Trevor Morris – the ex-miner who brings ammonites to life

By Dawn Robinson-Walsh

Recently, walking along a terraced street in the up and coming Bishopthorpe (Bishy) Road area of York after a tasty gastro-pub meal, a friend and I encountered a charming Welsh man standing at his doorstep. Just setting off for an evening trip to his local, he enquired if we were lost. 

 

There started one of the many conversations we saw him having with visitors to the area, being something of a local treasure. By all accounts, he has his photograph taken 4-5 times a week by visitors to York, that’s how chatty this local legend is. We commented that he’d made us smile with his chat. He responded in his soft Welsh lilt  that “if I make two ladies smile, it is not a day wasted”. 

 

Trevor Morris was originally a miner from Abertawe/Swansea (he sadly has the pneumoconiosis to prove it); he oozes Welsh friendliness and, even on short acquaintance, one feels he has gathered many stories during his lifetime. A humorous storyteller, Trevor regaled us with the tale about the ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland, for example, with a twist at the end.

 

He must have developed a liking for life underground, as he was also a keen caver in South Wales, which is where he first noticed the tantalising phosphorescent glow of certain minerals. He explained how mines and caves are different: 

 

“You’ve got a support every four feet in a mine. In a cave, you’ve got this big void.”

 

“What an amazing glow”, you or I might say. Not so Trevor. So intrigued was he that he decided to build a device to let him photograph ‘the glow’ of the calcite crystals. Geology.com tells us that:

 

Minerals with phosphorescence can glow for a brief time after the light source is turned off. Minerals that are sometimes phosphorescent include calcite, celestite, colemanite, fluorite, sphalerite, and willemite.

 

This is different to minerals with fluorescent glow which stop glowing when the light source is switched off (writing is always such a learning process).

 

Meeting Trevor, I sought out more information about his experimentalist interest in phosphorescence from local articles. BBC Yorkshire suggested he started experimenting with his photography at his home in the 1970s, creating something incredible where science meets art, described by one fan as having a ‘touch of the Gustav Klimt’ about them. 

 

You take nothing from caves, only photographs, and leave nothing but footprints. One day I was playing around with a UV lamp. When I turned the lamp off the whole cave continued to glow. Another time I took a photo with a flash bulb and the afterglow was so bright I had to cover my eyes.

 

The camera shutter has to open as soon as the light source is turned off.

 

I take the photos against a black background and sit the items on a black film case, because these don’t phosphoresce. I never know how a picture will come out and I’ve spent a lot of money over the years on developing blank films.

 

The key to his success is simply (it seems) shutter speed. 

His interest switched to fossils, so he now takes pictures of ammonites, prehistoric creatures with distinctive spiral shells (they died out with dinosaurs) which look digitally enhanced but which are taken on an old manual camera, with no artificial light, and which are printed from negatives (remember those?) The York Press shows some of his images so you can see what we mean. Basically, his technique reveals the structure of the ammonite in glowing red or orange, in a way that you cannot see in natural light. He later discovered the best ammonites came from Madagascar, so once he had started a collection, he had to buy those in.

 

Trevor is now 79, and originally moved to Yorkshire to work on the Selby coalfield, a third of a century ago. The mines in South Wales closed in the 1980s (though the programme of closures started in the 1950s), with the last deep-mine colliery closed in 1994. His wife, Pauline Sweeney, was a York benefits advice worker and anti-poverty campaigner who helped change benefits law through some of her casework, and created booklets, resources and training programmes for social workers, Citizens Advice and other professionals. She sadly died in 2009.

 

Trevor, however, remains in the Bishy Road area, telling his tales about his love of ammonites – and his amazing invention to photograph them, bringing science and art together. A fleeting chance occurrence led us to someone who fits the classification of ‘interesting people’. 

If you can recommend someone and want to write or for Dawn to do the research, then get in touch via comments or email budeandbeyond@gmail.com. 

 

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