While I was undertaking February’s onerous task of organising the large and jumbled collection of Scottish family photographs, I came across a number of so-called ‘walking pictures’. So delighted was I with these spontaneous-looking images – like unexpected peeks into unguarded moments in my relatives’ lives – that I almost thought about giving them a separate category. In the end, I reluctantly filed them in their individual family folders, but not before deciding they should at least have their own chapter in my Scottish family story.
Most of us with collections of personal photographs from the last century will recognise the walking picture and may even been ‘victim’ of one. These opportunistic snaps were mainly taken in the 1920s through to the 1950s, before camera ownership was widespread. The business idea was simple: commercial photographers set themselves up on busy main streets or seaside resorts, catching pedestrians as they walked and talked and gazed around them. The walkers were often unaware of the camera pointing in their direction – at least until the moment when their wry smiles or looks of quizzical surprise were captured on film.
Walking pictures are a strange anomaly among all the other photographs in my album: they appear more like family snapshots in their informality, although those they portray had little control over them. To me, they almost feel like an invasion of privacy and it is surprising to think this practice was relatively common up until the 1960s. I even remember being caught (so it felt like) by a photographer talking such pictures in my Scottish seaside town in the 1980s. To suddenly have someone jump out of the crowd and point a camera at me was a new and uncomfortable feeling.
Needless to say, my then boyfriend and myself gave the photographer short shrift when he tried to sell us a copy of the image. Perhaps we would have felt differently had we not been penniless new graduates at a time of high unemployment in Scotland, worried about our futures, and discussing how we could raise the funds to get down to London to look for work. (See The Incidental Genealogist is Born for more about this period in my life, which was the eventual catalyst for my unplanned entry into the world of ‘heir hunting’ in the capital).
For this reason, I did not expect to see quite so many of these walking pictures in the family collection (although possibly many more were never bought). Perhaps in those days people were more grateful to have the chance to be photographed spontaneously! One set from the late 1920s was reminiscent of the stills from the newly popular ‘moving pictures’ and showed my grandmother with her younger sister, Ann, walking along Princes Street.
Catherine and Ann Neilson, Princes St. Edinburgh, late 1920s
What is perhaps most fascinating about the pictures than my relatives – after all, I am lucky to have many images of them throughout the decades – is the small details to be viewed on Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare. The men with their hats and canes; the woman with their dainty clutch bags and leather gloves: the cars and trams, which are almost hooting and tootling their way out of the photograph. Even the dandy strolling along purposefully beside the road, with his hand in his pocket and fashionably shorter trousers, looks like a film extra. Did the Neilson sisters bother to give him a glance a few seconds earlier, or were these swaggering types so common during the period that they did not merit special attention?
It is also interesting to note the way the Neilson sisters are being ‘photo-bombed’ by the harried-looking woman who seems to be attempting to overtake them on their left. Perhaps their walking speed had automatically slowed down as they realised they were about to be snapped, warily eying the camera. Whether or not they felt they had no choice about the way they had been preserved for posterity on what was possibly a regular Saturday morning shopping jaunt (shops closed at lunchtime in those days), I’m certainly glad they ordered copies of the set.
On the reverse of the strip was the generic name ‘walking pictures’, although no business address is given. I later discovered that the normal protocol was for the photographer to present them with a receipt for their images immediately after he took their picture, which they could then view and order at a nearby booth a few hours later.
Catherine Neilson with daughters Catherine and Mary, Edinburgh, early 1930s
The picture above from early in the following decade shows my grandmother with her mother and youngest sister, Mary, crossing the busy North Bridge from their home in the Dumbiedykes. (The Scotsman building appears to be behind them, indicating they were walking towards Princes Street). Although my grandmother was already married by then, she would be childless for a further seven years and so often spent any free time with her own family. Not only did my grandfather have to work on Saturday mornings at that point, but he did not allow my grandmother to have a career herself (despite her wanting to continue working as a fully-apprenticed dressmaker), too concerned by what that might (erroneously) indicate about their financial situation. Sadly this meant my grandmother turned her energies to housework instead, eventually becoming almost neurotic about the task. Perhaps that is why my own mother is happier living in organised chaos!
In that picture, it is my grandmother’s open smile and the brown paper parcel tied up with string Mary is holding (almost nudging the arm of the older gent in front) which particularly interest me. That carefully knotted package now seems like a throwback to another time, as do the fox fur stoles draped around the necks of my great-grandmother and great-aunt. I hadn’t noticed before how Mary’s fur actually has eyes and a nose, and it seems strange to think of this young working-class girl sporting such a glamorous accessory. However, my mother tells me it that it was relatively common to wear fur stoles in those days – perhaps it had even been a shared item or had been passed onto her from another family member. When I was about eighteen I recall ‘inheriting’ (or commandeering) my grandmother’s old fur coat, it being fashionable then for students to wear such an item. The argument was that vintage fur was better than buying new fur, and by giving these items a new lease of life there was respect for the creatures who’d died. But I always drew the line at something with a face.
I wish I’d asked my great-aunt Mary how she came to be in possession of a dead animal around her neck at such a young age. However, while I might not know that particular family story, I do remember hearing from an early age The Tale of Grandma’s Hat. My grandmother (like most woman of that generation) wore a great deal of fashionable hats in her life, in particular the cloche hats of the 1920s and early 30s. Her round face suited that style, too, and she possibly knew it. In any case, the story goes that she spent a large proportion of her first week’s wages as a dressmaker on a hat she’d coveted. But while crossing Edinburgh’s notoriously windy and exposed North Bridge, the new hat blew off her head and landed onto the glass panes of Waverley Railway Station’s Victorian roof below. When my grandmother was finally able to retrieve her hat from the lost property office, it had been completely ruined by the elements. I remember when she told us this story, fifty years after the event, she still sounded wistful about the loss of this hat, which had cost the grand sum of four shillings and eleven pence. I also recall being told that her mother was shocked at how much she’d spent on the item. (Possibly her Presbyterian parents regarded this to have been a lesson learned in the twin sins of vanity and over-spending).
My grandparents and great-grandmother, c1945
In the walking picture above, my grandmother – who is now almost forty – has a new style of hat for new straitened times. My mother must have been in the world by then as the fashions indicate that this is the 1940s, as does the Victory Roll hairstyle of the young hatless woman behind my great-grandmother. Perhaps my mother is back at the seaside boarding house on this day, suffering from a summer cold in the unseasonably cool weather.
Neilson and McKay families on holiday, c1946
And then I find her, all dressed up to the nines in her trademark white ankle socks and hair ribbon, with her parents and grandparents and Uncle Adam, Aunt Lily, and older cousin Robert. My grandparents often went on holiday with this combination of relatives (maybe because Adam and Lily also only had the one child) and there are many photographs from that period in our collection, suggesting that someone in the group owned a camera. Did my grandfather still have his Kodak Brownie from his youthful twenties?
Neilson and McKay families, c1946
In the family snap above – which is from the same timeframe as the walking picture – the way the adults are looking so indulgently at the photographer (with whom my mother is complicit in her little-girl smile), tells us it is Adam and Lily’s teenage son, Robert, who is behind the lens. My mother and him were great friends, despite the age difference, and she told me this period in his life was the beginning of his interest in photography. This was not such a common pastime in those days due to the expense involved, so those who took it up at a young age tended to take it quite seriously. In fact, his parents allowed him to set up a dark room in the spare bedroom and in his twenties he became so fascinated by his new hobby that his then girlfriend (who would go on to be his wife) had to issue him an ultimatum. This led to them separating for some time, a period in which my mother remembers being invited round to visit more.
My grandmother with a friend and my mother, Arbroath c1953
Now we move into our final decade of my family collection of walking pictures: the 1950s. Fashions have changed a lot in the intervening three decades and my grandmother is noticeably older, as is my mother, who is fifteen and already showing the good looks that she inherited from the best parts of her parents. On the left of this image, taken in the seaside resort of Arbroath, is a family friend in almost identical hairstyle and outfit as my grandmother. She is obviously younger and looks like she might even be an older daughter: it will take a few years before hairstyles and fashion become delineated along generational lines.
Yet the small clutch bags and sunglasses that all three carry in their hands make them look unfettered and carefree. They could almost be modern women holding close their ubiquitous smart phones: a device which has turned us all into photographers, for better or for worse, but which rarely produces results to match the strange, unglamorous spontaneity of the walking picture.
The Incidental Genealogist, April 2022