Antique & Vintage Photographic Equipment

Watson Detective Camera

W. Watson & Sons

Name: Detective Camera
Type: Detective
Manufacturer: W. Watson & Sons
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Construction: Black hide covered box, hinged along one side such that the top section folds back to reveal the camera within. The camera within is mounted on a base, which allows the lens standard to move in a slot, the mechanism being accessible from beneath when the box is closed.
The camera has square section tapered bellows. The ground glass screen has to be removed before taking photographs.
Production Period: 1886 - ?


Model / Variant:  
Plate / Film Size: ¼ plate
Lens: Rapid Rectilinear, marked as Watson 5 x 4 (serial 1532)
Shutter: Simple guillotine shutter integrated into casing
Movements: None
Dimensions (w x h x l):  
Date of this Example: c1890? (See notes)
Serial Number: Serial 6983
  • Common [ ]
  • Uncommon [ ]
  • Hard to Find [ ]
  • Scarce [x]
Inventory Number: 413

<Photographs to be added>


This Watson Detective Camera consists of a black hide covered box containing a ¼ plate bellows camera, serial #6983. McKeown [1] describes the camera as having space for storage of three plate holders, or it could apparently take an Eastman's rollholder. However it does not appear that this particular example would have been able to take a rollholder because of the way in which the rear section is constructed, which suggests it was only intended for use with single plateholders.

The Watson Detective Camera was introduced in 1886, but Channing & Dunn [2] note that all cameras were serialised from 1 Jan 1888, starting at 6000. This indicates that this camera must be of at least that date, but how close will depend upon how many were produced! Refer to the notes below.

Focus is achieved by a control in the underside of the box. There are circular sliding covers over the lens and at the opposite end to provide limited view of ground glass screen (still with the camera). The guillotine shutter is set by key on the front face and released by the button on one side; the speed is adjusted by the screw adjustment on the opposite face. The shutter does still work, but is sluggish in operation and is probably best left alone!

The hide covered case is in good order with only limited scuff marks. The main sign of use, unsurprisingly, is around the shutter key on the front face.


The late Eric Evans has an example of the camera still mounted on its base on his web site (, last accessed April 2020), providing an excellent view of the camera that is held within the detective casing.

I am engaged in some research into cameras made by W. Watson & Sons in order to try and establish some guidance on likely manufacturing date based upon the serial number. This is in fact quite difficult to do currently as many patterns of Watson cameras were made for very long periods with few significant design changes.

If you have a Watson camera, then I would be grateful if you could provide me with further information about your camera, even if it is not serialised. Please refer to the Watson Research Project page for further information.

If you have been searching for references to the Watson Detective Camera, you might also have across an example on Campbell McCubbins interesting web site. If so, you have just found the same camera as I bought this from Cam several years ago!