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Streetscape Memory Bank: Frank C. Tyrell, an Ottawa 1930s photographer

By Andrew Elliott on December 1, 2014


Last time, I asked who photographed Ottawa in 1938 and speculated that a) it might have been Eugene M. Finn of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, or b) it might have been members of the Civil Service Professional Photographers Association. Since then, I have uncovered information about another Motion Picture Bureau photographer who would have also been a candidate. His name was Frank Charles Tyrell. Not a lot of information is available for Tyrell, despite the fact that he is credited for many CPMPB and National Film Board photos of Ottawa from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s. In fact, the iconic 1929 shot pictured below of the intersection of Elgin, Wellington, and Rideau Streets is his!


It has been hard to piece together Tyrell’s life, but after some extensive research, here is what I have been able to dig up. Born in 1894 in Ottawa, he lived at 154 Turner Street (later renamed 426 Cambridge Street) with his parents Henry and Harriet Tyrell. Both his parents were born in England and came to Ottawa in 1894, and his father was a musician and worked for the Ottawa Tribune newspaper.

Frank attended Bell Street school, and there is a reference in a December 21, 1901 Ottawa Journal article to his having participated in a Christmas recital with other students. City directories start listing him in ca. 1912, and between 1914 and 1920, his profession was listed alternately as a photographer and lab worker. Also, from 1915-17, he worked as a printer for A.G. Pittaway at 58 Sparks Street. The connection to Pittaway is most intriguing.


At this stage, it is worth mentioning that Alfred G. Pittaway (1858-1930) was one of Ottawa’s foremost photographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, competing with William Topley for prominence. Born in England, Pittaway came to Ottawa in the 1860s and by the early 1880s had partnered with another photographer, Samuel J. Jarvis. Jarvis and Pittaway opened a studio (pictured above) at 117 Sparks Street.

The photographic partnership prospered by focusing on political photos, official group shots at Rideau Hall, and society weddings. The studio was advertised as “one or the city’s best known and popular.” From 1890-1907 Pittaway operated independently, and from 1912-1925, he expanded with Jarvis to operate the Jarvis Studio at 281 Bank Street as well as a camera and art goods store at 16 Rideau Street. The following two Pittaway photos show us how good he was in the art of documentary composition:  See the 1905 shot of Major’s Hill Park and also the Royal Party running the timber slide in 1901 (pictured below). We can see from these the roots of Frank Tyrell’s own photographic signature.


In 1919, Tyrell married Irene “Queenie” Kelly at St. Patrick’s Church. They had three sons, Ross, Brian, and George. According to one genealogy site, Queenie suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized later in life before her death in 1950. She was buried at Notre Dame Cemetery. Did her illness affect Frank’s work in any way?

Russel Hotel Demolition - image A.

Russel Hotel Demolition – Image A.

Between 1920 and 1925, there is no record of Tyrell either in the city directories or in the 1921 Census, and at present it is unknown as to where he was. However, in 1926, he was listed again as working for the J.R. Booth Company, and in 1927, he was listed as living at 45 Marlowe Avenue (in Old Ottawa East) and working for the CGMPB. For a talented photographer looking for work, Tyrell will have found the CGPMB in the late 1920s an exciting place to be.

It is worth noting a bit more about the Stills Division of the CGMPB. While the bureau began in 1918, at which time it was primarily responsible for motion pictures, according to a brief history of the bureau (written by retired LAC photo archivist Andrew Rodger) “a still photographer would accompany the motion picture crew, taking stills of the same subject matter at the same time and place.”

Confederation Square - Image B.

Confederation Square – Image B.

By 1921, the stills division was already widely distributing stills to the United States and also to Canadian publications such as Macleans and the Globe and Mail (a list of what was distributed in 1921 notes 9143 stills, 3188 lantern slides, 868 negatives, 294 enlargements, and 216 transparencies). By 1927, the division’s photographers were being sent out on assignment for other government departments, and in fact 25 departments representing 55 different branches were using the CGMPB’s services. As noted in my previous article about the CGMPB, the stills division remained a bright spot of activity, despite deep budget cuts to the bureau in the 1930s.

Bronson Ave - Image C.

Bronson Ave – Image C.

The CGMPB was selected to provide the official photography for the summer 1930 cross Canada tour of the Airship R-100. A little-known fact is that along with CPMPB director F. Badgley, Frank Tyrell was the official photographer selected to travel in the passenger capsule.

There are a couple of CGMPB photographic series at Library and Archives Canada at which it is worth taking a closer look because of the prevalence of Tyrell being credited for the photos in these series. Of interest, for example, is the Q series, which consists of photographic work CGPMB photographers did for the Federal District Commission between 1927-1942.

Canal - Image D.

Canal – Image D.

Tyrell seems to be responsible for most of these photos. Thus he did extensive photographic documentation of the demolition of the Russell Hotel (Image A) and the subsequent creation of Connaught/Confederation Square in 1927-1930 (Image B); of Brown’s Inlet in the Glebe (1932); of Clemow Avenue and Elgin Street (1939); of Bronson Avenue (Image C), Dow’s Lake, Mann Avenue and Gas Works, Canal Driveway (Image D), Experimental Farm Driveway, Rockcliffe Driveway, and the Carling Avenue traffic circle (ca. 1930s, Image E).


Carling Ave traffic circle - Image E.

Carling Ave traffic circle – Image E.

It would appear that the National Capital Commission inherited many of these photographs. It now helps explain the background to many similar images that showed up during a recent survey of NCC’s photographic collections. It also helps clarify another issue: while no credit to an individual photographer is made, most NCC photographs dating from the 1930s provide generic credit to the National Film Board, which for a long time seemed an odd designation to this researcher given that the NFB itself didn’t formally exist until 1939-40. These NCC photos were originally available to the public via the now closed NCC Library.

Also of interest, is the CGMPB’s CC series, which consists of a more general collection of photographs of Ottawa, many of which were also taken by Tyrell. So there is a shot of Central Park in the Glebe (1927), Clemow Avenue and Monkland Avenue in 1929 (Image F), various downtown skylines, including this 1929 one of Connaught Square, the Bank of Canada and Supreme Court (late 1930s), and the National War Memorial (November 1938). Most of these are stunning streetscape images that show Ottawa as it once was.

Monkland Ave - Image F.

Monkland Ave – Image F.

Unfortunately, it seems as if most of the individual images in these two photographic collections have not been digitized by LAC. In fact, currently the best way to look at these images is to look at them en masse on microfiche cards which are located in binder 7 of Finding Aid 80 at LAC’s main reference room at 395 Wellington Street. (See cover image above.)

Tyrell was incorporated into the stills photography division of the NFB in 1941, and a number of great interior shots of staff working in the NFB headquarters on John Street are his work (click here, here and here.), as well as one of high school students helping out at a post office in Nov. 1943 (see image below) and this entertaining one of PM Mackenzie King and Shirley Temple in 1944.


After the Second World War, the city directory listed Tyrell as living briefly at the home of his youth at 426 Cambridge Street before a move in 1948 to 24 Burnham Road near Brantwood Park in Old Ottawa East. Frank remarried in 1952 to a woman named May Morrison. The directory indicates that by the mid-1950s, he had left the NFB and was working for the Information Services section of the Department of Agriculture.

It appears that, after retiring from the government in the late 1950s, he started a new career, founding the Tyrell Press, a venture which he appears to have operated jointly with his son Brian through the 1960s. The press was located alternately at his Burnham Streer home, at 80 Lebreton Street, and then finally at 3 Irving Avenue from 1971 onwards. Incidentally, Tyrell Press operated until 2002, when it closed and then re-opened under the name Tyrell Reproductions, operating for another ten years. Neither Frank Tyrell or his second wife are listed in the city directories after 1971. A brief entry in the Ottawa Citizen indicates he died at Myrtle Beach on January 19, 1979 and was buried at Beechwood Cemetery on January 23, 1979.

So, to sum up, Tyrell 1. was born in Ottawa and had an intimate knowledge of the city; 2. was apprenticed to one of Ottawa’s great documentary photographers; 3. worked in the stills division of the CGMPB and was the photographer for the Federal District Commission’s beautification activities. So is it possible that Frank C. Tyrell was also the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau photographer assigned to assist the Department of Public Works in 1937-1938 in creating detailed images of Ottawa’s streetscapes for Jacques Greber?