Obituary: Harry Ashley

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The Independent Online
Harry Ashley was a photographer and popular historian of Dorset as well as an authority on the dialect poet William Barnes.

He discovered the beauty of Dorset in 1936, when he became a photographer on the Dorset County Chronicle. He liked to recall that an earlier contributor was Thomas Hardy. The young Ashley soon moved to the Echo in Bournemouth where, having opted to return after the Second World War, he became the much respected chief photographer serving a total of 40 years.

As an RAF Official War Photographer he provided Britain with the first pictures of the fall of Mandalay and Singapore. He was twice shot down and when it was friendly fire he was out of the plane in seconds to photograph the downed aircraft.

Peacetime in Bournemouth was not dull. In 1946 he was the first on the scene in Branksome Dene Chine when police discovered by moonlight the mutilated body of the ex-Wren Doreen Marshall. She had been murdered by Neville Heath who is now depicted in Madame Tussaud's chamber of horrors. The body had remained undetected under a rhododendron bush for several days because the town police force only searched as far as the borough boundary dividing the valley. Ashley never walked that path again.

He photographed royalty and the stars but unknown to many readers he was never able to photograph the town's greatest annual event. Beales department store was the first shop in the world to have Father Christmas in residence. His arrival, until as recently as 1964, was like a royal visit with streets closed and extra police on duty. For 15 years, Harry Ashley was the very convincing Father Christmas welcomed at Bournemouth Central Station and driven in a horse-drawn carriage at the climax of a long procession to the store where he made a balcony appearance.

Such serious parades are now only found abroad, notably in Holland where St Nicholas is welcomed, and Bournemouth's version had a similar atmosphere. Ashley's girth and personality were perfect for the task which he admitted was "increasingly traumatic and emotional" as requests for special waves for sick children at different points on the route poured in.

Of course, someone else was enthroned in the store for the next few weeks. Ashley liked to recall spending one snowy Christmas Eve evening at the White Hart in Sturminster Newton. A butcher, baker and blacksmith had called for a drink and across the narrow street, children were gathered around the old cross singing carols. This he claimed, "children did when the dialect poet William Barnes went to school here, more than 150 years before."

Ashley was a founder member of the William Barnes Society and author of In The Steps of William Barnes (1972) whose name is still known in the county almost as well as Hardy through Ashley's championing.

On Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, he would join fellow Spartans, all- year-round swimmers, for a dip in Poole Bay. As Yachting Monthly's Poole Harbour Correspondent, he was able to highlight the interests of one of the largest natural harbours in the world, where he was instrumental in giving the ancient and largely ignored custom of Beating the Harbour Bounds a high profile. He enjoyed not only planning the land and water event, but also dressing up and performing as an exuberant Poole Pirate.

Many Dorset customs have been recorded in his numerous books such as The Dorset Village Book (1984) and The Dorset Coast: history, lore & legend (1992). He travelled more than 2,000 miles around the country just for his Dorset Inns book (1986) published ten years ago. His twice reprinted Dorset: a portrait in colour (1986) was an opportunity for him to return to sites originally photographed in black and white, his favourite medium, during half a century.

Leigh Hatts

Harry William Ashley, photographer and author: born Weymouth 16 June 1917; married 1939 Betty Jordan (one son); died Christchurch, Dorset 29 March 1997.