One of the joys of being a family historian is that when you delve into an ancestor’s life, with any luck, (and some good research), you get to know them a bit. You find out about the significant events in their life, share a little of their sorrow, (perhaps when yet another child dies in infancy), and also their successes. Yet for the majority of our ancestors, especially those who did not live to see Queen Victoria on the throne, one piece of information is missing: how did they look? In this article, I will be sharing some thoughts on how we can gain a visual impression of our ancestors, whether that be through deduction, a physical description or by tracking down a new photographic image.
Articles in several newspapers a little while back invited readers to reimagine what Mr Darcy, the romantic hero of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, looked like. For many of us ladies, the mere mention of his name sets our hearts aflutter, as we picture the dark and brooding Colin Firth, who starred as Mr Darcy in the BBC’s 1985 TV adaptation. The image of him emerging from the water in his rumpled white shirt, has been marked indelibly on our minds ever since. However a study by John Sutherland, a professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and Amanda Vickery, a professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London, casts Mr Darcy in a rather different light. According to their research, the ‘real’ Mr Darcy would have been shorter, pale and pointy-chinned, with a long nose and beardless face, his hair powdered white, as was the fashion. In keeping with his gentlemanly bearing, his shoulders would be slim and sloping but he would have toned and shapely legs from his participation in sporting pursuits such as hunting and fencing. A rugged man like Colin Firth, square jawed with broad shoulders and a tanned complexion, would signify a labourer to the Georgians.
Jane Austen herself deliberately provides little information on Mr Darcy’s features, merely describing him as someone who drew “the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien”. She may well have based the character on one of her own romantic interests, who were known gentlemen of the day. The point is that although Mr Darcy is fictional, contemporary notions of beauty and masculinity are quite different to those of the past. For example, in the Victorian era, facial hair, particularly on older men, was popular, as it conveyed masculinity. Nowadays, young hipsters are the ones sporting beards!
This led me to think about how we imagine our own ancestors to look like. What physical traits have they passed down to us through their DNA? Are they just cardboard cut-outs in our mind’s eye or do we let our imagination run wild, and base them on characters found in Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy novels, or in costume dramas such as Poldark?
Certainly, for most of our ancestors who lived prior to the advent of photography in 1839, there are only a few clues when it comes to appearance. For gentry families, paintings, miniatures or silhouettes, were sometimes produced to commemorate loved ones in perpetuity. Similarly, personal letters that contain clues concerning a person’s appearance might have been preserved and handed down within a family. For most of us though, the physical appearance of our ancestors is largely conjecture. We are therefore free to imagine them as we wish, based on some reasonable assumptions. For example, if an ancestor was a watchmaker, it is perhaps more likely that he wore glasses, as he spent his days working with fine instruments and components, probably in poor light. One might surmise that if an ancestor worked as a weaver in a factory in Manchester, and died of tuberculosis at an early age, they could be thin and pale from lack of sunlight, illness and a poor diet. A ploughman or a blacksmith in a country village would necessarily be strong and robust, given the hard, physical labour that these jobs involved. Since the majority of my ancestors worked on the land, when machinery was limited and fairly primitive, they would have had to be physically tough, and were probably a little weather-beaten. It is also worth researching the type of clothing, footwear, and headwear worn at different periods and by different classes if you want to have a mental image of an ancestor’s appearance. Would they have worn a uniform, did they wear a bowler hat or a flat cap, clogs, or leather shoes with a buckle? How would a straw plaiter from Luton, Bedfordshire be dressed compared to a silk weaver from Spitalfields, in the East of London?
If we are lucky, we may have quite a few photographs of our more recent ancestors. Photography started to become popular and accessible to families from the 1850s. Compared to today’s styles, their clothing is very different, along with their hairstyles, but from a photograph, we can still gain a good impression of our ancestors’ appearance. Perhaps we scan their faces, looking for tell-tale family traits and characteristics, observing the shape of their noses and chins, the colour of their eyes, hair type, etc. One thing to bear in mind though is that a photograph is only a snapshot of what a person looked like at a particular moment. Some of the most precious photographs of our Victorian ancestors were taken when they were elderly ladies and gentleman. It can require a leap in our imagination to picture what they looked like when they were younger, or even as children. Undoubtedly they wore their Sunday best when they visited a photographer’s studio, perhaps commemorating a special occasion, such as a wedding or anniversary, but what did they look like in their regular working clothes on a day to day basis?
Although painted after the invention of photography, I have found an intriguing portrait that is allegedly of my two times great grandfather, George Nock. He was a gardener by trade so it would seem unlikely that a man of his means would have had his portrait painted. However, George Nock worked all his life on the estate of Hagley Hall, Worcestershire, so it is possible that Lord Lyttelton, his employer, favoured him by having his portrait painted:
I have one photograph that I believe to be George Nock, with his daughter, Lucy, my great grandmother on his right, and her elder sister, Eliza, on his left. There is a huge contrast between the portrait and the photograph but after studying it closely, I believe they both depict George Nock. The portrait looks as if it might have been painted when George was in his 40s so 1855-1865, whilst the photographs was probably taken in the 1880s when George was ca. 70, prior to Lucy’s marriage in 1888:
Even if they lived during a time when photography was popular, we are unlikely to have photographs of all of our recent ancestors. Fortunately, there are sources where you might find a physical description of an ancestor instead of a photograph. If you have an ancestor who served in the military or navy, for example, you may find just such a thing. The naval records of my grandfather are an illustration of the information recorded.
My grandfather, Ernest William Bullock, was a stoker in the Royal Navy and details of his service can be found in ADM 188, the Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services, 1853-1928. These registers are available to search and download (at the moment for free – August 2020) on The National Archives website. These records are also available on Ancestry and FindMyPast, (though only for the period 1899-1924 for the latter).
Ernest joined the Royal Navy just after he turned eighteen on February 21 1911. At this time, he is described as being 5.5 1/2 foot tall with a 37 inch chest, brown hair, brown eyes, a dark complexion and a scar over his right eye and one on his right leg. According to this record, after 12 years of service, his height increased to 5.8 feet and his chest to 37 1/2 inches. Was he standing straighter the second time or did naval rations give him a nutritional boost? In the intervening period he also gained a scar above his right arm, along with hernia scars on each side after an operation:
This description is complimented by the photograph that I have of Ernest, taken soon after the outbreak of World War One:
Although I do have a number of photographs of my grandfather that give me a good idea of what he looked like (and of course, memories too!), his service record provides some exact information on his vital statistics and indeed, his scars! Similarly, records that provide physical descriptions can be found for soldiers too. There is one good reason why this information is included in official records. Both soldiers and sailors could potentially go absent without leave or even desert, so in these circumstances, it would be useful to circulate a physical description of the person whom the authorities wished to apprehend. Likewise, similar information is contained in records that exist for prisoners, in the event of their escape from custody:
Here Jesse Bullock, a sawyer aged 20 and of Slimbridge is described as being 5 foot 5 1/2 tall, having brown hair, light grey eyes, round visage, fresh complexion, stiff right hand and a ring on his first and second fingers. Many of our ancestors did get in trouble with the law, often for offences that we might consider trifling today. Can you find a physical description of them?
If you are fortunate, you may even find a photograph of your criminal ancestor. From the 1850s, photographs were sometimes taken unofficially by prison officers and in 1871, The Prevention of Crime Act made it a legal requirement for all those arrested to have their photograph taken:
These mugshots of prisoners were taken so that they could be passed around local police forces, making it easier to identify habitual offenders. From the early 1900s, side shots were taken as well. I find these photographs rather haunting: some faces look defiant, others sad. Each prisoner is holding their hands up, as it was not uncommon for offenders to have fingers missing or injuries to their hands. Some would also habitually wear rings that could be of aid in distinguishing them from others.
Newspapers are another important source when looking for information concerning someone’s appearance. If a prisoner absconded, one might find a notice in a newspaper, giving a physical description of the wanted person. A person in any news story may be described as being short, well built, wizened, fresh-faced or stooped: in fact, anything might be reported if it was a notable characteristic of the person. A photograph may be an additional bonus.
Local newspapers are full of ordinary people who made the news in some way, accounts of couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversaries or children receiving awards. These accounts often feature photographs too and they have never been easier to find with more titles being added constantly to the British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ (also accessible through FindMyPast). Obituaries are a particularly rich source and may contain a physical description of the person or a photograph. When my great grandfather, George Alfred Batchelor died in 1928, his obituary was accompanied by a small photograph:
Of course, it is a good idea to get in touch with relatives and others with whom you share common descent, as they may have photographs in their possession that you have not seen before. By cross-referencing, and looking at a range of photographs, it may be possible to identify family members who have previously been nameless.
Photographs of ancestors can often be found in unexpected places, not always within a family. For example, they may be found in auctions, boot fairs, and in local history books. You may even come across an interesting photograph on a website for a particular place or perhaps an ancestor is featured on a postcard for a village or town. Recently, I acquired a postcard of the station at Wyre Forest, Rock in Worcestershire, where my two times great grandfather, James Bullock, was the station master from 1869. It is more usual for trains to feature on station postcards but in this instance, the photograph features a railwayman accompanied by two children, an older boy and a younger girl. Since it was a small station, and James Bullock was the only member of staff based there during his thirty years of service, there is a strong likelihood that it features him, with the possibility that the small boy is his son, my great grandfather. Due to the fact that I have researched the life and railway career of James Bullock, I am in a better position to identify him:
Other occupational records may contain a photograph or physical description. For example, if you have an ancestor who played for a football club, they may have team photographs in which he appears. The Post Office, a big employer, has a large archive of photographs, many featuring individual staff. Certificates of service and pension records for the City of London Police also contain a physical description of their employees. Biographical dictionaries of artists, or actors and actresses, may also include photographs.
In summary, even if you don’t have a photograph of an ancestor, perhaps because they lived long before cameras were invented, information on what they looked like may be ascertained. We can imagine what our ancestors might have looked like physically by looking at their occupations, social class, and personal circumstances. By studying the clothing of the era, we can gain a visual impression. If we are extremely fortunate, and particularly if our ancestors were of a higher social status, their images may be preserved in different art mediums or written down in personal letters. Physical descriptions may be ascertained if they served their country or spent time at His (or Her) Majesty’s Pleasure. Sometimes there are surviving photographs of prisoners. Newspapers are also a valuable source of information on personal appearance and may provide either photographs or physical descriptions – sometimes both!
Tracing and getting in touch with other descendants where you have ancestors in common may be the solution to a lack of photographs or having ones with unidentified family members. Photographic evidence of our ancestors may also also be found outside family collections if we search for local history books, postcards for places associated with our ancestors, and on websites devoted to a particular place or study. Other sources for specific occupations may contain physical descriptions or photographs. It is only natural to wonder what our ancestors looked like but with some research, coupled with imagination, we can get a closer to a picture.
© Judith Batchelor 2020
10 thoughts on “What did our Ancestors Look Like?”
Wonderful post Jude, and a fantastic array of records shedding light on our ancestors’ appearance! I’ve always been a fan of the military descriptions of appearance and it really does bring our research to life to see these little details of what our forebears actually looked like. You have an enviable assortment of images – especially as regards the George Nock painting too. I’m currently on the hunt for a picture of a great-uncle on a collateral line but it’s proving a long road thus far, but nonetheless the thrill of the chase also has its merits…
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Thank you Sophie! When you stop to think about it, there are a lot of potential sources that can shed some light on a person’s appearance. The physical description recorded in military records is great! Of course, there is the uniform that the soldiers and sailors would have worn too.
I quite agree, you have to love the thrill of the chase.😁
Good advice about where (and how) to look at images or descriptions of our family members. Glad to see you mention postcards, an often overlooked source, I think (being an enthusiastic collector). I did find a really good description of a relative yesterday – height, eye colour, cut on his hand, etc. Yes, in criminal records; and under General Remarks, it just said “BAD”. I’m half hoping he’s not really closely related! But my ‘genealogy half’ is very interested.
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Yes, I am becoming rather fond of postcards and they are a great source of local history too. I love collecting ones that feature churches where my ancestors were hatched, matched and dispatched.
The description of “Bad” is pretty damming for the criminal you have found. It sounds as if he might have had quite a few convictions for his character to be so slated.
Brilliant post Jude, another post to get you thinking about all the possible sources for descriptions of our Ancestors and even sets us thinking about their jobs and how they would most likely look given their employment
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Thanks Paul! Although one longs for a photograph or picture of an ancestor, I realised that with a bit of research, especially looking at the typical clothing and styles of a period and the type of work, one could at least get a good impression.
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Definitely agree, military service attestation descriptions are most helpful but your thoughts on occupations and the physical attributes required, from muscle strength to dexterity has got me thinking.
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Hello Judith My brother sent me your interesting article and when I came to your family picture, I thought That’s Granny (Ethel May) in the middle! Our grandparents were siblings! How wonderful to read of my great-uncle. Ethel had two children, Susan and Patrick, and Susan was mother to myself, Gerald and Michael. You probably know all this already! My husband, Mike, and I live in Cape Town, along with our two sons, Matthew (27) and David (25). Come and visit sometime!
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It is lovely to hear from you and make contact. I will send you an email. Regards, Judith