You don’t even have to be a girl to be a Vintage Dancing Girl

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At some point most collectors of old photographs develop one or more specialist interests. In my case one of my specialist interests is “vintage dancing girls.” This came about because whenever I sorted through lots of photographs I began to notice that there was nearly always one or two photographs of girls in dance costumes, either solo or in groups. You might expect that these dancers would mostly be small girls appearing in some local production but it turns out that there are also large numbers of older dancers (think professional or semi-professional dancers) and even men in drag as this photograph illustrates!

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The three girls in this photograph are typical of this category of Vintage Dancing Girls and they appear to be performing at some open air event with proud parents looking on in the background.

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Groups seem to fall into different types. Some are obviously tap dancing groups whilst others clearly favour more impressionistic styles!

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Some groups of young dancers were clearly more commercially successful. The Dinky Dots (sometimes spelled Dinkie Dots) were around in the 1930s.  Apparently they were active in Bolton for quite a long time. Reminiscences from another young dancer at the Bolton Revisited site notes that ” The Dinky Dots all wore very frilly knickers under their costumes and I was tempted to join them just because I wanted to wear frilly underwear! ”

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Another class of “dancer” seems likely to be just young women who like to dress in dance costume or pose like a dancer as this photograph shows.

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Here are two more professional or semi-professional groups. The Opal Girls were clearly a successful cabaret act. Their agent was based in Ruislip. The girls in the weird hats were from Egham.

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One thing I’ve noticed is that many dancers and dance troupes came from quite unlikely places like Barrow In Furness, like this group. It is likely that these dancers were based at local dance schools.

You can see my complete collection of Vintage Dancing Girls on Flickr. The photographs have been gradually accumulated over more than five years. Once you start a specialised collection such as this it is remarkable how often you come across other photographs which fit the category. The cost of acquiring these photographs can be as little as a few pence each especially when found in larger collections and seldom cost more than a pound or two. Of course, like any other collecting hobby prices are dictated by how many other collectors there are and the supply of “new” items over time. Fortunately there are so many old photographs that the supply is unlikely to exhausted any time soon.

[It’s worth pointing out that there are other specialist subjects that are very expensive to pursue. For instance if you wanted to collect Victorian post mortem photographs you would be lucky to find a good example for less than £100. ]

Witchcraft in Britain Part 2

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I admit it. I’m getting distracted. Eventually I will get around to writing about Gardnerian witchcraft and the history of witchcraft but I also have these rather wonderful books on Alex and Maxine Sanders which deserve some comment. Between them they founded a school of Wicca known as Alexandrian Wicca. Alex died in 1988. As far as I know Maxine is still alive though her website doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2004.

You can read about Alex and Maxine via their wikipedia entries.

The reason I mention them here is because there was a definite tendency to link witchcraft with satanism in the 1960s. Indeed Alex Sanders said that he followed the “left-hand path” for some time early in his career. The press also liked to sensationalise stories about witchcraft and satanists and were happiest when they could find salacious photographs to illustrate their exposes. Even these biographies feature several photographs of naked participants in various ceremonies and, as you can see, “Maxine, The Witch Queen” quotes the News of the World on its cover.

Just like “Devil Worship in Britain” these books also feature noteworthy blurbs. For “Maxine”, part of the blurb reads “Maxine Sanders….. has been threatened with death for daring to tell her story. But she will not be silenced!” For “King of the Witches” the blurb tells us “A master of the occult reveals the forbidden secrets of sorcery, witchcraft and black magic.”

It’s only fair to warn you that if you continue to read these posts your own life may be in danger from occult forces beyond your comprehension.

Devil Worship in Britain

I came across this book, which has been in my collection for many years, whilst thinking through my next blog post on witchcraft in Britain and couldn’t resist posting photos of the cover.

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In case we are left in any doubt as to the sensational nature of the book we are told inside that the authors found it “no easy task to write this book. Warnings and threats followed their attempts to uncover the secrets of Britain’s thriving satanist cults – secrets which are guarded as closely as an insane killer.” It goes on to say that “they persevered in their researches and produced this frightening account of the obscene practices which are so widespread in this country today.”

The book was published in 1964, not long after some of the action which takes place in my novel Heretics. It is fairly typical of the 1950s and 1960s in its approach to any aspect of the occult and has no trouble conflating genuine practices with whatever wild stories will sell another popular book.

At the end of the book the authors include a personal statement as to the veracity of their research and call upon “lawyers and statesmen” to give the people “the legislation they demand.” It all sounds very familiar to other moral panics promoted by the mass media over the years.

There are those who sought to prevent me publishing this blog but I have decided it is my obligation to go ahead whatever the risks to my personal safety!

Witchcraft in Britain Part 1

As I began to think about this blog post I realised that I could not do it justice in a single post and it will need to be split up over several posts. I will begin then by talking briefly about the motivations and relevance of the subject to my writing.

Much of my writing contains references to occult lore and practices and Heretics is no different. My approach has always been to be as accurate as possible in portraying these beliefs and practices. That’s not to say that plot and story become subservient or that I do not invent some details where the story demands them. I do however want to distance myself from the Disneyfication of much modern writing, both fiction and alleged non-fiction. A witch is a witch whether male or female. I’ve had people argue with me that there is no such thing as a male witch and that I should use wizard for the male equivalent. Yes, but only if you watch Disney films and read Harry Potter books. I actually like the Harry Potter books but I deplore the fact that magic in them is reduced to waving a wand and speaking cod-Latin.

In Heretics I have endeavoured to present witchcraft as it was practiced in the 1960s and to represent the way it was reported in the popular press at the time. Broadly speaking we can trace the origins of this type of witchcraft to a single person – Gerald Gardner. Indeed it is often referred to as Gardnerian witchcraft. More of this in a later post.

In the meantime I can strongly recommend The Triumph of the Moon, sub-title “A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,” by Ronald Hutton as the best analysis of witchcraft in Britain currently available.

Cabinet Cards

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As a collector it’s always nice to have items from local towns and cities as in this cabinet card of a Nottingham man.

Cabinet cards began to take over from CDVs from the late 1860s onwards though they did not sell in such high volumes as the CDV. They often offer better and clearer photographs due to their larger size of 5.5 by 4 inches. As their name suggests these photographs can be easily mounted on a cabinet in your sitting room though they were often mounted in albums too.

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Above is another cabinet card of the rabbit man I featured in an earlier post. Quite what the baby is doing sat on the table and who the other disreputable looking people in the photograph I can’t say.

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This third cabinet card is so formal that there’s something quite sad about it. No idea of the nationality or uniform of the man though I’m guessing Maltese from the extraordinary detail on the reverse of the card.

Cartes-de-Visite

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(The CDV pictured above is of better quality than the average and, because the subject includes a girl with her pet, it is very collectable. For me though the real interest is the chair which is clearly decorated in the Jugendstil or Art Nouveau style. Furniture of this quality is rarely seen in old photographs of any kind.)

The carte-de-visite was the first type of photograph that was affordable to the average person. The idea was advanced by a French photographer, Louis Dodero, in 1851 and by the mid 1850s the process was established of using sliding plate holders that could take several  2.5 x 4 inch carte-size photographs on a single plate.

By the mid-1860s the format had become widely and wildly popular. The cost of a dozen CDVs was around 12s 6d (62.5p). Because they were so mass produced they all tended to look similar though for a little more you could be artfully arranged with antiques and expensive furnishings as backdrops. The more run-of-the-mill studios used painted backdrops.

In 1866 the CDV gradually began to be replaced by the larger Cabinet Card though they were still being produced well into the early twentieth century. Despite their name there is no evidence that CDVs were ever really used as visiting cards.

CDVs can be bought for a few pence still (50p is probably the norm) though prices will rise as they become scarcer. If the CDV quality is above average or if the subject is more famous or falls into a more collectable category such as pets, stage actors etc. then prices will be much higher. As with any antique collectable the very best examples can command hundreds of pounds.

One thing to look out for with CDVs (and Cabinet Cards) is that many have backs decorated with studio details which are often more interesting than the subject on the front of the card.

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Writing in Period: 1859

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(The photographs illustrating this post are both cartes-de-visite (CDVs) though clearly the one with three children is later than 1859 as you can see from the date of the “queen’s prize” of 1871 on the reverse. However, CDVs were produced from about 1854 onwards and would have been at their most popular in the 1860s.)

Many of us think that we have a good idea of what life was like in Victorian Britain. We are so used to seeing depictions on TV and in film that it is hard to not visualise the times as though they were as seen in a BBC costume drama. In setting Heretics in 1859 and 1860 it was necessary for me to research the period carefully to make sure I wasn’t wrong in my assumptions.

One of the things I realised fairly early on was that many of the things we associate with the Victorian period didn’t actually become widespread until later in the nineteenth century. I have scenes set at Christmas 1859 and was expecting to be writing about Christmas cards, presents and turkeys but the reality was different. It was too early for Christmas cards, presents if given were likely be handmade and Christmas dinner was more likely to be similar to our Sunday dinners, featuring beef or ham. The upper classes would adopt the things we think of as Victorian “traditions” first and they would only trickle down to the middle and lower classes only as the century went on.

Clothing was easier to research and there are many contemporary images that can be drawn upon. Still, I found many surprises. For instance, the wristwatch first made an appearance as something women wore and only became available for men much later. One of my main characters, Alex, has travelled back in time from 1959 and has a 1950s crew cut which would have looked quite out of place. Women’s dress went through many changes between 1859 and 1900 and I had to be careful about bustles and boots and the years they were fashionable. I have a young female character, Daisy, and when she first appears I describe her as wearing a grubby dress with bloomers poking out under the hem. Later I found that bloomers were actually a phenomena associated with women’s growing emancipation towards the end of the century and I had to settle for something similar called pantalettes.

The social conditions that existed in 1859 are heavily featured in the novel and I spent a lot of time trying to get these right. One of the most important works to document the lives of ordinary people is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and is an essential reference of the times. However, my work of fiction is set in the Midlands town of Derby and there is a certain amount of extrapolation. There are of course many locally published accounts of Victorian life which can used as references. The picture I draw of Derby in 1859 is one in which utter poverty exists in contrast to the wealth enjoyed by the upper classes. There is a growing middle class but their conditions are not yet much better than their poor neighbours and there is a growing class of industialists whose wealth will soon begin to rival that of those born to riches.

In Heretics you will find many poor people reduced to sleeping in netherskens, low boarding houses where you could share a room with many other people for a small amount of money, a huge criminal underclass and a burgeoning business in prostitution. In 1859 the age of consent was thirteen but was hardly policed at all. In any case the poorest families would often share their lodgings with several other families and children and adults would also share the sleeping space. The kind of rookeries that existed in London also existed in towns and cities across the country and the sanitary conditions in them were appalling.

In the matter of language, the fact that Alex is from 1959 aids explanations of the language used in the Victorian town. When Alex first hears a nethersken mentioned he can simply ask one of the characters, who know of his origins, what the word means. Similarly there are many other expressions peculiar to the time that he can either have explained to him or he can infer the likely meaning. When he first hears the expression “dollymop” it is obvious from the word itself and the context in which he hears it that it means prostitute. The need to explain the meaning of words cuts both ways – when Alex says “OK” or uses a modern word like “psychopath,” his Victorian friends have to ask him what he means. One phrase that surprised me was the use of “scorched earth” which I assumed came from twentieth century wars but was in use in Victorian times and was used when speaking of military tactics used, for instance, in South Africa.

This post just scratches the surface of the research necessary to make life in 1859 as close to reality as possible. The one thing that stands out for me is that the 1859 I thought I knew a great deal about turned out to be different in some surprising and unexpected ways.

Who are Alex and Maxine? Introducing Heretics.

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All the posts in this blog have been attributed to “alexandmaxine”, but who are they? They are both characters in my forthcoming novel Heretics. Here’s a gentle introduction to them.

1959Alexander Harrison is a man of science working as Head of Department at a Derbyshire Grammar school. In his thirties, he is conventional in his outlook and his dress. He believes in logic, does not suffer fools and is an atheist in a time when that isn’t the norm. Maxine Silver, his girlfriend, professes to be a witch and earns her living as a photographic model. Together they move into an old house built early in the nineteenth century and they discover a camera obscura, a device which enables them to see all that is going on outside the house, hidden in an attic room. Alex becomes obsessed with restoring the camera. He starts to have visions of an old man who tells him that he has “to come back.” But come back where?

1859 – Alexander wakes to find himself transported back in time to the industrial town of Derby. He is shocked by the terrible social conditions he encounters there. He eventually finds his way to the house he will live in one hundred years in the future. The old man takes him in and begins to teach him alchemy and occultism, telling Alex it’s the only way he can find his way back to 1959. Sceptical at first, he begins to learn….

1959 – Maxine eventually learns that Alex is now in the past (could old photographs be involved?) But someone else, Bella Nightingale, has come out of the past and she’s a killer. The only way Bella can be stopped is for Maxine to find a way to work with Alex in the past and for them to pool their resources. But how can that be possible?

As for the family in the photograph, could they actually be some of the characters in Heretics?

Victorian Photo Albums

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Victorian photo albums could be very elaborate and often had a theme – the illustrations in this post all come from “Heroines of Tennyson.”

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Exteriors were often leather and the flyleaves were works of art in themselves.

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Interior pages could take either carte de visite (CDVs – in use from the mid-1850s) or the larger cabinet cards (1870s on). On the right you can see a cabinet card of an “angel” inserted into the page. The mounts are easily damaged and it’s rare to find albums that are undamaged throughout.

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More about CDVs and Cabinet Cards in later posts.

Putting Myself in the Picture

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The Victorians often displayed their photographs in albums with elaborate mounts. The frame above comes from one such album and I couldn’t resist inserting my own photograph into it. It’s easy to produce sepia-style photographs, pinhole photographs (see photo below) and other styles from years gone by with modern software. One of the best is Nik Silver FX, now available for free from Google though sadly it seems Google bought Nik out with no intention of continuing development of the tools. ON1 Photo also has a good selection of old photo effects though it’s relatively expensive to buy.

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