1930s School Girls
photos from the Pete Grafton Collection
This is a story of three comfortably off British schoolgirls in the 1930s – an incomplete story, a story of guesses and detection, as all photos are. “The camera doesn’t lie” is often not true. The camera captures a bit of reality in a split second. There are other ‘truths’ either side of that split second when a shutter is pressed that could emerge. The subject matter – the “reality” – may be consciously selective, such as was in National Socialist Germany and Communist countries. Or it may reflect the editorial policy of a newspaper or magazine. Or the emotional/ideological bent of the freelance photographer in presenting a so-called “reality”. Mostly, the amateur photograph of family and friends is free of the above distortions/slants of truth, but one has still to be careful in making strong assumptions in interpretating what one is looking at.
Photo negative Contact Sheet, from 1930s Schoolgirls.
Being comfortably off only means economically, not whether individual members of the family and friends are comfortably off emotionally. What can be said about the family of the three (possibly four) sisters is that they are “bookish”, but also enjoy the seaside and horse riding; that there is a physical tenderness between the sisters, and between one of the grandmother’s and a sister. Glimpses of their life is against a 1930s Europe of an already established Fascist government in Italy, an emerging National Socialist government in Germany, revolutionary tensions between right and left in France in 1934, a civil war in Spain and a totalitarian Soviet Union. Apart from strident idealists, religious or political, (who when in power fill prisons and erect concentration camps) most folk quite reasonably wanted to get by without being constantly told what to do by their governments, asked to fight by their governments or heavily taxed by their governments.
The collection of film negatives seem to span a five year period from 1930/31 to 1935/36.
One of the earliest photographs: Three sisters and their mother, with an aunt or family friend. Circa early 1930s.
One of the earliest photos of the three sisters, based on the height of the youngest sister. The bulges around her knees, underneath her socks, suggest bandages, possibly because of psoriasis. (1.)
The younger sister with one of her elder sisters. Photo probably taken by the third sister.
Mum with one of the sisters.
One of the sisters seated, it is believed, near the front door of their home.
A beginning of term photo? The youngest girl holds a magazine that on the back cover has an advertisement for The Listener magazine.
Dad, two of the sisters, possibly family friends or relatives on an outing. Taken two or so years on from the previous photo.
Dad has a book and a camera tucked under his elbow. It is assumed, by his appearance, that he is an academic, a scientist or a medical consultant. Dad only appears three times in this collection of photos, not necessarily because he is the one taking the photos. One camera is often used by one of the elder sisters – a camera that part of a frayed light seal shows up in the negative. (This blemish has been removed in the digital clean up of the images.) A second camera used – we don’t know by who – does not have this characteristic feature, and the lens is a touch sharper.
Part of the frayed light seal top right. This minor blemish has been removed in the digital clean up of the photos.
Mum with a Thermos flask and one of the older daughters, possibly, going by the patches of chalk, on the Sussex Downs.
The youngest sister at the same location with a young woman who may be the eldest sister or a cousin. We will also see the possible eldest sister or cousin in a Rodean photo, and in a photo from Switzerland.
Family friend or Uncle at the same location.
A Formal Picnic with a Grandma
Some years before: Picnic in the countryside with fine bone china and a Sunbeam 20.9 Fixed Head Coupe, manufactured circa 1930. (2)
The formal picnic, rather than the family’s usual al fresco approach is probably due to the presence of Grandma, believed to be the mother’s Mother.
Grandma at the picnic and the car.
The family picnics were usually more al fresco.
The youngest daughter with, it is assumed, her other Granny. There is a strong facial similarity between the two.
The Seaside and Water
By the seaside.
By the seaside, two of the sisters, a sandcastle and the photographer’s shadow.
Unknown seaside location, possibly the north Devon coast or the Welsh Gower peninsula. (3)
Three girls in a punt.
One of the daughters with possibly the gent we saw in the earlier el fresco picnic photo. The river could be the Thames.
A year or two on, and Mum and her three daughters in a boat off, it is believed, the English or Welsh coast. The daughter on the right has a book in her lap. The function of the weathered gent at the prow is not clear. Note the two chairs and probable lack of oar locks, which suggests there is an outboard motor.
Another year or so on: one of the daughters in the sea, and a friend. School-friend?
Roedean: In the background the family Sunbeam 20.9 Fixed Head Coupe. The identity of the school girls is not clear, although the girl on the right is in two other family photos.
The photo above was possibly taken on the evening before the September start of the autumn term. Note the long shadows, suggesting late afternoon or early evening. It’s been a warm day too, the windows are wide open (even allowing for the then public school ethos of plenty of fresh air). And a young hand is holding a plant sprig out of the rear car window.
A cousin or the eldest sister (of four sisters) by the Sunbeam 20.9 Fixed Head Coupe, Roedean School.
It can’t be ruled out that the girl above is the eldest sister. This is the second photograph we have seen of her, and there is a third one of her to come, taken in Switzerland. Her absence from most of the photographs could be explained by her boarding at Roedean School. Although it is possible that the family lived in Sussex, it would not have been unusual – even up to the 1950s – to send a child to a boarding school in the same county as the family lived.
Mixed cricket, on the cricket field near the cliff, Roedean School, Sussex.
It was the photo above that clinched it that the school was Roedean, besides the architecture of the building behind the school girls above. Roedean, built by chalk cliffs near Brighton, Sussex was started by the Lawrence sisters in 1885. It was founded to prepare girls for entrance to the then newly opened women’s college at Cambridge Univeristy: Girton and Newnham.
Two girls out of doors, reading informally, Roedean.
Roedean girl in “civvies” sitting on a balustrade. Courts of some kind below.
A “candid” photo of “Miss” or a senior girl. Roedean.
Image source unknown
Image source unknown.
Three girls in school uniform. The girl closest to us is one of the older sisters.
Three girls in school uniform. The one in the middle is one of the older sisters.
Until we can identify their uniform we can not say that the girls are at Roedean. Even allowing for different summer uniform and rest of the year uniform, it does not conform to the pictures of the possible eldest sister’s uniform, nor the uniform of Roedean girls a few years laters, seen below, from circa 1943 when the school was evacuated to Keswick in Cumberland in the north of England. It is possible, but not known whether the Roedean uniform changed at the end of the 1930s.
Evacuated Roedean girls in Keswick, circa 1943. Photo source unknown.
Trip to Switzerland
On a cross channel boat, possibly to Ostende. The youngest daughter with scarf and book. Vacated chair on right – photo presumed to be taken by the third sister.
Burcht, near Antwerp in Flemish Belgium. Identification by window on left and hotel on right.
It is possible that the family motored through Belgium, Germany and then into Switzerland. The following locations have not been identified, yet, though there is Flemish/Dutch style buildings in at least one.
As yet unidentified town, but with Dutch style architecture.
The photo above has been taken, it seems, from a bridge spanning the built, but not as yet opened autobahn.
The family in an unidentified German speaking Swiss town. The father with his characteristic spectacles and bow tie, his wife to his right. Then to their right two, possibly three of the sisters. The ‘woman’ with the hat to the right of the mother is possibly the eldest daughter, that we saw in a photo taken on the Sussex Downs with the youngest girl, and also the photo taken of her in front of Roedean School. There is a facial similarity to the mother. The lady on the left is possibly Swiss.
Unidentified Swiss town back gardens.
The sisters with perhaps their Swiss family hosts. This is quite a few years on from the first photo we saw at the beginning of this Post. The gent to the right has a similar sartorial garb as the father of the girls, suggesting he is a professional colleague of Dad’s. The girls to the left and right of the youngest daughter seem to be twins.
The – Swiss? – twins with the same dresses. We have already seen the lady with the glasses in the previous group photo.
Dad sketching in lower Alpine pasture. In the mid distance there is a woman sitting. One of his daughters?
Two of the sisters in mid Alpine pasture with their Swiss hostess, who we have seen in two previous photographs. The elder of the two girls has bruises or insect bites on her shin.
Youngest daughter centre in cafe table scene. Her mother to her left, and behind her, left to right, the fourth eldest sister (?) and one of her middle sisters.
There are photos of another trip abroad, in either Denmark or the German Baltic coast.
Dad with his pipe and bow tie and a dusty Sunbeam 20.9 Fixed Head Coupe. Dusty perhaps because of their trip to Switzerland. The identity of the “boy” and what seems a mechanic and their relationship to Dad, who has put on workers garb to protect his suit, is not clear. Although the family is comfortably off it doesn’t seem likely that they would keep a full-time chauffeur/mechanic in the 1930s. Pre 1914, yes.
The Danish Coast or the German North Sea Coast
Possibly either Danish coast or German North Sea Coast.
The youngest daughter sitting on a bench by a thatched cottage. Believed to be by the Danish or German North Sea coast, circa 1935/36.
The youngest daughter and one of the middle sisters playing croquet near the Danish coast or the North Sea German coast.
Stooks of corn near the Danish Coast or the German North Sea Coast, circa 1935.
Believed to be Sussex. A field of sheep and a chalk track.
Variant of sheep photo above. Believed to be Sussex. Circa 1935.
Another family al fresco picnic, probably Sussex. The youngest daughter is centre, her mother to her left, and then the possible fourth, eldest daughter. One of the middle girls to the right. Unknown gents.
Growing up: from circa 1931 to 1936.
Middle sister on a horse. Circa 1936.
Youngest (but growing up) sister on a horse. And smiling. Circa 1936.
“London’s Searchlights and Sound Locators Manned by A.T.S. By the beginning of 1942 there were searchlight batteries in the London Defence Area manned entirely by members of the A.T.S.; this group on a searchlight site is operating a sound locator, forerunner of radio-location.” Photo Illustrated. Source The Second Great War, Volume Six.
In December 1941 Britain was the first country to conscript unmarried women for war service in the Second World War, with a shortage in the Services, munitions, and aircraft production. By July 1943 the upper age limit was extended to 51. The entry age had been set at 19. Many women volunteered for certain kinds of work or Services to try and avoid being conscripted to a job or Service they didn’t want. Some parents would have concerns too as to where their daughters went, as the womens’ Services were tainted with notions of “Impropriety” (4). Waafs were often called “officers ground-sheets”. (5) If unmarried, all of the sisters would have been eligible for conscription. If any of the sisters had already started to work in the Civil Service or were training to be teachers they would be unmarried as married women were not allowed to work in the Civil Service or in teaching – the “Marriage Bar”. The ban in the UK was finally revoked in 1946.
“Liberation of Europe: W.A.A.F. nursing orderlies fly to France. These nursing orderlies are responsible for the general care of sick and injured personnel at R.A.F. hospitals and sick quarters. A number of airwomen escort patients in air ambulances.” Photo British Official Photograph. Source Women in Uniform, D.Collett Wadge, Sampson Low, 1946. D. Collett Wadge was formerly the Senior Commander of the A.T.S.
“Airwoman (W.A.A.F.) at the control of a winch lorry used for raising and lowering barrage balloons; a steel grille protects her from injury.” Photo Fox Photos. Source The Second Great War, Volume Four.
“British nurses with the B.L.A. (British army of Liberation, afterwards designated the Army of the Rhine) worked in Normandy at the hospitals well up towards the front line. Shelling and bombing within half a mile of the hospital was no new experience. They wore battledress and lived in the same manner as the troops. The picture shows a group of Q.A.I.M.N.S officers carrying their kit past tents near the front-line hospital.” Note their steel helmets they carry. Photo British Official Photograph. Source Women in Uniform, D.Collett Wadge, Sampson Low, 1946.
“A Wren ship mechanic welding on bow door of landing craft”. Photo British Official Photograph. Source Women in Uniform, D.Collett Wadge, Sampson Low, 1946.
“A Wren steward waiting on naval officers in the wardroom which was once the library of a famous school.” As Roedean School was requisitioned by the Royal Navy during the War there is a sporting chance this is Roedean. Photo British Official Photograph. Source Women in Uniform, Sampson Low, 1946.
“A Wren steward at work in a naval establishment”. This is possibly Roedean School. Photo British Official Photograph. Source Women in Uniform, Sampson Low, 1946.
“Radio Wrens coming off duty at a Royal Navy air station.” Photo British Official Photograph. Source Women in Uniform, Sampson Low, 1946.
- Psoriasis. Thanks to Elspeth Wight for suggesting the likely cause of the knee bulges.
- Sunbeam car. Thanks to Ian Reid for facilitating the identification of the Sunbeam car, and to members of the Austin A30 – A35 Owner’s Club for the identification.
- Thanks to Kate Gapper for suggesting the possibility of the Gower Peninsula.
- Impropriety. See The People’s War, Angus Calder, London, 1969.
- Officers ground-sheet. See You, You & You: The People Out of Step with World War 11, Pete Grafton, London, 1981.
If you spot a mistake, can identify a location, or have any suggestions do use the Leave a Comment facility at the bottom of this Post. Many thanks.