Victorian and Edwardian Children from Old Photographs, by A.J. and D. K. Pierce

VECFOP cvr

Anthony and Denise Pierce’s 1980 book, part of a series collecting Victorian and Edwardian photographs, contains 137 images featuring children on their own or with adults, though occasionally with the children as incidental elements.  Some are posed studio shots, but more interesting are those with the subjects in everyday situations.  Each comes with a brief caption, though for photographs like these information is usually scant.  The Pierces were teachers so they had empathy with children, and this shows through in their selection and commentary.

The photographs are roughly divided into sections, though there is much overlap in practice: ‘When they were very young’, mostly posed photographs a long way from today’s ubiquitous camera phone snaps documenting every moment of kids’ lives; ‘At school’, with children at various activities as well as in formal school groups; ‘Daily life of the family’, a miscellaneous section not always concentrating on a family setting and with quite a few street scenes; ‘Special occasions’, of which the act of having a formal portrait could be one, but including civic events; ‘At work’, with youngsters employed on farm and in factory; and ‘Holidays’, demonstrating the increasing emphasis on leisure towards the end of the period, and improving transport links that put the seaside within reach for many.

The introduction describes the enormous changes that affected children over the course of the two reigns, the gradual reduction in working hours and increasing emphasis on education, but it highlights the enormous contrasts between the lives of the poor and those of the well-off.  There was also a bias in how social classes were represented.  Middle and upper class families were able to afford studio photographs, or to have a family member with photography as a hobby, making it a collaborative process, whereas working-class children were often seen with urban squalor as a backdrop, or at work, their images speaking to the middle-classes rather than to their own.  It was done to them rather than with them.

One example, of boys lined up at a Bradford swimming pool in what look like their underpants rather than bathing costumes, displays alarming levels of malnutrition.  By contrast those higher up the social scale are well fed, clean, and often shown surrounded by handsome possessions, or at least taking their leisure for granted.  Yet as the Pierces note, even very poor children were cheerful and curious, though one might add before life ground them down.

The compilers were based in Keighley, and there is a distinct Yorkshire/Lancashire bias.  Some photographs were taken in Lincolnshire and Norfolk, one on the Isle of Wight, but southern counties are not well represented, London not at all.  It doesn’t matter where they come from, we seize this window onto the past and wonder at lives that in some ways look so familiar, yet in others are remote from those we lead today.  We wonder about the individuals depicted.  What were their names, what was life like for them, what happened to them?  Who lived to a ripe old age, who died prematurely, perhaps on a foreign field, or from the effects of poverty?  We rarely find out but still we scan faces and dress, try to interpret the environment, and in so doing bridge the decades.

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