19th century people

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Suggested inquiry questions: What can we find out from a Victorian photograph?

Potential activities: Make a collection of Victorian family photographs and use them to find out about life at that time.

Download: Lesson pack

What can we tell from this photograph?

Looking at an old photograph is like looking through a window into the past. We look at the people and we wonder, ‘Who are they?’

Unfortunately, photographs by themselves cannot answer this question. We have to use other sources to figure out as much as we can about the people in photographs and their lives.

For example, look at the photograph below and find out: who the people are; what their names are; where they live; what they do; and whether they are rich or poor. Do not guess. The evidence is in the sources.


1. Look carefully at the photograph. The photograph can tell us a lot about Victorian Britain – such as what the fashions at the time were, and the size of families. We can also get an idea about how wealthy these people were.

  • Can you find a cricket bat?
  • How many hats are there in the photograph?
  • Look carefully at the children. Count how many are boys and how many are girls
  • Do you think these were wealthy people? Give your reasons why you think that.
  • How old do you think the children are in the photograph?
  • In what ways are the children’s clothes different to those worn today?
  • Do you think all the children belong to this one family?
  • What does this photograph tell us about the roles of wealthy men, women or children?
  • What can we see in the background of the photograph?
  • Where do you think it might have been taken?
  • Why do you think this photograph was taken?
  • Is this photograph posed in any way?

2. To find out more we can look at a census return. Source 2 is the actual census form which was filled in for James Lillywhite on census night 1891. Study the heading for each column carefully.

  • Find James and his family on the census
  • What did James Lillywhite do for a living?
  • What was the name of his wife?
  • How many children did he have?
  • Does this number match up with the photograph?
  • Put names to the faces
  • This census was taken in 1891, work out what the children’s ages were in 1887 – how does this compare to what you thought in question 1?
  • Why is there a cricket bat in the photograph?
  • Did they have servants?

Which source would be more valuable for finding out about this family?


Photography was invented in the 1820s, with the first photographs taking up to 8 hours per exposure. As photography evolved, images were taken onto plates of glass which would then be turned into photographs. This was a long and expensive process, and because of this, family photographs were mainly reserved for the rich upper classes. In 1884 however, technology evolved enough to allow photographers to use film in their cameras rather than photographic plates, reducing the cost and allowing more people to have photographs taken.

Photographs can be a useful source when looking for information about people. They can give us an idea of how people lived, although we have to consider why the photograph was taken in the first place. Families would not have had their own cameras, instead, they would have to sit for a photographer who would take the image for them.

James Lillywhite, the gentleman in the photograph, was best known as the first ever captain of the English cricket team, although he also went on to become an umpire and umpired all the test matches between Australia and England in the 1881 – 82 season. He came from a well known cricketing dynasty; his uncle was Fredrick Lillywhite, one of the most famous cricketers in the country, and his cousins were also heavily involved in the sport, either by playing, or as cricketing outfitters. His cousin Fred Lillywhite owned a cricketing outfitters warehouse near Euston Square in London, and this was the forerunner of the famous Lillywhites sports stores.

The census return also gives us a great deal of information. Not only does it tell us about James and his family, but by looking at the occupations of his neighbours, we can get an idea of what kind of an area he lived in. A national census has been taken every ten years since 1801. Everyone in Great Britain is counted on the same night. We fill in our own census forms today, but in Victorian times a census enumerator called at every house and filled in the census forms for them.

Teachers' notes

This lesson introduces students to using photographs and the census as historical sources. Photographs have immediate visual impact and are a great way to encourage students’ powers of observation without the difficulty of text. They are useful for encouraging the appreciation between past and present or similarity and difference as well as developing language skills. Students can work through the questions individually or in pairs and report back to the class.

It is important to consider the content of a photograph and see what can be inferred. Again, direct students to think about the problems associated with this type of historical source. Photographs are rarely neutral. Encourage students to discuss why a photograph was taken, has it been posed or ‘edited’, is there an original caption? Can this add to our understanding? What kind of message does the photograph convey? For those using census material for the first time, it is helpful to familiarise students with the layout of the schedule and the sort of information it contains. Ask them to discover:

  • What is the number of the house in the street?
  • How many people are in the house?
  • Who is the ‘head’ of household?
  • Are the people all from one family?
  • How many children are there?
  • What are the children’s names?
  • What are the ages of those in the household?
  • Where were they born?
  • What jobs do they have?
  • What is a scholar?

Work with census records can be extended to compare a middle-class household with a working-class one. Comparing occupations, discussing those that no longer exist today, family size, servants, working class women, and working children are useful activities. This enquiry could be extended to look at other streets or parts of a local area.

  • What sort of work was done by most people who lived in this area?
  • Were these people mainly poor or wealthy?
  • Did most of these people grow up there or did they move to that location from elsewhere?


COPY 1/101 f103: ‘Hoe’s celebrated sauce’

Source 1 : COPY 1/382

Source 2 : RG 12/844

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Suggested inquiry questions: What can we find out from a Victorian photograph?

Potential activities: Make a collection of Victorian family photographs and use them to find out about life at that time.

Download: Lesson pack

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