occult photography spooky

Scary Dolls, Haunted Dolls

So I was listening to an episode of the loopholes podcast when they began discussing haunted dolls. Though I often find old photos of dolls creepy I never realised there was a whole sub-culture invested in haunted dolls. Indeed I was astonished to find a search for “haunted dolls” on Ebay came up with 1600 such dolls for sale. These dolls came with detailed histories of when and where they came from, what their powers were and so on. Cue a discussion with my wife about buying old dolls at car boot sales and making up stories for them before selling them on ebay.

This angry child from my cabinet card collection would be a good basis for a story. Now where can I find a doll that looks like hers?

This girl and her doll look particularly spooky don’t you think?

This doll has such powers it needs six girls to restrain it.

Now this photograph, and it is a photograph not a postcard, has real potential. The Ebay seller I bought this from suggested it could be a post mortem photograph, a “popular” thing to take in Victorian times and commanding high prices for good examples from collectors today.

Ultimately I don’t think this a PM photo even though the Girl’s eyes seem to have been painted on. The doll though – now that’s a different matter.

I don’t really believe in haunted dolls though, after watching a Youtube video of twenty haunted dolls, I noticed the comments were mostly people apologising to the dolls for looking at them without permission. I didn’t apologise so if you don’t hear from me again you’ll know why.

Dance Social history

Vintage Dancing Girls

[This article was first published in The Call Boy,Summer 2024]

I collect old photographs and real photographic post cards. Most people following this hobby will at some point decide to specialise in a specific subject. In my case I began to notice how often photographs of girls in dance costumes began to crop up. It didn’t seem to matter what age they were or, in a few cases, what sex they were. There are many different categories of dancing girls to be seen from girls’ dance groups in school to exotic dancers to be seen in nightclubs and on the stage; from amateur solo dancers to large troupes of professionals. From the point of view of the Call Boy the photos of most interest are of the professional and semi-professional dancers that appeared in music hall, theatre and variety shows and it is these that I concentrate on here.

The most obvious place to start is with the Tiller Girls. I used to think that the Tiller Girls were just those dancers who appeared on Sunday Night at the London Palladium but was surprised to learn that the first Tiller Girls were trained by John Tiller in 1889 and that there have many different troupes trained using his methods ever since, some bearing the name Tiller Girls or Tiller Troupe but many going under different names. There is an excellent book tracing the history of the Tillers – Tiller’s Girls by Doremy Vernon which, though out of print, can easily be obtained on one the web auction sites.

Another famous group of dancing girls were to be found at the Windmill Theatre. Although they might be better known for their naked tableaux, the Windmill Girls performed dance routines in shows and they were in constant rehearsal for the new shows which changed regularly. You can find some fragments of routines by the Windmill Girls on YouTube, as you can for the Tiller Girls. There’s even a 1949 film shot in the Windmill Theatre called “Murder at the Windmill” which has recently been broadcast by Talking Pictures TV. There is also the Judi Dench/Bob Hoskins film “Mrs Henderson Presents” though I understand some liberties were taken with the storyline. The Windmill also published annual editions of a magazine, Revudeville, where you can find photographs of the dancers and their individual names. After publishing one photo of Windmill Dancers I was contacted by the son of one of the dancers!

Nearly every Music Hall and Variety bill had its share of female dancers, many if not most unnamed as they appeared in chorus lines. There were many variations on the type of dancers and, of course, they often presented skits and other entertainments as well as dancing. Juveniles seem to have been very popular and were often presented as if they were all members of the same family though this was not always true. “Model Maids” and “Dairymaids” were other popular ways to package dancers. My own collection of photographs and postcards suggest that troupes of dancing girls must have run into the thousands. Some, like the various Tiller troupes, lasted for many years whilst others probably had much shorter shelf lives. What happened to all the “juveniles” for instance? Herein lies the problem of collecting these materials in that it’s difficult or impossible to find reliable details and dates for when these troupes were active. Sometimes there’s a date on the reverse of a postcard and often there’s the name of the studio where a photograph was taken but handwritten dates are unreliable and most of the studios have long since disappeared. Even if a troupe was photographed at a named studio there’s no guarantee that the town where the studio was situated was the home town of the dancers. Trying to trace information about these dancers online is usually fruitless and shows up the inadequacies of the internet for any serious research into the history of these entertainers. Books such as “Grace, Beauty and Banjos” by Michael Kilgariff and “Roy Hudd’s Cavalcade of Variety Acts” contain lists of performers but seldom have any information on any but the most famous dance troupes

My own favourite “dancing girl” is Jessie Matthews, often known as the “dancing divinity.” At least in her case there is a plethora of information to be had on line and in print but best of all we still have her wonderful films from the 1930s. It’s tragic that she never got to work with Fred Astaire as apparently other work commitments prevented a planned project together.

The entire collection of my vintage dancing girls photographs and post cards can be found at I am still collecting and still researching and would be interested to hear from anyone who can add to my knowledge of vintage dancing girls.

photography Social history

Tenuous Jack the Ripper Connection

A set of miniature postcards of Victorian actresses all addressed to Edith at Birch View Whitechurch Tavistock. Edith was the youngest daughter of Joseph Helson who was the detective in charge of investigating Jack the Ripper’s first victim, Polly Nichols. Helson on his retirement moved to the Birch View address. The cards are all postmarked and dated 1904.

Apart from the strange Ripper connection these cards are unusual, being of a much smaller size than normal, hence they were known as midget or miniature postcards.

Edith continued to receive postcards of famous actresses in 2005 and 2006 but this time of the more usual full size variety.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Miss-Billie-Burke-1024x658.jpg

I’m not sure how to interpret this photo of Billie Burke. Presumably we’re meant to think she’d just been hatched from an egg but why’s she got a stuffed bird on her hand?

[As usual all cards from my own collection].

photography Social history

The happiest day of their lives?

Weddings are another type of family event and photographs don’t always show that everyone is having a good time. This group look very glum.

I count three smiling women but the rest, including the bride and groom, are not so happy.

A more formal group. Photograph dated 1921 and location Ringley.

“Duncan’s wedding party” is written on the back.

On the back of this photograph we have “Marriage of John Froggatt at Watford and Harriett Abbott (mother Harriett Ann Walker Abbott (widow)) 20th July 1909.”

And these are my parents Charles and June on their wedding day in 1952.

Edwardian photography Social history

Family Life

There must be zillions of family photographs in the world. Here are a few from my collection.

As you can imagine families featuring military personnel abound from both world wars and we can only guess whether they all survived the conflicts. In the second of these photographs you can see the man with a pipe in the upper left has been cut out of another photo and pasted in. Was he someone lost from the family?

This one was dated 29th Nov 1916. The message on the reverse is in German and addressed to a family in the Netherlands.

Days out at the seaside is a popular theme.

This good-looking bunch are almost too good to be true. Are they performers of some type?

I know families used to be much bigger but I’m not sure these are all from the same family.

The photographer looks like M Hotz of Honfleur. This photograph is much larger than a standard cabinet card.

Another plus sized card but no information on the photographer or the family.

photography Social history Victorian

Maids: real and theatrical

This is probably what most people think of when imagining Victorian maidservants.

“Parlour maids” is written in pencil on the back of this cabinet card but that was probably added recently. I suspect they were a mixture of different types of maid from a household as servants each had different functions – scullery maid, chamber maid etc. The two girls seated at the front look rather young but girls started in service as young as eight.

This is rather more Downton Abbey (not that I’ve ever watched it) and again what you’d expect. Note there’s a dog amongst the maids too.

Being a maid was not a glamorous job. The hours were long, the jobs dirty and demanding and women in service would be miles away from their families and rarely given time off to visit them. Nevertheless some families thought well enough of their maids to have them photographed.

Troupes of “maids” were a popular entertainment in the music halls though they bore little resemblance to real maids.

For some reason there was a mania for dressing as dairymaids.

Maids on stage are popular to this day. Hard to date this one but probably the 1930s or 40s.

And here’s Gladys Cooper attended by her maid in the play Excelsior from 1928. I’ll write about Gladys in a later blog. She was arguably the first woman to exploit her image on postcards and sold hundreds of thousands of them. It was said that nearly every soldier in the first world war trenches had a postcard of her in his tobacco tin.

[There’s a whole subculture of Victorian working women such as pit brow women. There’s also a fascinating book on Victorian Working Women by Michel Hiley which covers pit brow women, women miners, fishergirls, milkwomen, gymnasts etc]

photography Social history spooky Victorian

The Book of the Dead

If something was called The Book of the Dead I’d expect to see something scary like this ventriloquist and his dummy. (If you’ve ever seen the film Dead of Night you’ll know why this scares me!)

What I wouldn’t expect is to see a Victorian photo album like this:

Photo albums, with or without themes, were very popular in Victorian time. This Tennyson themed album has lots of cut outs to contain CDVs and cabinet cards. This one’s rather charming I’d say.

I mention this because some time ago I attended a commercially organised “ghost hunt” which took place overnight. It was at the school I’d attended as a teenager so I was already familiar with the place and had not been aware of anything particularly spooky associated with it. As it turned out the whole event was rather silly with the facilitators trying hard to conjure up supernatural events, cold spots and the like. To put it kindly it was utter nonsense.

At one point in the night I found myself in a small room with several other participants trying to make contact with “spirits”. The organiser of this session gave out roles to each of us. She asked for a volunteer to sit with the “book of the dead.” As everyone else was wary I volunteered only to find that the book was actually a Victorian album full of cabinet cards and CDVs. I was delighted of course and could see nothing negative about sitting with this album. My frustration was that because we were operating in very dim lighting I couldn’t see the contents properly. No spirits were contacted or harmed during the seance.

For the most part I find nothing creepy about my interest in old photographs. I see the process of collecting and preserving these photos as a valuable and worthwhile activity, hopefully ensuring that other people can see and appreciate these wonderful social documents. I am perplexed when my partner or other people think there is something creepy about my hobby and refer to it as collecting photographs of dead people. I think those people should be remembered and celebrated not discarded and forgotten.

On the other hand there are some creepy items in my collection though I suspect what I find creepy is not what everyone finds creepy. The photo at the head of this blog for instance is creepy to me as are all  films and photos of ventriloquists and their dummies.

Dolls are another thing that can be disturbing. I know I share this with many other people from the feedback I get but sometimes I see a photo featuring a girl and a doll and think it’s creepy whereas others find it delightful. The massed dolls with at girl at the centre is a good example. Creepy or endearing? Only you can decide.

This on the other hand is definitely creepy.

Sometimes the subjects of photographs have a rather haunted look about them. This could be caused by the fact that early photographic techniques required the subjects to be still whilst the exposure was taken but sometimes the subjects look haunted anyway. Taken in Malta this military man and his daughter have a decidedly haunted look.

And sometimes there’s just something wrong or odd about a photograph that makes you wonder what was really going on.

Does the man behind the children look menacing to you?Haunted or cute?

Considering most of these photographs come from the early nineteenth century it is almost certain that the subjects are all now dead but I prefer to think of these old photographs not as items in “The Book of the Dead” but as a celebration of people’s lives.

photography Social history

Vintage cats and their servants

It is well known that dogs have owners and cats have staff. This cat has four attendants and a table of cat treats waiting to be eaten.

Here’s a cat already having four young girls training to be its personal staff.

It seems that cats often choose women to work for them though it is not just the preserve of females to undertake the taxing work of cat herding.

You’ll have to look closely at the left photograph to see the cat behind the woman. That cat on the right has made her staff member wear a uniform to better serve it.

I have had the pleasure of being the head butler to many cats and here are some of their kittens. You may object that this is not a vintage photo but it is over 40 years old and possibly considered vintage to some – there’s even some highly collectable vintage hi fi in the background!

[All photos from my personal collection].

photography Social history

Vintage dogs and their owners

People have always liked having their photo taken with their pet dogs. The sun is definitely over the yardarm for this couple and their dog.

Here are some more disreputable types out on the town and taking their dogs with them.

Everyone likes to be seen with their dogs from the country gent to the fashionable lady.

Someone’e really gone to town on this one, dressing the girl as Diana, Goddess of the hunt, with her dog and arrows. The whole thing hand tinted. Probably not her personal pet.

This girl and her dog are much more believable.

More women and their dogs. The couple with their dog come from a series of photos of women on holiday in the 1920s with a distinctly Sapphic vibe. The sole woman and her dog looks very 1960s.

All photos from my personal collection as usual.

photography Social history

Obsessed by Ina

From a collection of over 200 photographs, all of Ina posing for the camera. The photographer is not seen in any of the shots. He is obviously obsessed by Ina and she is more than happy to be photographed. A few shots are dated in the late 1950s but there is little else to identify locations etc. though there a few at popular UK sites and a handful in Germany.

Apart from Ina herself there are just 3 photos with her mother and two with her sister.

Ina is seen in a variety of poses and she seldom looks less than happy.

As I often remark, it always seems sad that collections of photographs that obviously meant a lot to someone and their families just disappear in house clearances and salerooms. At least it’s possible for collectors to preserve some of the social history contained in such photographs.