During 2019, the Macleay River Historical Society reached a noteworthy milestone with the scanning and cataloguing of the last of over 31,000 glass plate negatives from the studio of renowned Kempsey Photographer, Angus McNeil.
This was made possible by the dedicated work of volunteers Debbie Reynolds and Judy Waters over the past twenty years.
Angus was born at Rocky River, Uralla on February 8, 1868 and spent a carefree childhood roaming the hills hunting with guns and dogs. He loved the bush and was a noted gunshot.
After finishing school, Angus was apprenticed to Solomons Studios in Armidale. Angus then opened a photographic studio in Hillgrove, a booming gold mine town south of Armidale. In 1889 Angus married sixteen-year-old Isabella Sanders of Hillgrove.
They had four sons and a daughter. One boy, Leonard, was born in Frederickton where Angus had travelled to with his photography. Bella's brother also lived there.
At its peak in about 1898, the Hillgrove's population was close to 3,000, similar to that of Armidale. Hillgrove began to decline after 1900.
The difficulties and expense of its deep underground workings led investors and miners to seek more profitable ventures elsewhere.
Gold finds were exhausted and antimony prices declined by the 1920s leading to mining companies shutting down. Shortly after most of the town's buildings were being dismantled and relocated to Armidale and other centres.
In all, the Eleanora and Bakers Creek Mines produced 15,600 kg of gold. By 1933 there were just 241 residents left.
Possibly sensing the end of the mining boom at Hillgrove, Angus settled in Kempsey around 1897 and his first permanent studios were in Belgrave Street, The Federal Studios.
A large show room faced the street for the exhibition of his photographic works, and there was a large well-lit studio at the rear of the building with new scenery painted by S Taylor of Kempsey. A dark room and office completed the well set-up studio.
From here Angus prospered, but loved to speak of his modest start and the help he received from J W Neil of the Victoria Hotel, a most generous Kempsey townsman.
Angus worked from these premises the rest of his working life. Son Earl, a former war correspondent, took over in 1944 later selling out to a Mrs Charlesworth. In 1969, the premises were demolished to make way for Parisotto's Arcade.
Silvio Parisotto contracted a local handyman, Ron Bourke, to clear the site. Ron agreed to do the work without pay but he had full salvage rights. In February 1969, Ron went to work but stopped when he found boxes of blackened glass stacked in a back room.
Holding one to the light he discovered it was an historical glass negative and resolved to salvage as much as possible. Unfortunately the back room had been demolished and many negatives smashed. The historical society was alerted by the local newspaper of the find and secured the collection even though it was without a museum at the time.
It is estimated that out of the original collection of 500,000 glass negatives, only 31,000 were saved, all of which have been scanned and catalogued, and can be viewed at Kempsey Museum, open seven days a week.