A Photographic Conundrum?

A story of research and perseverance in identifying a photograph

by Steve Beamon

Photographic Conundrum Click to see enlarged image.

I collect pictures of police officers, usually individuals and sometimes groups. I am particularly interested in Metropolitan Police officers and those from our ancestral forces….the railway police – but I try to keep that interest pre 1930 otherwise I would end up with hundreds of photographs!

The photograph with this article clearly  involves some sort of VIP visit and the questions that I am asking are:

When?  Where?  Who?  Why?

To discover when the photograph was taken is to make an assumption – because of the nature of the visit – that a tripod was used by a professional photographer. I assume the tripod because of the clarity of the original and the height of the frame. Professional cameras for outdoor work developed from the 1870’s and continued in the plate format for much of the 20th century so not much help for dating.

Looking at the clothing of the spectators and in particular the headwear of the men in the foreground, a straw boater, workers flat cap and a bowler, not only do they represent status but can also provide a clue of which decade we are in. We can also just see a ladies hat with a ribbon on it. Had we been able to see the clothing of the other women spectators, who were probably wearing the latest fashion, a more precise date may have been possible. The men’s shirts have pointed collars and this fashion took over from rounded collars in the middle part of the 1910’s. Mostly made at Luton in Bedfordshire, straw boaters were popular as men’s formal summer hats from the end of the 19th century until the early part of the 20th century but they had dropped out of main stream fashion by the 1920’s.  The bowler, popular in the American West, but was used in Britain to denote status, usually that of a foreman and eventually those who worked in the banking profession. However for dating the photograph perhaps the most significant hat is that of the lady in the left foreground, it has a crown almost as wide as the brim and this style was popular for just a few years between 1907 and 1910, but I expect that a prudent lady would probably make it last for a bit longer. The police officers are not wearing any medals and therefore the photograph is prior to the 1914 – 1918 war. Using all this evidence my guess is that the photograph was taken between 1910 and 1914, during one of the summer months of June, July or August.

Answering the question of why and who is probably extremely simple…..there are Union flags, a Royal Naval ensign and the three feathers of the Prince of Wales. With lots of greenery and the police officers wearing white gloves, it clearly indicates a Royal Visit. The Prince of Wales feathers could mean that it was the heir to the throne, and the Naval Ensign would probably relate to a keen naval man…..King George V was the Prince of Wales in 1901 until 1910 when he succeeded to the throne, he had served in the navy and was fond of the sea. The eldest son of the King, later to become Edward VII, also enjoyed the sea leaving the Navy when he became the Prince of Wales in 1910 at the age of 16.

The building and architecture seem to indicate a railway station as the metal girders just visible in the subway area is fairly typical of many stations. Realising that the police officers did not have a crown on their helmet plate and the chances were that they were railway police, I sent a copy of the photograph to a fellow HG member, who identified them as Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Police. It does go to prove that researching photographs should not be a solitary exercise and that it is prudent to make use of subject experts. At this point I enlisted the help of the Lancs & Yorks Railway Society (L&YRS) in the hope that the station might be recognised.

Chris Leach from the society shared the photograph with fellow members and remembered having seen a similar photograph previously – part of a series of three held by the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York. He confirmed that it was a Royal Visit to Lancashire in early July 1913 by King George V and Queen Mary, probably accompanied by their son, the Prince of Wales; and that the station was Ashton-under-Lyne.

The two heraldic shields between the two large flags are not yet identified. And I have not yet checked with the NRM that there are other photographs of the visit. Always more to do, but so much has been learned about the photograph!


With thanks to:

Michael ‘Dan’ Tanner – BTPHG

Chris Leach and the members of the Lancs & Yorks Railway Society.

 ‘Family Photographs & How to Date Them’  – Jayne Shrimpton  (Countryside Books 2009)

 ‘Badges of Office’ – M.B. Taylor & V.L. Wilkinson  (R Hazel & Co 1995)


This article originally appeared in the BTPHG Year Book 2012.