Express & Star

Newsman saw history made from behind a lens

On November 21, 1974, Niels McGuinness was sent to reports of an explosion at the bottom of Birmingham's landmark Rotunda building. Carrying two cameras loaded with black and white film, he walked through the door of the Mulberry Bush pub. Nothing could prepare him for what he saw.

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Niels was first on the scene on the night of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974

"It was a scene of total carnage," he later wrote. "Bodies all over the place which were covered with debris and rafters from the ceiling and the floor above. The whole interior of the pub was ripped apart."

This was the night of the infamous Birmingham pub bombings, which claimed the lives of 21 people, and injured 182 others. And Niels, who lived in Great Barr, was the first photographer on the scene. His images of the devastation caused by the IRA terror attack not only made the front page of the Express & Star, but appeared around the world.

Now the pictures from his remarkable career have been reproduced in a book published by his grand-daughter Louisa McGuinness.

Photographer Niels McGuinness

Louisa, 30, who lives in Great Barr, said it was a desire to produce an historic record of her grandfather's work that made her decide to produce the book.

As well as depicting his pictures, it includes memories from his widow Gill and his own notes about the pictures from the time.

"I feel he deserves this, as his work was so important," she says.

"His photos are of historical interest. They are historical artefacts of another time and era gone by. I think for the people of the West Midlands, these photos will be of great interest."

Pope John Paul II arrives in Coventry in 1982

Louisa, who followed Niels around on many jobs as she was growing up, always felt great pride in her grandfather's career. She says he would talk with great passion about how he loved the job, and would never be seen without a camera.

"He even slept with it by the side of the bed," says Louisa.

"This is how dedicated he was to his job, and it meant so much to him.

"Any big new story, Niels was there. He knew what would look great on the front page the next day."

King Charles, then Prince of Wales, celebrating his 40th birthday at Aston Manor Transport Museum in 1988

His career with Press Association and Associated Press saw him take numerous pictures for the Express & Star and Shropshire Star. As well as the gritty images of the big news stories of the day, he also rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. He captured the present King celebrating his 40th birthday with a giant cake at the Aston Manor Transport Museum in 1988, and he met several other royals, including the late Queen Elizabeth II and Diana, Princess of Wales.

He was present when Birmingham City's Trevor Francis became the first £1 million footballer in 1979, making the move to Nottingham Forest, and then when Andy Gray smashed the record again later that year, with his almost-£1.5 million move from Aston Villa to Wolves.

Niels also met many stars of the big screen and stage. His widow Gill recalls how he was a huge fan of the Canadian actor Glenn Ford, and was delighted to discover he was visiting the UK.

"He got to meet him and his son Peter, and he was absolutely thrilled," she says.

Ron Atkinson returns to the Hawthorns for a second stint as manager in 1987

Niels was on the runway when Pope John Paul II arrived at Coventry airport in 1982

He was born in Blackpool in October, 1939, and shortly afterwards his father, James, was called to serve in the war effort. His service saw him fight in Japanese-occupied Burma under Earl Mountbatten, and Niels remembered meeting his father for the first time when he was five years old.

"There was a knock on the back door, I told my mother 'There's a strange man at the door'," he said.

My mother replied: "It's your father."

One of Niels' early pictures, 'Show Me Your Tongue', taken when he was a student in 1956

Niels was 14 when he developed an interest in photography, at a camp school in Buckinghamshire. After leaving school his first job was running along the beach at Blackpool delivering films from the seaside photographers to the darkrooms.

He studied photography at a college in Blackpool, and one day took a litter of kittens with him into the college's studio.

"The three six-week-old kittens made wonderful pictures which were circulated to magazines and calendar companies," he said.

"I was proud to see my pictures in print and on sale in many stores, including Woolworths."

Niels had a passion for American cars

It was a college course in industrial photography at Wednesbury College which bought Niels to the Black Country.

"The year was 1957, and the Black Country was full of foundries so there were plenty of jobs to work on," he said.

After leaving college, he initially worked for BSA in Small Heath, Birmingham, taking pictures of motorcycles, before branching to work for other house magazines.

Niels with wife Gill and grand-daughter Louise when she was seven

It was working for one of these publications, a house journal for a group of dance halls which introduced him to a group of aspiring young pop stars from Liverpool in 1962.

"I posed the Liverpool lads one behind the other on a flight of stairs at the Gary Owen Club in King's Heath," he recalled. The picture would be a big coup for Niels – a few months later The Beatles reached No. 17 in the UK charts with Love Me Do, setting them on the road to international stardom.

"They were so obliging and well-mannered," he said. "Little did I know at the time that they would become world famous."

Louise McGuinness's book about her grandfather Niels

He also began taking pictures for the Catholic Pictorial, and Louisa says that this work was always very important to him.

And it was a photograph of a Walsall Catholic priest, Father Joseph Curtis, which would provide Niels with his big break.

"Father Joseph Curtin won half a million pounds on the football pools, which he gave away to charity except for some which he used to buy a Mini car," Niels recorded in his notes.

"It was Sunday morning when he was conducting mass, while I was taking photos which were syndicated to all newspapers across the nation."

It was on the strength of this that he was offered a job at Press Association, covering sport, royal visits and disasters for the newspaper industry.

One of the darker jobs he was called to was the infamous 'Battle of Saltley Gate' during the 1972 miners' strike. Stockpiles of coke had been built up and stored at the West Midland Gas Board depot in Saltley, Birmingham, to supply the energy industry during the strike. This prompted the National Union of Mineworkers to send thousands of 'flying pickets' from South Yorkshire and South Wales to surround the depot, bringing the country to a standstill.

Niels described the scenes he witnessed as the police tried in vain to maintain order.

"When fighting broke out, 400 police attempted to push back the pickets from the trucks, but were vastly outnumbered.

"Twenty pickets were detained, and several were taken to hospital. Leg injuries were sustained by two policemen.

"Perched atop the men's toilets, facing the depot entrance with my cameras, I had the perfect vantage point. I brought several rolls of 35mm black-and-white film because I was the only photographer covering the violent disturbances."

Niels was called to photograph the 1989 Kegworth air disaster, when British Midland flight 092 crashed into a motorway embankment as it sought to make an emergency landing at East Midlands Airport. Of the 126 people aboard, 47 died and 74 sustained serious injuries.

As well as Glenn Ford and The Beatles, Niels also photographed stars ranging from Charlton Heston to Norman Wisdom, also including Frankie Howard, Ken Dodd and the Rolling Stones.

"He sure has had a good life meeting all these people," says Gill.

"In 1982, he spent two weeks photographing the Miss Europe contestants, he enjoyed spending time with some lovely young ladies. I well remember him getting ready each morning; he couldn't wait to go to work, and he had a few kisses off them at the end of the assignment; I had to turn a blind eye to that."

Niels met Gill in 1963, when he came to photograph her three cousins. They were married three years later, and remained together until his death aged 79 in November, 2018.

Sadly, in his later years Niels' health was marred by macular degeneration. He became bedridden, and eventually lost his sight.

"He used to tell me how much he loved the buzz of taking pictures," says Louisa.

"Later, when his health stopped him doing that, he missed it greatly.

"He was definitely born to be a photographer. It was always with him until the very end."

The book - called M J Niels McGuinness Life Of A Press Photographer: His Life, His Work, His Pictures - can be purchased by visiting and searching for 'Niels'.