News / Ask the photo expert – Portsmouth ancestor

Ask the photo expert – Portsmouth ancestor

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

Sheila White sent us her photo and asked:

‘Can you help in my request? This is a photo of my great-grandmother Mary Jane Lee (née Ubsdell), who was born in Poplar London in 1865, being pushed by her daughter Eliza. The photo was taken outside the United Reformed Church, Buckland, Portsmouth but I have no idea when it was taken, or how old she would have been at the time.

I wonder whether Mary Jane and Eliza were perhaps attending a wedding or funeral, or simply going to church on Sunday. My family and I cannot find a date or place of death for Mary Jane but we have her last known address, which was Portsmouth in 1938. If it is possible to date the photo, this may give me an inkling that she would have died after certain years. I hope you can help.’

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Jayne says:

‘This outdoor scene appears to be a casual ‘snapshot’ that was probably taken by a friend or relative using their personal camera – perhaps a Box Brownie or another model of box or folding camera. By the time of this image, many individuals and families owned their own camera. The sharp rise in amateur photography is reflected in the increasing number of snapshot photographs that appear in family collections, especially from between the two world wars onwards.

Being middle-aged and elderly, neither of these ladies is dressed in the very height of fashion, but they are smartly-attired, as we would expect for any kind of church occasion in the early 20th century. The style of their hats, large coat lapels and fur-trimmed collars, as well as Mary Jane’s prominent gauntlet gloves, are all typical features of the 1930s. Usually I would suggest a slightly closer time frame of c.1931-38, but being of advanced years, the ladies are likely to have been slightly behind the times in their dress. Certainly, judging from photographs, my middle-aged grandmothers both wore their best 1930s outfits for weddings during the early 1940s. It seems wise to consider a broader date range of around 1932-43 for this scene.

Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton

I’m afraid that it isn’t possible to know for certain what the occasion captured here may have been. The black garments do not seem very typical of wedding guest attire, but could perhaps suggest a funeral; otherwise possibly the ladies were simply dressed in formal, sober winter clothing for Sunday Service at the local church. You know that Mary Jane was living in Portsmouth in 1938, so perhaps this was her parish church: the photograph may date from very close to that year.

She is in a wheelchair here and evidently used a walking stick, so clearly her physical health was failing. Unless anyone in the family happens to know for how long she managed with these aids when elderly, however, we can only really guess at whether she still had some years yet to live, or whether she died fairly soon after this photograph was taken. What the period of the photograph does suggest is that she may have still been alive in the early 1940s. Hopefully this will help you in your search for more details.’

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