photography Social history

Ruth 1960s Model

Ruth Wells was evidently a 1960s model and most of the photographs I have of her were clearly taken by a professional, although there are some amateur ones too. One photo has on the back “Height 5’5” Bust 34” Waist 24” Hips 35” Hair Dark Brown Brown Eyes.” Some of the photos are stamped ”Newnes and Pearsons” on the reverse who I believe published many popular magazines. There’s not much else on the back of the photos but one has handwritten “Taken for Women’s Own about 3 years ago.” I have 70+ photos of her including clippings from magazines.

I’ve taken a good number of photos from contact prints and done some minimal restoration. Above is one of the sheets plus I’ve enlarged a couple of cells which have been marked up for cropping and removing blemishes which someone would have had to do old school style, long before computer retouching. There’s nothing new about retouching, just faster and easier ways to do it.

She looks the part for someone who would appear in popular magazines of the time and would appeal to the general audience rather than just the swinging 60s crowd.

She looks wholesome even in the swimsuit shots!

Once again I am astonished at how collections like this just get thrown out or end up in house clearances. These photos are a lovely glimpse into a piece of social history as well as coming from someone’s private collection. There’s more personal information including wedding photographs which I haven’t included here or on my Flickr feed. We worry about privacy in the digital age but the information in some of the newspaper clippings I have on Ruth even give the address of where the married couple were going to live.

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.


Pictorialism revisited

In general I take photographs with a treatment in mind. So if I want a pictorialist style photo I take a “normal” raw photograph with a result in mind. What if I looked at some of my older photographs and gave them a pictorialist makeover?

The photograph above was originally taken as a full-colour shot of fields near the village of Reeth. I think this new treatment gives it a dreamy look as if from a different time. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but I like it.

Two photos of Arabella given a Stieglitz style makeover. I’m also influenced by Gavin Seim’s theory of “shadow hacking.”

I gave this photo of ballerina Erica Mulkern the pictorialist treatment and then a mild (digital) cyanotype wash.

Arabella again, this time with a Stieglitz treatment but then converted to black and white.

Dance photography

Jessie Mathews, the Dancing Divinity

Jessie Mathews was a very popular dancer/singer/actress of the 1930s in the UK. Dirk Bogarde said she was a much better dancer than Ginger Rogers and I think he was right though her style was different. A collaboration between Jessie and Fred Astaire was planned but Jessie’s UK work schedule would not allow it to proceed. One of her choreographers was Buddy Bradley who was an influence on Busby Berkeley.

Jessie was a dancer on stage long before she became a film star and had been a professional dancer since the age of 12. She was often referred to as The Dancing Divinity.

Just like stars before and after her time she was featured on many postcards which have become very collectable.

She was a very versatile dancer able to cover all styles from modern ballet to tap, jazz and expressive.

Jessie was also regularly featured in film magazines of the 1930s.

Original photographs of Jessie often sell for in excess of £100 though I was lucky to obtain this 8/10 original for much less. On ebay some sellers present photos of her as if they were original prints though they are clearly reproductions. This is a common problem to avoid for any collector of such material.

Like today the studios were keen to place stills of their stars in magazines at every opportunity. Such clippings are also collectable.

Luckily many of Jessie’s films are available on DVD and they are sometimes shown on Talking Pictures TV though I don’t recollect seeing them elsewhere. If you like Fred and Ginger I’m sure you’ll enjoy her films.

Long after her film and stage careers were over Jessie found fame as Mary Dale in Mrs Dale’s Diaries on the radio after replacing the original Mrs Dale played by Ellis Powell. She was featured on This Is Your Life in 1961. She died in 1981.

Colors photography

My Evil Doppleganger

It’s not happened recently but I’ve been plagued by my doppleganger for many years. People have offered to fight me in pubs because I denied knowing them – it must have been my double they met before. Even my mother met my doppleganger in her house though I was miles away at the time.

From time to time I’ve imagined my evil twin and what he might be capable of doing.

I’ll probably be arrested or banned for including the knife in this picture but remember it’s in the hand of my evil twin, not me.

It’s dangerous around my house.

This one was inspired by Park Chan-wook’s film Thirst.

Seriously though, creating these images in Photoshop is fairly easy to do using layers. I’ve still got at least one doppleganger out there but I can’t say whether they’re really evil or not.

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.

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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.

Edwardian photography Social history

Gladys Cooper the first postcard superstar

According to Sheridan Morley, one of Gladys’ grandchildren, in his biography of her over 400 different postcards of her were produced between 1905 and 1920. Each postcard would have had many thousands of reprints. You can get an idea of her popularity and longevity as a celebrity by looking on ebay. When I checked today there were 1700 listings for postcards of Gladys and I would expect to see similar numbers on any day of the week.

You can find postcards of Gladys in black and white, colour, hand tinted. partially tinted, on greetings cards and so on. Often her distinctive signature is shown on the cards.

This pair of postcards are indicative of the many variations of postcards that were produced. She’s wearing exactly the same clothes in both but the colouring and orientation have been changed.

Gladys was often photographed with her children. Here she is with daughter Joan. Note Joan’s signature on the right hand photo though I doubt her handwriting was so similar to her mother’s.

Postcards were only a sideline for Gladys. She was an actress appearing in many stage plays from the 1920s and later had a career as a film actress. You can see her in Hitchcock’s Rebecca for instance.

If you want to see more Gladys Cooper postcards you’ll find them with a simple online search. My own modest collection can be seen here.