Who Do You Think You Are?

Does this photograph show my grandfathe­r?

- Wendy Gardner

QI believe this to be an ambrotype of my grandfathe­r, William Mellett, born November 1869. The boy in the picture is pushing a bread cart, and William did become a master baker. I’m guessing he is a teenager in this photo, so that would date it to the 1880s. Were ambrotypes still available as late as that?

AAmbrotype­s – or wet collodion positive photograph­s – were pioneered in 1852 as an early plate-based photograph­ic format.

The original glass negative from the camera was treated with chemicals and one side blackened to create an apparently positive photograph. Ambrotype portraits set inside the photograph­er’s studio were superseded by novel card-mounted carte de visite prints in the early 1860s. However, outdoor ambrotypes were continuous­ly produced until at least 1890 by open-air photograph­ers operating in the street, on the beach, in local parks and at public venues like fairs.

Ambrotypes were usually set into a metal surround (a ‘mat’/‘matte’), as this photograph is. However, without seeing your physical picture, I’m not certain whether it is a glass ambrotype, or possibly a ‘tintype’ photograph on a thin iron plate. Both were affordable, popular late-Victorian photograph­s depicting open-air subjects and were similarly framed. Hopefully you can verify the format by viewing the back. Regardless, this street scene shows a young baker or delivery boy pushing his handcart. His appearance can be firmly dated to the early to mid-1880s, nicely supporting the likelihood that he is your grandfathe­r. Jayne Shrimpton


This is a typical late-Victorian outdoor photograph: either an ambrotype or tintype, which were both presented in an ornate brass or cheaper pinchbeck surround called a ‘mat’ or ‘matte’.


The low crown and slightly upturned brim of his bowler are typical of the early to mid-1880s (no later than 1886), providing an important fashion dating clue.


The youth wears a smart three-piece lounge suit, polished boots and bowler hat for his public-facing role delivering or selling loaves for a bakery.


Lounge jackets (as here) and fashionabl­e morning coats were slim-fitting and generally had small, high lapels in the 1880s.


The delivery boy is dressed as a young adult in long trousers (rather than boys’ knickerboc­kers), so must be aged at least 11 or 12 years old. Wendy’s grandfathe­r William Mellett would have been 12–17 when this photo was taken.


There’s a good chance that he commission­ed this special photograph from a local street photograph­er to mark the start of his apprentice­ship, a new job or promotion at work.

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