Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Anthropometric Committee of the British Association

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

The Anthropometric Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science had been appointed 'for the purpose of continuing the collection of observations on the systematic examination of heights, weights, &c. of human beings in the British Empire, and the publication of photographs of the typical races of the Empire'. [Extracts from the report of the Anthropometric Committee, 1880]

In 1878 Lane Fox [Pitt Rivers] reported to the Anthropological Committee that the Anthropometric Committee of the British Association had spent the past year 'systematising their instructions for the use of observers ... the utmost precision in taking the measurements, and the use of recognised and clearly defined, terms in the descriptions are essential, wkithout which it is impossible to draw up statistics or arrive at general results'. [Lane Fox, 1878: 391] The committee had also decided that it was desirous 'of endeavouring to ascertain by means of photography the various types of physiognomy prevailing in different districts'. [Lane Fox, 1878: 393]

The committee believed that probably 'characteristic differences of countenance do exist in different parts of the country'. [Lane Fox, 1878: 393] However, they were worried that standard assessments could not be made by individuals and determined that the only solution would be to obtain:

as large a number of photographs as possible of persons from different localities, whose descriptions should be, as far as possible, recorded in the manner laid down in the Anthropometric Instructions, regardless of type; and the Committee should then determine typical forms from an examination of the photographs thus obtained. This, however, entails the collection of an enormous number of photographs, to be followed possibly by some little difference of opinion on the part of the Committee appointed to estimate the types. [Lane Fox, 1878: 393]

He, therefore, suggested an alternative by which five or six independent observers could be appointed in a district, who would select certain photographs that they saw as being typical of the area.

Pitt Rivers as well as serving as Secretary of the Committee also carried out his own anthropometric research, on the Royal Surrey militia. From his work he concluded that '89 per cent are pure English and 81 per cent very pure English'. [Lane Fox, 1877: 444]

Brabrook in 1892 wrote:

Before passing from the question of local anthropological work in connection with the British Association, I may refer to that of the Anthropometric Committee, which sat from 1877 to 1884, under the presidency, at first of Dr Farr, and afterwards of Mr Galton, and of which Mr Galton was the first secretary, and was succeeded by General Pitt Rivers, and ultimately by myself. Their several reports, of which the one presented in 1883, and drawn up by Sir Rawson Rawson and Mr C. Roberts, contained the final conclusions, and was an exhaustive review of the whole work, are full evidence of the necessity and usefulness of local organisation in this matter. [Brabrook, 1893: pp. 266-7]

The experience of this committee was brought to bear when the Notes and Queries on Anthropology was produced, Brabrook looked forward to the contribution the Committee's findings could have on the Ethnographical Survey of the UK, in a presentation of the discussion at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science [BAAS]:

The first part of [the second edition of Notes and Queries] is practically a new work, the sections contributed to the first edition by Dr Beddoe, Mr Galton, and the late Charles Darwin being retained, and all the others rewritten by Dr Garson .. The principal features of this part ... is a "Schedule of Observations of External Characters" ... it is to set forth the descriptive characters, colour of skin, eyes, &c., to contain twenty essential measurements and fifteen additional ones, with certain special measurements. This schedule is accompanied with an explanation, containing some judicious practical hints ... The essential measurements are most important for the differentiation of races, as they enable the whole figure of the subject to be reproduced and compared with those of other races. The special measurements are most particularly intended to be taken by medical men. The number of types of colour of eyes, hair, and skin has been greatly reduced from the complete series formed by Broca, which was contained in the first edition of the work ...
In this branch of the work we have the advantage of the accumulated experience of the Anthropometric Committee and of Mr Galton's anthropometric laboratory; and these throw into a high light the difficulties that surround it. To produce results that are at all trustworthy, the manner of obtaining them must be precisely similar, and this is a matter very difficult to secure. ...
In one branch of the anthropometric work, I feel especial interest, that of the collection of photographs, as it carries out a suggestion made by myself to the Glasgow meeting of the [British] Association in 1876, and included in the reference to the Anthropometric Committee of that year. ... I proposed that negatives should be obtained, in full face and also in profile, in each district, of individual adults answering to the description "very pure" in the Committee's schedule of statistics of nationality - that is, a person all whose four grandparents, at least, with parents and himself are from the same district. The Committee resolved on 6th June, 1877, to carry this proposal into effect by obtaining as large a numbere as possible of photographs of persons from different localities, whose descriptions should be, as far as practicable, recorded in the manner laid down in the Anthropometric Instructions. This resolution was referred to a Sub-Committee ... [which] made considerable collections, which are now for the most part in the custody of the Anthropological Institute. In 1881, a separate Committee was appointed by the Association for the purpose, with Mr Park Harrison as Secretary, and continued to be re-appointed until 1885, when it merged in a Committee "for the purpose of defining the racial characteristics of the inhabitants of the British Isles," a mission of which I think the Committee failed to discharge itself, and it accordingly lapsed. In 1878 the Committee appealed (through the "Photographic News") to professional and amateur photographers for aid. The present occasion [the setting up of the Ethnographical Survey of the UK] appears to afford an excellent opportunity for taking up its work, with better prospect of carrying it to a successful conclusion.
... Mr Galton has kindly favoured me with the following practical suggestions as to the working of this branch of our undertaking:- "Make a selection of villages, as representative of already recognised varieties - pure Welsh, Sussex, Yorkshire, Midlands, Norfolk, &c.; take photographs, full and profile (of right side), in all cases with light from right side and above, of at least a certain number of adults (not bearded if possible), and of ages between twenty-two and thirty-five, also of women. ... Measure select dimensions of each of them, according to Anthropological "Notes and Queries." Required at least seventy-five males and seventy-five females of each type, three hundred photographs in all."... I have since had the pleasure of some conversation with Mr. Galton on the question whether it would not be desirable to collect photographs of children. They frequently show marked racial peculiarities, undisguised by the modifications which sometimes arise with the advance of years, and the acquirement of habits that more or less distort or disturb the features, and being assembled together in schools and elsewhere, might be comparatively easy to select and to obtain. When photographs in sufficient number from any particular district had been procured, Mr Galton's composite system might be usefully employed to obtain a general definition of the racial features; as the result of that system is to diminish the effect of individual peculiarities and to reduce a number of persons, each slightly varying, to a common type. Used upon a number of specimens in which the broad features were the same, it would give the necessary prominence to these, and would sink accidental slight differences. [Brabrook, 1893: pp.270-273]

In 1898 Section H of the BAAS announced its own plans "to collect, preserve and undertake the systematic registration of photographs on anthropological interest". [Edwards, 2008: 191] Edwards concludes, however, that:

while photography had been seen as integral to the methods of the BAAS Ethnographic Survey, adding evidential weight and demonstrational clarity, in fact very few photographs were forthcoming. Not only was what was asked of photographers and observers becoming too complex to be practicable. [Edwards 2008: 202]

The calls for a national anthropometric survey continued for many years, see for example the 1907 proposal.

Further Reading

E. W. Brabrook, 'On the Organisation of Local Anthropological Research' The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 22 (1893), pp. 262-274

Elizabeth Edwards. 2008. 'Straightforward and Ordered: Amateur Photographic Surveys and Scientific Aspiration, 1885-1914' Photography and Culture (vol. 1 issue 2) November 2008 pp 185-210 Berg.

A. Lane Fox 1878. 'Anthropometric Committee' The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 7, (1878), pp. 391-3

A. Lane Fox 1877. 'Commanding 48th Brigade Depot, on Measurements Taken of the Officers and Men of the 2nd Royal Surrey Militia According to the General Instructions Drawn Up by the Anthropometric Committee of the British Association' The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 6, (1877), pp. 443-457

'Extracts from the Report of the Anthropometric Committee of the British Association.'The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 9, (1880), pp. 345-352

'Proposed National Anthropometric Survey.' The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 37, (Jul. - Dec., 1907), pp. 424-432