A Photographic Image


Thomas Orr

Grocer & Publican of Belfast, Ireland



The photograph.... 

The photograph shown below is the only verifiable likeness of Thomas ORR and his son Edward that is known. The original is a tiny 'carte-de-visite' style photograph.

The photograph boasts an impeccable provenance through family lines, and it shows signs of considerable wear on both front and back.

 Thomas Orr and son Edward, by Plimmer of Belfast, circa 1870 (jef)Thomas Orr and son Edward, by Plimmer of Belfast, circa 1870

The subjects....

Thomas Orr was born somewhere in Antrim County, Ireland, in about 1817. Details about his year and place of birth are known only from an 1851 Census of Ireland Census Extract (found in his daughter Mrs. Jane McCUTCHEON's Irish Pension Application file); from the 1901 Census of Ireland schedule where details about him were recorded; and from his 1901 Irish death registration record.

There are tantalizing hints, from autosomal DNA results, that Thomas was the son of a couple named William & Mary Orr, although nothing is known about them other than their names. A sister of Thomas is also suggested by DNA results, named Elizabeth (born possibly around 1815). She is known to have married Stewart RICHMOND some time before 1 April 1845, and moved from Larne, Antrim County, to New Zealand, around 1863.

Thomas was married to Mary DUNLOP, probably in 1844 - we say probably, because their oldest known child, Elizabeth, was born on 10 August 1845. Civil registration of Protestant marriages began in Ireland on 1 April 1845, and because no record of Thomas & Mary's marriage can be found in the civil records, we can only assume that the ceremony took place before this start date. It presently seems most likely that Mary Dunlop was from the Antrim County area around Portrush. Records from the Presbyterian church where it's thought Mary Dunlop was born and lived, were destroyed in a fire at the minister's home in the 1860s.

Thomas Orr operated a very successful spirits dealership enterprise on the Malone Road at what is known as Clink Hill in south-east Belfast. He was initially a roadmaster in Malone, Antrim County, and moved to his place of business in 1858. He retired and sold his enterprise in 1885, and lived out most of his remaining days in Belfast. The ghost of Thomas' enterprise continues today in the same building he operated from (albeit with significant renovations), known as the 'Botanic Inn'.

Mary [nee Dunlop] Orr died in Belfast in 1868, and only one son is known to have survived beyond early childhood - a boy named Edward, born in 1860. This photograph was undoubtedly taken within just a few years of Mary [nee Dunlop] Orr's death, otherwise, we might expect that she would have been included.


The photographer....

Thomas PLIMMER was a commercial photographer who worked from studios at various addresses in Belfast in the latter half of the 19th century. See more about him below.


When was the photograph taken?

An examination of the possible exposure dates for the photograph follows the fundamental suggestions found in Stephen GILL's exceptional work "Dating by Design, 1840-1915". The author of this article has no commercial interest or association with Mr. Gill, but his suggestions are solid. Find out more about him and his work through <https://www.photo-consult.co.uk/>.

The photo showing above was a small photographic set known popularly as a 'carte-de-visite'. This type of image was first patented in Paris, France, in 1854, by André Adolphe Eugène DISDERI. The original photographic image here, about 2.125 inches by about 3.5 inches, was printed on photographic card stock measuring about 2.5 inches by about 4.125 inches. All four of the card stock corners are square. The photographer's name and address printed on the front are plain, in a single colour (red). Gill suggests that this type of stock was offered to photographers by suppliers between about 1855 and 1870, but the rather plain, single colour border and text showing the photographer's name and location suggests a style consistent with usage closer to 1870, than 1855, in the general usage period. Indeed, Gill suggests a usage period for this kind of lettering from the 1860-1875 period. These types of photographs were exceptionally low cost to produce - carte-de-visites were advertised for sale on Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada, in the 1890s for 10 cents each.

The reverse of this photograph (not shown here) has only an elaborate 'P' over block text in the same ink colour as the frame and text on the front side. The basic text shows the photographer's name and address - T Plimmer, 19 High Street, with an offer to reproduce any image by enlargement or coloured with oil or water paints. Gill again suggests that this is consistent with a product that was available to photographers in the 1855 - 1870 period (although some allowance must be made for it to have come from closer to 1870 than 1855, because of the more embellished 'P'). There are no card-stock printer markings on the back of the card, so Gill suggests that this example certainly came before about 1882.

The photograph was clearly taken within a studio setting. We see that Thomas is leaning on a box, which was placed on a table, allowing him a place to brace himself for a longer exposure photograph. Edward seems to have been propped up against the chair behind him. Earlier photographic processes required a sitter to be perfectly still for many seconds, as the image was fixed in the medium. As photographic processes improved, the necessity to maintain stillness decreased, but here we see all of the props from an earlier era around Thomas and Edward.

Thomas' shoes are 'square-toed', rather than pointed. Gill suggests that this was a style popular in London, England, until about 1865, and we can imagine that the latest London styles might not have reached Belfast until closer to 1870. And, as an older gentleman, we can expect that Thomas might not have worn through perfectly good pairs of shoes until well past their 'best before fashionable' date. Edward's shoes are likewise more 'square-toed' than pointed, suggesting again an 1865 - 1870 era setting.

Neither Thomas' nor Edward's trousers show a pressed crease down the middle, which suggests a style popular between about 1850 and 1890.

The fabric of Thomas's waistcoat seems to match the fabric of both his jacket and his trousers, which Gill suggests is a style that rose about 1870. His waistcoat is not square-cut at the bottom, again suggesting a newer style from around 1870. But Thomas's jacket is swept back at the bottom, with very wide lapels, and very large buttons and button holes, most of which seem principally decorative. This suggests styles popular in the mid to late 1860s.

Edward's jacket is square-cut at the bottom in the front, with narrower lapels, and appears 'double-breasted', which suggests a slightly newer style than Thomas'. And the fabric of his waistcoat again seems to match the fabric of both his jacket and his trousers. These again suggest, for a young gentleman perhaps just off to school, a newer style closer to or just after 1870, rather than before.

Thomas has a small key displayed prominently in the opening of his jacket, over his waistcoat, strung on a possibly leather or stoutly woven refined 'twine'. Edward appears to have a brass (or, perhaps, silver) chain which may or may not attach to a pocket watch.

Thomas' neck piece is more of a narrow cravat, than a modern neck-tie, which suggests, according to Gill, a style from the 1860 - 1870 period. Edward's neck piece is more of a 'bow tie', than a cravat, and again suggests a transitional style from the early 1870s.

The collar behind Thomas' cravat is difficult to discern, but it does not appear to be the high type common in the 1850s and early 1860s. Edward's collar is low, with a strong curve at the front sides, suggestive of newer styling becoming popular around 1870, or so.

Thomas is sporting 'mutton-chop' side whiskers, rather than being either clean-shaven or fully bearded. He also sports no moustache. This style of facial hair was most popular in the 1860s, but was still fashionable on older gentlemen around 1870. Otherwise, both Thomas and Edward have similar hair lines and styles, more reflective of circa 1870 styles, than earlier.

Neither Thomas nor Edward show any visible display of mourning accessories.

Right. So much for the subjects of the photographs. What can we learn about the photographer?

A photographer's studio operated in northern Ireland under variations of the name 'Thomas Plimmer' from 1859, until about 1897. Sometimes the business name was shown to be 'T & S Plimmer', other times as 'Thomas [or T] Plimmer & Son(s)'. In the early 1890s the business name was shown to be 'Thomas S Plimmer'.

On the 8th of January, 1859, it was mentioned on Page 3 in the Meath Herald and Cavan Advertiser, that 'Messers T & S Plimmer, photographic artists, are about removing from this town to Trim, in a few days'. At that time, they were in Kells, County Meath, Ireland, and there they remained, opening their studio for short periods of time, as advertised, until May. But by the end of June, they were in Cavan, and an advert in the Cavan Observer on 30 June (Page 1) stated that they were 'from London', and that they had 'set up their portable studio in the Market Square'. They extended their stay in Cavan, but by the 23rd of June, 1862, according to a notice published in the Belfast Morning News (Page 1) they had set up a permanent studio at No. 10, Bridge Street in Belfast. Carte-de-Visites were their advertised specialty. Then, on the 6th of April, 1865, they began advertising as T Plimmer & Son and announced that they had moved their studio, and set up at No. 21, High Street [Belfast News-Letter, Page 2]. Carte-de-Visites were more prominently displayed as their speciality at this time. Business at this location must have improved immeasurably, because no further advertisements seem to have been published in the Belfast papers, until 11 May 1898, when an advert in the Belfast News-Letter that day (Page 1) declared that the business was about to be sold - lock, stock, and barrel! The studio premises at 19 High Street were put up for rent in July.

Belfast city directories help fill in some of the gap between 1865 and 1898, although their publication was rather sporadic. These directories are accessible through the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast. The details from respective directories are as follows:

  • 1863 - Thomas H Plimmer, 10 Bridge Street
  • 1866 - Plimmer & Sons, 21 High Street
  • 1870 - T Plimmer, The Ulster Photographic Institute (2nd Floor), 19 High Street
  • 1877 - T Plimmer, 19 High Street
  • 1880 - return to 21 High Street
  • 1884 - return to 19 High Street, 2nd Floor
  • 1887 - T Plimmer & Son, 19 High Street
  • 1892 - T S Plimmer, 19 High Street (2nd Floor)
  • 1897 - T S Plimmer, 19 High Street.

So, some time after 1866, and before 1870, Plimmer & Sons became simply 'T Plimmer'. And the studio moved from 21 High Street to 19 High Street, during that same period. The business remained at 19 High Street until some time prior to 1880, when it returned to 21 High Street. Then, by 1884, the studio had gone back again to 19 High Street, and began to advertise as T Plimmer & Son. T S Plimmer took over from Thomas some time between 1887 and 1892. The last listing for the business was in the 1897 directory.

Irish vital records show that Thomas Henry Plimmer, who was said to be an 'artist', died in Belfast on the 15th of November 1872 [Death Register, 1872, Superintendent Registrar's District of Belfast, Registrar's District of Belfast No. 6, County of Antrim, Ireland, Entry No. 294, Page 244]. The immediate cause of his death was stated to be "Softening of the Brain, 3 Years, Certified". The individual who informed the Deputy Registrar in Belfast No. 6 District, was Thomas S Plimmer. Thomas Henry's place of death was recorded as 5 Glenfield Place, and this was also given as the place of residence of Thomas S.

Thomas Henry's wife/widow Maria died in Ballyhackamore, Castlereagh, Belfast, on 11 February 1878. Isabella Plimmer of Ballyhackamore reported the death to the Superintendent Registrar there on 15 February 1878 [Death Register, 1878, Superintendent Registrar's District of Belfast, Registrar's District of Castlereagh No. 3, County of Down, Ireland, Entry No. 248, Page 370].

Thomas Steadman Plimmer was the son of Thomas Henry Plimmer. Thomas Steadman declared himself to be residing in Bailieborough, County Cavan, when he married Isabella ROBINSON at St Thomas Church, Dublin, on 9 May 1860 [Marriage Register, 1860, Registrar's District of North Dublin Union, No. 247, Page 123 - 124 103].  Thomas Steadman Plimmer was also said to be an 'artist' at the time of his marriage.

What does all of this mean? Thomas Henry Plimmer could have produced the photograph at the top of this article any time after 1866, prior to 'softening of the brain' disabled him some time around 1869. Or, Thomas Steadman Plimmer could have produced the photograph himself, while working under his father's studio name at any time after about 1863. These facts, however, do not really help us to narrow down when the photograph was in fact made, although everything points to it not having been made after 1884.

Based on Edward's appearance, and the fact that he had been born in about 1861, the style of the carte-de-visite, the studio address printed on the carte itself, and the various clothing styles, let's hazard a guess that this photograph was probably taken in the 1870 - 1872 range. Does this seem reasonable to you?


Contact Bruce D. Murduck   concerning any matter at all.

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Thomas Orr, his wife Mary Dunlop, or any of their children?

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