My parents, Albert and Gladys Burnett, spent much of the 1930s on two wheels. They started on a tandem, and then at some point they progressed to a motorbike. At times they flirted with three wheels, but such experiments were short-lived. Once, my father bought a Morgan Super Sports three wheeled car – it had the look of the progeny of a drunken mismatch between a sports car and a motor cycle – but had to sell it after a couple of days when the back wheel got caught in a tram line in Bull Green, Halifax. Following this incident, my mother refused to get into the vehicle ever again, and it was returned to the dealers. Decades later, Albert’s face would still cloud over whenever we drove around Bull Green roundabout, the site of the death of a young man’s dreams. When he was in his seventies, I bought him a plastic model of a Morgan Super Sports – by then they had gained quite a classic car cult status – and he displayed it proudly on the sideboard, close to the re-corked bottle of QC Sherry, next to the tasteful china desk lamp in the shape of a semi-naked native beauty.
The point when they switched from muscle-power to petrol power, can be best identified by their clothing. Their cycling outfits were quite distinctive and featured matching jackets, shorts and rather fetching cloth hats. Such outfits, no doubt, provided them with the physical freedom to peddle their way up some of the more challenging climbs of the Yorkshire Dales. Although Gladys looks energetically engaged in providing the necessary motive power for their tandem, in some of the photographs that remain from this period, photographs can, perhaps, be deceptive. My father would always claim that she would sit at the back of the tandem with her feet off the peddles and let him do all the necessary work. Indeed, on one occasion, at some traffic lights on the Harrogate Road, she dismounted to look in a shop window whilst the lights were at red. My father didn’t notice her absence, and when the lights changed, he set off and peddled on for a further mile before realising that she was missing. He returned to the traffic lights to find my abandoned mother in tears by the side of the road.
They must have made the change from tandem to motorbike at about the time they got married – in 1936. Sat astride a powerful motor bike – in my fathers’ case, in this photograph, a Royal Enfield – necessitated clothing of a more protective nature. The colourful linen of the early part of the decade gave way to darkened leather, and the lone excursions of the courting couple were replaced by group adventures to more distant places. And to the sound of a high-powered two stroke engine, they motored on towards the nineteen forties.
This tiny photograph was pasted onto the back page of the postcard album of my mother’s uncle, Fowler Beanland. It was only when the print was scanned and cleaned up that I begun to fully appreciate it for the charming portrait that it was: a picture of a little girl with an awfully big hat. Given that it had pride of place in Fowler’s album, the chances were that it was a family member – but which one? Fowler never married and had no children of his own, but there were a good many nieces who could potentially fit the bill. I have never been very good with faces, but even to me there seemed something vaguely familiar about that slightly quizzical look.
Luckily, these days, most photographic programmes come with some form of facial recognition software, and therefore I was able to submit the girl with the awfully big hat to Adobe Lightroom for a considered judgement, and Lightroom quickly came up with a very definite suggestion. The young girl is Amy Beanland, my mother’s sister, and favourite niece of Fowler Beanland.
Amy was very much a woman of the twentieth century. She was born in Keighley in 1904 – which means this photograph must have been taken in about 1909 – and eventually died in 2001 in Scarborough. Between these two dates she managed three husbands and a lifetime of experience. The girl with an awfully big hat had an awfully full life.
This rather chubby baby was the first photograph in one of my parent’s photograph albums. Theoretically it should be either me or my brother, but it looks nothing like Roger, and I have never been that fat. I tried facial recognition: Lightroom suggested it was my son, whilst Google suggested that it was Princess Alix of Hesse, the wife of Tsar Nicholas II (both suggestions highlight the limitations of facial recognition technology). I asked my wife who it might be: she simply smiled and said “I would recognise your fat little tummy anywhere!“.
Stories abound about so-called primitive tribes who would shun photographers in the belief that cameras can capture the spirit of the photographers’ subjects. As with many such stories, it is of dubious veracity: but if such tribes ever did exist I have a degree of sympathy with their beliefs. Nothing comes close to capturing the very essence of a person like a photograph. That was true of the 1930s – when this photograph of my father, Albert, was taken – and it is still true in this modern age of the digital selfie (although the spirit exposed by some filter-bleached offerings might not be what the subject intended).
When I look at this photograph of my father on a seaside beach (the chances are it will have been Cleethorpes), I see him … and then I see my brother, and then myself, and then my son, and even – if I squint a little – my grandson. What that box camera of eighty years ago did was to capture, not the soul or the spirit, but a decent chunk of DNA.
What a wonderful invention: a machine that takes your photograph and weighs you at the same time. And even better – it prints the resulting weight on the photograph so that you have something to remind you of that day you had an extra large portion of fish and chips, not to mention the knickerbocker glory. And if that isn’t enough, you can have the whole experienced enlarged for an extra three pence. There can only be one thing better: get you nephew to scan the photograph eighty two years later and put it on the internet for all the world to see.
The photograph shows Miriam Burnett with her then fiancé (later husband), Frank Fieldhouse. When this photograph was taken in 1936, they were only a few years into their twelve year engagement.
Scanning and retouching old photographs is a little like doing a jig-saw puzzle – it allows you to get up close to detail. Cast a passing glance at a photograph from eighty-odd years ago – you can use this photograph of my mother, Gladys, on the seaside sands as an example – and you might notice the main subject or the approximate location, and then you move on to something else entirely like making a cup of tea or watching Coronation Street. When you are scanning and retouching however, you dedicate time to detail – the shape of the handbag, the activity of the crowds in the background, the pattern of the dress. You sit down and talk to the people and share memories.
This is a photograph of my late father-in-law, Raymond Berry, which must have been taken in the 1950s whilst he was working at a ceramic glazing company in Elland, West Yorkshire. Raymond – on the right in the photograph above – eventually left the glazing company and went to work in the local mill. The combination of the dust from both work environments were to cut his life short and deny him the long and happy retirement he deserved. If anyone ever moans on about “health and safety nonsense” within my hearing, I just remember Raymond and give thanks that nobody should be subjected to such working conditions today.