Thursday, 6 August 2009

The latest 1897 Paris fashions in Walsall

16th Smile for the Camera Carnival - Bling Ancestor

I have read of people identifying jewellery in old family photographs as being heirlooms which they themselves subsequently inherited, and in a previous article I posted a photograph of an unidentified family member wearing some jewellery. My own knowledge about jewellery is almost non-existent but the brooch being worn by the young woman in this photo is one from which even I can derive some information immediately. It is thus an appropriate entry for the footnoteMaven's 16th Smile for the Camera Carnival, Bling Ancestor.

Image © and collection of Barbara Ellison
Rachel Elizabeth Benfield (1880-1956)
Carte de visite portrait by F.T. Webb, 4 South Street, Walsall
Image © and collection of Barbara Ellison

An inscription on the reverse of the cabinet card portrait identifies the subject as, "Rachel Benfield married Fred Payne." This was Rachel Elizabeth Benfield (1880-1956) who married my great-grandfather's younger brother Fred Payne (1879-1946) at the Trinity Wesleyan Church in Corporation Street, Walsall on 22 May 1901. I have written previously about Fred here and here. The writing is in the hand of my aunt - she knew her great-aunt Rachel, and I have no cause to doubt her identification. Rachel, or Ray as she was known to our branch of the family, was born on 2 June 1880 in Walsall, one of eleven children (eight boys and three girls) of blacksmith Joseph Benfield (1855-1900) and Phoebe Kendrick (1854-1951).

Image © and collection of Barbara Ellison

Confirmation of my aunt's identification is provided, however, in the form of the brooch that she is wearing at her neck. An enlargement (click on image above) clearly shows that it is in the shape of the name "Rachel." There aren't any other close family members that I'm aware of with this name, so it has to be her. She also has a corsage with what appears to be a large white rose bud, and another dangly thing at the left which I can't quite make out.

Image © and courtesy of Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper's Bazaar 1867-1898 by Stella Blum
Detail of Paris Reception Gown
In Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper's Bazaar 1867-1898, 25 December 1897
Image © and courtesy of Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper's Bazaar 1867-1898 by Stella Blum

I'm also interested in the style of dress that she is wearing. It seems very elaborate with a lot of detailed embroidery on the large collar and sleeves. I found an engraving dated 1897 of a gown with a very similar squarish wide collar in Stella Blum's very useful Victorian Fashions & Costumes. The caption to that illustration contains the following details of the construction of the garment:
The distinctive part of the gown is a collar which is cut out in front and back like a square neck dress ... point-lace, which is appliqued onto the velvet, and is bordered by a band of sable fur.
Image © The National Archives and courtesy of
1901 Census: Benfield family in Walsall
Image © The National Archives and courtesy of

On census night (Sunday 31 March) 1901 Rachel was living with her family at 33 Camden Street, Walsall. She described herself as a dressmaker, and her younger sister Florence was a milliner. Kristina Harris, in the introduction to her 1999 book Authentic Victorian Fashions, writes the following about the "average, middle-class American woman" of the 1890s:
Most ... women brought fashion plates (from one of the many ... fashion magazines available ...) to her dressmaker; the dressmaker customized a chosen outfit according to her skills and her customer's desires ... If there was no dressmaker in town, or if a lady could not afford one, her next best source was a local seamstress - a housewife who took in sewing part time. For many women, one new dress a season was all that could be afforded; some women felt fortunate to be able to have one newdress a year. It was fabric, not labor, that was usually the most expensive factor in creating a new dress.
The fact that Rachel's 1901 census entry reads, "Dress Maker, Own account, At home," indicates that she was self-employed, and probably took in dressmaking jobs as described by Harris. Her sister Florence, on the other hand, was described as a worker and would therefore have been employed in a local milliner's shop. It seems very likely that Rachel made this dress which she is wearing in the Webb portrait. She would have copied or adapted the design from something similar to the engraving from Harper's Weekly shown above, according to her means. For example the lace, would have been very expensive to purchase, would have been replaced with some kind of embroidery or brocade. She looks to be aged between 18 and 21, and I estimate that the portrait was taken in 1900 or 1901, perhaps not long before her marriage, which took place three weeks after the census.

The photographer Frederick Thomas Webb was originally a japanner, artist and portrait painter from Wolverhampton, settling in Walsall with his wife Mary Ann née Jones in the late 1880s. By 1901 he had turned his hand to portrait photography, operating a studio from his house at 4 South Street. It is not clear how long he remained in business.

Oriental design on carte de visite tissue protector
by F.T. Webb of Walsall, c.1900-1901
Image © and collection of Barbara Ellison

The carte de visite has a rather nice preserved tissue protector with an oriental design that I've not seen before.


Copy of Marriage Certificate for F. Payne & R.E. Benfield, Collection of Brett Payne

Blum, Stella (ed.) (1974) Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper's Bazaar, 1867-1898. Dover Publications, New York. 294p. ISBN 0486229904.

Harris, Kristina (ed.) (1999) Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns, A Complete Lady's Wardrobe. Dover Publications, New York. 136p. ISBN 0486407217.

1841-1901 UK Census indexed images from The National Archives and


  1. I am enjoying reading this blogpost . . . still have to follow all the links to read everything else . . . but for now, just an FYI . . . I believe your unidentified "dangly thing" is most likely a "chatelaine" . . . thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for your kind words and for identifying the item, Vicki - I knew somebody would come up with the correct term! Regards, Brett


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