For 70 years, this picture has been used to tell the same story – of inequality, class division, “toffs and toughs”. As an old Etonian closes in on Downing Street, it is being trotted out again. 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”.
What story did this particular picture tell? Its minimal presentation left all interpretation to the reader, but as the News Chronicle was a left-leaning newspaper – fiercely anti-Franco, for example, in the Spanish civil war – the implication was clear enough: the picture exemplified the scandalous gulf between Britain’s rich and poor.
When the Wagner family first saw the picture, their reaction was rather different. “We probably laughed,” Peter Wagner’s sister Penelope told me, “because they both looked so fed up.” But in the years that followed, her amusement faded. The picture, she said, was known “for all the wrong reasons”. Like several others connected to it, she referred to it quite tetchily as “that photograph”; which is what happens when a loved one is transformed over seven decades – in newspapers, in magazines, on book jackets – into an anonymous symbol of arrogant privilege. During the Crewe and Nantwich by-election of 2008, Labour Party activists dressed in top hats and tails to mock the upper-class origins and expensive educations of the Tory candidate and leadership, particularly David Cameron, who went to Eton. The stunt is thought to have misfired – at any rate, Labour lost – but this did nothing to curtail the career of an image that still remains the best visual shorthand for “toff”. Other more recent photographs reveal a much greater sense of boastful entitlement in the young men they portray; the posed group shots of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, for example, with the embryonic Tory politicians Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson looking lofty in their finery. Wagner and Dyson, however, are the boys who have been woven into the national psyche.
There are three popular misconceptions about the Lord’s photograph: that it shows a pair of Etonians; that it was taken by one of Britain’s greatest documentary photographers, Bert Hardy; and that the other three boys are “scruffs”, “toughs” or “urchins”. The Eton mistake crept in early. On August 2nd – only three weeks later – Life magazine in New York published a double-page picture essay on the match as part of a series called “The Camera Overseas”. The essay didn’t take the game and its social rituals too seriously, treating both as a kind of anthropological curiosity that the American reader might find exotic and amusing. Cricket was “a slow-moving, nonviolent game” with a simplicity obscured by “a multitude of petty rules, precedents and conventions”. A favourite word in Life’s description was “snob”. The Alake of Abeokuta was the “greatest snob”, while an Eton snob was “the world’s snobbiest snob”. Perhaps for this reason, aggravated by a forgivable ignorance of the small differences in dress between the two schools, Life’s caption identified the grandees Wagner and Dyson (unnamed) as young Etonians, who stood outside Lord’s and “ignored village boys”.
The picture differed slightly from the News Chronicle’s; it was taken further to the right, so that the angle is more acute and Wagner has his back to the camera. These were early days in Life’s career as the world’s leading magazine of photojournalism – its transformation had happened only the year before – but even the most inexperienced judge can see that the News Chronicle’s picture is far superior. So why did Life choose it? A clue lies in the picture credits lurking towards the back of the issue. Ten of the 11 Eton-Harrow photographs are credited to Pictures Inc. Only one – the five boys – is credited to Associated Press. We can speculate, reasonably, that when Life’s editors in London (in Dean Street, Soho) saw the picture in the News Chronicle they knew they simply had to have it for their forthcoming essay. We can also speculate that the agency that held the rights couldn’t sell Life a photograph it had already sold to the News Chronicle, so instead provided a different frame from the same spool. We can even speculate, less reasonably but not wildly, that it was the News Chronicle picture that gave Life’s men in Dean Street the idea for their essay, and that they then rounded up pictures from other photographers who had covered the event. To editors, the five boys have always had a powerful appeal.
The photographer, a much less celebrated figure than Bert Hardy, was Jimmy Sime. Sime worked for London’s Central Press agency, which probably sold its American rights through Associated Press, hence Life’s credit. The fact that this is certainly his most famous picture shouldn’t obscure the fact that he was a skilled news photographer, with a successful career that started before the outbreak of the first world war and ended in the mid-1960s. A sense of the bewildering social change that swept through that 50-year span can be measured by Sime’s first and last pictures in the archive of Getty Images. In the first the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst is being arrested outside Buckingham Palace in January 1914; in the last, taken in November 1965, a Mr George Ruffel is taking possession of a Kenwood dishwasher after winning the Good Housekeeping Institute’s prize for “Husband of the Year”. In between, Sime covered every kind of news event: Neville Chamberlain at a Downing Street microphone, Jackie Kennedy leaving Heathrow, Noel Coward in rehearsals, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on the golf course, ship launches, coronations and criminal trials. To a newsman who already had a quarter-century of work behind him, the Eton-Harrow match must have seemed a routine and unpromising assignment. And then he saw something in the contrast between two kinds of boys – something so theatrical it might have appeared in a Charlie Chaplin film – and his mind and his instrument went click.
Four years went by. Then the five boys surfaced again in Picture Post in 1941, the same year that Bert Hardy joined the magazine (which may help explain the idea that the picture was Hardy’s). In the January 4th issue, the picture prefaced a piece calling for a reform of the English education system. The author was A.D. (later Lord) Lindsay, the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, who argued that Britain needed to become a different and more socially equal country after the war was won. This belief was prevalent – it carried the Labour Party to victory in 1945 – and Picture Post was among its most earnest advocates. According to Lindsay’s opening sentence, the thing “most obviously wrong” with English education was that there was one system for the rich and another for the poor. The picture caption expanded the point: “Between the two groups is a barrier deliberately created by our system of education. Our task is to remove the barrier – to bring the public schools into the general scheme.” In terms of detail rather than argument, the caption was remarkably vague – no schools were specified, and “top-hatted” and “bare-headed” were the only phrases used to identify each group. The News Chronicle’s headline, “Every Picture Tells a Story”, had merely been suggestive. From Picture Post onwards, nobody could be in any doubt of the story being told. England was still hopelessly divided by class.
It seemed in the 30 or 40 years after the war that this was a problem on its way to being solved. Some of Picture Post’s vision of the post-war future was realised: sharp class boundaries began to soften, social elites felt threatened, universities expanded and state schools sent them more students. In the 1970s wealth was more equally distributed in Britain than ever before or since. Then neo-liberal economics intervened in the transformative epoch begun by Margaret Thatcher and continued by Tony Blair, and the consequent disparities revived the old concerns. When the publishers Routledge wanted a cover image in 1993 for Michael Argyle’s “The Psychology of Social Class”, Sime’s picture, now more than 50 years old, was the image they chose. Five years later Yale University Press did the same for David Cannadine’s “Class in Britain”, and by cropping poor Wagner out of the frame made Dyson look singularly haughty.
Buchan: “Is there any greater value in height or weight? I cannot see any great advantage in it.”Cathcart: “Industrially, height is a drawback…Industrially, it is not an advantage. I see recruiting people, and they have a height of 5ft 8ins [in mind] and that is all they want. They [recruits no higher than 5ft 8ins] are more comfortable amongst machines.”
Heredity is an important factor in determining height, as Boyd Orr understood, but what the comparison between Etonians and London schoolboys clearly showed was height’s relationship to nutrition: the chances in childhood were that the more good food you ate, the taller you grew. As a symbol of this most physically obvious difference between public schoolboys and the rest, Sime’s picture is rather contrary. Wagner was a small boy who grew into a small man (but his mother was also small – “tiny” to the people who remember her). The local boy Catlin, at 13, was nearly as tall as the Harrovian Dyson at 15. But particular examples of people are often unhelpful to general arguments about class, and this is nowhere better illustrated than in answering the question, what became of them all?
One winter afternoon I took the train through the snow to a village on the edge of the North Downs in Surrey, where Peter Wagner’s sister, Penelope Waley, lives in a bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac. Considering her dislike of “that photograph”, it was good of her to see me, though she’d forgotten I was coming. “I’ve had a fall, you see, and I just can’t think properly,” she said as she stood in the doorway, resting on her Zimmer. At 3.30 on a December afternoon it was already dusk. The cars zipping along the M25 slip road at the back of her house had their headlights on, and their beams flickered through the trees. We went into a room lit sparely with yellow light. There was a glass of red wine on the coffee table that she’d forgotten to drink with her lunch. A grand piano sat next to the window and one wall was lined completely with old books: many volumes of the “Dictionary of National Biography” and a nice edition of Robert Louis Stevenson with silver palm trees on the spines. Mrs Waley’s late husband had been an antiquarian bookseller. She said he was an Etonian, just like his father and just like their son. The Wagners, on the other hand, had been a Harrow family for two generations – she said, laughing, that it had been “very embarrassing” when they turned up in Harrow colours to sit with the Waleys at Lord’s after the war.
Mrs Barker’s throat caught for a moment as she described these events, and then she carried on cheerfully to her three daughters and seven grandchildren, who had all turned out very well. “They’re good, good girls,” she said of her daughters. Two of the three had gone to state schools, which is what Peter Wagner wanted for them. “Harrow was quite difficult for Peter,” she said. “I sometimes think he hated it.”
A well-known quality of old photographs is their poignancy. All kinds of fate await the people in them; endings that we know and they don’t. Peter Wagner looks leftwards out of the picture, perhaps anxiously, but towards the traffic on St John’s Wood Road rather than the gates of Hellingly. As to Dyson of the princely stare, his is the shortest and saddest story.
What kind of boy was Dyson? The last surviving relative who knew him is a cousin, Colonel Tom Hall, whose mother was St John Dyson’s sister. The Halls had a grander lineage. They owned an ancestral manor house at Cricket St Thomas in Somerset and sent their son Tom to Eton (he is now vice-president of the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly). When I spoke to him, he remembered that in the 1930s Tim would often spend his holidays with the Halls at their manor for the same reason that he went to the Wagners’ house after the match in 1937 – because he was temporarily orphaned by parents who were out of reach in India. Asked about his character, Colonel Hall had nothing but warm feelings for a boy who was “almost like an older brother to me”, but it was hard to say much beyond that; 1937 was a very long time ago.
It is. But then, when it seemed that nothing else could be known, I had a letter from Margaret Baynham. Some years ago, Mrs Baynham had written to Roy Seymour, an old Harrovian and keen student of the school’s history, after a letter of Seymour’s about Sime’s photograph had been published in the Daily Telegraph. Seymour gave me her ten-year-old address and I wrote to her in Whitchurch, Hampshire, hoping she still lived there – hoping she were still alive. Six or seven weeks passed, and then a letter came in which Mrs Baynham remembered scenes and events that are now around 80 years old.
She wrote: “My parents (Field) and the Dysons were at Larkhill around 1926, possibly on the Long Course – Larkhill [on Salisbury Plain] as you know is the home of the Royal Artillery…We lived in a WW1 [first world war] hut on stilts…the Dysons lived in a brick house – small [and] not too far from the RA Mess. My parents were fond of St John Dyson and possibly Mona. I believe that was her Christian name. People kept in touch by letter, as you know, so when my father was posted to the XP [experimental unit at] Shoeburyness, Essex, we children were pleased when the Dysons came to visit. Tim was more exciting because his mother was Australian. Not everybody liked her accent – more pronounced in those days than [it would be] today. While the parents were out of the way, he [Tim] naturally taught us to smoke!”
Mrs Baynham said that her mother “had a common bond” with the Dysons as her father and brother had also been at Harrow. “We were very upset about Tim’s death. It didn’t seem possible as we, the Gunners, were [like a] family. One picked up if one met again so easily.” Finally: “Tim was a splendid character [and] would have done well in the SAS or a similar adventurous group.”
The lives of the boys labelled as toughs took a different path. When Levy met Young and Salmon in 1998, both had been married for 53 years. Both left school at 14 and both served in the Royal Navy and saw action on destroyers and frigates. Later, Salmon worked as a foreman for Imperial Metal Industries and helped the firm establish a network of warehouses across Europe. Young started a window-cleaning business and set up his four sons in the same trade. Levy went to see Salmon in his flat near Lord’s, bought from the council, and described fitted carpets, regency-striped chairs and gilt mirrors. Levy also found Young’s flat in the Barbican “smart and comfortable”. Between them, the two men had accumulated a great number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “We’ve always been jolly happy,” Young told Levy, “just as we were when I was a kid. You don’t need to be rich. We’ve had a very rich life.”
Twelve years later, in the London locations mentioned by Levy, I couldn’t find a trace of either man. The third boy, Jack Catlin, settled in Weymouth long ago, but when I called him there his wife said he was too unwell to come to the phone, adding that in any case he was never happy to talk about “that photograph”. This was the second Mrs Catlin – he remarried in 1989, after being widowed – and from what she said and from the little Levy had found out (he, too, had found Catlin unwilling to talk) I formed an impression that Catlin had perhaps been more ambitious and socially aware than his two schoolfriends. According to Levy, he had felt uneasy about what he called “tipping my hat to toffs”. According to Mrs Catlin, his family quit central London for the suburb of Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire a few years after Sime took his picture. “They made good,” she said. He, too, spent the war in the navy and then joined the Civil Service, where he rose to a senior position in the Department of Health and Social Security. There were two children from his first marriage. In retirement he was a contented, active man. “He loved sport – cricket, football, squash,” Mrs Catlin said. “He was playing badminton in his 70s.” He was now 85, and sometimes, if he felt well enough, he and his wife would still set off from Weymouth for a walk in the Dorset countryside.
In striking contrast to Wagner and Dyson, all three men had reached old age and a plateau of contentment. But Catlin hadn’t maintained contact with Salmon and Young. His wife said that when a newspaper (perhaps the Daily Mail) had asked the three men to get together to reconstruct the picture at Lord’s, or at least their part in it, Jack had refused. I could see why. To be stereotyped as a poor London boy – a tough even – may have irritated a man who had made good and probably felt no nostalgia for the pre-war streets of his childhood.
The houses on those streets were demolished years ago and replaced by blocks of flats surrounded by grass and car parks. Nor have the haunts of the young gentlemen been spared. Russ Hill, the Wagners’ country home in Surrey, became a hotel, handily placed for travellers using Gatwick Airport. The manor house at Cricket St Thomas, where Dyson spent several summers, was sold by his cousin Tom Hall in 1963. So much of England’s history lies there. From 1979 to 1981 the BBC used the house as a setting for the class-bound sitcom “To the Manor Born”. Later the BBC entertainer Noel Edmonds leased the grounds and turned them into a theme park, Crinkley Bottom, a name inspired by his game show. Crinkley Bottom was unsuccessful and short-lived. Today, as a hotel, the manor prefers to tell guests of its associations with Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton rather than Mr Blobby.
As for the Eton-Harrow match, it was cut from two days to one in 1982. Hardly anyone attends apart from the pupils, some very reluctantly, and the dress code is “smart casual”: if a photographer wanted to re-create Sime’s picture now he might be faced with five boys dressed much the same, in jeans and brand names. Giving a superficial impression of equality, the picture would be even more of a lie than before.
Nearly 70 years have passed since Picture Post protested at exactly this state of affairs. I looked at the picture that accompanied the Daily Telegraph’s report in January 2010, and it was the same one Picture Post had published in January 1941. Sime’s, of course. There they were again: Wagner, Dyson, Salmon, Catlin, Young, doomed for ever to represent a continuing social tragedy.
See Ian Jack's postscript, published in the summer 2010 issue of Intelligent Life: My piece about Jimmy Sime’s famous photograph contained two mysteries" ...
(Ian Jack is a columnist on the Guardian, a former editor of Granta and the Independent on Sunday and author of "The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain". Beatrice Perry provided additional research for this article.)
Picture credit: Peter Wagner, Thomas “Tim” Dyson, George Salmon, Jack Catlin and George Young, outside Lord’s, 1937; Jimmy Sime/Getty