The photo that epitomised Britain’s class divide

There’s an excellent deconstruction of this iconic photograph in today’s Guardian. In ‘The photograph that defined the class divide‘, Ian Jack tells the real stories behind the photo – of the boys themselves, what the photograph came to represent – and who the photographer really was.

Ian Jack writes: ‘There are three popular misconceptions about the Lord’s photograph: that it shows Etonians; that it was taken by the celebrated documentary photographers Bert Hardy; and that the other boys in the picture are “scruffs”, “toughs” or “urchins”‘.

The picture was taken on 9 July 1937, outside Lord’s, where the annual Eton-Harrow cricket match was being played. Though always described as Eton boys,Peter Wagner and Thomas Dyson (the two dressed in top and tails) were Harrow pupils, aged 14 and 15. Neither came from families that in 1937 would have been considered the English elite, though they were, of course, privileged to attend Harrow.

The three other lads were tracked down in 1998, by a Daily Mail journalist who named all five boys for the first time. The “toughs” in the picture turned out to be not especially tough. They were George Salmon, Jack Catlin and George Young, three 13-year-olds who lived close to Lord’s and were in the same class at a Church of England school a few minutes’ walk away. They had been to the dentist that morning and then decided to skip school and hang around outside Lord’s, where the Eton-Harrow match offered money-making opportunities to any boy willing to open taxi doors and carry bags, or to return seat cushions to their hirers and claim the threepenny deposit.

Most surprising is who the photographer really was.  I have always assumed (because that was the usual attribution) that  it was the great Picture Post lensman, Bert Hardy. In actual fact, his name was Jimmy Sime who worked for London’s Central Press agency from 1914 to the middle 1960s. The mistake seems to have originated with the publication of the photo in Picture Post in 1941.

The photo fiirst appeared in the News Chronicle the day after it was taken, under the headline “Every picture tells a story”. Which leads Jack into the final aspect of his analysis – how, from that first appearance, the photo has been used to illustrate class division and inequality in Britain. Ian Jack writes;

“As a way of summarising England’s complicated cross-currents of money and manners, it was remarkably binary; as simple a division of English society as that between Lord Snooty and his enemies, the Gasworks Gang, in the Beano’s weekly comic strip (which started – was there something in the air? – in the year after Sime’s picture was first published). As a way of describing the boys themselves – their circumstances and position in the hierarchy – it was also remarkably untrue.”

Jack concludes that ‘everything changes and nothing changes’. Today, annual fees for Harrow are £28,500:

“And what do you get for your money? A good education, a place at a good university, social connection, confidence, and all the other things largely confined to one small section of society that make Britain among the most unequal countries in the developed world.

As I was writing this piece, the government’s National Equality Panel suggested that Britain’s widening divide between the rich and the poor “may imply that it is impossible to create a cohesive society”. Parents of privately educated sons could expect their children to be paid 8% more by their mid-20s than boys from state schools; more than half the children at private schools went on to study at leading universities; in Europe only Italy, Greece and Spain had greater rates of poverty. And so on.

Nearly 70 years have passed since Picture Post protested at exactly this state of affairs… Wagner, Dyson, Salmon, Catlin and Young [are] doomed for ever to represent our continuing social tragedy.”

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