Alan Diment, Photo Archive Volunteer for Ouseburn Trust, presents the background to the Davey Pearson collection of photographs and the man who took them, and the memories of some of his friends.

The Davey Pearson Collection contains tens of thousands of photographs covering more than two decades of life in the North East of England.  Davey travelled further afield to London, Ireland, Italy and Paris. But he rarely went anywhere without his camera to hand.

June Allen was a long-time friend, who first met Davey in the late 1980s - “He took photos every day, just things that interested him. He’d go to Paris maybe every two years and to Doolin in the West of Ireland. He went to London, probably every year, for the Notting Hill Carnival. Then there was the political stuff, anywhere that there was a rally.”

The majority of Davey’s work concerns Newcastle upon Tyne. There are more than 15,000 images in the collection which depict the social and political life of Davey’s home city. He was born there, into an impoverished Byker household, in 1951.

June Allen – “His mother used to take a pushchair or a barrel of clothes to Paddy’s Market on the quayside in order to sell them. So, he grew up in house filled with loads of second-hand clothes which his mother washed and took down the market.”

Davey had a brief stint in the merchant navy before going to work in several care homes in the North East where the residents often became Davey’s photographic subjects. Those who knew Davey liked him and he was to have many lasting friendships. However, he was a socially awkward man whose overweight appearance and pronounced speech impediment could sometimes bring unwanted attention. This is evidenced by the first sighting of Davey by his good friend Charlie Allen.

Charlie Allen – “I was working in Newcastle Arts Centre at the bottom of Westgate Hill and I saw Davey across the road. Then this other fella came out and attacked him in the road. I ran out shouting and a police car turned up. They took the other fella away. I’ve no idea what it was about. That happened. People would attack him for standing out and being different.”

June Allen – “Things like that happened to Davey. Some people just took an instant dislike to his appearance. It completely shocked him. He walked everywhere because he was desperate to lose weight and he didn’t have a lot of money so he walked from one end of Newcastle to the other.”

For Davey Pearson, photography was not just a fulfilling hobby but also a form of social glue that helped him form and maintain friendships.

Pauline Moriarty was a friend of Davey’s for many years – “He discovered that he was quite good at photography and he used it as a method of communication. He just saved up for better and better cameras and built it up.”

Photography was an expensive passion at a time when the cost of developing film and equipment would have been considerable. A grant from the Northern Arts Council helped but otherwise Davey was self-financed. Exhibition opportunities were few and far between. Plus, Davey’s generosity meant that he was inclined to gift his work to friends.

Charlie Allen – “We had an exhibition for him, turned our house into a gallery and invited loads of people. I said ‘Davey’s given you loads of photos over the years; this is your chance to buy some.’ It was well attended and he made quite a bit of money out of that.”

June Allen – “He would get very upset about galleries; I think he felt that he didn’t have a chance with them because they didn’t like the look of him. I think he sometimes thought that the people who were running the galleries didn’t give him credit for what he knew.”

Pauline Moriarty – “Carole Wears of the old Live Theatre recognised his talent and he had exhibitions there. He was also asked to take some pictures of some of the Live Theatre shows, which he was really proud of.”

Among those who did recognise Davey’s talents and the value of his work was the professional photographer Markéta Luskačová – “I first met Davey in Paris where we were at the opening of an exhibition at the Palais Tokyo.  While waiting for the doors to open a very large man, a gentle giant, came up to me and said ‘you must be Markéta.’ His presence was overwhelming. I learned that he was coming to Paris quite often and enjoyed walking the streets, watching the people and visiting exhibitions. At the end of the second day, he proclaimed that I was his family. From then on he visited us regularly.”

Davey had a more militant side, his politics were firmly to the left and his earliest photos feature the picket lines and police cordons of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. From then on, whenever there was a demonstration or protest, Davey appeared to capture it – from Thatcher’s Britain through to New Labour and beyond. He would seldom miss the Durham Miners’ Gala or the May Day march as evidenced by the multitude of pictures that he took of both events.

Pauline Moriarty – “I met him in the local Labour Party where he was standing to be a candidate for election to the council. He didn’t get it. We were both members of Militant, in about 86/87, when you had to keep quiet about it. We used to go down to a militant camp in Wales where he used to take pictures but not of the speakers, due to security reasons. (Later) he wasn’t always overt in his politics but it was intrinsic, that was his drive. When we talked, his passion was mainly for his photographs, the art. The politics dictated what the art was.”

Markéta Luskačová – “I am sure in some ways that his political beliefs were fuelling his photography and vice versa. It was the belief that one man should help another one and be equal which was attractive to him.

Charlie Allen – “He was always protesting against Le Pen and as part of the anti-war coalition. But if anything kicked off then he tried to stay out of trouble. He didn’t want to get caught up in it. He was very good at taking photographs without you noticing. People who did see him responded well and you can see that in the photographs.”

Away from politics, Davey was taken by the everyday life of the North East. His subjects included shipyards, scrap yards, brass bands, buskers, art exhibitions, children playing in the streets and people united at all kinds of celebrations – to name but a few.  Above all else, Davey’s photography is about people, pictures of those attending events are as common as shots of the occasions themselves.

June Allen – “If there was a group of people meeting somewhere then he’d take photos. He was drawn to people and what was gathering them together at that moment. He would take pictures of crowds, loads of photos of people with their hands clasped behind their backs.”

Markéta Luskačová – “I think it was because Davey was interested in people – and also through reading and going to exhibitions – that he became interested in photography. He read voraciously and wrote poetry. He was a self-educated man.”

June Allen – “Creative types tended to really enjoy his company. One night we were at the Free Trade Inn and the actor Sammy Johnson turned up in a big statement car.  At closing time he shouted out ‘Davey, do you want a lift?’ Apparently, Davey told him, ‘yeah, but only if you take my mates.’ It was an illuminating moment. Sammy knew that was a great thing to do…of all the people he could offer a lift to in his big, swish car.”

Davey Pearson died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in February 2003. The turnout for his funeral – at Westgate Road Crematorium – was appropriately large.

Pauline Moriarty – “What was great was that about six months before his death, Davey had got an inkling of his worth. My daughter was doing GCSEs and her friends were doing photography. They regarded Davey as a guru and used to come to my house and sit listening to him. His previous experience of young people had been for them to laugh at him and deride him. So that was great. At the funeral, those young people sat at the front.”

Charlie Allen – “He’d be about all the time, just walking and taking photographs. He was everywhere. That’s one of the things that I miss. He used to document everything that went on in the area and we got to see them all.”

Davey Pearson left behind a legacy consisting of twenty-years of experiences represented by around 60,000 photos. There were boxes and boxes of prints and negatives that were originally destined for landfill. Fortunately, Charlie Allen intervened and the materials were donated to the Ouseburn Trust in Newcastle.

So began an ongoing, volunteer-led mission – new helpers are always welcome to first digitise the negative stock and then pore through each image, identifying and cataloguing what lies within.  

The plan is for the Davey Pearson collection to be utilised for research and form the core of future talks and exhibitions organised by the Trust. That way the life and work of Davey Pearson can live on and inspire generations now and yet to come.

Markéta Luskačová – “It was not technical skills which made Davey’s pictures unique. It was his immense interest and love for his subjects, be it a child or a tree. His desire was to make sense of his life and the life around him, to record it for himself and others. It makes me very happy that Davey’s pictures are safe and their quality recognised. I am sure he would be happy about it. It is a good ending.”

Pauline Moriarty – “I think he took pictures because he had to. It was a drive. If he knew that people were still talking about his photos today then he would be over the bloody moon.”

If you would like to view the Davey Pearson collection, or help to catalogue the images, please contact us

A shorter version of this article was originally published in North East History Vol 48 2017, the Journal of the North East Labour History Society.