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 that 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 those moments when I decided to take a closer look at some of the old family photos that have been passed down to me.  I was looking at the picture below of my maternal Great, Great Grandmother, Emily Sarah Wickens (nee Elms) with her daughters Emily Violet May (left) and Louisa Ruth Caroline (right).  I believe the picture was taken in England about 1918.

Picture within a picture

Emily Sarah Wickens (centre)

I had seen this picture many times before, but on closer inspection I saw something that had previously escaped my notice.  Emily Sarah had a picture hanging from the necklace 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 often the easiest to overlook!

So who was the man in the picture?  I believe it was likely Emily Sarah’s 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 did not remarry, 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 that of James Thomas Wickens.

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 With Her Daughters

As I looked at the photo more closely, I noticed that Emily Sarah appears to be dressed in all black, which would make sense if she was still mourning the death of her husband.  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 is that there is a smoking pipe in the corner of the window sill, next to one of the potted plants.  Not overly significant, but it was 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?

Wedding of Sidney Harris & Emily Violet May Wickens – 1923

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!  Some things never change.

Military pictures

One type of picture that I find particularly fascinating are those taken of ancestors who served in the military.  My family has been fortunate enough to have preserved some of these pictures, and I have included one of them below.

Sidney Harris

The picture on the right is of Sidney Harris and was likely taken sometime between 1914-1918.  Sidney’s war time service has been particularly challenging to trace due in part to the fact that he had a very common name for that location and period of time.  Many military records from the first world war have not survived, so it’s possible that Sidney’s attestation papers no longer exist.

Family members seem to agree that Sidney’s wartime service was in France, and was related to the artillery in some way.  One family story tells of how Sidney’s horse was shot from underneath him, and that he injured his leg in the incident and was sent to recover in hospital.  The marriage record of Sidney Harris and Emily Violet May Wickens indicates that at the time of their marriage, his occupation was that of a horse keeper.  Given his knowledge of horses, it could be that Sidney served with Great Britain’s royal horse artillery, which may help to narrow my search somewhat.  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 might have missed before.  Scanning the picture so that you can enlarge it electronically, or even using a magnifying glass can really help to pull out the details.  Even if this exercise doesn’t lead to any new discoveries, chances are good that you will gain some further insight or appreciation for the way that your ancestors lived.

If you have thoughts on any of the pictures or observations I have mentioned, or if you have experiences of your own that you would like to share, please take a moment to comment below as I would love to hear from you.

In closing, I will leave you with a picture of one of my wife’s newest creations, which

A Creative Way to Display Your Pictures

seems fitting given that this blog post has been about pictures.  If you would like to order one of these, please feel free to reach out and let me know.

19 thoughts on “What’s In a Picture? Untold Stories of Our Ancestors

  1. Really good Chris… I had forgotten the story about his horse being shot from under him. What a life they lived . Thanks for researching and archiving.


    1. Yes, my maternal great grand parents also came from Lambeth. The families moved around a bit, but mostly seemed to stay within Lambeth. Herne Hill and Tulse Hill are two locations that come up a lot. As does the parish of Clapham and St. Pauls. I’m not as familiar with the placenames as I should be. Where were yours from?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My apologies for the delayed reply. I look forward to reading your post. My Great Great Grandfather died at Milkwood Road in Herne Hill and I have been trying to locate his final resting place. He was only 38 yrs old when he died of sudden syncope. Must have been very difficult for his widow and two young daughters.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Probate calendar says he was James Thomas Wickens of Chrysell-road, Brixton Surrey and that he died at 126 Milkwood-road Herne Hill on 1 June 1900

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the vintage photos and have several in my own family albums. The clothing styles speak of different periods of history. Family stories need to be documented for future generations. My father did a genealogy, and I wrote my memoir to have some family history told for generations to come. Happy blogging.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! It is my hope that younger members of my family will someday take an interest. I have many great memories of my grandparents telling me about their families:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This post is soooo true! I adore finding vintage images of my ancestry. I don’t have any– another family member was gifted with all the family Bibles and photographs, but that doesn’t make them any less special. 🙂 Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Amanda…maybe there are still some family photos yet to be discovered? My wife recently came across her grandmother’s bible, but unfortunately there weren’t any names or dates in it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s always possible- and I certainly hope so!
        Awh, bummer. It’s such a disappointment when something that could be full of information isn’t.


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