Ensign All Distance model No. 1

This is a simple folding camera from Houghton-Butcher in London. It is certainly small enough to fit in a pocket but is fairly heavy at 500g. It was available in a number of colours but mine is the black version. The body is painted with a crinkle finish paint – no leatherette here. Beneath the paint is steel, rather rusty steel which made my hands and clothes rather dirty when I first unpacked the camera. While I cannot accurately date this camera, it was made around 1930 which was 70 years ago. I doubt that the paint job was intended to last quite that long.

  • lens: meniscus
  • focal length: not known
  • apertures: Waterhouse stops: small, medium and large
  • focus range: portrait or view
  • lens fitting: fixed
  • shutter: Synchro A
  • speeds: I, B or T
  • flash: No!
  • film size: 120

The 1930 Ensign catalogue from Houghton-Butcher had this camera for sale at £1-17-6 (which is £1.87 in modern money). This camera was also available in three bright colours “for ladies in particular” for £2-0-0 which included a leather case to match. For comparison, a simple black box camera cost 8/6 and the Ensign folding No. 2 cost £2-2-0 and their most expensive camera cost £24-15-0. For context, the average factory wage in 1930 was around £2-0-0 per week and average income was £200 per year so in 2020 values this camera was around £250 – a meaningful price but available to most families if they were keen enough.

When folded, this camera measures 6.25 by 3 by 1.25 inches (I am using Imperial units because this is a British camera). When opened for use, the 1.25 inches extends to 5.1 inches. The camera weighs 1lb 1.5oz (500g). When closed, there is very little to see. On one of the long edges is a black painted brass knob. This is to advance the film. As this camera uses 120 medium format film, there is no need for a rewind knob. On the other long edge is a 1/4 inch Whitworth tripod socket. The front of the camera has the hinged lens door. This is held closed by a hinged, nickel plated catch. This door also has a 1/4 inch Whitworth tripod socket. In the middle of the door is an oval cartouche with the legend “ENSIGN” in orange. On the back of the camera is the usual red window so that you can see the frame numbers on the film when you are advancing the film.

When you uncatch the lens door it pulls down and latches in place at 90º to the body. The lens door is held in place by a chrome strut on either side. The nickel plated catch also doubles as a leg enabling the camera to be stood on a table. The inside of the lens door has two bright plated rails to allow the lens standard to be pulled forward to the operating position. These are made from quite soft brass and on my camera had been twisted at the end, preventing the lens standard from being puled forward. Thankfully, it was a simple task to untwist them with a pair of pliers. On the left of the lens door, near the front, is the focus scale. When the lens is pulled forward, a sprung plate fits into one of two slots on the focus scale. The first slot is marked ‘Views’ and the second slot is marked ‘Portraits’. There is no more to focusing than choosing the right slot.

The shutter/lens assembly needs to be pulled forward by hand. The makers have provided a nickel plated post for the user to hold while doing this. The shutter/lens assembly is connected to the camera body by leather bellows. The inside surface of the leather is coated with a linen fabric.

The shutter is Houghton-Butcher’s own “Synchro A” shutter. This is a very simple shutter with two sprung leaves. There is one shutter speed – instantaneous – plus B and T. It is an everset shutter which means that there is no need to cock the shutter before use. The shutter is fired by a lever on the right hand side of the shutter housing. Below this shutter release lever is a socket for a standard cable release. On the front of the shutter housing, at the top, is a plate with the maker’s name – “Made by HBM Co Ltd London” – beneath which is the legend “Synchro A shutter”. At the bottom of the front of the shutter housing is another plate. At one end of this lower plate are the shutter speeds: I, B and T. Next to these is a small nickel plated wheel with a pointer to select the shutter speeds. In the middle of this lower plate is the aperture scale. This consists of three values: small, medium and large. beneath the plate is a moving pointer to select the required aperture. internally, the aperture is selected by a rotating disc with three different Waterhouse stops – no iris diaphragm here.

On the left of the shutter housing is a wire frame viewfinder – basically an iconometer with the rather strange omission of any eye-piece. This means that the view in the viewfinder will change drastically with small changes in eye position. I suppose users would get used to this after a few wasted films. On the top left of the shutter housing is a brilliant finder . Unusually (at least in my experience) the top of the brilliant finder is ground glass rather than a second clear lens. This actiually works better than any other brilliant finder that I have come across. This brilliant finder if hinged so that it can be used in either portrait or landscape orientation.

The lens is a simple meniscus lens. There is no indiction as to focal length but it will be around 100 mm given the film format. I haven’t tried this camera with film but the use of a single element lens suggests that vignetting is likely to be a problem.

Below the shutter/lens assembly is a steel plate connecting the assembly to the rails on the lens door. On this steel plate is the model name of this camera: “All Distance Pocket Ensign Model No. 1 Made in England”.

The camera back is removed by a sliding catch at one end. The back comes away in one piece. The inside of the back has a stamped version of the legends on the front. There is also an orange coloured label encouraging the user to use “2 1/4 B Ensign Speedy film”. What is missing here is any pressure plate to keep the film flat across the film gate.

Inside, most of the space is taken up with the film gate. This measures 2 1/8 by 3 1/4 inches (54 by 82 mm). On either end of this is a chrome roller. At the ends are the spool chambers. These have Houghton-Butcher’s patented hinged pegs. These easer the fitting of the spools. At the take-up end, it is necessary to pull out the film advance knob to allow the take-up spool to be fitted (or removed). Not being a Japanese camera, there are no foam light seals between the back and the body, light tightness being achieved by significant flanges.


Author: John Margetts

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

6 thoughts on “Ensign All Distance model No. 1”

  1. > it was made around 1930 which was 70 years ago

    Not for quite some time! 1930 was 90 years ago now.


  2. Hi I have one of these in a Burgany colour , I was reading your article and I have leant alot from it as I didn’t know anything about it thank you


  3. Many thanks for this article. I purchased my camera at our local jumble sale when I was about 10 years old (54 years ago!). I think I paid 6d for it with a silver sixpence. It is in lovely condition, and looks unused. I never knew anything about it until I ‘Googled’ it today and found your article. Again, many thanks. Regards, Leo


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