In Search of R H Tucker

I’ll start at the very beginning, an eminently suitable location for commencement or so I am told.


My father was a keen hobby photographer and had his own little darkroom until I came along and needed somewhere to sleep. However, I soon outgrew the developing tray and all that had to go. He carried on taking photos so photography was always part of my life. I have had some form of camera or other since I was nine years old.


In 1996, for no other reason than it was suggested, I visited India. I would say that a country like India either grabs or repels you. There is very little, if any, middle ground. For me it was very nearly the latter. Such was the impact of my first impression, if the opportunity to turn around and go straight back home had been available, I may well have jumped at it. However, I was very soon grabbed, and have never looked back.


At the same time, India put its hooks into me. Not content with my own imagery, I started collecting other peoples. I sought out old photo albums compiled by those who lived, worked and served in India at the time of the Raj. My interest, in both the present and the past, is people. 

I love the street scenes, people at work and play, life in general.  Most of these albums have photos of the Taj Mahal, the Gateway of India, and a multitude of temples, mosques and monuments. The Taj is a magnificent building, but it is still a building. And has looked the same for nearly 400 years. People, and life, were my ‘thing’.


In 2018 I had purchased an 8mm cine film convertor. Before the advent of affordable video cameras or camcorders, the cine camera was all we had. The films were only four minutes long and you had to send them off for chemical processing. That is how those that could afford the equipment recorded those special moments in life from the early 90s back. This gadget got me thinking about all those people living and working out in India, both pre and post independence, and wondering if there were any home movies knocking around the markets. I searched for 8mm, cine, and India on the auction sites. But all I ever found were the commercially produced kind. Cut down versions of Bollywood greats. I searched on and off for years but home movies shot in India simply never turned up for sale, until one day...


Scrolling through the usual fare my search parameters generated something caught my eye. The details read ‘Incredible Collection Vintage 8mm Cine Films India 1950s 1960s Amateur Footage’. And a second auction of ‘Super Rare Vintage Amateur 8mm Cine Film Scindia School Gwalior India 1950s 60s’. In the auction details it mentioned ‘everyday life in towns and villages, well edited, will delight anyone interested in the history and culture of India’. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was the real deal, the mother lode, the Holy Grail. They were not cheap but I didn't care. Sold, to the obsessive collector of all things India.


There were ten reels in all. Most of them had brief original notation on the reel or the box if there was one and the seller had added their own on separate pieces of paper. As soon as they arrived I put all other projects on hold and commenced digitising the films. They were exactly as advertised. Footage of street scenes, rural scenes, people at work, and rarely a wasted moment. Some of them were almost ready made documentaries. The shots were short, concise, and illustrated all the key aspects of the scenes. All they needed was the voiceover. Whoever shot these films knew what they were doing. These days we carry devices in our pockets that will automatically set exposure, shutter speed, and ISO settings, change any or all in a heartbeat to suit the scene. They record hours of high definition footage in glorious Technicolor that we can cut, splice, speed up, slow down, turn around or upside down before uploading the finished product to the world. Filming what amounted to a polished product using an 8mm cine camera and four minutes of film, that was talent. So who shot these films, and how did they end up for sale to the highest bidder instead of remaining a family treasure? I needed to know more.


The only details on the auction were that the films had belonged to a man who taught at the Scindia School in Gwalior, a city in Northern India, from the late 50s to the early 60s. I messaged the man who sold them to me, one Martyn Allen from Manchester and asked if he had any more details than were on the auction. All he could tell me other than the info in the auction is that they had come from a house clearance. He couldn’t recall where as he dealt with a lot of companies and bought a lot of similar items. As they were from a house clearance I presumed the cameraman had passed away and had no family to pass the films on to. And that was that. But I didn’t want to let it go. There must be a way of finding out who shot these films. I decided to try the school.


The Scindia School is in the city of Gwalior in North India. It is a prestigious boarding academy situated in Gwalior Fort, a magnificent stronghold built on a sandstone outcrop two miles long, a mile wide, and rising to a height of nearly 200m. Towering over the surrounding landscape and the city. The school was founded in 1897 by the then Maharaja of Gwalior, Madho Rao Scindia, exclusively for the children of the Indian princely states. The school is no longer exclusive, but it’s not cheap either. I emailed the school and asked if there were any records of a teacher coming from England to teach in the late 50s to early 60s. I also sent a message through their Facebook page. But it was August and the school was in recess so I was unlikely to get a reply any time soon.


Going back to the films I was nearly done with the conversions. I had not studied the output in detail but at a glance, it was all just as advertised. The cameraman had filmed in Gwalior town and the school. He had travelled to Delhi and filmed a Republic Day Parade. A spectacular event in vivid colour. There were floats representing states around the country, various traditionally dressed dancers, military parades, and even an Indian Air Force fly past. He visited the sacred city of Varanasi, labelling the film canister using the old name ‘Banaras’. He had been to Kerala and all the way to the Cape Comorin (now Kanyakumari) at the very southern tip of the country. As promised the films captured a plethora of life. City life, rural life, fisherman at work, street vendors, all shot in the same ‘make the most of what you have’ style. I developed a great deal of admiration for this clandestine cameraman.


The very last reel I digitised was a pain. All the films had been spliced together onto bigger reels and the joins were all sixty years old and brittle. I had to repair quite a few breaks along the way but the last reel would have tested the patience of a saint. Time and time again the reels came off to be glued back together and I didn’t take much note of the footage as it went through the scanner. Looking at the output I noticed that the film was upside down and running backwards. This often happens when a film remains on the take up spool and never rewound.


Using my editing software, I rewound the film digitally. It was not the entire reel but just the first four minutes. The running time, or thereabouts, of a single 50ft reel. The footage started with a hand written sign that read ‘England 1955 – A Personal Anthology’. Not India then? I watched it through. It was a mishmash of short seemingly unconnected clips in both monochrome and colour. A pond in a park, shots of a city street, shots from a moving train, a tall crane, a close up of two small smoke stacks, the exterior of a large cottage, an eight-man shell complete with cox on a river, and a human skull sitting on a desk. That’s right, a human skull sitting on a desk. What did this all tell me about the cameraman? Nothing, and deepened the mystery to boot. There were longer shots of an old couple walking around in front of a small shopping precinct and footage of a wedding with the same old couple in the milling guests. Just before the wedding there were shots of a rural village and a signpost. The signpost was to somewhere called ‘Sonning’. I looked up Sonning and found it to be a small village to the east of Reading in Hertfordshire. I found images of the church in Sonning and they matched the one in the footage. Was any of this a clue? I was clueless.


Thinking lowest common denominator, I put ‘Scindia School & Sonning’ into a search engine. No immediate connections. I added 1955, 1950s, teacher, still nothing, except the Sonning Parish Council website. I quick look at this led me to the Sonning Genealogy page and a man by the name of Trefor Fisher. Trefor had lived in Sonning for 40 odd years and had been researching his family history for most of that time. If Sonning had a son who had gone to India to be a teacher, Trefor might know.


I mailed Trefor with the story so far and asked if it meant anything to him. My inquiry did not ring any immediate bells but he replied ‘I do enjoy a challenge and I think that is exactly what you have provided’. He told me that he knew residents that had lived in the village since the 50s and he would ask around. I sent him the video clip to show people and see if they recognised anyone. Initially we drew blanks. He told me that the shopping precinct was in Bracknell and still existed and we believe the old couple lived there. It was nice to know the location but it didn’t bring us any closer to the mystery movie maker. Trefor, looking at the foliage in the shots surmised that it was probably taken in the winter months as the trees were bare. And in a later email he offered me a list of the marriages performed at the church from 1955 to 1956. I said that could be very helpful and accepted.


Sonning is a small place and the list wasn’t very long. But how to use it. Falling back on my simple search parameters I started putting the name of every groom into a search engine followed by ‘Scindia School’, but again, no connections, and only hits on the school. Until I searched for one Charles William Savage and Scindia School. Again, there was no connection between the two*, but something in the first search result caught my eye.  The link text read ‘The Harrovian – King Williams College’ and beneath the link was displayed a line and a half of text to be found under the link. I read the words ‘Mr. Tucker has written from the Scindia School, Gwalior, India, where he seems to be having an extremely interesting time producing’. Producing what!? Who is this Mr Tucker!? I followed the link to a pdf file of a publication entitled the ‘Barrovian’. The Harrovian ref was a scanning error mistaking the ‘B’ for an ‘H’.  The Barrovian is the thrice yearly publication produced by King William’s College on the Isle of Man. This particular one was the December 1959 edition and the complete text read –


Mr. Tucker has written from the Scindia School, Gwalior, India, where he seems to be having an extremely interesting time producing two plays, one indoors and one out, watching cobras being killed on his door step and conversing with his servant, Bhirku, in sign language. His absence is being sorely felt in many directions, not least in the world of drama where we have missed his lavish, professionally stylish House play productions. We look forward to his return next September.


 I trawled through the pdf files looking for more information. I found another reference that rang a bell –


Mr. R H Tucker, who is still enjoying life in the Indian sun, has yet to bag his first tiger, although he recently had a Tom Lehrer** type adventure with a cow.’


On the reel shot in Gwalior, there is a short sequence depicting some young lads squatting in a street stall selling various metal pots. A second after the shot commences, two cows blunder through the stall knocking the wares all over the place much to the amusement of the boys. This had to be the ‘Lehrer’ event. The dateline was a match, as was the school, and the bovine brouhaha sealed it for me. I had found my cameraman, Mr R H Tucker. But who was R H Tucker?


I was closer but still needed more. I trawled through numerous pdf editions of the Barrovian. There were lots of references to the man as R H Tucker. He was a house master and an English master with a fondness for drama. He was president of the Gramophone and Literary and Debating Societies, Assistant Producer in the Dramatic Society, and chairman of Jazz Club. Which may amuse fans of The Fast Show. In something called the Combined Cadet Force he was listed as Lt R H Tucker late of the Royal Corps of Signals. There were a few references to his Indian sabbatical and an article written by Mr Tucker in the December 1960 issue entitled ‘A School in India’. At no point however, was his name mentioned. He was always simply R. H.


But did I need to know? Didn’t I have enough? At one time that may have been the case but my browsing of the Barrovian turned up this little Tucker snippet from March 1960 –


His (Tucker’s) school year ends on April 23rd, after which he plans to spend three or four months travelling home via Kashmir, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and South Africa amongst others.


Those references to other destinations piqued my interest. Did RH film there too? Were the Kashmir, Afghanistan and Baluchistan reels out there waiting for me to find them? The search must go on.


In the December 1960 issue of the Barrovian RH Tucker was listed as a ‘Late Exhibitioner of Pembroke College Cambridge’. I had no idea what an exhibitioner was in this context but the college would be a going concern. At the same time an old friend of mine, Mr Dave Jackson, who was also interested in the films, was conducting a search of his own. We fed each other information and Dave discovered that RH Tucker also taught at The Ipswich School in the 1970s. I sent emails to The Ipswich School, King Williams College, and the Pembroke College in the hope that they could tell us anything new. I had not heard from The Scindia School so I sent them an updated email.


The first response was from Mr Matthew Mellor at Pembroke College. Mr Tucker was in their database and we were informed that the R H stood for Richard Harry. Finally, I had a name. I was informed that he had indeed passed away. This was something I had expected. However, the surprise was when. Richard Tucker passed in 2001! But these films had only just come up for sale. Where had they been since 2001? But there was another surprise waiting in the wings. Matthew informed me that Richard was survived by a younger brother. What!? Richard Tucker had a living relative!? This I didn’t expect. Matthew knew this as the brother also attended Pembroke College. He offered to put me in touch if I wanted. But he couldn’t guarantee a response. Of course I accepted Mr Mellor’s offer.


The films came from a house clearance which usually means someone has passed. Maybe Richard’s brother had possession and went into care or similar. Maybe the films were discarded by accident. Hopefully I would find out. There was no email address on file for the brother, so Matthew had to write to him in the old traditional manner. It might be a while before I heard. It might be the case that he didn’t want to get involved. It might be the case that he too had passed. Well, it was a waiting game now. Or was it?


It never rains but it pours they say, and in this case... Later the very same day I had an email from one Caleb Howgego at The Ipswich School. If I was surprised that Richard Tucker had a living brother, Caleb’s email knocked me for six. Quite possibly seven. Caleb wrote - I have looked in our index card files and have found records for three pupils who came to the school who are children of Mr R. H. Tucker, however... Imagine if I had heard that information rather than read it. Everything after ‘however’ would have been an indistinct mumble as every neuron, every synapse, and everything else the brain uses to do its job was suddenly devoted to the one task of processing that information. Children of R H Tucker? Children? Dave and I hadn’t even found a marriage let alone children. I thought it had to be a mistake but resisted replying ‘Children? Are you sure?’ Richard Tucker had a brother and three children, and therefore a wife. This I really did not expect. The same question regarding the films just got 400% more perplexing. Why do I have these family treasures when the family they belong with is still out there? Caleb went on to say that although it would be inappropriate to share their details he would try to contact them and see if they were willing to speak to me. Of course, yes please. But how to start that conversation. I spent a considerable amount of time staring at a word document containing six words. Hi, my name is Phil Wingfield.


A week later I saw a mail from Caleb drop into my mailbox. I opened it with trepidation but needlessly so. ‘Dear Philip’ it read, ‘I've heard back from two of Richard Harry Tucker's children, who are happy for you to get in touch with them’. Wow, this was it. I was on the cusp. Going back to my word document which now read ‘Hi, my name is Phil Wingfield and’, I made a concerted effort to finish it and say what I wanted to say. Although I had included all the details in my enquiries I didn’t know how much had been passed on. So I assumed nothing, composed my message, sent it to both email addresses, and checked my mail box so often thereafter it was ridiculous. I may well have dropped a bombshell of my own to be processed.


I didn’t have long to wait. The following evening, I had an email from a Donald Cathcart. However, this was simply the name generated by the email account for Clare Cathcart, one of Richard Tucker’s two daughters. His other two children, James and Anne Marie, were copied in. The reply was everything I hoped for. It was a lovely letter with a wealth of family background. Especially considering I was pretty much a complete stranger. They were pleased to hear from me and pleased also that I had taken an interest in their father’s films. The films they had no idea existed. The twists just kept on coming. The films were a surprise to Richards own family.


To précis the reply. They knew their father had taught in India. He didn’t talk about it a great deal but neither was he reluctant to. Just as he did at KWC he produced plays. The films contain shots of rehearsals. He met and art teacher also on sabbatical, from China. Clare has one of his paintings and I believe he is on film too. Richard talked about an annual ‘Colour War’ which I imagine was the festival of Holi where it is traditional to hurl vividly coloured powder at each other. Richard said he was spared this assault as the boys said he was ‘red enough already’. Sadly, there is no footage of that. There was talk of him teaching an Indian prince. I don’t know if it was the case. But the last Maharajah of Gwalior, a direct descendant of the man who founded the school, was a pupil at the time of Richards tenure. We can only wonder. In 1990, Clare went backpacking to India and Richard encouraged her to visit the school. She did just that, and despite arriving unannounced, was greeted warmly by the then headmaster, a Mr Mukherjee, who proclaimed Richard Tucker ‘his best friend’. Mr Mukherjee had started work at the Scindia School at the same time as Richard. Before Clare left Richard produced a slideshow of stills he took in India. This piqued my interest to the max. However, none of the family has seen these slides in years and they are believed lost. I was informed by Clare they were inline with what she had seen of the films. In my contact email I had provided links to the few clips I had uploaded to social media. The clips were shot in a tiny trading port known as ‘Ernakulam Market’ in the Keralan city of Ernakulam. The reception the footage received was overwhelming. Hundreds of people posted comments and loved the films as they brought back so many memories. Also, there is a very real chance that it is the only footage of this location’s heyday in existence. If the Richard’s slides were akin to his films, and I’m certain they were, their loss is a tragedy. This is simply a flavour of Clare’s reply and there was a great deal more and it was a simply wonderful read. However, I need to press on.


We went on to exchange a few more emails. I learned that the children’s mother, Janet, had passed in 2015. He also had a sister named Raye who lived in New Zealand, but sadly she had also passed a few years ago. I learned that Richard’s brother John was 88 and lived in Wales. At this time, I had heard nothing back from Matthew as regards any contact with him. But that too was about to change.


I had an email from John Tucker. He stated that he had been contacted by Mr Mellor as regards his late brother and asked that I call him. He wanted to learn about the cine films and what I intended doing with them. This I did and we chatted for quite a while on the subject of his brother, and India, and the films, of which he too had no prior knowledge. I explained my fledgling plans and John was on board.


So, the films were a surprise to everyone in the family. I was beginning to wonder if anyone other than Richard knew these films existed. Even his wife Janet, whose house clearance they had to have come from. Were the slides there too? I contacted Martyn again. Although it had been a while he didn’t recall any slides and said that as a slide collector, he would definitely have scrutinised anything that came along with the films and if the images were of similar type and quality, he would remember. The films had been spliced together onto larger reels so I am fairly certain they must have been shown at some time. Most likely at King Williams College on Richard’s return in 1960. Whether that was the case or not, it seems that they were boxed up in the early sixties and forgotten about for over sixty years before being saved from landfill by pure chance. Thank the Lord or whoever you, personally, thank for such happenstance as losing these films would have been a tragedy beyond words.


* It just so happened that the words 'savage' and 'Scindia School' both occurred in the publication. Scindia School was the first correlation and I was lucky that enough detail to warrant further investigation appeared in the search result text. Otherwise, who knows?

**Tom Lehrer – An American satirist active at the time 



Copyright Phil Wingfield 2022