For 70 years, this picture has been used to tell the same story—of inequality, class division, “toffs and toughs”. But what was the story behind it? Ian Jack investigates
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010
Almost since its invention, photography has had the habit of turning people into symbols by accident. A painter might spend a year on a canvas, working up the personification of an abstract idea to its full visual glory (“Truth Triumphant” or “Temptation Denied”), but a camera could capture a scene in a fraction of a second, and if the scene was somehow striking and memorable—in its composition, its subject matter, its light—it might become “iconic”, meaning that its particulars might be understood to suggest much more general emotions, conflicts and problems. When the shutter clicked, such a metaphorical future was rarely suspected either by the photographer or his subjects, who might not even be aware that a picture had been taken. The moment could be ordinary or extraordinary: a couple kissing in a Paris street, a sharecropper and her children in California, a burning child running down a road in Vietnam. It could happen anywhere, to anybody. It might happen even at an old-fashioned English cricket match.
By 1937 England’s two most celebrated private schools, Eton and Harrow, had been playing each other at cricket for 132 years. It was, and remains, probably the oldest regular fixture in a game that has the richest and longest traditions of any team sport played with a ball. In the first match, a few months before the battle of Trafalgar, Eton won easily, despite or because of the presence in the Harrow side of Lord Byron, whose bad leg meant that he had to bat with a runner. “Later to be sure,” Byron wrote, “we were most of us very drunk and we went together to the Haymarket Theatre where we kicked up a row, as you may suppose when so many Harrovians and Etonians meet in one place.”
As the 19th century progressed, a more gracious atmosphere prevailed. Together with the racing at Ascot and the rowing at Henley, the Eton-Harrow match at Lord’s became a highlight of the social season. It lasted two days and attracted big crowds—over 30,000 during its Edwardian heyday. To use a violent modern image, a bomb dropped on this crowd would have obliterated many of the most powerful people in England. Past and present pupils of the two schools were joined by their families, so there were judges, diplomats, popular (and unpopular) novelists, landowners, MPs, stockbrokers, bishops and dukes: wealth, privilege and distinction of all kinds. Out of their carriages would come picnic hampers and iced sorbets and Champagne, and cushions to soften the ground’s wooden benches. Male spectators wore toppers and tails, and women their summer hats and frocks.
The Harrovians and Etonians themselves came in their most formal outfits—“Sunday dress” as Harrow called it—which only a very able student of the English social system could differentiate. The pupils at both schools wore, with minor variations in style, the clothes that at some point in the 19th century had become the uniform of the well-dressed English gentleman: a top hat, a tail coat, a silk waistcoat, a cane.
On the morning of Friday July 9th 1937, Peter Wagner and Thomas Dyson stood dressed in this way outside Lord’s. They were Harrow pupils, aged 14 and 15. It was the opening day of the match. The event had lost some of its social eminence in the years since the Great War, but the crowd strolling into the ground that morning was still large and smart. It included the Anglican Dean of Durham, the gin magnate Walter Gilbey, the wife and son of the eminent military strategist Basil Liddell-Hart, and the exotic Alake of Abeokuta, a friendly Nigerian potentate who posed for photographs quite glorious in his African robes. Local boys, porters for the day, unloaded wicker hampers from spectators’ cars and carried them into the stands. There were quite a few photographers about. But where in this mêlée was the Wagner family, Peter’s father, mother and older sister?
The Wagners had made an arrangement. Peter and his friend Thomas Dyson (known as Timmy or Tim) would come down from Harrow with their cases packed so that after the first day of the match they could go straight to the Wagners’ house in the country for the weekend. The match started at 11am. A little before then the two boys would meet the Wagner party at the Grace Gates. There could be no mistaking the rendezvous. The Grace Gates were easily the most splendid entrance to Lord’s, remodelled in the previous decade by the imperial architect Herbert Baker to honour the memory of the legendary Victorian cricketer W.G. Grace. This was also the first entrance that the Wagners, motoring east up St John’s Wood Road, would see.
The two boys waited, the minutes ticked away. No sign of the car. Peter had started at Harrow barely three months before, at the beginning of the summer term; Tim had arrived the previous year. They were in different forms and different houses—Peter at The Park and Tim at West Acre. Peter was the smaller and the younger and also, perhaps, the cleverer boy, because he had won a scholarship and Tim had not. They knew each other through their parents—the Wagners moved in different circles from the Dysons, but a meeting on a cruise had established a friendship. We can speculate, therefore, that waiting gave Peter more anxiety. To judge by his later troubles, he was probably the more nervous boy in any case. Now the burden of responsibility (his parents, their lateness) made him turn his back on Tim and stare westwards down the likely route of his parents’ car. Impatiently, he jiggled his right foot on his empty hatbox and tapped his cane on his weekend case.
Tim, meanwhile, had other distractions. Three local boys were staring at him and a man stood on the edge of the pavement pointing a camera in his direction. Some things will never be known. We can’t know if the man with the camera asked the local boys to take up their position or if they just happened to be there; or if they jeered or sniggered at Dyson and Wagner; or if the photographer instructed Dyson to look slightly away from his lens; or if the moment made Dyson and Wagner acutely conscious of their appearance—their top hats, waistcoats, floral button-holes and canes. The photographer took pictures from at least two positions. At one point, according to later evidence, he asked the local boys to “stand a bit closer”. Dyson gripped the top of a stone bollard; Wagner continued to look away. The film caught a stance that suggested majestic indifference to the poorer boys at their side, as though these boys were subjects as well as spectators.
The moment passed, the morning moved on. The photographer and the local boys disappeared and the Wagner car at last rolled up. The match began. Harrow, who hadn’t won the contest since 1908, went into bat first and were soon out cheaply for 118 runs. Heavy showers interrupted play that day and the next, and slippery patches of mud made bowling harder than batting. For that reason, Harrow had a much better second innings—“Wisden” records that R.A.A. Holt “pulled and hooked superbly” to score a century—though Eton, enjoying the same advantage, reached their target easily with seven wickets to spare. But this is sporting minutiae. The match’s lasting contribution to history had come before a ball had been bowled, in the fraction of a second that a lens opened to freeze an image of five boys. The next day, July 10th, the News Chronicle ran the picture across three columns at the top of the front page under the headline “Every Picture Tells a Story”. The caption said no more than “Outside Lord’s, where the Eton-Harrow match opened yesterday”.