What’s In a Picture? Untold Stories of Our Ancestors

That moment…

When it comes to family history, nothing beats that moment when you finally get to see a picture of an ancestor you have been researching for years.  It’s a bit like when you exchange emails or chat with someone by phone, and then finally get to meet them in person.  They never really look the way you picture them! While various records can tell us much about our ancestors, pictures are often much more personal in nature and capture moments in time that words cannot convey.

I recently had one of these moments when I decided to take a closer look at a picture of my Great Great Grandmother, Emily Sarah Wickens (nee Elms).  The picture, which was taken in England around 1918, shows Emily Sarah with her two daughters.

Picture within a picture

I had seen this picture many times before, but on closer inspection I saw something that had previously escaped my notice.  Emily Sarah has a picture in the cameo around her neck.  When I magnified the image, I could see that it was a picture of a man in a suit with a mustache.  It’s funny how the things that are right in front of us are sometimes the easiest to overlook!

The cameo around the neck of Emily Sarah Wickens (middle) clearly contains the image of a man with a mustache and suit


So who was the man in the picture?  I believe it was likely Emily Sarah’s late husband, James Thomas Wickens.  James had died in the spring of 1900,  less than a month before the birth of his daughter, Emily Violet May.  Emily Sarah never remarried, and it appears that she chose to wear a picture of her husband around her neck for this family photo.  Of course I’m speculating a bit here.  I realize this could have been a picture of someone else entirely, but it certainly seems plausible that the picture was of her late husband.

Struggling just to get by

Below is an earlier picture of Emily Sarah with her two daughters, and was probably taken shortly after the death of her husband, James.

Emily Sarah Wickens about 1900


As I looked at the photo more closely, I noticed that Emily Sarah appears to be dressed entirely in black.  Perhaps this was a sign that she was still mourning her husband’s death.  One can get a bit of a sense that this must have been a difficult time for the small family. By the time of England’s 1911 census, Emily Sarah was working as a Charwoman (i.e. chore woman), and her daughter Emily Violet May was living with her Grandparents, Nathaniel and Susan Elms.

The other thing I picked out in this picture was the smoking pipe next to one of the potted plants.  Not overly significant, but something I hadn’t noticed before!


The next picture I wanted to highlight is a wedding photo of Emily Violet May Wickens and her husband Sidney Harris.  The couple were married in the parish of St. Paul’s, Herne Hill, on 9 June 1923.  Seated on the right is the bride’s sister, Louisa Ruth Caroline and seated on the left is probably the groom’s brother, Frank Harris.  I’ll bet that if you take a moment, you will be able to spot something unusual in this picture.  Can you see it?

Peering over the fence in the background are neighbours who must have been watching the wedding party being photographed.  I had to laugh when I noticed that someone had actually scratched out the faces of these unwanted photo-bombers!

The wedding party also seems to have their feet on a blanket that was used to help stage the picture.

Military Pictures

One type of picture that I find particularly fascinating are those taken of ancestors who served in the military.  The picture below is of my Great Grandfather, Sidney Harris.

Picture of Sidney Harris
Sidney Harris in uniform


Sidney’s war time service has been particularly challenging to trace as he had a very common name for that location and period of time. The fact that he did not have a middle name has made it difficult to narrow the search.  Many military records from the first world war have not survived, and it’s possible that Sidney’s attestation papers no longer exist.

Family members seem to agree that Sidney served in France in some capacity within the artillery.  One family story tells of how Sidney’s horse was shot from underneath him, and that he was sent to recover in hospital due to an injured leg.

The marriage record of Sidney Harris and Emily Violet May Wickens indicates that Sidney’s occupation was that of a horse keeper.  Given his knowledge of horses, Sidney may have served with Great Britain’s royal horse artillery.  It is my hope that in time, this picture may provide some additional clues as to Sidney’s wartime service.

Closing thoughts

Old photos can provide some really interesting insights and long forgotten details when it comes to your family’s history.  If you have some of these pictures in your possession, try taking a closer look to see if you can spot anything you may have missed before.

Scanning the picture so that you can enlarge it electronically can really help to pull out the details.  Just be sure to use the highest resolution possible.  If you can’t scan the picture, a magnifying glass may be helpful.  Even if this exercise doesn’t lead to any new discoveries, chances are good that you will gain some further insights or appreciation for the way your ancestors lived.

The ancestors that I profiled in this blog post lived in south London in an borough called Lambeth.  If you have ancestors who lived in London during the 19th century, you will definitely want to watch the new PBS series called Victorian Slum House.  It’s a fascinating look at how modern day families struggle to make ends meet in a Victorian slum in east London.

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One thought on “What’s In a Picture? Untold Stories of Our Ancestors

  1. Thanks Chris. This was fascinating! I don’t see the smoking pipe though! I had heard those stories from mom about the photo bombers! She said Nan scratched them out! So funny. Never noticed the rug or blanket before. Thanks for pointing these things out! I agree that the picture in the locket was likely her beloved husband. Must have been terribly difficult for her. She doesnt look happy..does she?

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