News / Ask the photo expert – mystery occasion

Ask the photo expert – mystery occasion

22 July, 2013

Our photo dating expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.

Helen Persighetti sent us her photo and asked:

‘The attached photograph is one of several unidentified family photos. The man standing second from right at the back is my great-great-grandfather, George Brown, who was a mould maker for a type foundry and later an engineer. The man seated and being presented with a claret jug also features in other photos we have, but we have no idea who he is. From the dress and appearance of the men, are you able to shed any light on what kind of organisation they might belong to? Many thanks in anticipation!’

Ask the photo expert on

Click to enlarge

Jayne says:

‘This is an interesting image – the kind of photograph that does not appear very often in private family collections. Professionally-mounted on card, it is printed with the details of a commercial studio, although unfortunately I cannot read the photographer’s name or address from this digital scan. He would have been hired to photograph this gathering outdoors, as such a large group of people was difficult to capture successfully inside the studio.

At the time of this photograph, professional outdoor photography was expensive for clients and a complex undertaking for the camera operator, who had to bring a complete darkroom with him to the venue. This was often a handcart covered with a black tent into which he placed his upper half, working in the dark to create instant negatives. The photographic prints were produced later, back at the studio.

Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton

The presence of a male-only group strongly suggests that this is very likely to be a work-related scene. The men are all well dressed in formal fashions of the 1860s, as would be worn by middle- or upper-class gentlemen. Most are wearing the stately knee-length frock coat with either matching or contrasting paler trousers, as was the vogue in the mid-Victorian era. Several carry silk top hats, which were the correct head wear with the formal frock coat, while some figures sport white waistcoats and neckties – often a sign of a special occasion.

Essentially they all wear regular male dress of a superior nature. I’m afraid that there is nothing here to suggest a particular occupation, for at this time mainly only manual labourers or certain categories of workers in hazardous industries might be identifiable by their clothing. Rather, the general impression here is of a group of successful and/or educated men who could theoretically be businessmen, industrialists, members of a respected professions or possibly men of letters, even skilled artisans.

It seems very likely that this photograph that includes your great-great-grandfather is connected to his work as either a mould maker or an engineer and that his companions here are work colleagues or business associates. Hopefully you may know more about his occupation during the 1860s, when this photograph was taken.

Further, if you can discern a location printed or stamped on the photographic mount, this may provide another clue. As you point out, another man in the group is being presented with an award, which could well signify a work achievement of some description. Remember that all or most of the men in this scene will have purchased copies of this picture, so there are probably other copies in existence today, passed down their respective families: another version may even have been annotated with details of the occasion. Can any blog readers shed more light on the event pictured in the photograph?’

If you’d like to send your photo to Jayne Shrimpton, please register or opt to receive newsletters in ‘my account’. Jayne only has time to analyse two photos each month, but if yours wasn’t chosen this time, you could be lucky next month!

  • Red

    Do please use your loaf – Googling the address (“129 New North Road” in quotes) soon IDs the photographer as one John Henry IDLE – marginally discernible on your sample as “J H IDLE & Co” !

  • Jayne Shrimpton

    Thank you for your helpful comment. Hopefully the London location of John Henry Idle will be useful to Helen in her research.

    As a dress historian I can always date images accurately from the appearance of their subjects. I tend to spend more time pinning down and investigating photographers/studios if the image being studied is unclear. Photographer data can be useful, but information found online is not always complete or 100% accurate.

  • Helen Persighetti

    Hello, just to say I do have the photographer’s details, it is actually J H Lile and the address is in Hoxton, Hackney.

    Thank you Jayne for your very helpful information. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a descendant of one of the other people in the photograph will recognise it and be able to shed some more light on what the occasion was.

    Your help with dating is useful as it is earlier than I thought and means it would have been taken not long after the Brown family moved to London from Edinburgh. We have always assumed this move was work related.

  • EastMarple1

    I too spotted that the address was 129 New North Road and did a quick web search resulting in finding information on the photographer supposedly called John Henry IDLE. It was only when I tried to find out more information about him pre 1870, as Jayne had stated, rightfully so that the picture was taken in the 1860s, that I discovered that it appeared he was hiding in his photographic studio and had not spoken to the enumerator on any census night! Yes.. by a lot of trial and error I finally found him as John H LILE. NB 1871 census address search doesn’t help much when the results, as in this case, give hundreds of unnumbered houses in one road.
    So could I find any clues as to when started being a photographer? In 1861 he was lodging in Hoxton, occupation cabinet maker. In November 1863 when he married Mary Ann UNDERWOOD (Non Conformist Marriage records on Ancestry, apologies!) his occupation was journeyman carpenter. Certainly from what I can gather Shoreditch area was a centre for furniture making so he may have been employed in that but he must have decided that photography was more lucrative as by 1871 census he was at 129 New North Road Hoxton, working as a photographer and employing 4 men and 1 female.
    If a studio name is unclear it is wise not to assume who it is until all the evidence has been gathered so Jayne’s information re the fashion dating is certainly key. There may have been a photographic studio located at a particular address for several years but so many changed hands quite frequently.

    If the photograph is work related, perhaps the person who is being presented with the jug is retiring from the firm. It would be worthwhile trying to find out which foundry George worked for and then searching newspaper archives for a report of such an event.
    Good luck Helen, hope you manage to find out more.

    • Helen Persighetti

      Many thanks for your detective work! This has all inspired me to try to find out more about who George could have been working for and I have sent an enquiry to the St Bride Foundation library in the hopes that they may hold company records.

  • Susan Bethune (please use just “Susan”)

    The person I find most intriguing in the photo is the semi-hidden person in the back row directly above the man seated with his leg crossed over the other. This person is the only one wearing a hat and the hat is not a top hat. Was it usual to have such a wide band on the hat?