I do love what used to be called back in the middle of the twentieth century “walking snaps”. These candid photographs catch people unposed and unprepared. In an age when there seems to be a camera grafted into every piece of electronic equipment, this may not seem like any great achievement, we grow tired of the endless shots of us that mindlessly record every yawning second of parties we wish we hadn’t attended or drinks we wish we hadn’t imbibed. But back in the days when cameras were rare and films cost real money, people tended to be more cautious in their photographic habits and as a result happy smiling faces were the order of the day and sunny views filled each and every background. Walking snaps, however, were shot by third parties – usually itinerant seaside photographers – using their own film on snaps they may or may not sell to a passing customer. They capture real people, engaged in the business of everyday life : walking down a street, carrying a newspaper, pushing a pram, or simply checking to ensure a precious wallet is safe within a pocket. The backgrounds of such photographs are rich in detail because they have not been selected for their oft-photographed beauty, but simply because they were there. Shops, cars, streets, passers-by : all real, all caught in a moment of time and fixed forever.
This particular “walking snap” features my Uncle, Frank Fieldhouse, with his father, Wilson Fieldhouse. I would guess they were at the seaside – Blackpool maybe or Scarborough – for such places were the territory of walking snappers. Wilson Fieldhouse worked as a railway clerk; you can easily imagine his face framed in one of those old window-tills from which they sold tickets, checking his watch and punching out the thick cardboard ticket. The date will have been sometime in the 1930s. What headlines would have appeared in that tightly-rolled newspaper Frank is carrying? Images, memories, speculations – all caught in a moment of time by the walking snapper.
Where to start? It is getting on for eight years since I started blogging. In those early days, blogging was the thing to do and Blogger was the place to be. Eight years on and blogging is tired, old-fashioned; as yesterday as bakelite radios and political idealism. And Blogger seems to have stopped developing: a digital Dorian Gray, staying the same whilst Facebook and Twitter and all the other social media are up in the attic having a party. I could stop blogging I suppose, take the path to quick likes and easy shares; join the party in the attic. But I like blogging: there is something about that combination of words and images that appeals to my psyche, which provides me with more satisfaction than a status update or a throw-away tweet. So I am trying a new platform, experimenting with WordPress in order to see what it has to offer. My various Blogger blogs will continue whilst I experiment with WordPress and at some point in the future I will try to evaluate things and decide in which direction I should go.
I came across an illustration the other day of two children being hauled up a mineshaft. After a little research I discovered that not only was the illustration a “real” record of two actual named children, but even more surprisingly, it was based on the practices at a coal mine just a few miles away from where I live in West Yorkshire. The illustration was produced as part of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children in Mines and Manufactories which, in 1842, took evidence from workers and employers in the Halifax area. The drawing, made by Samuel Scrivan the Chairman of the Royal Commission, was included in the Commission’s published report and it claims to show Ann Ambler and William Dyson being hauled out of Ditchforth and Clays Colliery in Stainland. At the time Ann Ambler was just 13 and William Dyson was 14. Neither the gender nor the age of these children came as any surprise to me – I was well aware that boys and girls as young as six and seven were commonly working in mines at the time – what did surprise me however, was the location of the colliery in question.
When people of my generation think about coal mining in Britain, they tend to think of South Yorkshire or Scotland or South Wales (when those a generation younger than me think about coal mining in Britain they probably think of museums). But coal mining was common to these valleys and hills I call home two hundred years ago. It was not easy coal – no coal is easy in terms of human toil and injury – but it was coal that could be had without the mechanical complexities of twentieth century deep mining. A second chance discovery served to further emphasise this local connection with an energy source that now is imported in great quantities from most of the other corners of the world. I was browsing through a copy of the Yorkshire Post from June 1921 (I always try to read an old newspaper for each new one I am tempted to open) and I came across this short piece about the rediscovery of coal in Elland (which is within spittoon distance of the Stainland of Ann Ambler and William Dyson). The piece records how the local District Council had made a chance discovery of a remaining seam of coal beneath some land it owned in the town. There was a significant coal shortage at the time and limited emergency stocks were being allocated by the Central Government. Sadly, these wasn’t enough to heat the water for the town’s Public Baths, but the discovery of the seam of coal meant that the baths could re-open. One can only imagine that for the poor devils who were forced to dig underground to release this resource, the re-opening of the public baths was a more of a necessity than a luxury.