Hazel Crawford recently sent me this lovely photo and asked if I could help with establishing a date. I’m always up for a photo detective challenge! The photo was taken outside Syringa House in Christ Church, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. Hazel is particularly interested in the photo as she is currently undertaking a massive renovation project of the house. Syringa is an Early 19th century cottage built of local gault brick and with a pantiled roof.

Hazel made a guess that her photo was of a christening as two small children are being held up to the camera and therefore seem a significant part of the family. However on closer inspection I was able to establish that the photo is a late Victorian wedding photo. It is often easy to overlook a wedding group if a `white gowned girl’ isn’t taking centre stage.

Late Victorian Weddings

The White Wedding was not firmly established during the 19th century. White wedding dresses were a luxury. Brides often wore a coloured day dress, which could be worn again.  It was also common for brides to wear a hat instead of a veil. Photos and newspaper evidence tend to report on the highest levels of fashionable society and therefore give a false impression that a bride always wore a white dress and long veil. In this newspaper report from 1894 the bride wore a fawn travelling costume with a hat to match.

Western Mail 10 Aug 1894


On closer inspection our central lady may not be wearing white, but she is carrying a bridal bouquet and her clothes and hat are trimmed with white.


Some brides did choose to wear white. This fabulous photo of Alma Simmonds was taken in 1897 and demonstrates the latest style of dress for the ’90s. What an amazing waist Alma has! She must have had a good corset. In the 1890s waists were tiny and were combined with top-heavy sleeves and bell-shaped skirts.

Our photo is typical of the 1890s which saw a rise of larger group wedding scenes.  Outdoor settings for wedding photos were more common in the later part of the 19th century.

Women’s Dress 1890s

I have taken a lot of my fashion clues from this very informative book by Betty Kreisel Shubert, which I highly recommend purchasing. It is easy to read and has a wealth of information.


The biggest clues to dating a photo from the 1890s are women’s sleeve style variations.

1890 -1892 The vertical high-top sleeve cap that had begun in the late 1880s lasted through to 1892

1892 The sleeve cap was growing wider horizontally.

A small vertical puff at the shoulder was, a sign that the gigot or leg-o-mutton was developing

Skirts were flared and A-line.

The Bishop Sleeve also grew wider. This photo of Agnes Groboski was taken in 1892 to celebrate her wedding to Frederick William Polglass Perrett in Queensland, Australia.
1895 – 1897 Sleeves were at their most extreme. Huge leg -o’- mutton sleeves were named after their unusual shape. They were formed from a voluminous amount of fabric at the upper arm which tapered to a tight fit at the lower arm from the elbow to the wrist. They had been fashionable in the 1820s and then went out of favour. In this short period during the 1890s the over blown sleeves were designed to accentuate a tiny corseted waist.

Dundee Courier 24 April 1896

In 1896 Agnes Perrett wore the latest fashion in sleeve style when she posed for this photo with her two boys Frederick and Stanley.


 1897 – 1898 Beginning in 1897 there was a change of emphasis at the top of the sleeves. Huge leg o’ muttons were replaced with ruffles, double ball puffs and other top of the shoulder decoration. The sleeve puff began to deflate and withdrew higher up the arm. We see smaller caps and big fanciful ruffles.  


1897 The ball-shaped puff sleeve style arrived in 1897 and variations lasted through 1900. The sleeve was narrow, topped by a separately sewn-on, small (or large)  ball-shaped puff which resembled a lollipop on a stick. The younger fashionable lady on the right of the group is wearing these sleeves. It almost looks like she wants to emphasise that she is wearing the most fashionable outfit  as she has turned away from the camera to show off her puff-ball sleeves and narrow waist.

1898 -1900 The sleeve returned to more modest proportion and skirts had a tulip flare.  A narrower sleeve was fashionable with some detailing at the top of the arm. You might see a small puff, frill or epaulette. Tailor-made suits were worn and we begin to see shirt-waist blouses.


Women’s Hats – 1890s


It is more difficult to date a photo form the 1890s by looking at hat style. Vintage photos show women wearing the same shape of hat throughout the decade. Looking at the sleeve style is usually more informative.

The straw boater or sailor hat was universally worn. Masculine styled clothes became fashionable with the rise of sporting activities for women. It was quite acceptable for a women to wear a boater where once it had been considered too masculine.  


Platter Hats were common. These had slightly larger straight brims than a boater.

Hats tended to be flat with a shallow, wide crown and there was a general trend towards wider hat brims.They were worn straight on or tipping forward.

You often see high, vertical trims in the 1890s.

It was fashionable to wear a hat with a veil. Four of the ladies in our wedding party are wearing hats with veils, which provides a clue to their identity.


Hairstyles grew fuller around mid decade. Hair tended to be waved or rolled back from the face. You begin to see wider brimmed hats that rest plate like on the head and were ornamented with bows, feathers and flowers.

In the 1890s men in their twenties and thirties began to discard the beard in favour of a neat moustache. Older men retained their beards as they represented dignity and authority. The Walrus moustache was the look of the decade.

Men wore a variety of styles of hat including bowlers, boaters and hombergs. The cloth cap with a peak was popular among ordinary working men for country wear.

Identifying our 1890s Bride

I know from Hazel that the Berry family were living at Syringa House, Christ Church, Upwell in the 1890s. From various census returns I found Samuel Berry, a farmer, married to Mary and they had at least 7 children.

Samuel Joseph Berry b 1825 Upwell = Mary b 1829 Pluckley, Kent

Samuel Hugh Berry b 1854 U.S.A

Alice Berry b 1856 U.S.A

Ida Francis Berry b 1860 U.S.A = James Henry Hutchinson m 1905

Clara Elizabeth Berry b 1862 U.S.A = John Francis Corke b 1839 m 1898

Ann Ellen Berry b 1866 Upwell d 1871

Sarah Jane Berry b 1868 Upwell  = Frederick Hyde m 1891

Florence Lucy Berry b 1871 Upwell  d Autumn 1898 = Francis Lidington Corke m 1895

1871 census Christchurch, Upwell

From my research I am dating the photo as sometime between 1897 and 1900. One of the ladies has ball shaped puff sleeves which came in to fashion around 1897. Ida married in 1905 which is too late for our photo. Sarah married in 1891 and this is too early. The oldest ladies are wearing fashions which are at the tail end of Leg O’ Mutton Sleeve Era dating the photo to after 1896. I am making an educated guess that our bride is not Florence either as she married in 1895. I believe therefore that the photo is either of Clara Berry or her sister Alice. I can’t find any records for Alice in the locality. I therefore think our bride must be Clara Elizabeth Berry who married John Francis Corke in 1898 in Pockthorpe, Norwich.

Marriage of Clara E Berry to John Francis Corke – 20 Dec 1898

On closer inspection this is an interesting wedding. Clara was 36 and married John Corke aged 60, a widower with 5 grown-up children. One of John’s children Francis had married Clara’s sister Florence Berry in 1895! Florence and Francis had 2 young children Stanley and John Corke born in 1896 and 1897. Clara’s brother in law Francis had been left a widower a couple of months earlier when her sister Florence died. Clara married her brother in law’s father. The two boys were brought up by Clara and another sister Ida Berry after she married.

1911 census records for the 2 young boys

I would love to go back in time. Did Clara marry for love or duty? Her marriage to a man who was old enough to be her father meant she could look after her deceased sister’s children and her new husband ‘s grandchildren. Clara’s sister Ida and her son-in-law Francis were both witnesses at the wedding. Francis emigrated to the USA and left his children behind with his father and later re-married himself.

The photo is therefore not a celebration of a double baptism as Hazel presumed,  but a close-knit family wedding. The two children are being held up because they are a significant part of the celebration. Stanley and John have just lost their mother Florence and their Aunt Clara is marrying their grandfather John Corke.

I am guessing the photo was taken before the party set off for the marriage ceremony and that the elder groom is therefore not present. The four ladies wearing veils are the Berry sisters and Ida is the sister at the front acting as bridesmaid and dressed the same as her sister, but without the bouquet.

I love knowing the stories behind a photo and doing a bit of detective work.. What a wonderful thing to know the story behind the people that lived in your house. I was very pleased to be able to help Hazel in her quest for information. Please do get in touch if you have an interesting photo for me to play detective with!



3 Comments on Photo Detective – 1890s

  1. Christina Miskin
    22nd August 2017 at 9:19 pm (3 years ago)

    This fascinating, Patsy. How on earth do you find the time to do all this research?

    • Patsy Smiles
      22nd August 2017 at 10:11 pm (3 years ago)

      Hi Chris, when I’m not out in the garden I’m busy researching social history! There aren’t enough hours in the day for all my projects! Patsy X

  2. Pamela Corke
    27th July 2019 at 12:58 am (10 months ago)

    This is my family picture, too. John Corke is my great great grandfather.. the story you were able to piece together is accurate . We like to think that it was more than a marriage of convenience. The little boy’s father and his 2nd wife emigrated to the USA and raised a second family. I am happy to report that,although more than a century has passed, the British and Canadian Corkes have re-established connections. Perhaps , one day, we will go together to Syringa House.


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