Family Photographs from WW1: Unidentified Royal Artillery Horseman

Family Photographs from WW1:

Unidentified Royal Artillery Horseman



ww1 royal artillery horse




Most of my time is spent dating and helping to identify other people’s family photographs, but here is an image from our own family collection that remains a mystery. Found amongst my father’s effects, clearly this postcard portrait was taken during the First World War, probably by a professional military photographer and most likely in England. The upper corners have been cut down, perhaps to fit the card inside a frame at some stage.




ww1 royal artillery horse




The uniform and insignia of this proud horseman place him with the Royal Artillery, one of the British Army’s largest regiments during the Great War. The single sleeve stripe or chevron shows his rank to be lance bombardier (equivalent to lance corporal), while uniform details that reflect his mounted role include his leather ammunition bandolier, breeches, puttees and spurs. The white lanyard over his left shoulder was a distinguishing mark of the Royal Artillery, later moved to the right shoulder c.1921.

Nothing is printed or written on the back of the photographic mount, so any clues are contained in the visual image alone. Frustratingly, we don’t recognise this horseman: comparison with other photos confirms that he is not my grandfather, William George Shrimpton, who did serve in the war. Perhaps he was a great uncle – one of our grandfather’s or grandmother’s brothers: if so, his surname would be Shrimpton or Brooks. Can anyone help to identify him please?

Family Photographs from WW1: A Separation Portrait

Family Photographs from WW1:

A Separation Portrait






A fairly common type of photograph surviving in family collections from the First World War is the ‘separation’ scene combing two different but linked pictures. Soldiers serving overseas would usually take away to war a photograph of their family, to remind them of loved ones at home. Sometimes while abroad, a serviceman would be photographed in a local studio, like the soldier above, a Sergeant-Major with the North Staffordshire Regiment, pictured wearing khaki drill uniform in Alexandria, Egypt, c.1916-18. He might then have a small copy of the existing photograph of his family inserted into the corner of his portrait as a little vignette image – a kind of thought bubble, as seen here. The new photograph, posted back to Britain, would give his wife and children (or, in other instances, his parents and siblings, or sweetheart) an updated image of him and would also demonstrate visibly that they were very much in his thoughts, despite the distance separating them.






In this case, both the soldier’s separation photograph and the earlier family portrait included as a vignette have survived in this private family photograph collection, as seen above. The fashion clues here suggest that the wife and four children were photographed c.1914-15, probably around the time the soldier first joined up. These separation photographs are particularly poignant images from the First World War, expressing something of the human sentiments that lay just beneath the surface of the military action.



Family Photographs from WW1: A Band of Brothers

Family Photographs from WW1:

A Band of Brothers


band of brothers ww1 uniform british fusiliers silver war badge



Many servicemen during the First World War visited their local photographer for a commemorative portrait and often friends or brothers would pose together, wearing their various military uniforms. Above are three brothers who, born between 1891 and 1894, were healthy young men when war broke out in August 1914. The photograph is undated but was evidently taken during the war.

John (Jack) and Charles Mabbs (left and centre) served in the 25th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, while their younger brother, Frederick Mabbs, joined the 7th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. Jack was wounded in Mombasa in 1915 and later received the Silver War Badge (aka Silver Wound Badge), while Fred, who served in France and Belgium, was also wounded, judging from the wound stripes seen here on his left sleeve. Fred’s nickname was ‘Duke’ because he had met the Duke of Windsor and had offered him a cigarette (which he took!)


chelsea pensioner


Happily, all three brothers survived the Great War and Charles, who had been involved in guerilla and commando warfare, remained a career soldier, going on to train British Commandos in the Second World War. Charles ended his days as a Chelsea Pensioner and the above photograph was taken in 1968, shortly before his death.

With many thanks to Beryl Venn (nee Mabbs), daughter of Charles Mabbs, 12th August 1891 – 5th July 1969.

Family Photographs from WW1: A Departure Scene

family ww1 soldier

Family Photographs from WW1:

A Departure Scene



family ww1 soldier




Among our family photographs dating from the First World War, perhaps the most common type of image is the poignant portrait of the serviceman departing for war. Not only adventurous youths but also mature men with steady civilian jobs and families to support signed up or were conscripted into the army.

Many new recruits had studio photographs taken in uniform to indicate their new role, membership of a military organisation and to demonstrate that they were serving their country. The soldier in the above scene wears the 1914-pattern leather belt typically worn by Infantry Service battalions, introduced in haste to equip a rapidly-expanding army. His wife and three young children are well-dressed in the ‘Sunday best’ fashions typical of the mid-1910s.

This kind of formal group portrait was essentially also a departure scene – a last photograph taken together as a family. The soldier would take a copy away to war with him as a precious keepsake depicting loved ones at home awaiting his safe return. His family would keep another copy in the house, perhaps propped up on the mantelpiece as a daily reminder of their absent husband and father. Such photographs provided a crucial way of maintaining contact throughout the duration of the war. This soldier has not yet been identified, so it is not known whether he lived to see his wife and children again.

Family Photographs from WW1: Home Front

Family Photographs from WW1: Home Front



family photos ww1 baby



One hundred years ago today Britain entered the First World War and over the next 4/5 years the conflict would affect virtually every family in the UK. My father, William George Shrimpton (in the pram), was born in the middle of the war, on 19th November 1916, and it appears that, 9 months later, his father still hadn’t seen him. Like many mature WW1 servicemen who were married with young families, his father missed the birth of at least one baby and his infants taking their first steps.



family photos ww1



Photographs taken in Britain and posted overseas played a crucial role in keeping soldiers in touch with their families back home. The two postcard photographs above were taken by a professional photographer on the same day, 12th August 1917, according to a hand-written note on the back. Set, I presume, in the garden of my father’s parents’ North London family home, they portray my grandmother, Amy Shrimpton (nee Brooks), with her three children, Amy (b.1914), Doris (b.1915) and William/Bill – or ‘Sonny’ – (1916) as my father was called by his family.



post card



A message was written on the landscape postcard and, sealed in an envelope, this photograph was sent to the Front to my grandfather, William George Shrimpton Snr (1883-1957). Intended to show him how his baby son and little daughters were progressing, it would also have assured him that he was in his family’s thoughts. My grandmother’s message suggests that her husband hadn’t been home on leave for some time and, in her brief message, she politely wishes him luck.

‘Best of Doris and Sonny. What say you don’t know him. They all say how much he is like you. Best of luck Dear, X Amy’

My grandmother (1882-1972) must have had a tough time on her own during the war, giving birth and looking after a baby and two toddlers, as well as running the house, but her story mirrors that of millions. Fortunately my grandfather survived the war, evidently brought the photograph(s) safely home with him and they were found just 3 years ago when my sister and were clearing out the attic and discovered memorabilia that we hadn’t seen before.

Family photographs from WW1: A Rural Scene, c.1915-18

Family photographs from WW1:

A Rural Scene, c.1915-18



house 1910s ww1 cottage home women




A contact and I have been working on this rural Wiltshire scene in connection with a Great War memorial project. The photograph is undated, like so many old photographic images, and I have been ‘reading’ the picture clues to determine an accurate time frame. The evidence of fashion is always reliable and here the young woman standing in front of the fence wears a tailored suit datable from its length and cut to c.1915-18. It follows the general style of many WW1-era female uniforms and in fact the contrasting collar and cuffs of her jacket could possibly signify some kind of uniform. Might she be a visitor to the cottages – a messenger or despatch rider or similar…? Perhaps she has just dismounted from the motorbike to the left of the picture.




house 1910s ww1 cottage home women




Although there are several women and children in the photograph, the absence of adult males is striking – another detail that supports the probability of a First World War date. Two or three households occupied these semi-detached thatched cottages, one family with 13 children residing there from 1908 until 1975, when the final family member moved out. For some years three brothers were the last remaining residents: one had lost his leg in the Great War and had a peg-leg; he cooked for the other two, who worked as foresters and gardeners on a nearby estate. Tragically, another brother had been killed at Gallipoli in 1915 – perhaps in the same year or shortly before this picturesque photograph was taken.


Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs



family photo ancestors canada snap shot ww1 wedding studio cdv 1920s 1910s



My latest book was published last week: Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs: A Complete Guide for Family and Local Historians (Pen & Sword, January 2014)





This in-depth guide is the result of over 25 years’ professional experience of dating, analysing and interpreting many thousands of photographs from private family picture collections, as well as images from lpublic archive, library and museum collections. Covering early photographs dating from the 1840s and 1850s to mid-20th century snapshots, the book spans a hundred years of photographic images that have never been published in book form before.





Dealing firstly with how to date photographs, the book demonstrates how to use various photograph dating techniques to establish the most accurate time frame possible. This includes recognising different photographic formats, investigating photographers and studios and estimating the date range of the card mount.





There are also chapters explaining how to date the visual image from the composition of the subject(s), from the studio or natural setting of the photograph, and, especially, from the fashions worn by our ancestors – their clothing, accessories and hairstyles.




In the next section, the book explains how to study photographs at a more advanced level, offering tips for spotting the occasion behind the photograph, identifying and understanding photographic copies and dealing with old photograph albums and their contents. It also addresses the main issues that arise when scrutinising old photographs, for example judging age and facial likeness or estimating social status.





The next major section of the book deals with the ways in which photographs reflect the lives of our past family members, providing important and fascinating details about ancestors’ and relatives’ weddings, occupations and leisure activities.





In recognition of the 2014 centenary of the outbreak of WW1, there is a dedicated wartime photographs chapter which discusses at length how to date, investigate and understand the kinds of photographs that survive from the First World War, as well as from the Second World War. These were major conflicts that affected all of our families and for which there survives much visual evidence.





Photographs with strong local connections also have their own chapter of the book, emphasising the powerful links that exist between personal family history and the wider history of the area in which forebears lived. This explores school photographs, pictures of local industries in which ancestors were employed, district sports teams to which they belonged and so on, suggesting ways of investigating these photographs, using the many local resources available to researchers.





Many of us have forebears who moved abroad or who travelled with work and so photographs taken overseas are also covered in the book – both formal studio portraits and casual outdoor snapshots from locations as diverse as Canada, Malta, India, South America and Egypt.

I hope that there will be something for everyone in Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs. Among the 150 dated illustrations, there should be many examples that typify the kinds of photographs occurring in today’s family and local picture collections.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs (Pen & Sword Books, January 2014)

Available from the Publisher