Toffs and Toughs, 1937

This photo is presumed to illustrate Britain’s class divide — but does it really tell the whole story?

‘Toffs And Toughs’ the picture was called.

The five boys who came to illustrate the class divide of prewar Britain, photographed by Jimmy Sime outside Lord’s Cricket Ground on the morning of Friday July 9th 1937.  Presumably it showed two Etonian boys in uniform being looked upon with some bemusement by three working-class ‘toughs’.

For some, the picture exemplified the scandalous gulf between Britain’s rich and poor. The boys “have been woven into the national psyche,” wrote the Economist. Indeed, whenever a newspaper reached for an image to illustrate the class divide, they inevitably reached for the photo above, even as recently as the 2010s. (The Economist again:  “In 2008 and 2009, to pick two random years, Sime’s picture accompanied a Guardian feature on modern educational inequalities, a Sunday Telegraph column headlined “That old class system is still manufacturing bourgeois guilt”, and a piece in the Daily Telegraph.”)

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The real story was more complicated.

In fact, it didn’t show Etonians but students from Harrow. Other boys in the picture were not “scruffs”, “toughs” or “urchins” but students who went to normal schools — a local Church of England school in fact. Nor the photo was taken by the celebrated photographer Bert Hardy, but by Jimmy Sime who worked in semi-obscurity for London’s Central Press agency from 1914 to the middle 1960s.

The picture first appeared on the front page of the News Chronicle, a left-wing daily. A different photograph by Sime appeared in Life magazine, also erroneously describing two boys as “Young Etonians”, and the other three as “village boys”.

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Peter Wagner and Thomas Dyson (the two in top and tails), aged 14 and 15, were waiting for a car that was late and were dressed for a party a parent was throwing after the cricket match. It wasn’t their normal school uniforms, and neither came from families that in 1937 would have been considered the English elite (Dyson’s father was Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army), although both were privileged enough to attend Harrow.

As for the “toughs” — George Salmon, Jack Catlin and George Young — the trio of 13-year-olds lived close to Lord’s and were in the same class at a Church of England school a few minutes’ walk away. They had been to the dentist that morning and then decided to skip school and hang around outside Lord’s, where the Eton-Harrow match offered money-making opportunities to any boy willing to open taxi doors and carry bags, or to return seat cushions to their hirers and claim the threepenny deposit.

Astonishingly, the three toughs had longer lives than the two toffs. Tim Dyson died of diphtheria in India a year after the photo was taken, having travelled there to join his parents. Wagner entered the family stockbroking firm, married, and had three daughters; he became mentally unstable in the 1970s and died in a mental institution in 1984. Salmon died in 2000, and Catlin, who joined the civil service and rose to a senior position in the Department of Health and Social Security, died in 2011.


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