Photographing History 3: Does the Camera Lie?

In the final part of our blog concerning ‘Photographing History’, we examine whether the images of ‘John’ reflected the lived reality for him and his family.

Man in Apron

John may have been the epitome of respectable working-class masculinity in the public world and in some of his leisure preferences but he shared many of the traits associated with the west of Scotland ‘hard man’ image. Like many men employed in heavy industry he worked in dirty and dangerous conditions in an entirely male environment. He did indulge in some leisure pursuits associated with working-class men, particularly gambling on horses, greyhound racing and the football pools, and he loved his pipe. He also loved the cinema which was the most popular working-class entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s across Scotland.

The images would suggest that John was a man who fully participated in family life, who rejected the rigid gender division of labour so characteristic of his time and place and who loved and respected his wife.  Yet, historical research has demonstrated that working-class women regarded a ‘good’ husband as one who did not over-indulge in sexual congress and was aware of the health implications of multiple pregnancies for his partner. It seems that many men sought to ensure that they had smaller family sizes to enrich the lives of their families and to protect the health of their wives. Did John fit this picture?  He and his wife had four living children but his wife had twenty-one pregnancies. She miscarried five times; there were sixteen births with twelve children either stillborn or who perished in infancy.

The high number of pregnancies could be attributed to his religion, the high infant mortality rate within his family and a lack of awareness about contraceptives, although they were becoming more accessible by the inter-war years.  Yet many Catholics were also reducing their family size. John was clearly unaware of, or chose to ignore, the discourses that encouraged men to refrain from sexual activity, in order to reduce family size and protect the health of their spouses: moreover John was a serial adulterer who did not hide it from his family.  According to a family member,  on one occasion he took his mistress to visit his son and his family. This public display of his infidelity suggests that John was not ashamed of it and perhaps thought that it was his right.  It certainly does not suggest a great deal of respect for his wife. Indeed John enjoyed verbally undermining Mary.

He maintained that Mary was a ‘simpleton’ and used any mishaps she had to convince others that this was the case. Moreover, while he may look like a domesticated man in the image above, in fact Mary had cooked and cleaned and raised their children all the years that he worked.  Only when he retired did he take over the role of cooking because he insisted to all and sundry that she was domestically incapable. John believed in the value of self-improvement and saving. Therefore he decided at a time when women tended to control the family purse that he rather than Mary would look after the family’s income. Mary was given a daily allowance and was compelled to account for every penny she spent and reprimanded if John thought that it could be bought more cheaply.

Moreover while politically John emphasised the importance of education for the working class; his working class was male. During the Second World War when work was plentiful and well paid, John’s eldest daughter was awarded the dux medal in school which would have allowed her to proceed to higher education with funding. John would not countenance this as his opinion was that higher education for women was a waste of time and money because they were destined to be wives and mothers. He took her out of school and acquired a job for her in the local ropeworks.  Although John was not unusual in his opinion about education for women, it did contradict his political rhetoric.

A family member explained that John also ruled his home with an iron fist.  His rule was law and he was an extremely strict disciplinarian of his children who feared his temper and his belt. His daughter recalled how on one occasion she was thrashed by his belt so savagely on the legs that she had to wear high socks all summer to hide the welts; her transgression was that a younger sibling, who was in her care, had fallen down and cut his knee.


Although the holiday snap portrays John’s grandchildren looking happy in his company, in fact they were wary of his intolerance of childish behaviour, his temper and ‘the back of his hand’. Practitioners, social scientists and historians have all argued that violence within the family can create a multiplicity of problems including mental health problems, substance abuse and the learned behaviour which means that children of violent men can themselves be violent in their family relationships. John had four children who lived into adulthood, two sons and two daughters.  According to a family member, the impact of John’s approach to marriage and fatherhood had implications for his children: mental illness, alcoholism and domestic violence were evident in their future lives.

John was a contradiction. On the one hand he was a man who believed in self-improvement and self-education and the betterment of the working-class, or rather working men. He loathed the west of Scotland drinking culture and engaged in healthy recreations. He climbed the employment ladder and reaped the material rewards of this while remaining an advocate of communism. However in his private life he demanded complete obedience from his wife and family and any disobedience was dealt with severely and often with violence. His children and grandchildren feared him and remember the home being a place of conflict and tension rather than a happy home.  He believed strongly that a woman’s primary role was as a wife and mother, that women did not require education beyond the basics and that they should be subordinate to men.

Compare this picture with the photographic images and one can see that the camera can indeed lie.