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Jimmy Forsyth

On 11 July 2009, on Tyneside in the UK, an old man died. He was 95. Nothing particularly remarkable in that. Except that this man was Jimmy Forsyth. Jimmy was working class and an amateur photographer who throughout his life photographed the lives of ordinary people. By the time of his death it was estimated Jimmy had accumulated 40,000 images. It was a remarkable achievement.

Born in Glamorgan, Wales, Jimmy left school at 14 and worked as a fitter. War work brought him to Tyneside in 1943. However, only four days after his arrival at the ICI plant in Prudhoe-on-Tyne, a splinter flew from a lathe leaving him blind in one eye. Jimmy was sacked and moved to lodgings near the vast Vickers Armstrong works, a vibrant community linked by the Scotswood Road (which features in the Geordie anthem ‘Blaydon Races’). 

In the early 1950s Jimmy heard rumours of plans to demolish Elswick and Scotswood Road. A whole way of life was under threat, and Jimmy went about trying to capture the spirit of the community through photography. Thus in 1954, with a second-hand box camera and no formal training, he launched into his epic project to produce a portrait of the area. The result was an extraordinary catalogue of images which eventually ended up as a book – The Scotswood Road, published in 1986. 

As the importance of his work became recognized – in 1979, the Side Gallery in Newcastle, a venue for documentary photography, organized a major exhibition of his work – Jimmy took to the streets of Tyneside once more, this time with colour film and an automatic camera. There followed a TV documentary on Jimmy’s work and an interview by Jools Holland, live on Channel 4’s music show The Tube.

As Jimmy grew older he was persuaded to donate his vast collection to the Tyne and Wear archives. It was always clear to Jimmy, a lifelong socialist, that his work should be publicly available. ‘It’s no good burying the pictures,’ he said. ‘They should be given out to more people, and they should be free. After all, they belong to their subjects, to the people themselves.’

Jimmy’s story is inspirational. Here was an ordinary man – with no formal education to speak of – who in his own quiet, modest way recorded for posterity the lives of ordinary people and their (now vanished) communities.

The world is a sadder place for his passing.


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