This photograph shows my grandfather, Robert Shipley, in 1898, aged two, sitting on a horse in the farmyard in his embroidered dress, hat and boots. It is faded because it was enlarged and framed immediately and it has spent its whole life hanging on the wall. Anyone who came to our house (sixty years or so later) for the first time would be shown it by my grandfather and the question was always the same. “Who do you reckon that is then?” It was a tease. He was hoping that they would think it was a girl and many of them did. At that time dresses were regarded as children’s wear rather than girl’s wear and it was only when a boy reached about five that he would be “breeched” and begin to wear trousers. This sometimes happened even later- especially if the family were poor and the little lad had a lot of older sisters with dresses to pass on or a doting mother who was reluctant to see her baby boy grow up. It was a rite of passage and young as they were it was already a signal that most of them would be working before too long. It is hard to imagine that the boys didn’t mind (and I daresay some did) but on the whole it was just an accepted part of life and their mother’s wishes would have been respected.
Even without the family connection I find this photograph quite charming. There is no doubt about who is the star. Robert was the youngest of a family of twelve- the last baby- and this is a celebration of him. He was a strong, clever boy and his family are proud of him. That is a very fancy frock, undoubtedly his best Sunday one. Notice the way that he is looking towards the camera, frowning slightly, and putting his hands on the reins exactly as he has been told. He worked with horses all his life, farming with shires on the Vale of York, and there is just a hint of the skilled horseman that he would grow up to be. The brother and sister who have been sent out to the farmyard with him are just bit part players. They are in their ordinary clothes, not spruced up at all, and they are there to hold the horse and make sure that the dog sits still. Not that the horse looks as if he is going anywhere. He is a plodder, a farm workhorse who is not as young as he was but who is still well loved and carefully clipped- even if nobody has groomed him for the photo. In a muddy winter farmyard like that you could spend your whole life worrying about the lower half of a horse’s legs getting dirty, so they didn’t. The moving chickens provide a nice sense of immediacy as they go about their business unaware of the occasion. The brother has his legs carefully protected against the mud and his watch chain is displayed proudly. Jacket, waistcoat and hat were standard winter wear, he is not dressed up. He has simply been asked to interrupt what he is doing for a moment, “Hod us t’oss a minute while our Rob has his picture takken”. The sister has just put on a clean apron and walked straight out of the kitchen. She doesn’t look comfortable, unlike her brother, and she probably wasn’t. Photography was already a craze at the turn of the nineteenth century but it was something you went to a studio for, something a bit posh. For an ordinary farming family, being photographed standing in their own farmyard was rather unusual, something that they would have talked about. It was an event. My grandfathers delight in that event never left him.