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Photo of the month - December 2014

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Genes Advisor 3 Dec 2014 14:58

Dress-historian, portrait specialist and photo detective Jayne Shrimpton is on hand to date your family photos.



This is a scanned copy of an original photo which is now mislaid. I also have another copy which my mother had made when she was researching the family tree about 35 years ago and on the reverse of that she has written 'John family in Wales at Haymaking time'. My great grandmother, Blodwen John, was born in 1892 in Pontarddulais, Swansea, Wales and according to the 1891 census, her father, Thomas Benjamin John, was a tin furnace man in Llanguick. Her family left Wales in 1900 to go to South Africa and there he worked as an engine driver, so I'm wondering if the photo was perhaps sent over by family. Regarding the earlier generation, I don’t have any information about Thomas’s mother, but I believe her surname was Griffiths. It was stated on Thomas’s marriage certificate that his father was deceased and it would seem that he may have been orphaned at a young age, as in 1871 he was living with his grandfather, John Griffiths, a labourer in Craig Y Merched, Alltygrug, Llangiwg; then in 1881 he was residing with an uncle and aunt, Owen and Maria Jones (née John), Owen being a collier and farmer of 46 acres living in Llwynmudw Isaf, Llanguick. I'm not sure where this photo fits in with the family history, but I'm hoping that with more information about it I might be able to find out more.

Jayne Shrimpton's analysis:

There is an interesting and slightly complex family story behind this photograph, so, as you say, we need to establish how it fits in with the bigger picture. An accurate time frame is an essential starting point for further investigations, although outdoor scenes like this can be harder to date precisely than indoor studio portraits, for there are no photographer details or card mount clues – only the visual image. Looking at the picture clues, firstly we see a large group posing outside a rural building: this could be a farmhouse; certainly it looks to be a domestic dwelling and may well be the family home of some of the people in the group. A man at the back holds a pitchfork and two ladies hold rakes – implements traditionally used for raking up cut and dried hay and piling it onto a cart or wagon, supporting your mother’s hand-written note about haymaking on her copy of the photograph. Haymaking is one of the most important annual tasks in the farming calendar and has often prompted photographs recording the event. The good quality of this image and formal positioning of the group strongly suggests that a professional photographer was hired to visit this location to photograph the fieldworkers, either at the start or finish of the haymaking season.

Haymaking drew whole families and sometimes neighbours together as many hands were needed and here we see children and adults of all ages, representing three or possibly four generations. As we might expect, most group members are dressed for outdoor farm labour, as casually as social etiquette permitted a century or more ago. The men have removed their jackets, even some waistcoats, and their shirts are worn without neckties, their sleeves rolled up, ready for work. Similarly, the women wear cotton blouses and skirts, aprons and wide-brimmed straw hats to protect their heads and faces from the summer sun. The lady in white is minimally dressed in a short-sleeved blouse – unusual but not unheard of: there were even some reports of Victorian and Edwardian female farm workers removing their outer clothes and toiling in the fields in their shifts and petticoats!

Although the dress worn here is practical work wear, some elements reflect fashionable dress and can be dated approximately, especially headwear and sleeve styles. Several of the men and boys wear the cloth caps that became the favoured hat of the working male from the late-19th century until at least the mid-20th century. Caps changed shape over the decades, becoming flatter and wider over time, and these neat round hats with a very small peak are the earliest style, dating to c.1895-1905. One man wears a summer straw boater hat, as do two of the ladies: men wore sturdy but lightweight boaters for many years, between the 1860s and 1920s, but women only adopted them for a short time, during the 1890s and early 1900s. The girl and women’s sleeve shapes also help with dating this scene, some of the sleeves displaying the puffed upper-sleeve shape of the late-1890s, while others (far right and second from left) could be slightly later in style – c.1900-1905. Considering all the evidence of dress, the date of this scene should fall somewhere between 1897 and 1905.

The late-Victorian or early-Edwardian time frame means that your great grandmother, Blodwen John (b.1892) and her father, Thomas could theoretically be in this photograph. For example, Blodwen could be the girl in the centre, who looks to be aged between about ten and fourteen; if so, the photo would have to date from at least 1902. However the John family went to South Africa in 1900: could this really represent them in South Africa, where Thomas worked as an engine driver? Your mother wrote that this photograph was taken in Wales and this does seem a more likely explanation: so either it was taken pre-1900 and your grandmother is not present, or it was taken in the early-1900s soon after your ancestors’ move to South Africa and was sent to them there by family members who had remained at home in Wales. Photographs often kept people in touch with one another across continents and that may have been the case here.

With an accurate 1897-1905 date range, in time hopefully you will be able to firmly establish the location of this photograph and perhaps identify some of the members of this group. Questions that you might ask yourself (and any relatives) include: Is the white-washed cottage recognisable? Which ancestors are recorded in Wales on the 1901 census? Are any of the faces familiar from other family photographs? It might also be worth contacting Welsh local and/or family history societies such as Llanguicke and any other relevant area(s), as their members may be able to identify the scene and might know more about local families. It is worth going the extra mile to discover all that you can about this great scene and your family’s story.


If you have any 18th, 19th or 20th century pictures, and are happy for Genes Reunited to share the image and findings, please scan and send a copy to [email protected] with PHOTO in the subject.

Images used will be selected at random. Please scan the front and back of card-mounted photographs. Could we ask that you do not any original images in the post.

For further information on Jayne Shrimpton, visit

The Genes Reunited Team