Here at Jammy Toast we love old black and white photographs and indeed, in the past, we have featured pictures by our favourite photographer, Shirley Baker. Over the weekend we found a collection of photographs taken by an American student by the name of Janet Mendelsohn. Janet studied at the University of Birmingham between 1967 and 1969 and while she was over here she photographed the streets of Balsall Heath for a photo-essay on inner-city life. During the late 1960s Balsall Heath was Birmingham’s largest red light district, a place of work for some hundreds of prostitutes. Mendelsohn provides an extraordinary insight into these women’s lives, their domestic arrangements and personal relationships as well as the nature of their profession. However, one photograph stands out amongst all the others; it is of a little girl who became known as The Ballerina Girl of Balsall Heath.
The Birmingham Mail newspaper recently discovered new photographs of the little Ballerina Girl of Balsall Heath and decided to conduct a search to see if they could find her. The hunt took the newspaper around the world and captivated thousands of readers. The search extended to the USA, Australia, Europe and Scandinavia. Her iconic photograph captured the hearts and imagination of an army of supporters.
They shared it on social media with the hashtag #ballerinagirl in all those countries and continents over a 12-month period in which they tried to find out whatever became of the enchanting little girl. They had no name for her, just a solitary, intriguing photograph which was almost 50 years old and a host of questions – only to be answered if they could find her. Not least of which, they wanted to ask if her dream of being a ballerina became a reality.
Eventually they found her… The little Ballerina Girl of Balsall Heath is Lorraine Williams!
Now aged 58, she is a mum of three and grandmother of seven – soon to be eight and she still lives in Birmingham. Remarkably, since they had searched the world over for her, her home is just a few miles from where the photograph was taken.
When finally contacted, Lorraine said: “I am absolutely amazed over this. To think that the Birmingham Mail readers had been involved in such a big hunt for me, it’s a struggle to take it in. I couldn’t believe it when someone showed me the photograph. But it is me and even though it is such a long time ago now, I still vaguely remember it being taken. I was always pretending to be a ballerina – ballerinas have always held a fascination for me. They still do. I’ve no idea where this comes from, I must have seen one somewhere. But being a ballerina was one of my dreams.”
Lorraine Doris Mckeown, at the time the iconic image was captured by Janet Mendelsohn, was one of seven sisters and three brothers, most of them older than her and twin sister, Wendy, who was also captured on film by Ms Mendelsohn, cheekily blowing a bubble gum bubble. Wendy’s love for bubble gum has lasted as long as Lorraine’s fascination for ballerinas and the twins are as close today as they were in 1968.
The pair have both worked together for the past 16 years at Alan Silverwood Ltd, of Birmingham, which manufactures bakeware. Back in 1968 Lorraine’s Belfast born dad Joseph had been discharged from the army after suffering deafness following an accident with a grenade and worked at GKN. Doris had a variety of jobs including working in a jam factory and as a cleaner. The family didn’t live in Balsall Heath but in Anderton Street, Ladywood.
“We were a close knit family,” says Lorraine. “We may not have had very much in some ways but we did have lots and lots of love and that is more important than anything. I think we were just playing in the street on the day the photographer was there. Those were the days when you could roam about as a child without any fear – days which are sadly long gone. I remember the lady coming up and asking to take some pictures. Of course, you couldn’t do that nowadays.”
It is unclear which street it was taken in and the area was largely bulldozed within a couple of years to make way for extensive redevelopment.
“As I was always a bit of ballerina in my mind, that’s why I did the pose,” says Lorraine. “But of course, I never actually saw the photo until I became aware the newspaper were after me.”
She thinks she and Wendy were aged about eight at the time, but if the photo was taken in 1968, they would have been a little older, given that they were born towards the end of 1957. The photo is among thousands taken by Janet Mendelsohn. She took pictures of every day inner-city life documenting a working class district in flux. Forgotten for many years, some of them, including the #ballerinagirl image, re-surfaced recently and now form a unique memory of the area.
“I can’t remember whether I told mum and dad when we got home, but either way I soon forgot all about the photographer and the pictures. I would like to think mum and dad would be proud of me now!”
“In many ways, those days were the best days,” says Lorraine. “There was no responsibility. It was a real treat for us to have a few sweets. I remember we really enjoyed things like coloured Kayli (sometimes called Rainbow Crystals).”
When asked if she would re-live them again, given the chance. There is no hesitation in her reply.
“Oh yes, definitely, without a doubt. We had lots of fun and adventures.”
Even though she would have to live in hand-me-down clothes again and money was so tight?
“Those things don’t matter when you have plenty of love and you have your family around you,” she asserts. We knew what was right and wrong. If we couldn’t afford something, we wouldn’t have it, yet we would have given away our last penny to help someone.”
As she grew older she learned to love the music her older sisters enjoyed – Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Cliff, Elvis and even George Formby.
But she never lost her fascination for ballerinas.
Even today her home bears testimony to this for statues of ballerinas are dotted about her home as are prints on the walls. But her real ambition was to become a librarian.
“I was always a thinker, a dreamer, one with a bit of imagination,” she says. “Perhaps that’s why I loved being a ballerina, at least in my mind. Wendy was the tomboy. She had the chat and you could always find her in the boy’s playground,” chuckles Lorraine at the recollection. “I was always more shy and reserved.”
Fate and love meant the librarian ambition was never fulfilled.
The Birmingham Mail’s hunt for the little ballerina girl lasted for almost 12 months and saw them make inquiries abroad as well as follow extensive leads across Birmingham and the rest of the UK.
They sought help from history groups, missing persons’ organisations and even the Irish Travellers Association and The Gypsy Council amid suggestions she may have been from a traveller family. Several local organisations including Balsall Heath Local History, Balsall Heath Reunion, Birmingham City Centre Past, Birmingham History Group and Birmingham Looking for Long Lost People provided valuable insight and wisdom. Janet Mendelsohn, The Cadbury Research Library, the University of Birmingham and the Ikon Gallery also provided vital support.
The break eventually came when someone on social media suggested that the ballerina girl was a lovely little girl… and so was her sister. It transpired that other pictures of the ballerina girl and another little girl who looked very similar had been displayed in an exhibition in Birmingham a while ago. The Mail published some of these photographs and made fresh appeals for help on social media. Within a few hours several people had responded, all offering the same name for the little ballerina girl – Lorraine Williams – and identifying her twin sister, Wendy.
The search was over.
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