160 year old photo of my great-great-grandparents

Benjamin Guy, Hannah Welby, 3 daughters

These are the oldest photos I have of my ancestors and I think they were taken nearly 160 years ago.  They show my great-great-grandparents Benjamin and Hannah Guy (nee Welby) and three of their daughters. The photos are in a small leather case which folds in half and this is probably why the photos have survived all this time in reasonably good condition. My two main questions on finding this family heirloom were: when were these pictures taken? and which three daughters? (Benjamin and Hannah had five daughters and five sons altogether).

I’m no photography expert but I believe this type of photo is known as an ambrotype, and was introduced in the mid-1850s. It replaced the daguerreotype and was much less expensive to produce so was accessible to more people. Benjamin and Hannah Guy were not very well off – he was a book binder and they had ten children to care for – so it makes sense that they would have had these photos taken when it became cheaper. 

Another critical piece of information that helped me estimate the date of the photos is that Hannah Guy died in October 1861 at the age of 45, so the photo must have been taken before then. 

In trying to work out which three daughters are included in the photo, I thought it was likely that one of the girls would be my direct ancestor Alice Guy (my great grandmother) as this would explain why the photo has been passed down the Guy – Harrison – Bolton family line. Looking at the three girls, the youngest one looks most like my great grandmother Alice, and the child on the left looks most like her sister Sarah. Here they are as older people, Sarah on the left, Alice on the right (with husband Frank) – what do you think? Can you see the likeness with the older photo above? 

Another photo of Alice as an adult features in an earlier post – Alice Harrison and her daughters

If I’m right about Sarah and Alice being the younger two children in the photo, then the best candidate for the oldest child is Margaret who was 3 years older than Sarah. I don’t have any other photos of Margaret or any of the other children in the family to compare. It is possible that photos were taken of the other children which have been passed down other lines of the family. I’d love to see them so please get in touch if you are a long lost cousin and/or have any photos of the Guy family. 

Given that Alice was born in 1857 and looks about 3 years old in this photo, I’m making a calculated guess that these pictures were taken in 1860 – which was exactly the right time for ambrotypes to be popular, and a year or so before Alice’s mother, Hannah Guy, died in 1861. 

The children look so serious and I suspect they had been made to stand still for quite a while after they had been carefully arranged in this pose. It is amazing to have such old photos and to see what my great-great-grandparents and my great-grandmother looked like about 160 years ago.

Photo credit: with thanks to Kathy Worsnip for sharing the photo of Sarah Guy as an older woman.


9 thoughts on “160 year old photo of my great-great-grandparents

  1. Just a quick comment. Early photography required long exposures.

    Even if possible any smile held for long periods looks false. And if you did smile and you moved during the exposure the mouth would be distorted hence it was normal for people to look serious as that expression is easy to hold.

    Frequently the head was held at the back of the neck with a sort of brace so as to make the sitters remain in place. These were often touched out if they were visible.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. is it possible to get the photographs out of the frame / binding, to see if there is a scrap of paper inside, or if there is writing on the back? Unlikely, but possible. Then, like now, people JUST DON’T put (full) names on paper (or electronic!) photos, because none of us are thinking about 100+ years in the future. But, someone merely 100 years ago might have slipped something in, and indeed, you ought to do so now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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