Alan Crosby dis­cov­ers the fas­ci­nat­ing story be­hind an al­bum of pho­to­graphs taken at a Vic­to­rian chil­dren’s ball held in Leeds

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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

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