For generations, the Beken family in Cowes, Isle of Wight, have photographed yachting and maritime activity in the area, creating a fascinating record of lifeboats and lifeboat building.
In 1888, Alfred Edward Beken moved to Cowes and bought a pharmacy. His son Frank was captivated by the boats and the harbour – and decided to record these scenes. Rowing out into the Solent, Frank Beken used an innovative camera of his own design – a large wooden box with handles either side, a lens and a viewing screen. A rubber ball on a lead was used to release the shutter. By squeezing the ball with his teeth, Frank was able to hold the camera steady and produce negatives on which the horizon was level.
In the 1930s, Frank was joined in the business by his son Keith, giving rise to the Beken & Son name. Together, Frank and Keith produced an archive of over 130,000 glass plate negatives and, in the 1950s, moved into colour photography. By the late 1960s, as requests came in to photograph ever faster sailing and power craft, their big box camera was retired in favour of a smaller one. Following Frank’s death in 1970, Keith was joined by his son Kenneth in the new company of Beken of Cowes. Each generation of the Beken family has earned the title ‘Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society’ and Beken of Cowes has held three Royal Warrants for excellence.
Between them, the Bekens recorded all the major events on the Solent, and also travelled the world to many renowned sailing regattas. Boats of every description were photographed by the family from liners to tall ships, naval vessels to racing yachts, and of course many newly-built RNLI lifeboats.
From the end of the nineteenth century to the start of the twenty-first, Isle of Wight boatbuilders would construct over 400 lifeboats of RNLI design. Almost all were constructed in Cowes at the yards of J.S White and Co and Groves and Guttridge. As lifeboats were launched and began trials, the Beken family were well placed to capture these scenes. The Beken collection provides a fascinating record of lifeboats, and lifeboat building, from the turn of the 20th century until the 1970s – from rescues that earned crews medals for bravery, to lifeboats that helped evacuate troops from Dunkirk.