England Finding Portraits and Photographs (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Finding Illustrations

Acquiring pictures of people, places and events will increase our appreciation of our ancestors’ lives and can help identify our own photos. Whether it is the bustling city centre or the quiet rural backwater there are many books, museums, picture archives and online databases which can supply appropriate illustrations. Selections of rural photos showing the old way of life—the village smithy, pub or shop may have ‘aged inhabitants’ quaintly posed with contemporary costume and artefacts. Town photos show the buildings, traffic, shopkeepers, markets, elections and other varied events taking place there. There will be at least one book for your county, town or village as the following examples from the more well-known publishers of compilations of Victorian and Edwardian photographs demonstrate:

  • ­ Alan Sutton’s series In Old Photographs includes Maidstone (Hales) and Leicester (Burton).
  • ­ Batsford’s series of Victorian and Edwardian [County] from Old Photographs for example Suffolk (Harrison) and Staffordshire (Murray and Frost).
  • ­ Chalford Press publishes The Archive Photographs Series including Wandsworth (Loobey) and Painswick, Sheepscombe, Slad and Edge (Beard).
  • ­ David and Charles have some more general works such as Jay’s Victorian Cameraman on Francis Frith’s work, and Winter’s A Country Camera 1844-1914.
  • ­ Phillimore’s wide range includes Guernsey Through the Lens (Coysh and Toms), Tonbridge: A Pictorial History (Green) and Bexley, Bexleyheath and Welling: A Pictorial History (Mercer).

There are also many books of photographs of old occupations, for example many of the Shire publications. The Builder (from 1843 but from 1966 known as Building) and Building News (from 1855 and merged with The Architect in 1926) were weekly magazines on architecture and construction and are useful for descriptions of public and private buildings.

Museums and local archives have vast collections of illustrations but do contribute copies of your own photos that they don’t have as it will benefit another researcher sometime. Scrapbooks of local institutions may also be there; I found some relatives’ pictures in the Darent Valley [Smallpox] Hospital scrapbook (Payne). They were deliverymen allowed inside the grounds as they had been vaccinated against the disease hence their pictures were held at the gate lodge for identification.

Some of the larger photographic archives include:

  • The Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading has very large collection depicting country scenes and people.
  • The Hulton Getty Collection (formerly the Hulton Picture Library) is the archive of the Picture Post magazine and is Europe’s largest photographic archive, with illustrations from the late 19th century and is at
  • English Heritage has 300 years of images of working life in rural England.
  • Illustrated London News picture library and the website footsteps.

Other photographic archives can be found through guides such as Evans et al. (1975), a picture source handbook with over 500 international listings and Herber recommends Eakins’ 1985 guide to about 1,100 UK photograph collections. Movietone and British Pathe newsreels were regular features of cinema programmes from 1906-1979.

Commercial auctions feature memorabilia, an example is an 1861 carte de visite album of the Chetwynd and Hussey families with 23 named and dated portraits, priced at £80.

Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.