Sunday, 27 November 2016

Beautiful backs -- the flipside of old photographs

Because there are often crucial clues to the subject's identity written on the backs of photographs, I've got into the habit of checking the backs of old photos when I'm sifting through boxes of them in junk shops. In fact I've had some funny looks when people have spotted me going through the photos without even looking at the fronts -- if I'm searching for photos to 'investigate', it doesn't really matter how wonderful the image itself is if there's no name or other information written on the back. I always start off looking at both the front and back, but if time's running out, I just look at the backs, much to people's mystification.
     But even while doing that, I haven't always been alive to the beauty of some of the backs in their own right.
Recently, though, I've been scrutinizing the backs of the cartes de visite that I already own, looking for where the photographers that took them were based. And in doing so I've woken up to the little works of art that many nineteenth century photographers made of the backs of images produced by their studios. I particularly love the cherub with a camera in the first image above. And the calm visitation from an angel in the second (is it Mary and Elizabeth from the Bible?). The care that photographers took to decorate the backs of their photos suggests that they were well aware of the marketing opportunity the backs offered and that, whatever they were obliged to reproduce on the fronts, they could provide a consistently attractive image on the backs.
     Among the Victorian and Edwardian photographs I inherited from my Mum, there are quite a few from the famous studio of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe in Whitby.
Clearly, the studio would periodically update their back design, to reflect the latest prizes they had won or prestigious clients served. Just from the photos I own, it seems Whitby, as an important nineteenth century tourist destination (and also the centre of the jet industry, Whitby jet being highly valued for mourning jewelry and black beading, big at the time), had many photographic studios vying for custom. I have cartes from three apart from Sutcliffe's.
Of these backs, I adore the one belonging to the studio of George Wallis, with its illustration of Khyber House. At first I thought this might be an imagined house, so perfectly does it represent my fantasy of a perfect Gothic house. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that Khyber House is not only real but still standing.
 It's now called Streonshalh (sounds Scottish?) but it still stands opposite Whitby Abbey (which you can just see in the background) on the winding road down to the quayside that's still called the Khyber Pass. This must have been where George Wallis's studio was.
     After this, I got the bit between my teeth and went hunting for another photographer's studio. I have this card, for Robert Gibbs' studio in Middlesbrough.
Again, I absolutely love the illustration of the premises, even though the stamp over the top told me they'd moved from there. To Google StreetView!
First I sought out the Albert Bridge, which is a railway bridge close to Middlesbrough station, in fact I think the platforms must extend over it, judging by the canopies.
Then I pulled back from the bridge to see what was nearby on both sides. On the southern side there's this lovely Victorian building, now a vodka bar. And tucked into the corner of the bridge...
Yes! It's Robert Gibbs' old studio, a bit battered and rather impinged upon by the station roof canopy. But still there. Which is more than can be said for the Wilson Street studio -- that whole area seems to have been opened up and redeveloped, so I didn't find the second Gibbs studio.
     Looking for information about Gibbs, I found some interesting bits in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. He was born in Great Yarmouth in 1843 and must have moved up to Middlesbrough when he was quite a young man. His wife, Alice, was from Skelton, quite near Middlesbrough. By 1873 he was apparently a Freemason. He lived until 1921 but photography didn't remain his profession throughout his working life. In the 1901 census he's a 'theatrical agent' and in 1911 (the last available census return), he's a 'house agent'. His son, John, who started out as assistant to his father in the photography studio, was working as a gardener by 1901, so photography doesn't seem to have been all that good an option, perhaps because of the increasing numbers of people who owned their own cameras (or was that a bit later?).

     I bought a lovely book about cartes de visite -- both fronts and backs -- this week, from a small, independent press in Lancaster, Fast Foot Press. It even comes with a reproduction cdv in a glassine envelope glued inside the back flap of the cover ('glassine' is one of my absolute favourite words -- any excuse to use it).

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane -- The Story of the Carr's Hill Murder

My book, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane, is published today, which is very exciting for me. It's a historical true crime book, which would be enjoyed by fans of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Wicked Boy, but also by anyone who enjoyed the Serial podcast.
     I came across the story of the murder of a little girl while I was researching my own family history. The place where the murder was committed shared a family name and I had already traced my ancestors back to Gateshead and Heworth, both very close to Carr's Hill. There has long been a village on Gateshead Fell, just south of Gateshead, called Carr Hill but in the nineteenth century it became known as Carr's Hill because of its association with a family named Carr. This family are at the heart of the book.
I found this old photo amongst the pictures I salvaged from my Mum's garden shed. As the photographer was based in Gateshead, I thought it might show part of Gateshead, but Russell Lee has very kindly left a comment, below, to tell me that in fact it's the Black Gate in Newcastle. Judging by the dress worn by the woman in the centre of the image, it must date from the second half of the nineteenth century, perhaps even the 1860s when my book is set. Here she is blown up bigger:

Her dress is certainly of a shape that was worn in the 1860s. But what really fascinates me in this photo is the ghostly figure in the foreground. Every time I look at him, I think he might be a policeman. Here's a blow-up of him:
I think he must have moved while the photograph was being exposed, hence his rather insubstantial appearance, but could that be an early police tunic and helmet he's wearing? Here's a Victorian bobby for comparison:
It would be peculiarly apt if the figure were that of a policeman as I've become so immersed in various crimes committed in and around Gateshead in the 1860s. From arson to sectarian violence, sexual assault to murder, it's all in my book. The real policeman who oversaw efforts to rein in the lawless elements in Gateshead was Chief Constable John Elliott, seen here in a photo which I've kindly been given permission to use by George Marshall of

John Elliott was known as 'The Journeyman' because of his long, steady career. In my book, he's kept very busy as he was not only in charge of police investigations but also of the fire service. As there were many acts of arson around Gateshead in the Autumn of 1865, he was often to be found at the head of the fire engine as it was pulled up the steep slopes of Gateshead Fell.
     I don't want to give too much away about the crime that's at the heart of my book, but I have done some serious detective work and have come up with some insights that add to what was known about the case originally. I found it completely compelling and am hoping that people who read it will be similarly drawn in.

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane from Quercus imprint, riverrun

Sunday, 2 October 2016

A summer in Lausanne -- 1891

Lausanne, Switzerland
By the end of the nineteenth century, Switzerland was established as the world's leading country for finishing schools. These upmarket establishments were for young women: by spending a few months or a year at a finishing school after the end of their formal educuation, it was believed that young ladies could polish their manners and learn all the social graces they would need to enter society and, most importantly, find a suitable husband. Deportment and etiquette were taught and the pupils would be encouraged to speak French, to paint and draw their beautiful surroundings and to make friendships.
Before it was a hotel, this was the pensionnat Villa Orama
In the 1890s a pensionnat, or boarding school, was run by a Dr Rapin in the Villa Orama at 27 Avenue de la Gare, Lausanne as a finishing school for young ladies. The large house had been built in the second half of the eighteenth century and, as can be seen in the postcard above, by the turn of the century it would have become the Hotel Jura, but in 1891 it was still a school.
You can see where it was from this map, which dates from around 1911, after the original building had been knocked down and a new hotel, the Jura Simplon 'Modern', built. It was near the centre of Lausanne, close to the train station. That was presumably how most of the young ladies arrived, having travelled across Europe by train. In March 1891 they included Miss Jeannie Wylie, aged 18 (I believe).

One of the first things Jeannie did on arriving was to buy a rather smart leatherbound notebook from Papeterie Mack, in rue de Bourg, just to the north of the school, near the cathedral. This was to be her autograph book in which all her new friends would write poems and messages and paint little vignettes for her to remember them by.

Jeannie was Scottish, so quite a few of the entries in her book have a Scots flavour. I particularly like this specially composed verse, which ladles on the Burns idiom:

"I've read this book from end to end
and looked the pictures through
The French is far beyond my ken
In fac' it gars me grue

I like the guid auld Doric twang
Tae talk, or sing, or rhyme,
An' be it a sermon or a sang
Or e'en a Bairnies hymn

New fanglet ways I canna 'bide
So be it French of German
Awa' wae baith whate'er betide
In either sang or sermon

And as for names o' bonnie lassies
The Minnies, Idas, Ethels, a'
Parents were sure the biggest asses,
Sic' fancy names their bains tae ca'.

Nacht like a guid auld Scottish name
I don't even like 'my pretty Jane'
Come strike the lyre tae ma ane Queen
And sing tae Prestwick's bonnie Jean."

Another poem, which I won't burden you with, spells out 'Jeannie Wylie' with the initial letters of each line. That one's signed 'Ton amie de la chic table' ('Your friend from the smart table') and the date is given as 'Pitt's birthday' (May 28th -- Pitt the Younger!).

Some of the hand-drawn illustrations are lovely, like the one above. Others -- below -- not quite so accomplished.
Chateau de Chillon with the Dents du Midi in the background
This view of the Chateau de Chillon was extremely popular. Courbet had painted it in 1875:
Did our young artist draw the actual castle or did they nip out and buy a postcard to copy?:
After a couple of months in Lausanne, Jeannie -- probably along with the rest of her class -- decamped into the countryside to the north to what was perhaps a sister school, housed in the Chateau de Marnand.
I like this next old postcard of the school because of the message written on the front:
An ecole menagere is a very practical version of a finishing school, specialising in 'le menage', that's to say running a household, so it would include cooking, housekeeping, perhaps even how to take care of children. Tres pratique!

Overall, though, the book gives away what was perhaps the most engaging aspect of the girls' stay in Switzerland: the opportunities it afforded for flirtation. Although it's a little coded, there's a febrile interest in the opposite sex hidden on many pages. One of my favourite pages in the book is this strange amalgamation of memories and secrets, above. Here are some of the phrases:

"Mademoiselle, il faut mettre cela dans la bouche" ("Miss, you must put that in your mouth").
"Je t'aime".
"Leve-toi!" ("Get up!").
"Bonbons, pas pour toi!" ("No sweets for you!").
"Aimes-tu les oranges?" "Seulement la moitie" ("Do you like oranges?" "Just a half").
"Ne vous inquietez pas" ("Don't worry").
"Here alone I wait for thee".
"Oh golly!"
"Veux-tu quelque chose pour ton chapeau?" ("Would you like something for your hat?").
"Veux-tu te baigner?" ("Do you want to go swimming?") "Oh alors!" ("Oh, I say!")
"Je suis amoureuse" ("I'm in love").
As well as the very slightly daring poem above, there's a much longer poem that reveals more. It concerns a young Russian gentleman -- and in the picture with all the tiny vignettes, above, you can see a couple dancing 'a la Russe', so perhaps that's him. The poem goes:

"Honi soit qui mal y pense

I have a charming tale to relate
of things that have happened of quite recent date,
a fair-haired young Russe has come to Lausanne,
and to catch his attention we do all we can.

Diable! [Damn!]

The first time we saw him was at a soiree,
(Doctor Trolliet us had invited to tea)
And he had a flower in his coat, oh alors!
We saw it and gasped as we entered the door


But Madame had said, "Soyez comme il faut,
Je vous pris, cheres enfants, ne regardez pas les beaux" ["Behave correctly, please, dear children, do not look at gentlemen"],
So we sat down on chairs very straight
While the two madames had their tete-a-tete.


But when we began to play a ___ [can't read] game,
We very soon saw the dear Russe's aim.
For to two pretty girls he paid great attention
As if the others were not worth a mention.


Of course we were angry, that goes without saying,
He to two girls his attention was paying,
When of we others there was a great number
Who could do nothing but look and wonder


 But that's not all, there's more to relate,
That occurred at an even more recent date.
The next day he came to see us at school
And then his behaviour was even more cool.


Madame a very grand supper was giving
To all her friends in Lausanne who were living.
The Russian turned up in the evening to dance
And of course we all thought we would
then have a chance.


But no, no, no, 'twas always the same,
Evidently he wished not the pain
of inventing new phrases for new sets of girls
Who looked at him askance behind their false curls


At last we saw that it was no good,
Although we all had done all that we could,
So with many groans when we saw it no use,
We others gave up "that horrid young Russe".

Diable! Diable!! Diable!!!

Villa Orama, 22nd April 1891

(That was a little altered at the second soiree, tu sais!)
Souvenir de ton bonne amie, tu sais qui" ["Souvenir from your good friend, you know who" -- should be "ta bonne amie" but they were just learning French. I think the Docteur Trolliet mentioned must be the husband of the Madame Trolliet mentioned on the school postcard above...] 

I wouldn't normally find such poems that interesting, but I like this one as it records the actual experiences of Jeannie and her friends in what must have been a magical summer of freedom before they were expected to marry.

"Vite, a gauche, ne regarde pas, des garcons viennent!" [Quick, on the left, don't look, some boys are coming!"]
 To finish off, here are some of the names from the book, in case they're of interest to anyone:

Agnes L. Nicholson
S. A. Russell
M. L. Duplan
Ethel L. Morton
Mary H. McNeill 
L. A. B. Sechehaye [their teacher]
Aggie Warden
Jeanne Debonneville
Martha Volkmar
Florrie Isabel Fryer
Alice Kerr
May S. Wilkie
Lina Teucher
Natalie Hapke
Ethel M George (who said, "I think you will always remember the night of May 8th 1891")
Winnie Whale
Evelyn Fullerton
Carrie Faraker
Ina Leckie
Martha M Taylor