Our photo dating expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.
Angela Bolton sent us a photo and asked:
‘I would like you to date this photo please. My great-great-grandfather Matthew Irving (1826-1895) of Rockcliffe, Carlisle, Cumberland, was a builder in Rockcliffe. He had seven sons – some were masons, like him, while others were builders. This picture was found in a descendant’s possession. I have tried for some time now to find out what year this might have been taken, to discover more about the family business. Would it have been taken after 1895 when Matthew would have passed the business onto his sons? I do hope that you can help me.’
‘This is a great outdoor scene – a photograph probably taken by a professional photographer hired to come out to this location. Judging from the half-built structure in the background and the appearance of the men lined up in this large group, it seems fairly evident that they are a team of builders working on the construction of a new property. To the right is what looks to be the wheel of a barrow and on the left is another piece of wooden equipment. With a couple of exceptions, the men have made an effort to look respectable for the photograph, by putting on their caps and jackets, but essentially they are dressed for work and clearly some are manual labourers.
Looking more closely at what they are wearing, we see several men dressed more smartly than the others in three-piece suits, shirt collars and ties. Perhaps these were site foremen, surveyors, structural engineers or the like. At least one workman wears a bibbed apron (possibly a carpenter) and a few others wear sturdy canvas ‘slop’ shirts – a common form of early-20 century work wear. Many are without regular ties and instead sport a knotted scarf or handkerchief wound around the neck, a style which labouring men favoured, while others are without neck wear at all and wear collarless shirts. Between them, the manual workers and craftsmen may well include general labourers, bricklayers, carpenters and masons, which accords well with what you have described of your 2 x great grandfather’s profession and that of his sons.
Without exception, the men wear the peaked cloth cap that first entered regular men’s dress in the mid-1890s and became virtually a symbol of the average working man during the 20th century. The first of such caps were neat, round and close-fitting, but by 1910 they had become larger and much wider, typically rather broad about the ears, as we see here. It is hard not to draw comparisons between these prominent caps and the caps concealing razor blades in their peaks that feature so menacingly in the current BBC2 TV series Peaky Blinders, set in post-WWI Birmingham.
Essentially this harmless photograph dates from a similar era, as also suggested by the various starched and un-starched shirt collars, and by the array of clean-shaven faces and moustaches – trends in facial hair that largely reflect the men’s ages. The date of the scene will be somewhere between the mid-1910s and the mid-1920s, but, in view of the large number of men of service age present, it seems logical that it was not taken c.1915-18, but probably after the war: c.1919-26, or thereabouts.
The firm timeframe means that this photograph post-dates by some 20-30 years your 2 x great grandfather, who died in 1895. Perhaps some of the middle-aged men here are his sons, including your great-grandfather? It seems possible that even their sons may be present, if they too entered the family trade and became builders and masons.’
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