The Children’s Fancy Dress Ball

Social History Curator Kitty Ross opens up a fascinating Victorian photo album in the collection!

The photograph album filled with 47 pages of images from the Lord Mayor’s Ball in 1891.

We don’t have many records of children’s social lives in Victorian Leeds but a large leather-bound photograph album in the museum stores opens a little window on what some of the wealthier children of the town were doing on 12th January 1891. (View the whole album on Flickr).

The Mayor and Mayoress of Leeds, Mr and Mrs Alf Cooke were holding a fancy dress ball to celebrate their Silver Wedding anniversary. Over 190 children were invited to the party and there surnames reflect the leading business and professional families at the time.

Alf Cooke was a successful printer who built a state of the art print works at Crown Point in Hunslet. He married Annie Nickson in 1866 and they had ten children. Taking pride of place in the album are the Cooke children. Nellie Cooke appears as a “Doctor of Music”, which may have demonstrated her ambition to pursue the opportunities for higher education which were just opening up for women at the time.

Jack Cooke is dressed as a dashing “Spanish Matador”, and Maggie and Dorrie Cooke are pictured in contrasting outfits as “Night” and “Day”. There is a delightful photograph of Alf Cooke (junior) as “The Miniature Mayor”, a mini-me version of his father.

Photograph of children in costume as lady and lord mayor
Archer and Annie Cooke pose as ‘Miniature Mayor and Mayoress, dressed up for their father, the Lord Mayor’s ball in 1891.


Creative costumes

The children’s costumes show a wide variety of subjects, although there were quite a number of duplicate characters. Eight girls came dressed as Red Riding Hood and seven as Little Bo Peep.

Photographs pf a girl dressed as a graduate and a girl in a feminine dress with decorative flowers
Two very different images of Victorian girlhood shown in the album.

A few children came dressed in aspirational costumes which may have reflected their own ambitions or those of their parents. Most interesting among these is Constance J. Farrar who is dressed as a “Girl Graduate”, which was still rather a novelty at the time. It would be interesting to find out whether Constance herself ever did go to university.

A good number of the costumes are inspired by fairy tales (and the album will be on display from 21 January 2017 in the ‘Fairy Tales and Fantasy’ exhibition at Abbey House Museum). As well as Red Riding Hood, there are characters from Dick Whittington, the Arabian Nights, Cinderella and the Snow Queen.

Nursery Rhyme costumes include Bo-Peep, Boy Blue, Twinkle Little Star and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary. Opera and literature also inspire quite a few outfits, including the Daughter of the Regiment, Carmen and Follow the Drum. Three unlucky little boys were sent dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Artistic inspiration

Other costumes were based on popular paintings of the times (including those that were published each year to advertise Pears Soap), such as Millais’ “Cherry Ripe” and “Bubbles”. Other artists providing inspiration were Watteau, Gainsborough and Kate Greenaway.
Among the historical figures who came to the ball were Boadicia, Queen Elizabeth, Dick Turpin, David Garrick and Buffalo Bill. There were also a scattering of exotic foreigners including a Normandy Bride, a Grecian Maiden, a Polish Hussar, Abdullah Bhul Bul Ameer and a Peruvian Brigand.

The final category seems to have been those whose costumes were inspired by flowers (Buttercup, Violet, Daisy, Wild Rose) and the seasons (Summer, Winter and Spring all represented, but no-one bothered to dress as Autumn).

The album is a source of delight and entertainment, but also must contain a wealth of untold stories. There is scope for a lot of future research to try and track the lives of these children who were photographed enjoying themselves back in 1891.

Is your ancestor in the album?

The children depicted came from the following families:

Armitage, Atkinson, Batley, Beevers, Blair, Bleasby, Bowling, Brown, Cartlidge, Chorley, Cobb, Cumpston, Dacre, Davis, Denton, Dickenson,Dobson, Farrar, Fortherby, Foster, Gale, Gibbs, Hallas, Hammond, Hardcastle, Harland, Hargreaves, Harvey, Hayward, Heaps, Hill, Hinchcliffe, Hoggard, Holt, Hudson, Hunt, Hutton, Ickingill, Johnson, Kitchen, Laycock, Lauri, Leyland, Liddle, Loe, Masser, Mason, Middleton, Midgley, Nicholson, Nickson, Oldroyd, Passavant, Pickles, Pincus, Proctor, Richardson, Rishworth, Robinson, Rowley, Sedgwick, Slater, Smith, Sumner, Teal, Tennant, Tordoff, Wade, Warren, Wheelhouse, White, Wilkinson, Wilkson, Winn, Yates.

See the whole album on our Flickr page.

We would love to hear from you, if your ancestor may be pictured in the album! Email us on

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