English Boys' Clothes during the 1850s-60s: The Tennysons

Figure 1.--This 1857 photogrph of Allfred Lord Tennyson's two sons Lionel and Hallam with their mother shows the short dresses they wore with lacey, pantalettes, white stockings, and strap shoes. The boys were about 3 and 4 years old here.

Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of England's most beloved poets of all time. QueennVictorian chose him to suceed Wordsworth as the British Poet Laureate (1850). Tennyson is rightly regarded as the embodiment of the British Victorian Age. This is not only the case for modern readers, but it was the view of his Victorian contemporaries. Hevwas surely one of the bthree most widely known Victorians after of couse Queen Victoria and Prime-Minister Gladstone. This was an stonishing prominence for a poet. No English poet has produced acknowledged masterpieces in so many different literaray genres as Tennyson. The consumate artistic excellence of his verse, resembling in many of its qualities the stately and heroic measures of the ancient Roman poet Virgil, has securred an enduring place in literature for Tennyson. He lived in a society in transition and both his life and poetry were transformed by it. He was not just the poet lauterate ob Britain, but the poetic spokesman for Victoria's reign. He realized what was happening and his role, although he clearly idealized the countryside, desribimg a wonder thatbnever was. And poetry seems illequiped to capture a industrial and mercantile processes rising over a landed, traditional nation. His sympathies were with what he believed was the old, static rural countryside. Thus he was conflicted between what he saw as his duty to society to report and his allegiance to the perceived natural beauty. Literary experts report an astonishing lyric gift captuing the perfect sound and cadence for his thoughts. In this more than any other man he captured the the concerns and imagimnation of the Queen and her subjects. And the life span of the Queen and her poet were very close.


The renowened English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92) was born in Somerby in Lincolnshire in northern England.


Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809. He was the third surviving child of the clergyman and rector Reverend George Clayton Tennyson and Elizabeth Fytche Tennyson. Although his father George had been an elder son, his younger brother Charles was made sole heir after a disagreement between George and his father. As a result, and George was forced to earn his living as a clergyman. He did not like his profession, but as he had 11 children, he had little choice. Alfred's father suffered from depression and was has been described as very absentminded.


We know very little nothing about his boyhood or how he was dressed as a boy. While not growing up in abject poverty, the family resources were very streatched--especially for 11 children. There would not have been enough money for fancy clothes. Certainly he was outfitted in dresses as a younger boy as was the style throughout the 19th century. As an older boy he probably wore skeleton suits and tunics, two popular styles in the early-19th century. Alfred began to write poetry as a boy. He was enchanted by Byron and cpied his style.


Alfred spent four years at a boarding school where he was very unhappy. Finally his parents decided to tutor him at home. He then attended Trinity College, Cambridge. He was drawn to the literary club 'The Apostles'. Here he met Arthur Hallam and the two became close friends.

Figure 2.--The photograph of Hallam Tennyson was taken about 1859. He would have been about 5 or 6 years old and wears the tunic outfit his mother appears to have liked with lacey pantalettes. He continued wearing tunics for several years, although as an older boy he and his brother continued wearing tunics, but with knicker-style pants.

Early Poetry

Tennyson's petic career began at an early age. Alfred himself started writing poetry at only 8 years of age and had written most of a blank verse play by age 14. His poetic talents were recognized while he was still at Cambridge. In 1829 he wrote the spirited blank verse poem Timbuctoo, for which he received the Chancellor's gold medal. He published his first book of poems in 1830, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical.

Tennyson left Cambridge without earning his degree in 1831. He and a close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam--son of an eminent historian, joined a revolutionary Spanish army fighting the reactionary regime of King Ferdinand VII. Ge was not the last idealistic young English writers, not to speak of Americans, to fight despotic regimes on the Iberian Peninsula. Tennyson published more poems in 1832, but his friendship with Hallam was to have a profound impact on his literary career. The sudden and unexpected death of his friend Arthur had a profound impact on him and he pledged himself to refrain from publising for 10 years in homage to his friend. Instead he devoted himself to philoshopical contemplation. Literary scholars still debate the nature of the relationship. Given the future eminance of Tennyson and the impact of Hallam on his career, the relationship is one of the most debated in the literary world. One of Tennyson's few published works during this period was the The Two Voices, a philosophical poem on death and importality.

Emergence as a Respected Poet

Tennyson in 1842 at the expiration of his 10-year period of silence published some of his best known poems, winning wide acclaim. The poems included Morte d'Arthur, Ulysses, Locksley Hall, Godiva, and the poignant lyric Break, Break, Break. These poems firmly established Tennyson's position as the foremost poet of the day and brought him in comtact with other literary luminaries such as Dickens, Carlyle, and poets Rogers and the Brownings.

Figure 3.--This 1861 photograph shows the long, often unruly, hair worn by Lionel and Hallam. The boys were about 7 and 8 years old. The large, intricate lace collars worn on their matching tunics are also shown. Notice they were worn without bows. Until 1864 they almost always appeared in these lace collars.

The acclaimed poet as a result of an imprudent investment lost his modest fortune and would have been reduced to extreme poverty had not Arthur's father prevailed upon Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel to arrange for an annual pension in 1845. He published The Princess in 1847, a romantic treatment in musical blank verse dealing with women's rights. One of his most perplexing poems, In Memoriam, a tribute to his friend Arthur, was published in 1850. Liteary scholars continue to debate the character of this work to day.


Alfred met Emily Sarah Sellwood, the love of his life in 1833. A friend, Arthur Hallam, had introduced them. Arthur himself asked Alfred's sister to be his wife. It was a great shock to the young people when Arthur died in September 1833 of an apoplexy. The year of 1933, despite his engagement to Emily was not a happy one. Alfred's brother Edward who had been disturbed for some time, was admitted to a mental asylum where he stayed until his death in 1890. It was in 1833 that Tennyson began Memoriam: A.H.H., perhaps his most famous work. He did not actually finish it until 1850. Tennyson after a prolonged engagement, finally married Emily in 1850. In the same year he was appointed Poet Laureate, suceeding William Wordsworth.


Alfred and Emily at Twickenham, in Middlesex. They moved in 1853 to a country estate Farringford, near Freshwater on the Isle of Wright. He resided there for at least part of the year during the rest of his life.


The couple had two boys, Lionel and Hallam. Hallam was born in 1853 and Lionel in 1854. I have few details on his family life or on the boys. One source claims that Tennyson loved being Poet Laureate, though he never quite got used to all the attention from complete strangers. It was, however, his home life was what was most dear to him. He was reportedly a doting father and was apt to spoil the boys more than his mother.

Sons' Clothing

The boys were close in age and often dressed a like. Many of the available images show the two brothers in idential outfits or outfits with only subtle differences, minor concessions to the older brother's age. The photographs suggest that the boys were very close to each other.

The science of photography had by the 1830s developed to the pointthat realistic portraits were possible. It developed rapidly and was just enmerging in the 1850s as a popular family tradition. Technical improvements and falling prices for the first time provide us for the first time an extensive photographic record. Lionel and Hallam are two of the first boys where there are a series of photographic images available to chronicle their boyhood and provide details on how they were dressed. Interestingly, as the Tennyson family lived in a social swirl with many other artists and writers--they were close to Lewis Caroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland. Caroll happened to be fascinated with the developing technology of photography. Thus many of the photographic images of the boys were taken by Caroll. Others were taken by Julia Cameron.

Figure 4.--The Tennyson family in 1862. The two boys (Lionel and Hallam) were about 8 and 9 years old and wear identical tunic outfits with lace collars and knickers. The boys' tunics had the belts commonly worn with these outfits. For special occasions the belts were replaced with crimsom sashes. They also wore crimsom stoockings when they dressed up. Notice the large floppy hat carried by Hallam.

Dresses as younger boys

The fashion of outfitting boys in dresses continued at mid century as it did throughout the 19th century. The fashion of long ankle-length dresses probably worn by their father passed out of fashion during the 1830s. Boys by the 1850s were wearing much shorter dresses (figure 1). While dresses became shorter, it was not in the 1840s and the 1850s considered proper for young boys or girls to have bare legs. Thus short dresses were worn with lacey pantalettes. Generally the pantalettes of girls were fancier with more lace trim than those of boys. (This is one of the indicators that can be used to determine gender in early images.) Pantalettes were intially very modest ankle lengths. By the 1850s they had become much shorter and were often worn midway between the hem of the dress and the ankle. Girls and young boys would wear them with long white stockings, often with strap shoes. The Tennyson boys are a good example of this style (figure 1).

I do not know precisely when the two boys were breeched, that is allowed to wear tunics and eventually pants. Also I do not know if was done at once, both boys allowed to wear tunics or if one boy stayed in dresses while the other wore tunics. I do not know of any images of the boys together dressed differently with one still in dresses. At any rate Hallam appears to have emerged from dresses sometime about 1859 at about 5 years of age. Presumably Lionel followed within a year in this major step of boyhood.

Figure 5.--The boys are pictured here in the tunics they seem to have worn since emerging from dresses. This photograph was taken in 1863 and they would have been about 9 and 10. Note that for once Hallam has his long hair carefully combed.

Long hair

Mrs. Tennyson appears to have been partial to long hair. The boys' blond hair was kept in long gilden locks, not only as little boys, but also as they got older. Their hair was not curled as was to become popular in the 1880s. Rather Mrs. Tennyson lert their hair a shoulder length in a long flowing style. I do not believe that this was a common style of the day in England. Long hair may have been more common in France. Images of French boys waring long shoulder-lenth hair with hairbows are available for the 1870s, I'm not sure, however, as to just when it became fashionable. Looking at the images of Lionel and Hallam I note that there hair is often rather unruly and not carefully combed for the photographs. Compare this to the images availavle during the 1860s-90s. These images were taken in photographic studios and the children carefully dressed and their hair coifurred with great care. Often doting mothers carefully laid a boy's long ringlet curls on his shoulder so it would show prominently in the photograph. This does not seem to have been the case with the Tennyson boys. In part this was due to the fact that many of the photographs were taken by Lewis Carol as a hobby and not in a photographic studio. In fact there are even outdoor images (figure ?), a rarity at the time. The unruly hair may also reflect the fact that while the Tennysons were comfortable, they were not rch and could not afford a huge staff that could constantly be caring for the boys' hair.

Mrs. Tennyson appears to have shared her husbands romantic impulses and appears to have expressed them in outfitting the boys. I'm unsure as to what Lionel and Hallam themselves thought about their long hair or what they may have said to their mother about it. English and American boys during the mid-19th century appear to have more commonly worn short hair. I'm not sure how their long locks would have been received at England's rather rough Public (i.e. private) Schools wear boys who dressed differently from the accepted styles could be teased and hazed. Lionel and Hallam given the family's comfortable status were presumably educated at home.

While perhaps not common, Mrs. Tenyson was not the only English mother at mid-century that insuisted on long hair for their sons--even older boys. The Tennysons were friendly with the Brownings--two other renowned English poets. Another good example of mid-19th century hair styles for boys is a photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browings' son Pen , also taken by Lewis Carol. Pen's mother has the boy who was about 11 years in long, but in this case curled hair. As mentioned above, Mrs. Tennyson kept her sons' hair long, but did not curl it.

Tunics and pantalettes

Their mother appears to have been partial to the popular tunic style of the day. For Mrs. Tennyson it appears to have appealed because for all practical purposes, the tunic if worn with pantalettes (figure 2) looked very much like a dress. Younger boys wore their tunics with pantalettes but if the continued to wear tunics as older boys they would be worn with knickers or even long pants.

Mrs. Tennyson chose to out fit her sons with pantalettes, long white stockings, and strap shoes when they first began wearing tunics. We have a photograph by Lewis Carol of Hallam in such an outfit, a tunic with lacey pantalettes (figure 1}. Presumably his brother wore a similar outfit.

Figure 6.--Hallam and Lionel are pictured here in a formal 1864 portrait with Julia Cameron. The photo was taken by Oscar Bejlander. The boys were about 10 and 11 years old. Note that for this formal setting, Hallam is not wearing his lace collar, but rather a tunic buttoned at the neck, virtually without a collar. Hallam does, however, still wear long hair and the boyish tunic outfit his mother liked for the boys. His younger brother, however, does still wear his lace collar. This is typical of Victorian photographs where subtle differences were made in a boy's clothes--depending on a boy's age. Presumably Hallam was given the option not to wear the lace collar worn by his younger brother.

Mrs. Tennyson often added a lace collar to complete the outfit. The collar does not appear to have been the collar of a blouse, but rather a separate decoratve device sewn on to their tunics. Again this does not seem to have been a common style. Boys in the late 18th and early 19th centuries often wore large ruffled collars, usually open collars without bows. Lace collars, however, were unusual. The lace collars worn by Lionnel and Hallam predate the emergence of this fashion as part of the Little Lord Fauntleroy style of the 1880s. It presumably appears as part of the boys' clothes as lace collars had by the mid-19th century begun to be worn by women. Women's fashions more strongly affected boys' fashions at the time. Remember little boys wore dresses and Hallam, when Lewis Caroll photographed him (figure 2), had just emerged from dresses. The lace collars the Tennyson boys wore for several years were worn without bows of any type.

Knickers and lace collars

A rare outdoor photograph taken in 1862 shows the boys wearing frock-like tunics with lace collars and knicker pants (figure 2). The tunics were front buttoning and worn with large floppy hats. Earlier these tunics were often worn with pantalettes. Another good example of the mid-19th century tunics is the photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browings' son Pen taken by Lewis Carol discussed above. Pen wears his tunic with knee pants and strap shoes. Pen wears below the knee pants, but unliked the Tennyson boys they were not pursd in knicker style.

The Tennyson boys, however, in the 1862 wear an interesting combination of lacey collars, tunics, with rather plain, modern-looking knickers. I'm not sure then they made the transition from pantalettes to knickers, but it appears to have been 1862 (at least for Hallam). Mrs. Tennyson may have had Lionel wear knickers with pantalettes for another yar or so. The knickers are rather long coming well below the knee and were normally worn with heavy wollen soc ks rat her than the white stockings the boys had worn earlier. They also had colorful crimsom stockings for best. I do not know precisely when the boys finally made the transition to long trousers.

The boys appears to have worn the same grey tunics for several years. They did not seem to have had anything approaching a warbdrobe, but always wore identical-looking tunics. Large wardrobes for children are rather a modern phenomenon, but even by the standards of the day this seens rather a limited selection of clothes. I think Mrs. Tennyson must of made their clothes, however, using the same pattern over and over, probably out of her old dresses. From what I've seen of other 1850s clothes, they look pretty boring.

The brothers in most available photographs are pictured in nearly identical clothes. As they were so close in age, the major changes from dresses to tunics, pantalettes to knickers, and eventually long pants may have been made at the same time. Many Victorian photographs show that parents may many changes in a boy's clothes as he got older. Even brothers quite close in age might have subtle differences in their clothing. This does not appear to have been the case for the Tennyson boys. In fact they appear to have worn the same grey tunics for quite a long time, only changing from pantalettes to knickers when they were about 7 or perhaps 8 years old. There is one intriguing 1864 photograph in which Lionel dutifully wears his lace collar, but his older brother Hallam does not. I'm not sure what this meant, especially as we do not know what the boys thought of their lace collars. We know that some boys did not like the idea of wearing a lace collar one little bit. I do not have any information about what they thought of their mode of dress or hair style. I think Hallam may have wrote a biography of his father which could have some information in it. Several possibilities come to mind. Did Hallam not like the collar and didn't want to wear it? Was Lionel more obedient than Hallam? Was Hallam's collar perhaps soiled or torn and needed replacement? Was it not a real issue and simply forgotten in preparing for the photograph? (This seems unlikely as so many earlier photographs shows the boys carefully done up in their lace collars.) One observer doesn't think that the boys would have objected to their tunics, lace collars, and long hair very much. They were pretty much raised at home and closeted from most outside influences. They associated only with their parents' set and the children they played were the children of their parents friends. The British practice of sending 8-year olds off to boarding school had not yet become an excepted practice and many boys were schooled at home until their early teens. Thus there mother could choose their clothes and hair style without much criticism.

Figure 7.--Lionel is pictured here with his mother in 1867. He was 13 years old and appears for the first time in a boyish short hair cut. He no longer wears the lace collar or boyish tunic that he and his brother wore for so many years. Rather he wears a grownup looking suit. Note that he does not wear a Eton collar which was to become standard atire for boys his age.

The two attractive brothers and the way their mother dressed them did not escape notice in the family's social circles. Photographer The photographer Julia Camerson was especially struck by Lionel's curls which she thought so pretty. Another observer wrote of Lionel He seems to come out of a chapter of past history. Edith Bradley, daughter of family friends Grenville and Maria Bradley later wrote:

...straight and tall dressed always in tunics and kneepants of the same shade of grey as their mother's gown--belted on weekdays, crisomed sashed and crimsomed stockinged on Sundays, holidays, and ]everyday evenings, low stapped slippers always worn in the house, and on the broad lace collars, the long golden hair falling, Lionel's forever in his eyes ... the younger's beauty was so great that even we children were conscious of it. He looked like his mother, whereas the elder had his father's deep-set eyes and high forehead.

It is interesting to note that there plain grey tunics were adorned with a red sash and red stockings for Sunday, holidays, and evening wear. One of the subjects of interest comcerning the Fautleroy suits of the 1880s-1890s was both the color of the suits and the color of the accesories like the sashes and stockings. The black and white photography of the day offers few clues. We know from mailorder ads that the suits came in dark blues, greens, and burgandies in addition to the classic black, although how common these colored suits were is not known. We also know that crimsom sashes were not common. I always thought that the stockings were black or matching colors. Mrs. Tennyson's use of crimsom stockings in the 1860s is an indicator that at least one mother was adding colored stockings to boys' outfits. Thus the possibility that this device could have been used in subsequent decades should not be discounted.

Because of Tennyson's status as Poet Laureate, he and his family were an attractive subject for the photographers of the day. Besides the prestige, the photographers would often sell the photos. The outcome is that there are several photographs from the 1850s-60s showing how the boys were dressed and how their clothes changed over time. Photography was still developing as a commrcial enterprise and there are few such complete records for boys over a span of years during this period.

Figure 8.--This watercolor by Helen Allingham was probably painted in the 1890s, it portrays Tennyson's grandchildren and perhaps Allingham's son Henry. The two children in smocks are probably boys, although the older child is difficult to identify with certainty. Looking at a blow up of the painting carefully I see the older child is wearing a long dress which would suggest that at that age it is a girl. A HBC reader is unsure about this. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

Later Years

Tennyson's eye sight deteriorated late in life. His eyesight became so bad that he had difficulty editing. Fortunately he had always composed his poems in his head. Emily acted as his secretary. Hallam took over this task in 1874 due to his mother's failing health. But Tennyson was feeling his age and was afraid to take on another major work that he might not live to finish. His brother Charles died in 1879 and Edward FitzGerald died in 1883, and Alfred was starting to feel increasingly isolated.


The most tragic blow came in 1886, when his son Lionel died of fever while at sea. Lionel went to India at an early age and died on the return voyage which caused his father and mother much grief.

Hallam's family

Hallam married and had children. I have no details on the children or details on their upbringing. Hallam's son Lionel was born In November 1889, followed by Alfred, Jr. in April 1891. They all appeared to have lived together with their paternal grandparents. Few details are available on the clothes they wore. I do not know if they wore tunics like their father. They do seem to have worn smocks, as the watercolor probably painted in the late 1880s by Hellen Allingham shows. Hallam made a career out of caring for his parents and his father's legacy. Hallam proved to be the dutiful son.

Later Poetry

Tennyson continued to publish for four decades, although his later works lack the force and originality of his earlier works. One of the most famous poems, The Charge of the Light Brigade, deakling with a Crimean War engagement was published in 1854. His published works during this period were the ones most successful commercially.

No English poet has produced acknowledged masterpieces in so many different literaray genres as Tennyson. The consumate artistic excellence of his verse, resembling in many of its qualities the stately and heroic measures of the ncient Roman poet Virgil, has securred an enduring place in lit erature for Tennyson. He furnished perhaps the most notable examples in English letters of the ecletic style, made up of elements derived from many of his distinguished predecesors.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was first and foremost a Victorian. Tennyson like Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Charles Kingsley, T.H. Huxley, and Victoria herself, is one of the people meant when we speak of " the Victorians." What made Tennyson so Victorian was his ready acceptance of the mores of his day, his willingness to conform to popular taste, to write a poetry that was easily understood and enjoyed. This was something that Robert Browning never could, or would, do, although he often said he wanted to. If we expect poets to be rebellious, like Shelley, Byron, Swinburne, or Dylan Thomas, Tennyson must disappoint us in this regard.

It is important to remember, however, that his behavior involves no hypocrisy. This was a position which he readily accepted: no Poet Laureate before him had so regularly written so much occasional verse. He wrote poems on the death of Lord Nelson, on the birth of Princess Alexandra, and dedicated the complete Idylls of the King to Albert, the Prince Consort (Victoria's beloved husband) -- which lead to Swinburne's description of the Idylls as the "Morte d'Albert." But again, we should remember that Tennyson knew and liked the royal family. Prince Albert had come to visit him on the Isle of Wight just shortly after he and his family had moved in, and Queen Victoria summoned him to court several times. It was at her insistence that he accepted his title, having declined it once when Disraeli offered it and again when Gladstone did.

artly as a result of his position as a public and nationalist figure, Tennyson was by far the most popular poet of the Victorian era. No poet was ever so completely a national poet: Henry James said in 1875 that his verse had become "part of the civilization of his day." This probably explains why literary opinion turned so sharply against him in the earlier part of the twentieth century, as we reacted against all things Victorian.


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Created: March 4, 1999
Last updated: 9:51 PM 3/7/2019