The Man with the Top Hat

One of the ‘problems’ with being a genealogist is the inability to let a mystery pass you by. And old photographs really do fit the mystery profile – often you have no idea who the person was, their social standing or, well, basically anything about them. Sometimes the cards themselves are in poor condition, so it’s nice to give them a bit of love.

Over the coming months I will hopefully, time allowing, begin a series of photograph restorations and detective work. It’s more interesting to see genealogy at work through artefacts than through cold, hard facts… it may not be proper genealogy (after all I won’t be researching the families unless I gain solid leads… just placing a person in a time and place) but the research techniques are similar.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

Photograph number 1, The Man with the Top Hat.

Victorian man, holding a top hat placed on a table, standing in front of a painted backdrop. Photographer James Pitt, Bethnal Green
The original photograph

When looking at a photograph the physical item itself will usually give up information before you even start. There are many places you can find out about the history of photography, so I won’t go into details here, but looking at the back of this image gives you the details of the photographic studio. It’s not a fancy backing, and the front of the card is plain and simple, therefore we can guess that the image is roughly pre-1870.

The photo, including mount, is 4in (10cm) x 2 ½ in (6.25cm) and known as a carte de visite, the card is thin and the edges are squared, also pointing towards an early date of production.

We can see that the gentleman had his image taken by Mr James Pitt, Photographer, 4 Bethnal Green Road (nearly opposite the Green Gate), London.


James Pitt, photographer

My first port of call in the search is a wonderful website that attempted to record all the photographers in London and is sadly now static due to lack of funding. We strike it lucky and find a fabulous biography of Mr Pitt.

Born in 1829 James Pitt opened his first photographic studio between 1857 and 1864 at 4 Bethnal Green Road. The studio was at 215 Bethnal Green Road between 1871 and 1872, then at 213 until 1902. However, by the 1881 census Pitt was recorded at 170 Grove Road, Bethnal Green with his son helping in the business; James subsequently died in 1886. By 1891 son George was back at 213 as a photographer, and now married with a young son of his own. There is another mystery though, as there are Pitts (or Petts as some transcribers have named them) at 213 in 1901, with the head of the household being a 15 year old girl. She is noted as being with her brothers and sisters and running a photographer’s shop. Were these children of George? What happened to have the children on their own running a photographer’s shop? Were the parents elsewhere or deceased? See… there is always another mystery to solve!

So anyway, that narrows down our image to a seven year period between 1857 and 1864, unless of course Pitt recycled his stock of cards when the photographic studios changed from number 4 to number 215 Bethnal Green Road.


James Pitt, photographer Bethnal Green, London

If you look up 4 Bethnal Green Road on a modern map the building is just adjacent to Shoreditch High Street, and just happens to be part of the Moo Shop (purveyors of mighty fine printed products).  I have to admit to making a squee noise when I located these premises, usually they’re just modern shops with no real interest.

But hang on…

The Green Gate (as mentioned on the photograph backing) was a pub that was situated at 15 Bethnal Green Road, however the street seems to have been renumbered. Church Street is seen on a map of London in 1868 but became part of Bethnal Green Road and was renumbered by the census of 1871, meaning that the pub became 230 Bethnal Green Road. All we really need to know is that Pitt’s studio went from being no. 4 Bethnal Green Road to being renumbered as 215. Unfortunately all that stands there now are modern brick buildings, and the pub is now a supermarket. It’s also worth noting that by the 1860s this part of London, once inhabited by silk weavers (of which I believe James’ father was one), was beginning to become run down and overcrowded, with a cholera outbreak in 1866 killing a number of residents. Not far away Jack the Ripper would stalk his victims and Charles Booths’ poverty map of London in 1889 showed the chronic state of Bethnal Green at the end of the century.

So now we know where the photograph was taken, let’s have a look at the photograph.

The photograph

We see a gentleman standing in front of a simple painted backdrop, his right hand resting on a top hat that is placed on a small table, which is covered with a decorative cloth. A simple domestic chair is placed in front.

Was the top hat his own or was it merely a prop? Often you will see props used in old photographs, either of a symbolic nature (the Victorians loved their symbolism) or just to give the subject something to hold onto. Let’s ignore that for the time-being.

Moving onto his garments, he is wearing a long, loose single-breasted jacket with four covered buttons, only the first being fastened, and narrow lapels. A waistcoat is worn underneath and there are hints of a pocket-watch (a silver or gold fob is hanging from the top waistcoat button). His trousers are loose and informal with a hounds-tooth check, and his shoes are slightly pointed and well kept. Finally a thin bow-tie hangs from his collar.

This gentleman is wearing clothes that are more often linked with those of an artistic nature, loose and free-flowing rather than the more rigid formal attire of gentlemen of the time. His coat is a sack coat, which was introduced around the later 1850s but was more popular in the early 1860s. His trousers are less tapered than was fashionable in the mid-1850s and are more of a style that dates from the late 1850s and early 1860s. All of which points to the photograph being dated around the time that Pitt was starting out.

It may seem that a top hat would not have been worn with such informal attire, however the overall appearance is that this gentleman was of the upper-middle class, therefore the hat may have been included as a symbol of his status. There are, however, illustrations of gentlemen of the time wearing such artistic dress and top hats – the bowler hat, introduced in the 1850s was more the apparel of the working classes – so it may have been his headwear of choice after all.

After looking at the clothes the gentleman is wearing, and while looking at information on the Bethnal Green area, I happened upon the medical document linked to earlier. An interesting piece of information was noted by the Medical Officer of Health:

…and as regards Cranbrook Street the houses are well drained, not over-crowded, and have been recently built on a sandy soil nearly 40ft. above high water level, and the inhabitants are of a well-to-do artizan class

Cranbrook Street was near Grove Road (where Pitt eventually lived, probably in a family home rather than living alongside his studio once his family increased in size), and not far from Bethnal Green Road. So artistic-type clothes certainly fit in with the area; the young well-to-do visiting the local photographer to have their images taken for posterity. However the area was typically built to accommodate weavers, with houses having large upper windows to allow more daylight, so perhaps this gentleman was an artisan weaver or a businessman going up in the world?

For dating, we can’t ignore the man’s hair. He does not have the mutton-chops that were fashionable throughout the 1850s, however he does have a sparse beard and a wave to his hair. His bow tie is also a clue. The 1850s man sported a larger tie, with the bows getting gradually thinner until the high collars of the later 1860s led to the knotted tie, as is commonly worn today. This gentleman’s attire points more to the early 1860s than to the later.

Victorian gentleman standing in front of a painted backdrop, holding a top hat
The photograph after a little digital restoration


So, a date?

Unfortunately there is no name or date to the photograph so we will never know for certain. All we can deduce is that this is a young man, possibly moving up in the world, who may have been an artisan or businessman. He was fashionable and took pride in his appearance, and the photograph was probably taken in the early years of the 1860s. Gut feeling leads me to say 1862, but this is based on other images I have seen, and the design on the back of the card, and is pure conjecture. As a genealogist I could not give this date as fact.

The photographer was, of course, much easier to find.

But a researcher’s work is rarely done. At the end of my research (after looking at census pages, directories and histories of the area) I decided to look for further information on James Pitt, photographer and we have a biography of him presented in the East London History Society magazine, on page 12. It makes interesting reading.

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