Edinburgh Festival Pavements, August 2019.
photos Pete Grafton.
photos Pete Grafton
photos Pete Grafton
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.
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 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.)
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.
The family picnics were usually more al fresco.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The photo above has been taken, it seems, from a bridge spanning the built, but not as yet opened autobahn.
There are photos of another trip abroad, in either Denmark or the German Baltic coast.
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” (3). Waafs were often called “officers ground-sheets”. (4) 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.
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.
A collection of slides from the Pete Grafton Collection.
A mixture of slides (transparencies) of Paris from the 1950s, bought on ebay in 2008. The Kodak Kodachrome transparencies were taken by American tourists to Paris between 1950 and 1958. We know this as some slides are annotated with the date, as above, and the 1958 slides can be dated as that was the year Kodak started to emboss the cardboard mount of the slide with the date they were processed.
The other slides in this collection were “ready-made”, from the same period, bought probably by mail order in the States, rather than from racks outside tourist spots in Paris. The ready made slides were marketed by the American company Maston – “Maston’s Travels Around the World” series. They would be marketed in the likes of the American Photography magazine. You could travel the world from the comfort of your armchair using a 35mm slide viewer.
Maston’s probably used local freelance photographers to build up their library.
Buchenwald Concentration Camp is on a wooded hill near the town of Weimar in eastern Germany. It is a 10 km (6 mile) bus ride from the town. The camp was built in 1937 and liberated by American troops in April 1945. Between 1937 and 1945 it is estimated that 56,545 inmates died, from being shot, hung, worked to death or from illness.
Because of agreements made at conferences at Yalta (January 1945) and Potsdam (July 1945) between the USA, UK and the USSR, the American forces were obliged to withdraw from Buchenwald and Weimar to a line approximately 275 km (170 miles) to the west, leaving behind an area that eventually became part of the DDR (the German Democratic Republic). Soviet forces, including the Soviet equivalent of the German Gestapo, took over. At Buchenwald a concentration camp was set up by the Soviets, known as Soviet Camp No.2. The prisoners were alleged political or “class” enemies. It was run by the Soviets from 1945 until 1950. It is estimated 7,113 prisoners died at the camp. They were buried in unmarked mass graves in the surrounding woods. The camp was handed over to the Soviet satellite state the DDR in 1950.
The photographs were taken over two days in June, 2009. Photos taken by Pete Grafton. For use of a photo or photos please use the Leave a Reply box below.
The railway came to Sheringham on the Norfolk coast in 1887. This was quite late for coastal villages and small towns that were to become seaside holiday destinations. For instance, the railway came to Weston-super-Mare in 1841, Southport in 1848, Girvan in 1860 and Newquay in 1876.
Although two brick works are shown in the Sheringham area on a 1906 Ordnance Survey map it’s likely the railway brought the materials, and probably the men that built The Grand Hotel. It opened in 1898.
Sheringham was typical of many British seaside resorts that developed quickly with the coming of a railway. Where once there had been just fields and cottages, and “pretty corners”, or no corners at all seaside resorts sprang up. There was a public – a population – ready and eager to soak up the sea, the sun (when it appeared) and the fun.
Sheringham was a three and a quarter hour train journey from London Liverpool Street station, changing at Norwich.
Because Sheringham was not close to industrial cities and towns the seaside holiday-makers were mostly middle class, and entrepeneurs were quick to build detached house with large gardens for summer lettings, or ownership.
The child with his back to us is one of the three children that the mother, and the father, (when he was down at the weekends) took photos of. We know nothing about the family, beyond what we can speculate from the contents in the photos that follow. They were probably renting the house (rather than owning it) for the summer; they had a nanny/domestic servant and Dad, when we see him, seems to be a dapper middle class gent, and definitely not “trade”. Most of those on the beach and elsewhere that we see are also middle class. There is one exception, where the gent is possibly “trade”, and possibly from nearby Norwich. It is assumed the other holidaymakers were mostly from London and the Home Counties. The Kodak photo album was bought by Pete Grafton in 2008 in a second-hand bookshop.
* It is strongly believed that despite the hat, and skirted garments the young child sitting on the beach is a boy, the son of the family. There was a fashion of dressing small boys in dresses and other skirted garments from the late nineteenth century well into the Edwardian period. This fashion did not survive the First World War. This fashion was separate from the velvet jackets and long hair style inspired by the novel Little Lord Fauntleroy. The following photo, believed to have been taken in the USA in the late nineteenth century is an example of boys wearing dresses.
We will see a photo of the dog – a puppy, again, in the garden of the house it is presumed the family are renting for the summer.
The brick built house with cement rendering would have been built following the arrival of the railway in 1887. There’s about ten years of climbing ivy growth on the house, which would roughly date it to 1893. It’s a hot day with integral sun blinds out, and upstairs windows open. There’s a curious ad-hoc net curtain, and curtain pieces set-up in the windows, as if they have been rigged up by the family, who it is assumed are renting for the summer. As there is a roll blind drawn three-quarters of the way down in the large upstairs window it is assumed the ad-hoc curtaining is to give some privacy, rather than pull curtains to, or blinds right down on hot sunny days.
The tree on the right is struggling.
There’s a soil pipe, seen rising above the guttering, next to a small open window, which will be the toilet. Whether it fed into a septic tank or whether mains sewage had been installed for the new houses is not known. House lighting would probably have been by gas, though many older houses and buildings in the town would still be lit by paraffin lamps. The kitchen could possible have a gas oven, a relatively new innovation in those days. The town’s gas works (it’s assumed Sheringham had a gas works) would run on coal, originally brought to the town by coastal shipping, and then carted on by horses. With the coming of the railway, coal would be brought by train. Local stations up and down the land had a siding or sidings and a coal yard, right up to the 1960s. Even after many lines were axed, the coal yard would survive near the derelict country station. Going by the double chimneys, there at least 6 fireplaces in the house, though one could be for a coal burning kitchen range.
In 1903 families would make their own amusement: cards, games, reading, singing and music, if there was a piano. The “Talking Machine” – the gramophone, was starting to become popular, but was not yet that widespread. Few houses in 1903 had telephones, including even those of upper class folk, but there were three Royal Mail letter and postcard deliveries a day, and a telegram could be sent, say from London, and delivered to the house on the same day.
It’s imagined that the house and the surrounding houses with these large gardens have been jostled in by shoe-horned homes since the 1970s where the gardens once were. In fact, it’s possible some of these pre-1914 houses were demolished to maximise the amount of new homes that could be built on the site.
The coming of the railway to Sheringham in 1887 not only brought city and suburban middle class families to what had been a by-the-sea fishing hamlet, it also benefited the local fishermen. Their catch of fresh crabs, lobsters and whelks, and cod were sent on the up train to the Billingsgate fish market in London. The Wikipedia entry on Sheringham estimates that because of the coming of the railway the number of Sheringham fishing boats harvesting the sea reached a peak of 200.
Photos after a storm, or a high tide with a strong on-shore wind.
There is still a train service to Sheringham from London via Norwich. The Sheringham Grand Hotel was demolished in 1974. The Sheringham fishing fleet and the men have almost disappeared. The Wikipedia entry for Sheringham says that there are now just eight boats operated single-handedly.
And the family in the photo above and the Nanny, and Dad? Nothing, as yet, is known about them. There were two World Wars to come. Was Dad conscripted into the First World War? The son would have been about 39 when the Second World War began. Did the nanny work in ammunitions in the First World War and earn a lot more money than being a nanny/domestic? And did Mum volunteer for the Voluntary Aid Detachments – the VADs?
After the First World War the fashion for dressing young middle class boys in dresses and skirted garments ceased, whilst young women bobbed their hair audaciously – boyishly -short and their chest was minimised.
If Nanny, or the daughters or the son had had children their surviving grandchildren would now be in the 70s to mid 90s age range, and there would be great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren texting, Messaging each other, ordering their grocery and clothes online and phoning for Indian curries and Italian pizzas to be delivered to their door. They’re mostly drinking French, Californian and Australian wines along with Czech pilsner. They’re driving German, French, Japanese and South Korean cars, and they Skype and Facetime each other – relatives and friends in Australia, or those taking a holiday on the hot seaside beaches of Majorca and Miami.
But, despite all the changes, dollies still go on outings, and puppy-dogs still bring warmth and delight to households.
(3) See Victorian Candid Camera: Paul Martin 1864 – 1944, edited by Bill Jay, David & Charles, 1973.
The Snapshot Photograph: the rise of popular photography 1888 – 1939, Brian Coe and Paul Gates, Ash & Grant, 1977.
The Seaside by Sarah Howell, Studio Vista, 1974.
If you spot mistakes of fact or can add further information to these photos of Sheringham, do please get in touch using the Leave a Reply box below. Thank-you.
With the exception of Pin Interest, for use of these photos from the Sheringham 1903 Family Photo Album contact Pete Grafton in the Contact Box at the foot of this Post.