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"Toffs" and "Toughs"
March 23, 2010 6:59 PM   Subscribe

In 1937, the London News Chronicle published a photograph of five boys at the gates of Lord's cricket ground; two stood aloof in top hats and tails, with their backs to a group of three working-class lads. The resulting photograph became famous as a metaphor for the class divide in Britain, appearing in newspaper stories about school reform, inequality and bourgeois guilt and on the covers of books. The photograph appeared in the Getty Images archive as "Toffs and Toughs", and even was printed on a jigsaw puzzle in 2004. The identities of the three working-class boys were unknown until a journalist tracked them down in 1998; here is an article on the history of the photograph and the lives of the five boys in it.
posted by acb (36 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I love the look in the raggamuffins' eyes. Clearly amused by the toffs' finery, and waiting for the photographer to bugger off so they can mug them for their pocket watches.
posted by robotot at 7:13 PM on March 23, 2010


The article exploring the people in the photo was excellent. Thanks!
posted by maxwelton at 7:14 PM on March 23, 2010


Love this kind of research.
posted by fire&wings at 7:17 PM on March 23, 2010


Sad ending there.
posted by jsavimbi at 7:22 PM on March 23, 2010


Imagine being the symbol of elitism for your entire life. Jeez.
posted by pecknpah at 7:30 PM on March 23, 2010


Er... nothing on Ron Grace and Reg Ball?
posted by crapmatic at 7:40 PM on March 23, 2010


Fantastic piece, excellent writing and research.
posted by smoke at 7:43 PM on March 23, 2010


pecknpah: Especially when your life was only 16 years long. Or only 60 years long and ending in an asylum.

And neither of them were particularly elite in the first place.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:43 PM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


I love the look in the raggamuffins' eyes.

Absolutely, I love those kids already just from seeing the photo. You can just imagine the one in the middle: "Hey, nice top hat, you WUSS!". Or, more setting-appropriate, "Oi, ye posh git!"
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:46 PM on March 23, 2010


That was a good article - so much so that even robotot might want to read it!
posted by wilful at 7:49 PM on March 23, 2010


Especially when your life was only 16 years long. Or only 60 years long and ending in an asylum.

And neither of them were particularly elite in the first place.


Well, I thought that's kind of what I was saying.
posted by pecknpah at 7:58 PM on March 23, 2010


That was a fascinating read. I'd never seen the photo before, I don't think, but it's easy to see why it came to represent class divide - and it was extremely interesting to see how well (or not) those in it fit the stereotypes.

A picture is worth a thousand words, it's true, but nobody said they also had to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth...
posted by harujion at 8:09 PM on March 23, 2010


Wonderful article - thanks for posting this. One thing I didn't realise until I moved to London a few years ago, and it is sort of germane to the article, is that Harrow isn't off in some distant, sylvan county as I'd always imagined, it's right in central-suburban London.
posted by Flashman at 8:30 PM on March 23, 2010


That was a good article - so much so that even robotot might want to read it!

Yeah clearly I thought this was for some sort of caption contest.
posted by robotot at 9:07 PM on March 23, 2010


Had Dyson lived, he might have entered WWII as a soldier two or three years later.
posted by bwg at 9:14 PM on March 23, 2010


A picture may be worth a thousand words, but not necessarily the right ones...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:14 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Alexandra Kitty: "A picture may be worth a thousand words, but not necessarily the right ones..."

It may have been staged, but it does evoke a very real, disturbing, and contemporary divide in the UK that is not at all inaccurate in the picture. The sons of a Stockbroker and an officer in an age where the middle class, much less those able to afford to meet on a cruise and an elite private school for their children, represented no where near the majority looking ridiculous next to kids overjoyed at 2 shillings is not so dishonest. This was the age that Orwell gave voice to.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:03 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Don't bother me. I'm, uh... I'm thinking."
posted by Rhaomi at 12:28 AM on March 24, 2010


You can see why the Conservative Party has been trying to prevent use of Bullingdon Club photos. Imagery of 'toffs' still makes a strong impact.
posted by malevolent at 1:06 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Great article. The photograph always makes me think of Stephen Spender's poem My parents kept me from children who were rough (particularly the line 'I looked another way, pretending to smile'), not the greatest poem in the world but it captures so well the difficulty of reaching across the class divide. I don't just see arrogant privilege on the faces of the two Harrow boys, I see that other very English emotion, social embarrassment, and the strain of pretending not to notice that other people are looking at you.

Ian Jack is a brilliant commentator on British social affairs; the list of his recent articles for the Guardian is well worth exploring, and I'd strongly recommend his two essay collections, Before the Oil Ran Out (about the Thatcher years) and The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain, to anyone curious about the inner heart and soul of this peculiar country. You can learn ten times more from Ian Jack than you can from Kate Fox, whose dreadful book Watching the English is always being recommended here.
posted by verstegan at 3:03 AM on March 24, 2010 [9 favorites]


it's easy to see why it came to represent class divide - and it was extremely interesting to see how well (or not) those in it fit the stereotypes.

This thing is though, they complete did fit the stereotypes! I read this on the Guardian this morning and from the title and introduction I was expecting some sort of massive debunking but no, it really is a couple of posh kids and a couple of working class kids. All Jack manages to say is that they are not "toughs", it still stands as an image of class divide.
posted by ninebelow at 3:08 AM on March 24, 2010


This thing is though, they complete did fit the stereotypes!

Not completely. Dyson did, but Wagner? Not really. A stockbroker in the 30s certainly didn't have the same aura (or bonuses) than today. Indeed, as a pedigree-less "Kraut", Wagner must have had a very tough time in Harrow, which possibly explains his later mental problems.

What's interesting about the pictures is that despite their "privileged" upbringing, Dyson's and Wagner's lives were tragedies, whereas the working class boys did quite well. Not all that surprising, if you've read some Evelyn Waugh...
posted by Skeptic at 3:35 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that the children of the working class were seen as "toughs". They were just kids hanging around trying to make some money. It's also interesting that the children of the middle class were seen as "toffs", rich and privilaged.

It's sort of sick that the middle class, then (in the waning days of the depression) and now, are seen as privilaged, compared to the working class.

In America we may think of ourselves as a "class-less" society, but there's a chasm between middle and working class, and it's getting wider.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:15 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Like ninebelow, I was also expecting a "massive debunking" of the obvious impression given by the photo (which probably only shows what a 'shock horror!' tabloid mind I have!). But I think the journalist Ian Jack just about justifies his highly nuanced analysis with this bit towards the end of his piece:


"if a photographer wanted to re-create Sime's picture [today], 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."
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:32 AM on March 24, 2010


I think this is the debunking, for what its worth

"In the picture, the biggest boy, Catlin, may be wearing a suit jacket handed down from his father, while Young's trousers need some growing into. But toughs? They have open-necked white shirts and what could be tennis shoes. This is the way many if not most boys looked from Land's End to John O' Groats in the 30s."

There is a very, very large difference between the working class, of which these lads were undoubtedly members, and the kind of rough-and-ready pickpocket and street hooligan implied by the word "tough".
posted by fatfrank at 7:00 AM on March 24, 2010


Interesting picture and bittersweet story. It strikes me as good fodder for a novel because it does challenge many of our pre-conceived notions: the Toffs are not really upper-crust elite, the Toughs are not lower class scum, and privilege doesn't guarantee happiness. I wonder which was the more difficult burden-- being the poster child for Toffs all your life or being labeled as a Tough?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:06 AM on March 24, 2010


Interesting, but not nearly as disturbing as Wee Gee in NY
posted by IndigoJones at 7:07 AM on March 24, 2010


Great article. And to second verstegan upthread, Ian Jack truly is the best of British journalism today. The most recent collection of his articles, The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain is fantastic stuff, despite the somewhat hackneyed title.
posted by hydatius at 7:13 AM on March 24, 2010


I love (I fucking hate) how the two boys from Harrow are identified in the photo cutline, but the three boys from town are not. You're the photographer/spotter - go up and fucking ask *all of them* what their names are. Class status is reinforced all the way to the caption.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:38 AM on March 24, 2010


on rereading - all their names were known, but the photo publisher deliberately re-edited for maximum outrage. worse and worse...
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:43 AM on March 24, 2010


Good stuff, fascinating story - things are rarely as simple as they seem
- makes me think of Michael Apted's up series
posted by nnk at 7:46 AM on March 24, 2010


It's sort of sick that the middle class, then (in the waning days of the depression) and now, are seen as privilaged, compared to the working class.

Ruthless Bunny, in Britain, "middle class" does not mean quite the same as in the US. To talk of "upper class", especially before WWII, would have been atrociously vulgar. The "middle class" would have certainly covered the top income percentiles, short of a few aristocrats and royals. Harrow certainly isn't anything like "middle class" in the US sense. Think of it as a false friend, like "public school"...
posted by Skeptic at 8:48 AM on March 24, 2010


A fascinating read. I went to school in Harrow (but not Harrow School.) My school was a private school so we weren't by any stretch of the imagination "toughs" (if anything we were sort of stuck in social limbo between Harrow School and the real "toughs"). Still, we spent many an hour taking the piss out of the Harrow boys and their ridiculous uniforms. One guy in my school got money taken off him by Harrow School boys. He never really lived that down.
posted by ob at 9:44 AM on March 24, 2010


If you like this, you should check out the Up Series. It's a British documentary series that follows 14 children from the ages of 7 through 49. 56 Up is expected late next year. The director, Michael Apted, checks in on the children every 7 years. It's a fascinating look at how class plays out in Britain (and I would assume you could do the same elsewhere and find similar results). Also, for those of us non-Brits, you get the additional amusement of listening to small children with British accents!
posted by fyrebelley at 12:18 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


That Ian Jack article was excellent—thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 1:41 PM on March 24, 2010


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.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:58 AM on March 29, 2010


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