CELEBRATING YOUR PROJECTS
Alan Crosby discovers the fascinating story behind an album of photographs taken at a Victorian children’s ball held in Leeds
Photographs from a fancy-dress ball
On Saturday 10 January 1891 an event “unique in the annals of Leeds civic entertainment” took place at the city’s town hall. “Nearly 400 young folk – ranging from tiny mites… to maidens and lads of sixteen”, according to the Leeds Mercury, attended a Juvenile Fancy Dress Ball, celebrating the inauguration of Alf Cooke as mayor. It was hailed as “one of the greatest successes recently chronicled in social circles”, and a photo album showing almost 200 guests – many from prominent local families – was presented to the mayoress.
This album, now at Abbey House Museum in Kirkstall, Leeds, showcases the costumes on display that evening. Joshua King, a doctoral student at the University of York, has researched the album, drawing on newspaper coverage and secondary sources about children’s fancy dress in the period. In addition, he researched some of the families depicted in the album using ancestry.co.uk and material in Leeds Archive.
Joshua found that although the ball was unique in Leeds, these were well-established events nationally – the earliest he traced took place in 1832 in Brighton, when Lady Jane Peel “gave a splendid Juvenile Fancy Dress Ball at her residence in Kemp Town”. In Leeds the children and “the grown-up friends who accompanied them” were received by the lord mayor and mayoress; parents were allocated seats in the balcony or orchestra to watch the proceedings (an honour reserved for the most important families), or acted as stewards.
“At half-past six o’clock [came] the signal for dancing and the scene at once became richly animated and picturesque.” Children danced to well-known songs: “singing quadrilles”, in which they wore the costumes of characters from nursery rhymes and sang as they danced, were particularly popular. There were other entertainments, including a puppet show, and “refreshments” (probably sweets and fruit) were served.
At 8.30pm the main event – two costume processions around the hall – took place: “Marshalled in the corridor… the children entered at the south end of the room to the ringing notes of a fanfare played by trumpeters of the carabiners, the music being taken up in a spirited march by the band.” They made “a stately tread up to the orchestra, where they bowed to the Mayor and Mayoress and passed on… the whole forming the prettiest sight imaginable”. This was then repeated: the first was led by little Alfie Cooke, dressed in the fashion of his father as a “miniature Mayor”, and the second by William Pincus, dressed as a tomcat. Some children refused to walk alongside their allocated partners – the Basket of Roses was scared of the Tomcat!
After more dancing and entertainment, “at ten o’clock the proceedings came to an end, and the tired but happy little ones were taken home by their guardians, mayhap in their dreams to live the joyous scene over again”.
Joshua has always been a passionate fancy dress enthusiast, so the research opportunity was something he couldn’t miss. He adds, “I’d read Ransom Riggs’ book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which was inspired by the author finding photos of Victorian and Edwardian children. I had the idea of discovering fascinating information from similar photos.”
He continues, “I had never really done any family history before. But I drew on my skills as a social historian and my familiarity with newspaper collections to flesh out the lives of the subjects.”
Joshua and the museum hope that the research will enable visitors and the wider public to establish links with the people in the album, and demonstrate how fulfilling it can be to explore family history.
At ten o’clock the proceedings came to an end, and the little ones were taken home by their guardians
Hundreds of children and adolescents dressed up for the Juvenile Fancy Dress Ball in 1891