch, the serial number is repeated (still P1153 so the back is clearly original supply.

P1030258There is a recess at either end of the body inside. The recess on the right is where the new roll of film goes and the recess on the left is where the take-up spool goes. The new film (size E1 or 128) fits into a removable brass carrier which, in turn, fits into the recess. this recess also has a pencil number  – 570 – and again I have no idea what it means. The left-hand recess has the film advance key protruding into it from the top. Because this is a small camera, the take-up spool is also small and therefore fiddley to manoevre.Somewhat surprisingly, I actually have an empty take-up spool which was provided with the camera. The take-up spool is metal (this camera dates from before the advent of plastics). – the shaft is aluminium and the ends are brass – both ends are stamped with “ENSIGN” and one end has a slot to engage with the film advance key. The aluminium shaft has a slot to take the leading edge of the film backing paper.

P1030259I always like to finish these articles with a note on using the camera and some test photographs. As E1 film is no longer available and the camera’s shutter is broken, I am not able to do so.


Author: John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 50 years photography experience.

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