News / Ask the photo expert – mystery occasion

Ask the photo expert – mystery occasion

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!’

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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!