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True picture of life in so-called slums.


Although classed as slums by onlookers, many residents living in Birmingham's back to back houses had pride and dignity whilst living in a difficult environment HOW often have we wished that we could look upon our forebears and picture them at home, at work, in the street and at play? We could stare at such photographs for family likenesses and to seek clues about their personalities from their bearing and appearances. We could gaze upon them to find out more about their lifestyles, their homes, their environment and their neighbourhoods, villages and towns. And most of all we could feel that we knew them better because we had seen them.

Yet for anyone interested in local and family history, seeing our folk from the more distant past has been a mostly unfulfilled desire. From the emergence of photography in the 1830s, it was a phenomenon associated with the rich and powerful simply because it was so costly. Cameras were expensive and needed to be used by skilled photographers who, of course, had to be paid. As photographs became more popular with the wealthy, they were taken for family reasons or else for purely illustrative purposes for scholars. First and foremost photography was regarded as an aesthetic art form akin to painting and sculpture. This meant that for many years, when historians used photos, they did so in a one-dimensional way.

Photographs were something to look at but not to analyse or engage with.

By the late 19th century, however, another approach to photographs was becoming evident. This held that they were more than illustrative tools or representations; instead they had to be viewed as something neutral, showing things as they really were. Such a belief in the objectivity of photography led those in power in local government to document the localities of the poor which were denigrated as "slums". This was done to prove that these districts should be cleared and their people forced out.

Of course, such photographs were not objective. They were taken from the outside by outsiders who had negative opinions about the poor; and they emerged because of upper and middle class concerns about housing and sanitation. As such they must be judged through the prism of class arrogance and insensitivity to the lives of the working class.

Photographs were not neutral - they were taken for certain purposes, they were framed in particular ways to achieve those purposes, and they were taken by photographers employed to ensure that those purposes were met.

This attitude of class superiority continues to be held by some, but since the 1960s it has been challenged by a few ground-breaking professional photographers. They were those who recognised the potential of photography to document and expose social problems and its power to draw notice to social issues, to make people think, to change opinions and to force action. As swinging as the Sixtieswere for many, for others they were desperate days of hardships and homelessness.

These pioneering photographers were alert to the growing power of photography to draw notice to issues, to make people think, to change opinions and to force action. Alongside this radical shift in the use of photos was another development - the democratisation of photography.

From the mid-1950s, and in spite of the shameful persistence of widespread poverty, the breaking of the shackles of post-war austerity opened up prosperity and rising standards of living to large numbers of working-class folk.

Many of them began to buy houses, cars and goods such as cameras that recently had been out of reach as luxuries. Indeed the ubiquity of the box brownie became a symbol of an affluent society and was used widely to record and pass on family events, holidays and high days.

For so many of us, then, the photographic history of our families really begins in the 1950s. We may have a handful of sepia and posed photographs from earlier decades but not enough of them to draw up a broader picture of family, friends and places where they lived. It is the lack of such wider collections wherein lies the importance of a superb photographic source that has been brought to the fore and kindly shared with us by Jim Jones.

It belonged to the late Beryl and Jack Vallance. Jim explains that "they were next door neighbours for many years and it was Beryl's wish that upon her death her photograph albums be passed on to my wife, Janice, for safe-keeping.

Beryl and Jack did not have any children and the only surviving sister that we know of lives in New Zealand.

"Beryl must have inherited the albums from her mother, Olive, who lived with Beryl and Jack in the latter years of her life. I think that she previously lived in Belchers Lane and her married surname was Bough although she was born a Clinton. Beryl was very proud of her origin and always wondered whether the family was related to the famous American Clintons as some emigrated to the States man" The albums contain a laphotographs, many of whicpostcards to the Clinton famthe back of 77 Lower Essex between 1911 and the later This street runs from BroStreet to the junction of Sheand Wrentham Street, and tlived on its east side down fStreet. The 1911 Census recliving in the first house of ncourt. They had been there years as they were recorded 1881 Census.

Ten years later the Censuthat the head of the househe of the family ny years ago." ge number of ch were sent as mily home at Street r 1920s. msgrove erlock Street the Clintons from Kent cords them as number 19 for at least 30 d there in the us indicated hold was Edward Clinton. Aged 39 he was a butcher and was married to Harriet, aged 37. They had 10 children under 20.

George was 16 and was a fish and poultry assistant. Thomas was also 16 and was a brass polisher, as was Albert, aged 13.

Their oldest sister, Alice, was 18 and a warehouse woman. Joyce, Fanny, Nellie and Edward were aged between nine and four and were at school, whilst Lydia was two and Olive - who passed on the photos - was aged one.

By 1901, the working children had left home, as had Joyce. Fanny was now a hotel waitress, whilst Nellie was a silver burnisher and Edward was an errand boy. Lydia and Olive were at school, as was their youngest sister, Mary.

The Census of 1911 then showed that their father had been born in Shropshire and that he was a butcher in the Bull Ring markets. His wife, Harriet, had been born in Walsall and had 14 children, five of whom had died. Only two now remained living with their parents: Olive, a box maker, and Mary, who worked in a warehouse in food supply.

Many of the houses in this neighbourhood were back-to-back, and the Clintons lived near to what is now the National Trust Back-to-Back Museum. Looking at the Ordnance Survey Map of 1918, however, the houses in their yard look to be single houses.

Like back-to-backs they had one multi-functional room downstairs and two bedrooms above; and similarly the lavatories, brew us and miskins would have been shared with the other six houses in the yard. The only difference was that the Clintons' home did not have a house at its back.

What is so remarkable about the photos is that not only show family occasions from such an early period but also the dignity and cleanliness of so many people who lived in bad housing and in poorer neighbourhoods.

As such they are a rare if not a unique source to highlight the humanity and pride of working class Brummies. We should be grateful to Olive and her daughter Beryl for passing on these photos - and to Jim for cherishing them.

''The ubiquity of the box brownie became a symbol of an affluent society and was used widely to record and pass on family events, holidays and high days.


Given the Army uniforms on two of the men in the back row this magnificent photo at a wedding would seem to have been taken during the First World War.

A Clinton family gathering. It is one of the few photos on the back of which the names have been written, although some have question marks beside them. On the back from left to right are: ''Uncle Albert, Aunty Alice?, Granddad Clinton, Uncle George and Aunty Lizzie''. In the middle are ''Aunty Joyce?, Grandma Clinton, Aunty Fanny, Aunty Dolly and Uncle Ted'' and the front row includes ''Aunty Nell and Aunty Polly''. Given that Ted was 13 in 1901 and that he looks a few years

This wonderful photo of a Clinton family wedding was taken at Christmas 1911 in the yard in wLower Essex Street. In the background notice the net on the downstairs window of their home, a mrespectability. Notice, too, the woman talking to the baby in the pram. which the family lived in means of proclaiming

Grandma Clinton feeding the pigeons in the coop in front of her house. From her age, it looks like it would have been taken about the time of the start of the First World War.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Dec 28, 2013
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