An Interview with Norman Potter by Matthew Butson

Matthew Butson oversees the archive at Getty Images and has been with the archive for three decades. Here is Matthew’s interview with Norman Potter.

On May 5, 1954, a twenty-five year old athlete would go to bed as an unknown. The following evening he would go to bed and be known the world over as the first man to run a mile in under four minutes, a fantastic feat at the time.

Roger Bannister, a British medical student ran the distance in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds at the Iffley Road track in Oxfordshire.

The run was well planned with two pacemakers Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway to force Bannister to keep on their heels.

From the gun Brasher took the lead with Bannister keeping up with him in second place and Chataway to the rear.

At nearly half a mile Brasher was feeling the pace and Bannister signalled Chataway to overtake and take up the pacemaker position.

With 200 yards to run Bannister kicked hard and took the lead and, with a final burst of what energy he had left, he made it to the tape to collapse in the arms of his friend the Reverend Nicholas Stacey.

The crowd of just 3000 caused chaos and cheered ecstatically on hearing the record time had been run and Bannister was, for the moment, the fastest man on earth.

Nowadays there would have been cameras all around the area covering every stride that Bannister had made but on that day there was just one press photographer on the scene.

The same photographer at one time had singer Frank Sinatra on the floor of a London cinema in a headlock after attacking photographer colleague Fred Carroll.

He also knew many London gangsters and most of the Great Train Robbery criminals.

Who was the man behind the camera? Step forward Norman Potter who now lives in retirement in Eastney.

I talked to Norman about his career and some of the good and bad scenes he and his camera had recorded. Norman was born in Malta in 1932 to a naval family, Norman returned to England with his mother and sister to live on the Isle of Wight. His grandparents Joshua and Nancy had both worked at Osborne House for Queen Victoria as chef and ladies maid.

His father later serving at Haslar the family moved to Gosport living for a time in Avenue Road where he attended Grove Avenue school.

One of Norman’s favourite memories is of the mudlarks he saw at Portsea when visiting Portsmouth with his mother.

When aged eleven Norman’s family moved to south London as his mother’s father was very ill. His own father was being treated for alcoholism and so at the age of twelve the navy took over his life and sent him to the naval training school T.S. Exmouth at Bray on the Thames. Sometime later he was on leave visiting the Isle of Wight when he had an accident resulting in the loss of a finger and the loss of use of two others on his right hand. End of any naval career.

Norman was a great swimmer and one day in 1946 while at Tooting Bec lido a photographer came on the scene asking if anyone was to be at the forth coming Olympics.

He chatted to the photographer and thought he might like that as a career and made his way to Fleet Street and entered the hallowed premises of the Daily Express the national daily with the largest circulation in the world.

The commissionaire told him he little chance of an interview but directed him the to offices of Central Press Photos. CPP was located behind the Irish Independent office in a dark alley. The receptionist Pattie led him up a flight of stairs to the office of the works department and dispatch manager Ernie Hope.

Ernie was in charge of half a dozen boys who were, long before the days of computer picture taking, washing, mangling, drying and feeding photographic prints on a large, hot drum. Other boys were waiting for Ernie to stamp, label   and caption photographs and then place prints in folders to be sent to newspapers.

“What can I do for you?” asked Ernie.

“I want to be a photographers assistant” Norman explained. Ernie took a long drag on his cigarette and caught the smoke as he exhaled, “I don’t think that will happen but I will go see the managing director to see if he will have a word with you.”

The MD was Mr Bert Cude who, after a short chat, offered Norman a position only if he signed an agreement to work six days a week from 8am until 5pm with an hour for lunch. the pay was 15/- a week. (75p)

Norman was in. His parents were amazed that he had taken a job with such low pay but agreed to support him. They thought he would give it all up but his love affair with Fleet Street lasted until the 1980s when the ‘Street of Shame’ ceased to be the centre of the newspaper industry.

At this time most newspapers did not employ photographers but used photographs from the many photo agencies along Fleet Street and surrounding areas. All photographs were on heavy glass-plate negatives.

Norman’s first duties was to prepare prints from the day before and overnight for weekly and foreign magazines.

As soon as motor-cycle messengers or photographers arrived with the plates all hell would break loose. When the plates had been developed a meeting was held with the picture editor, distributing manager, chief printer,

the weekly and magazine salesman and foreign syndication manager. The boy runners would be on stand by at the back.

Pictures were then sent firstly to the three evening papers the Standard, Star and News. The boys would run as fast as they could to these offices and if they managed to get a signed receipt they received a bonus of 3d.

As the year passed and some boys left for national service Norman moved up the ladder and some of the photographers wanted assistants to help them with their heavy equipment. One photographer Norman was allotted was the great Jimmy Sime. Along with him Norman saw much of the 1948 Olympics, Wimbledon, the Derby and test Match cricket from the Oval.

What impressed Norman was the respect the press photographers of the time received even from King George VI.

Norman remembers one time Jimmy was waiting for the King to arrive at a meeting on upon alighting his car turned to Jimmy and greeted him “Good morning Mr Sime” then “Good morning Mr Houghton” Bill Houghton of the Times.

He then addressed the other lesser known mortals with “Good morning gentlemen”. Goodness thought Norman, I want to be a press photographer.

Norman says that there can be no comparison with the press men of that period and now when many attend missions dressed like labourers. He also has a great dislike for the title ‘war photographer’. “Either your a photojournalist or your not. At that time you were judged on the importance of the event not on the celebrity of some falling down drunk who thinks he/she is a VIP.”

Norman remembers one time collecting plates from the library further along Fleet Street and running back to the office he tripped. A tinkle of glass and to his horror he had managed to smash the irreplaceable plate of the magical moment when Len Hutton stood at his crease for a 13-hour innings when he scored a record breaking 364 runs at the Oval in 1938.

The photographer of that plate was Dennis Oulds an all-time great for taking cricket photographs. In November 1951 Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner married and honeymooned in London. One evening they were at the Odeon cinema, Leicester Square in London and where shown to their seats. Down one of the outside aisles was CPP photographer Fred Carroll with Norman ass assistant.

On taking a photograph of the two world stars Sinatra made for Carroll and rammed his head into a pillar shouting “I’m gonna sue you for every hair on your body.” On seeing the bullying Sinatra, the very fit Norman grabbed him in a headlock and took him to the carpet holding a clenched fist inches from Sinatra’s nose.

The two press men were ejected from the cinema. The following day Sinatra was at a press conference/photo call and said that he had had bother with two pressmen the previous evening and one of them was almost eaten alive.

Not surprisingly, the conference was cancelled.

On another occasion Norman was with Jimmy Sime at Buckingham Palace and Norman was sent back to the office for more flash bulbs. On returning he couldn’t find Jimmy but a lady in a long white dress reaching from her chin to her toes and holding a feather duster asked “Are you looking for the photographer?” On confirming he was she led him to where Jimmy was and returned to her dusting. The lady was H.M. Queen Mary of Teck!

Norman’s first press camera was purchased with the help of his parents and some sound advice from Dennis Oulds. It was a 9x12cm Contessa Plate.

His first venture as a photojournalist was to St. Leonard’s church hall for a visit of Sir Duncan Sandys and his wife Diana the daughter of Winston Churchill.

Although a good photographer he was not in the class of the professionals in 1951 the MD of CCP offered him an apprenticeship over five years.

He was somewhat put out when he found out his wages would be reduced somewhat. It was to start at three guineas a week, 17/- less than what his wages were.

He still worked when not at college and made a name fro himself around London getting to know people such as boxers Freddie Mills, Dick and Randolph Churchill, Henry Cooper and his brother Jim.

On October 8, 1952, he walked into the office and as there were no spare photographer about he was sent to Harrow, north-west London where there had been an horrendous train crash.

The eleven-coach Perth to London train had ploughed into the rear of a nine-coach local service stopped in the station. Several minutes later the fifteen-coach Euston to Liverpool service smashed into the wreckage of the two previous collisions. All were steam-hauled. In all there were 112 fatalities and 340 injuries. The wreckage was piled into a heap 45 yards long, 18 yards wide and 25 feet high.

This was the horrific sight that met Norman’s eyes when he arrived. This was before the days of crisis services and many civilians were on hand to help along with the American Air Force personnel. Norman had a job to do.

He told me that one thing that has always been taboo in England was the photographing of dead bodies, just record the facts. He climbed onto the top of the wreckage and started shooting. He had to get his job done. The photographs now over sixty years old are still overwhelmingly powerful.

In contrast to this event, on May 6, 1954, Norman was sent to Oxfordshire to photograph a possible attempt at the record for running the mile.

Most of the press thought there was no chance as there was a wind blowing so they all went home except for Dennis ‘Ned’ Evans a freelance Associated Press and Ivan ‘Sammy’ Samson from the Oxford Mail.

It appears that all three men took photographs a bannister broke the tape. As fortune has it, Norman’s photograph was the one chosen to make history. Remember he still had a glass plate camera so one shot was all he was going to get, and did he get it?

The race began with a full-start with Brasher jumping the gun but it was soon restarted. The pace-makers were keeping bannister on his toes and up to time on each lap.

As Bannister raced the last hundred yards towards the tape Norman steadied himself and as the great moment occurred, with Bannister collapsing through the tape, snap, it was in the bag. The only man with a camera to record history in the making. The sub four-minute mile had been achieved.

The photograph was wired around the world and appeared in newspapers and magazines in every city and town. Unfortunately it was several years before Norman could claim the fame. In those days, bylines were rarely used and when Getty Images bought the Central press library in 1988 was credited ‘photographer unknown’ which to-day would cause many a sleepless night. In later years Norman took a photograph of Roger Bannister running a race with other dads at his son’s school sports day. He took it in secret with a long lens and had to get the headmaster’s permission to publish it.

Being based in London Norman met many of the villains of the time but strangely he told me an exclusive which,he says, has never been published.

Roy James, one of the Great Train robbers was a family friend. Norman told me that most of the robbers were not hard-noses vicious villains but very clever businessmen and if they had formed a legitimate business they would have succeeded.

When the train robbers were being released Norman and two colleagues made a deal. Norman said that the first one out would be worth a fortune as the press would want their story.

The next one out would get half a fortune until, the last one out might get ‘a drink’.

With his two press friends Norman said to James that he would secure a deal and all the earnings would go to him (James) less ten-percent for Norman and Val. James could then put the money by and divid it up among the rest of the gang when they were all released. Unfortunately the reporter of the deal, Frank Howard went on holiday and was left out of the deal and Val Pirrie and Norman went ahead.

One day in the mid-1970s after they were all released Roy James was ill in bed and Norman took a photograph of the robbers looking in on him.

The photo was banned from release in this country after questions were asked in Parliament about criminals earning money from a crime.

The photograph was sold to Stern magazine in Germany and they made a fortune out of it.

Norman passed his apprenticeship with flying colours and left CCP and joined the Daily Express. He also went freelance and went around the world making images for newspapers at home.

He met some of the worlds biggest names from emperors, kings and queens to films stars and politicians. He was also imprisoned in Russia, only for a day or two, for taking pictures.

I asked him what were the two most contrasting subjects he had ever photographed. He answered quite easily.

The most happiest was the Coronation of our present Queen where one of his b&w photographs was hand coloured and appeared in many magazines.

The worst subject was in Indo-Pakistani war in 1971. Afterwards there was an outbreak of cholera one of the worlds most disgusting diseases.

Norman described the symptoms to me which I could not repeat here. There were so many dead they were bulldozed into massive heaps and petrol poured on the bodies and set on fire.

When he was leaving the man in charge told him to leave his camera case and shoes behind to be burnt in fear of spreading the disease.

A lifetime of adventure came to an end when he retired in 1996. After a lifetime of taking thousands of images and raising seven children, five girls and two boys, he and his wife returned to Portsmouth and purchased a house in Eastney. Sadly he lost his wife ten years ago. Instead of catching images he now spends much of his time catching fish from the Eastney Cruising Club.

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