Uncle Jack’s tattoos

The Guardian is, of course, wrong about everything all the time, and this piece on David Dimbleby’s tattoo is no exception:

In 2013 it’s a look we still associate with youth. It may be ubiquitous but it still carries just the faintest hint of rebellion (though one that will soon, surely, be extinguished: it’s hard to regard as rebellious an act that’s been performed by the man who, after the Queen, is the face and voice of the British establishment).

In the future, the spider on the neck or the angel wings on the back will be associated with grandparents.

That is trivially true as far as it goes, but there is a much wider and more interesting context. It’s the largely uninked middle-class – or aspiring to be so – people born between the 1920s and the 1950s who are the aberration in the British popular cultural record of self-decoration in the modern era. Tattoos have only ever been associated with yoof and rebellion by people with no sense of history (and it’s surprising, isn’t it, how many older small-c conservative people don’t have any sense of history). In fact, the context in which Dimbleby acquired his elegant little scorpion was a program about the history of the navy.

More than anything it made me think of somebody I never met who died long ago in a country far away, known to me as Uncle Jack. He was my great-grandmother’s brother, and was probably remembered by my grandfather as a tall grown-up shape in the same way that my grandfather (d. 1982) was a tall grown-up shape to me. When I finally plucked him out of the records as John Wells, the son of a carpenter, born Dulwich 1884, he proved to have a quite splendid set of tattoos. This is him:

Jack in kilt

This is the early years of the twentieth century. He even looks like a man with ink all over him, doesn’t he? One hundred and thirteen-odd years ago, on 29 November 1900, actually 16 but claiming to be 18, he signed his attestation papers in London for the Fifth Middlesex. He lived at the Wells family home in 20 Marcellus Road, Finsbury Park, and worked in a baker’s shop on the Hornsey Road. At this time his distinguishing marks seem to be limited to the pugnacious:

john wells detail

I think that says “Vax 2 left. Scars forehead; upper lip. D__? forearms.” But if you can make anything better of it, let me know. I’m only inferring the first bit because those papers always note vaccination marks, and his later papers also record two vaccination marks.

He almost certainly has another set of British military papers floating around somewhere because I think the photograph above shows him in a uniform of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), which is how he must have met Percival Mortimer who became my great-grandfather; their regimental numbers are a few digits apart. Later records show he served with the Cameronians for nine years, which I imagine includes some years on the reserve.

In the spring of 1911 he and his wife Evie (Alberta Evelyn Mercy Cooper, and I think I would wrestle “Evie” out of that as well) emigrated to Canada, and it was as a member of the Canadian Ordnance Corps that he signed a further set of attestation papers in April 1919. He then claimed to be 33 (actually 35). He’d put on 37lbs-odd since 1900 (well, haven’t we all, darling) and grown two inches, and the complexion previously described as “fair” was now “florid”. But best of all, he now has these (click to embiggen):


Lottie. Oops! This makes me think that tattoo predates 1908, which was when he married Evie, in which case maybe he got it when serving in the Scottish Rifles alongside my great-grandfather, as the highlander would also suggest.

The drum major is an interesting one, because that’s the position the photograph above might depict. But I need to investigate this further – the usual uniform of the Scottish Rifles wasn’t the kilt, but some rather fetching trews in the Douglas tartan of the kind now regularly to be seen in Hoxton. So perhaps that tattoo was a celebration of being chosen as a Drum Major?

Britannia between two flags sounds like it was probably standard fare among the tattoo parlours of early twentieth century London (or India or South Africa, which was where various bits of the regiment was posted in the relevant years), and it could belong to any time. The horse and gun carriage I’m not sure about. It’s not from any insignia I’ve been able to find related to the Scottish Rifles. It could be just another standard militaristic trope like Britannia, but given the drum major and the commemoration of “Lottie” I wonder if it also records some kind of historical event, if only a personal one. I’d love to know whether early tattoo parlours had books like they do now, what kind of consultation went on and how accurate they were at producing things like military insignia. And whether any cautions were offered to young men gabbling the name of a girl.

Jack and wife

Jack and Evie. Probably taken around 1918 when they visited family in North London for the last time (my granddad would have been about 8). Note his Canadian uniform. And the chair – there are half a dozen other family photographs featuring this chair, so either they all used the same photographer’s studio or the photographs were all taken in the same house in Finsbury Park or perhaps Crouch End.

I don’t know when Uncle Jack died. We have pictures of him capering around Canada in his 50s and 60s – one of the inky old granddads that the Guardian writer now finds so counter-intuitive.

And then at some point, the postcards and pictures stopped coming, or maybe we stopped writing back.

I always find that crossover in photography very strange – those same Kiplingesque, sepia-washed faces who looked so strained and young in pictures from the 1900s, suddenly sitting in a garden chair grinning in the 1950s like they can’t believe their luck (and maybe they couldn’t). Way too much to hope, of course, that any of the pictures show him with his sleeves rolled up. Being covered in tattoos may have been quite routine for working class boys out of nineteenth-century London, but there were standards.

Jack 1941

Postcard from Uncle Jack in Canada to my great-grandmother in Norf London, 1941. The back reads “Here is Jack come to see you – he forgot to put his medals on.”



  1. Hi Alex

    Thanks for sharing your great-grandfather’s tattoos. Intrepid detective work and lovely photos. Tattoo parlours will have had patterns or flashes when he got his tattoos. Man to ask is Matt Lodder @mattlodder.

    Will look out for similar tattoos among my prisoners. A few military ones there but earlier than Jack – 1840s. Will let you know when I get round to doing them!


    1. Thanks, Helen – I have spoken to Matt already (thank you, Twitter), he was very helpful and had a great photo of a Britannia with flags on an arm from the 1880s. I love the idea of them choosing the designs.

      Going to update this post soon as I’ve also had some great new info from another tweep on Jack’s uniform that may explain the horse and gun carriage.

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