How old are these photographs?
We featured this photograph as our Picture of the Week at the end of March 2016, and suggested that it might be the oldest surviving outdoor photograph of Jersey. A few weeks later a slightly different version surfaced in France, where it was offered for sale at 65 euros. It is described as circa 1870. We believe, however, that the photograph was probably taken some 20 years earlier.
After careful study of the two images we are confident that they are different photographs taken from the same viewpoint within a short time of each other. The only discernable differences are the stance of the figure on the edge of the pier behind the ship in the centre of the picture, and the dog, which appears on the harbour bed close to the centre of the picture on the left, but is missing in the picture above.
Following the addition to Jerripedia in February 2016 of an article charting the early years of photography in Jersey we were sent digital copies of some very early images, including what we believe to be the earliest surviving picture of an outdoor scene in Jersey. We thought that to celebrate we should create a new gallery featuring some of our oldest images of island scenes.
We start the gallery with this harbour photograph, and another slightly different image which was taken at the same time and was offered for sale a few weeks later. We will add to these as soon as we have time to fully research further images.
Image dating problems
We want to take things a little further than simply showcasing old pictures; we want to take the opportunity to examine some of the problems we encounter when trying to date old photographs, and discuss the clues which can be used.
Putting accurate dates to mid-19th century photographs can be extremely difficult. We are frequently sent, or come across, photographs with suggested dates, but they can be wildly inaccurate.
A common problem is that pictures known to have been taken some time in the 1890s, for example, will be described as '1890', the date can, therefore be nearly a decade out.
In other cases the handwritten date on the back of a photograph or the caption to a digital image may simply be somebody's guess, so the first rule when it comes to dating photographs is: 'Don't believe what you are told!'.
And here we must hold our hands up and admit that our estimates of dates cannot always be relied on, either. Over 48,000 images have been added to Jerripedia since we started with a photograph of All Saints Church on 12 August 2010. That's roughly 28 every day, and given that several hours can be spent just trying to pin down the date of a single photograph, we hope you will appreciate the difficulties we face and the efforts we go to in an attempt to 'get it right'.
Jerripedia has the largest online collection of images of Jersey; over 49,500 compared to the Société Jersiaise photographic archive's 35,000. OK, not all our images are original photographs - some are paintings and drawings - but we are not sure whether the Société's total includes all the images in its online catalogue which are not actually available to view.
But such comparisons are odious and what is important is that Jerripedia 'gets it right', and we are constantly adding dates to photographs on the site, or amending existing ones. Please forgive us if we have got something wrong, but don't keep the information to yourself! Let us know what you think, and we will make amendments and corrections as quickly as possible.
Are these the oldest?
The photograph at the top of the page was believed to show the French Harbour, one of the original sections of St Helier Harbour, protected by what was called South Pier, then Old South Pier, and is again known as South Pier today. The picture immediately attracted our attention because it shows such a lovely view of a port in the Victorian era, crowded with wooden sailing ships. Undoubtedly some of these vessels would have been built in Jersey, which was a major ship building centre in the middle of the 19th century.
The emergence of the second photograph reveals that we had the wrong section of harbour. This is actually the English Harbour, to the right of the French, as it is viewed here. The wider view on the left of the later image shows the area known as La Folie, which is between the two harbours.
Closer inspection reveals that these photographs are remarkable not for what is in them, but for what is not there. One of the best ways of dating photographs is if they do not show a building or other structure known to have been erected at a certain date, and if they show another structure known to have been built earlier, that gives a timeframe during which the photograph must have been taken.
There is something clearly missing from this image, and that is the Albert Pier, the outer arm of St Helier's Harbour for over a century, which should stretch across in the background, ending just after the angle in the pier. Closer inspection of the clearer picture shows that there appears to be a new pier under construction, and on the very left of the image is a dark triangular shape, which we now know to be the end of the South Pier, not the Victoria Pier as previously stated, and which is out of sight to the left of the view shown.
The latter was completed in 1846 and renamed from its original New South Pier in honour of the visit of Queen Victoria that year. The new North Pier was started in 1846 and completed in 1853, then renamed Albert Pier in honour of Prince Albert. This dates the photograph to between these last two years, and given the state of progress on the new pier, which has yet to reach its full length or height, probably somewhere in the middle - perhaps 1849-1851.
This makes these remarkable and historic photographs, because, although studio portraits are in existence which have been dated to around 1845 - five years after the first demonstration of photography is believed to have taken place in the island - the earliest pictures taken outdoors in the island showing any recognisable structure were previously believed to be those of the Royal Square taken in 1852, and of Victoria College, taken the following year, a few months after it opened, by Charles, the son of exiled French writer Victor Hugo.
Album of early photographs
There are other very early photographs of Jersey in an album in the collection of Princeton University, including this picture of Gorey Harbour and Mont Orgueil Castle, possibly taken in 1851, and predating the Charles Hugo images.
The date when the photograph was taken, apparently by a Mr Brodie, to whom other photographs in the album have been linked, is not known. However, it appears on the same page as other images dated 1851, and close examination of the picture, which shows active shipyards on the shore on the left, suggest that this date is quite possible.
- Pictures of mid-19th century Jersey in remarkable album, Jerripedia page on the Princeton University album
More early Harbour photographs