Blog27 Jun 2012
Our photo expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.
Roger Thomas sent us his photo and asked:
‘This photograph is about 17cm by 11cm: the mount is stiff cardboard with a plain back. I can only assume it was taken at a school in Plymouth, Devon. I would like to know the date, please.’
‘Old school photographs feature in many of today’s family photograph collections. As early as the 1850s photographers were hired to record the pupils of elite academies and schools like Harrow and Eton and certain studios built their reputations on academic portraiture, like Hills & Saunders (established 1852). School photography for the wider population, however, developed after the passing of the 1870 Elementary Education Act, which led to larger numbers of children from ordinary families attending school. Regular photographer visits to local schools were also encouraged by technical advances during the later 1870s, particularly the introduction of convenient dry photographic plates, which facilitated photographic work away from the studio. Most surviving school photographs, therefore, date from the end of the 1870s onwards.
You mention that your photograph was possibly taken in Plymouth, Devon, perhaps because that’s where your ancestors lived. The card mount specifies Birmingham, but this may be a ‘red herring’. Internet research reveals that George Watkins Holden, manager of the Elementary Schools Photographing Company operated in many different locations, as listed on the decorative columns on this mount, including Plymouth. There is an interesting biography of him on the website of Brett Payne
This indicates that by the late 1870s, Holden was travelling widely around the country (or possibly used local agents) and was specialising in scholastic photography. Several examples of his school photographs are uploaded here and if you scroll down you’ll see an elementary photograph taken at Plymouth in 1895: the mount is identical to yours.
Usually school children were photographed in their class groups, or, sometimes, two or more classes combined. They were carefully positioned so that each small face was visible, as it was hoped that every parent would purchase a copy – just like today. Generally in Victorian photographs like this, the children were lined up in rows in the playground, flanked by the head teacher and/or class teacher on one or both sides, as seen here. Sometimes a slate was positioned in the middle of the picture stating the year, school and class: when present this provides very useful historical information.
Dating local school photographs that have no helpful slate involves dating the style of dress worn by the pupils. Children didn’t usually wear a school uniform as such, but were told to ‘come clean’ for the photographer’s visit and would have made an effort to wear their best clothes. Here we see girls from what look to be several year groups as they appear to be different ages, ranging perhaps from around seven to 11 years old – coinciding with what we would today call junior school. The younger girls wear loose smock dresses hanging in folds from the chest – a style of frock introduced for young girls in the early-mid-1890s.
Some girls, especially several of the older pupils, wear a more fitted version with a tighter bodice and accentuated at the waist with a waistband. They all wear the puffed sleeves fashionable in the 1890s. I would date this photograph to c.1894-9, a close timeframe that should hopefully help you to identify one of these girls as an ancestor – possibly someone who also appears in other family photographs.’
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