Sunday, 18 October 2009

All lined up in the school playground in their Sunday best

I have wondered, when looking at old school photographs from the Victorian period, whether the children are wearing their ordinary everyday school clothes, or if an impending visit from the photographer was enough of an occasion for their parents to dress them in their Sunday best. I found mention of poor attendance on school photos day in 1881 recorded in a school log book from the Talgarth district of Powys, Wales (Victorian Powys), ascribing the childrens' absence to their not possessing decent clothes for the special day:
At 11 a Photographer came to take a view of the buildings. A very thin attendance, for some of the children did not come because of this. The Worths & Jones, Trebarried all stayed away at 11, so we stood in the playground that the view might have a lively appearance. The children who were away yesterday came today. I asked them why they were so silly yesterday & it appears it was their clothes that was the drawback.
Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified group of school boys & master, c.1873-1876
Carte de visite by William Pearson of St Peter's, Derby
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This carte de visite portrait of a group of 26 boys aged from about 5 up to around 10 or 11 with their master is from my own collection. It was a recent eBay purchase and, as is the case with most such purchases, has sadly lost its provenance. The group is a motley one, and there is clearly no uniform in use, although the appearance of a couple of striped scarves hints at possible school colours. Due to the large range in ages, it seems likely that this was either a small school or even a Sunday School.

The photographer obviously had some difficulty keeping the children still. I estimate from the card mount design and clothing that it was taken in the mid-1870s, say between c.1873 and 1876, when exposure times were still fairly lengthy, measured in terms of seconds rather than fractions of a second. It would not have been an easy task for the master to keep his young subjects' attention on the camera and stop them from fidgeting. He has two boys, probably the most troublesome ones, right by his side where he can keep them out of trouble. Several boys have moved during the exposure. None look particularly pleased with the experience, save perhaps the lad seated at the far right, who seems particularly anxious to demonstrate a devoted attention to his studies.

The brick wall forming the backdrop to the school group portrait is probably a school building but it has not been identified. The window shows a good reflection of another brick wall opposite, and some distance behind the photographer, judging by the apparent brick size.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Reverse of carte de visite by William Pearson of St Peter's, Derby
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

William Pearson (1827-1885) was one of Derby's earliest photographers, graduating to that occupation from being a chimney sweep. In fact, he is listed with both professions in several sources through to the early 1860s. He opened his first studio around 1858 and continued to operate in St Peter's, Derby until at least 1881. Although his output does not appear to have been as prolific as the studios of Derby's other early practitioners, such as that of James Brennen, the quality of his portraits was quite acceptable. Pearson is recorded as taking mug shots of prisoners at Derby Gaol in April 1863, and perhaps the venture into school portraiture was another attempt to expand his clientele and drum up new business.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Detail from reverse of carte de visite
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The most interesting feature of this carte de visite only emerged after I had sent scanned images of the front and reverse to friend and photo-sleuthing collaborator Nigel Aspdin. The sharp-eyed Nigel noticed there appeared to be something hand written on the reverse of the card mount. Although it wasn't clear from the detailed scan, I took out the original photograph and, by holding it at an angle to the sunlight, I was able to make it out as:
E. Bostock
Kensington Street
Uttoxeter Road
The natural assumption is, of course, that E. Bostock was one of the subjects of this group portrait. However, I was already aware that one Erasmus F. Bostock operated as a photographer in Derby in the latter part of the 19th Century, so I checked my notes. Indeed, Erasmus was living with his parents at 12 Kensington Street, off Uttoxeter Road, in the parish of St Werburgh, Derby, at the time of both the 1871 and 1881 Census.

An 1881 trade directory entry and the census enumeration of that year are the first records I have found of Bostock working as a photographer, at which time he appears to have been in partnership with a Mr. Carr, with premises at 8 Macklin Street. I also know that Bostock specialised in school portraits, from the existence of several cabinet cards from the late 1880s and early 1890s marked, "E. Bostock, Photographer of Schools, &c. Derby." It now seems likely to me that Bostock initially trained as a photographer in the studio of William Pearson, familiarising himself with the trade before opening his own business. Photographers had to learn their trade somewhere, and where better than as an assistant, and employee, in an established operation.

Much less information survives about the early careers of photographers, when they were usually training as photographic assistants. While census records might give their professions, they hardly ever show who they worked for, and trade directory entries provide the names of the proprietors, very rarely those of their employees. Anecdotal evidence is sometimes available. For example, the career of well known Derby portraitist W.W. Winter started with him being an assistant in the studio of E.N. Charles. After Charles died in 1863 his widow ran the studio briefly with Winter's help; she married him in 1864, and he took over the studio thereafter. Sadly, little detailed knowledge of studio history such as that preserved for W.W. Winter Ltd. exists for other Derby studios, so information such as this snippet from Bostock's early career are important.

Image © and courtesy of Stuart Axe
Boys from Chelmsford Charity School, 1862
Image © and courtesy of Stuart Axe

I've had some difficulty in determining when school photography became commonplace, and I would appreciate hearing from readers who have or know of such portraits from the 1860s or earlier. The rather nice portrait included above, from Stuart Axe's Flickr photostream, shows a uniformed group of boys at Chelmsford Charity School in 1862. All of those in my collection, however, are from the 1870s or later.

Apart from Bostock, there do not appear to have been any other Derby photographers who specialised in school photography. George W. Holden was a wide-ranging scholastic specialist from Windsor who is known to have plied his trade in Derby around 1877. Benjamin Brough from Chesterfield advertised his services as a "Lanternist and Photographer, Schools & Gentlemen's residences, &c." in the 1880s, but is unlikely to have ventured as far south as Derby. R.K. Peacock, Gibson & Sons and W.W. Winter - and possibly others - took school photos on occasion during the 1890s and later, but did not specifically advertise this service.


Extract from Lanfilo School Log Book, 20 Feb 1881, on Talgarth & District - Victorian School Days, on Victorian Powys

Extracts from Derby Borough Police Watch Committee Records, Derby Local Studies Library, courtesy of Mike Baker

Kelly's Directory of Derbyshire, 1881, Kelly & Co., London. publ. on microfiche by the Derbyshire Family History Society.

Stuart Axe's Flickr Photostream


  1. A thing of beauty as always! You are so good you put us all to shame.

    Congratulations on your FTM Top 40 nomination.


  2. What a great post! I don't have any pre-1860 school/group photos. I think I feel an antique shopping trip coming on...


  3. Thanks, -fM and Caroline, for your kind compliments ... you are welcome to visit any time ;-) Caroline, if you do find any early school photos, we look forward to seeing them.

    Regards, Brett

  4. Awesome post -- will be looking out for photos like this from now on.


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