Ilford Witness: How Bolton almost became the Wetzlar of England
There was a post-war British-made camera which was alleged to be superior to the then-current Leica IIIc and IIIf or the Zeiss Ikon Contax, offering a sleeker, more modern design, solid build quality and a unique hybrid screw/bayonet lens mount system.
The Ilford Witness seemed to have everything going for it. Leica and Contax cameras were virtually impossible to obtain after the war and required a special import licence which was granted only to those with a professional need. My friend Don Morley outlined the problems he had at the time in ordering a new Leica IIIf in an article on Macfilos.
Interrupted thread mount
The Witness was a precision-made camera in a similar price bracket to Leica and it bore an internationally recognised brand. At the time Ilford was perhaps second only to Kodak in brand recognition.
The unique lens mount is based on a standard L39 screw mount mechanism but includes an ingenious ‘interrupted thread’ bayonet modification. On both the camera and the lens mounting threads, three grooved channels machined at 90 degrees to the threads enable the lens to be pushed (instead of being screwed) directly into the camera mount. A simple 'quick twist' then engages and secures the ‘interrupted threads'. Standard L39 screw-thread lenses could also be fitted.
By a curious quirk of fate, the Witness was designed by a former Leica employee who was able to live in Britain only because, as a Jew, he was helped to emigrate from Germany by none other than Ernst Leitz II. If things had gone well, Ilford could have turned the Witness into a major success. Perhaps it could have out-done Leica in the end. Sadly, it perished not because of quality or reliability issues, but largely because of poor marketing.
The story starts in 1933 when 18-year-old Robert Sternberg was fortunate enough to be taken on by Leitz as an optical-design apprentice. As a Jew he had been denied a university education and the position at Wetzlar provided a great opportunity for the young man. By 1936 Ernst Leitz II was actively engaged in aiding Jewish employees and local neighbours to emigrate. He got away with it in large part because his company was vital to the German armaments industry. This aspect of the Leitz story is well documented, particularly by my friend and fellow Leica enthusiast, Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith.
In 1936 Leitz offered Sternberg, then 22, the chance to get away from persecution. He was introduced to the Ensign Camera Company at Walthamstow in London. Thanks to Frank Dabba Smith we are able to reproduce a more general reference outlining Sternberg’s career and signed by Dr. Leitz himself.
As early as 1908, Ensign was the largest producer of cameras in Great Britain and this was clearly a great opportunity for young Sternberg, both in terms of career progress and, as it later turned out, in preserving his personal safety.
After arriving in England in 1936, Sternberg became acquainted with another German refugee, Werner Julius Rothschild, a former Zeiss employee. Towards the end of the war, the two Germans developed a design concept for a new camera which would combine the best features of the the Leica and Contax rangefinder models. In 1947 Rothschild approached Ilford with their idea and it was agreed to start manufacture.
Rothschild was already a successful businessman in his own right, operating as Northern Scientific Equipment in Bolton. He had also founded the Daroth camera company of which little is now known. The initial prototypes were produced in that Lancashire mill town — interestingly for me, little more than five miles from where I grew up. Sternberg also designed the original f/2.9 Daron 5cm (50mm) lens, presumable named after Rothschild's Daroth company.
Usually, the Witness was supplied with the Dallmeyer Super Six 2in f/1.9 lens. An alternative was the now extremely scarce Dallmeyer Septac 2in f/1.5. Some early examples were accompanied by an f/2.9 Daron lens, made by Rothschild’s company but designed by Robert Sternberg.
Unfortunately, however, Northern Scientific turned out to be incapable of series production and delays set in.
By the time the camera became generally available, in the Coronation year of 1953, manufacture was handled by Peto Scott Electrical Instruments in Weybridge, Surrey — a company then best known as a leading manufacturer of television sets. Unfortunately, the camera arrived on the market a little too late. Sales were slow and were not helped by the rather high price of £121 16s 8d (£121.85, but about £3,250 in modern money, depending on how it is calculated). It was therefore a specialist item, appealing to professionals and well-heeled amateurs. A bit like Leica today.
Undoubtedly, though, one of the main problems for the Witness was the lack of pedigree in terms of accessories and lenses. Both Leica and Zeiss Ikon had such pedigree by the truckload. Also, at this time, importing was becoming a little easier and, within a few years, there would be no restrictions. And in 1954 at Photokina, Leica introduced the ground-breaking M3. Even if the Witness had continued in production, therefore, there is no guarantee it would have been a success.
Ilford decided to concentrate on cheaper cameras and production of the Witness ceased later in that same year of 1953, with the stock being sold off by Dollands at £80 a pop. Interestingly, buyers who had paid the full price complained and eventually received a refund of £40.
Robert Sternberg continued to work with Rothschild (who at some stage changed his surname to Ryden) at the Bolton factory. In 1956 he switched to a consultancy role and forged a new career as an academic at Manchester University. Later, he was a lecturer in the Physics Department and became an expert on optical spectrometers. He died in 1991 at the age of 77.
It is believed that as few as 350 Ilford Witness cameras were made. So it is no surprise that they are now much sought after and very expensive. My friend Dunk Sargent (see below) suggests, a little tongue in cheek, that the Witness with its total production of 350 and few survivors. is rarer than a Stradivarius, of which 512 examples survive.
The accompanying product photographs were taken by two Witness (and Leica) enthusiasts, John Dodkins and Dunk Sargent, using John’s Canon 5D DSLR. You can actually see a Witness in the store museum at Red Dot Cameras, 86 Goswell Road, London, EC1V 7DB.
The Witness was a sleek design with modern lines and, even after 65 years, is still capable of exciting that indefinable want-want factor. Only last week a Witness with Dallmeyer Super Six lens and various accessories sold at auction for £11,500. Now if only I had a spare twelve grand or so…..
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- Our thanks to Photomemorabilia.co.uk for reference material.
- Thanks to Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith for valuable background on Robert Sternberg and for the facsimile of Dr. Leitz's letter
- Thanks to Dunk Sargent and John Dodkins for the excellent product shots which appear in this article, not to mention Dunk's specialist knowledge which I have drawn upon