Saturday, 7 June 2008

"Please, sir, I want some more."

This unusual cabinet photograph was taken by A.W. Cox of 11 St James' Street, Nottingham, and he was sufficiently proud of it to have registered it, for copyright purposes.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Unfortunately, there is no indication of where it was taken, or who the subjects are. It seems likely that it was intended to evoke images of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, in particular the scene where Oliver asks, "Please, sir, I want some more," as shown in the original engraving by George Cruickshank for the serial published in Bentley's Miscellany between February 1837 and April 1839. [Courtesy of Wikipedia].

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
"Please, sir, I want some more."
Illustration by George Cruikshank for Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I purchased the cabinet card because my own gg-grandfather Henry Payne (1843-1907) spent several years of his childhood, from the age of seven until he was fourteen, in the Ashby Union Workhouse. In fact his mother Ann Payne, who was widowed when Henry was only two, and suffered from epilepsy, died there in 1857. Although most likely to have been from the area around Nottingham, I thought that it might give a good impression of what Henry and his mother might have experienced.

However, it is not at all certain that the scene is in a workhouse. I estimate that there are between forty and fifty seated at the right-hand bench which is completely visible, and it is likely that there is a similar number of boys and girls at the left-hand table. There are about nineteen adults standing around the edge of the room, supervising what must be between sixty and a hundred children. The clothing worn by the women is not very clear, but I estimate that it was from some time in the 1880s.

Image © and courtesy of the National Trust
The Workhouse, Southwell, a restored 19th Century workhouse run by the National Trust

I sent the image to staff at the Southwell Workhouse, situated not far from Nottingham, which is run by the National Trust and is one of the best preserved Victorian workhouses in England. Philip Jones, volunteer researcher, does not think it likely that it was at Southwell, and has suggested that it could be either the Nottingham Union Workhouse or a childrens' home in Nottingham, such as the Gordon Boys Home. Further enquiries at the Nottingham Local Studies Library are under way.

The photographer Alfred William Cox (1830-1888) was born in Nottingham and by the early 1850s was working there as an artist, also making picture frames and selling prints and artist's supplies. He opened a photographic studio at Brewill's Yard, Nottinghma with Sylvanus Redgate in 1856. Although the partnership did not last long, Cox's business continued to thrive, and he moved to new premises in St. James' Street in 1863. Heathcote and Heathcote (in Pioneers of Photography in Nottinghamshire 1841-1910, published by Nottinghamshire County Council, ISBN 0 902751 38 7) say that, "The standard of work produced by this studio was of excellent quality and the business enjoyed a first-class reputation." In 1876, however, Alfred Cox moved away from Nottingham and his wife Ellen Elizabeth (1832-1910) took over the business. Mrs. Cox continued to run the studio at this address with her sons Alfred and Henry William, and daughters Ellen Louisa and Mabel Maud until 1897.

If my date estimate of the 1880s for this photograph is correct, then it appears more likely to have been taken by Mrs Cox or one of her children.

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