Two months ago I wrote a post on the use of online image, sound and film archives for family history research (see The gifts of sound and vision, published 6 May 2016). In it I described how I’d found a number of photographs of my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s pram and mail carts shops using websites like Leodis and The Card Index, and how these in turn led to the discovery of a piece of film footage showing one of them in 1898.
Vicar Lane, Leeds, 1937, showing the sign for Emma Sillers’s pram shop (via Leodis).
Vicar Lane, Leeds, c. 1910, showing my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s mail carts shop on the left (via The Card Index).
The junction of Duncan Street and Briggate, Leeds, 1902. The sign for my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s mailcarts shop can be seen beneath the larger sign for ‘Yorkshire Relish’ (via Leodis).
Screenshot from ‘Leeds Street Scenes’ (1898) showing a mail carts shop sign near the top left (via Yorkshire Film Archive).
In response to this, a few weeks later I received a message from someone who’d come across my blog while researching an Edwardian wheelchair he’d rescued from a care home two years ago. The chair, he claimed, appeared to bear the name ‘Sillers’ on the side, and although my blog hadn’t mentioned anything about my ancestor’s firm manufacturing wheelchairs he’d wondered whether whether this could have been a sideline of theirs. After exchanging a few more messages he sent me the two photographs below, which left little doubt as to its maker.
The second photograph quite clearly shows the Sillers name, as well as (rather less clearly) their trading address at Vicar Lane in Leeds. I’d previously had no idea Sillers made wheelchairs in addition to mail carts and prams, which was an interesting enough revelation in itself, but it was also a treat to be able to examine my ancestors’ handiwork so close up. In addition, I know another of my great-great-grandparents, Hollan Horsfall, had used an ‘invalid chair’ since he was about forty, and I’m now wondering whether this could explain how his family came into contact with the Sillers clan (his daughter Dorothy had married Emma’s son Clarence in 1919). Hopefully I’ll know more by the time I get around to telling their story.
I made a small but enjoyable discovery last night upon taking out my copy of the Beatles’ Revolver. Tucked inside the sleeve for safe keeping were four record tokens which my uncle Ron, the original owner, had been diligently stockpiling, but which he’d evidently forgotten about before spending. The tokens were for ‘Keith Freer’ of 259 Cotmanhay Road in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, and each was worth just one twelfth of a 45 rpm single.
My uncle’s copy of Revolver by the Beatles with the four record tokens found inside the sleeve.
Record tokens on Revolver’s back cover.
As far as I can make out, Keith Freer was an electrical shop which opened in Ilkeston close to when Revolver was released in the late-1960s. From looking at my uncle’s copy it appears to have been from the original 5 August 1966 pressing, as among other distinguishing features it contains a mispelling of the track ‘Doctor Robert’ on the label (it’s abbreviated here to ‘Dr. Robert’). Unsurprisingly, Revolver was a big seller and a second pressing went into production later that year. This makes me think Ron probably bought his copy shortly after it first went on sale, and that the tokens inside were therefore likely acquired at around the same time.
My uncle died in 2013, which is why it was nice to find this remnant of a forgotten moment from his life fifty years ago, undisturbed and previously undiscovered. It also served as a reminder of the enormous technological and cultural changes which have taken place since Revolver was released in 1966, as today when virtually any piece of recorded music can be accessed freely and instantaneously, the idea of someone saving up tokens to hear just two sides of music feels curiously quaint. Similarly, when I play the record itself I am conscious of the passage of decades through the intermittent pops and crackles caused by repeated plays.
At the same time however the music it contains, like many albums produced in that transformative year, defies and transcends its aging physical medium through its deathless, shattering modernity. Perhaps uniquely among ‘family history sources’ therefore, a piece of vinyl passed from one generation to another is valuable as both a record of that relative’s time with the object, but also a means of inducing some of the same feelings they must have felt when they first encountered it.
One of the frustrating things about family history is that no matter how much you find out about your ancestors, you never really feel acquainted with them unless you know what they looked and sounded like. The further back in time we go, the more difficult it becomes to find photographs, films or voice recordings of family members, so researching them can sometimes feel a little like conversing with a taciturn pen friend who one never meets up with in person. Sounds and images can make us care about our subjects, and even if we are unable to find illustrative media which relates directly to our ancestors we can still often find materials which capture something of the world in which they lived. Below I have highlighted a few of my favourite image, sound and film archives which are available on the web, and how they have helped me in my research.
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Wherever possible, I try to illustrate my blog posts which contemporary pictures showing places my ancestors would have known, events they lived through or occupations they held. As someone with roots in the East Midlands and West Yorkshire I am lucky to be served by two excellent online photographic archives, Picture The Past and Leodis, covering these two areas. On many occasions they have provided me with useful images like the ones below of my great-great-grandfather Thomas England and a pram shop owned by my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers (née Brook):
Similar local collections are available for many other regions, but national and specialist subject archives may also be of use. In previous posts I have used images from both the Imperial War Museums and the National Fairground Archive when discussing my First World War and travelling showman ancestors. Other more general collections I have found helpful include:
Archive Images – Describes itself as “a web based picture library for authors, publishers, local history buffs, genealogists, picture framers and print sellers”. Its collections are free to search but high-resolution non-watermarked images are only available upon payment.
The Card Index – An online archive of historic UK postcards which can be searched or browsed by location, subject or publisher.
Getty Images – One of the web’s largest online image collections containing a huge number of excellent high-resolution archive photographs.
Old Photos UK – An index of old photographs organised by location which allows users to submit their own images.
All of the above have been helped me get a better idea of what my ancestors’ lives would have looked like, and on occasion they have even turned up surprises like the photograph below from The Card Index, which very clearly features the sign for my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s mail carts shop in Leeds.
Taken from virtually the same angle as the photo from the Leodis website above, it shows that between around 1910 and 1937 her business had begun specialising in prams in place of of mail carts.
Lastly, although not designed with genealogists in mind, it should be remembered that commercial websites dealing in old prints and postcards like ebay can be a good source of photographs unavailable elsewhere. In some cases, postcard sellers even include the sender’s name in the item’s description and a scan of the message on the back, making it possible to search by names as well as locations.
Often overlooked as a resource for local and family historians, sound archives can provide us with a way of finding out what our ancestors voices may have sounded like, the songs they would have known and the everyday noises which populated their auditory environment. By far the most important of these for UK researchers is the British Library’s Sounds archive, which holds thousands of recordings that can be listened to for free via their website. Some categories which may be of interest to family historians include:
Accents and dialects – Includes recordings of British PoWs from the First World War, a survey of English dialects taken between 1951 and 1974, and a selection of early spoken spoken word recordings taken from commercial 78 records.
Environment and nature – Mainly of interest for its period sound effects, featuring Victorian street scenes, leisure activities like football matches and funfairs, battles of the First and Second World Wars and a variety of historic workplaces.
Oral history – A diverse collection of voices of people from a variety of backgrounds and occupations, including Holocaust survivors, craftspeople and agricultural workers.
While researching my England ancestors, most of whom were involved in Derbyshire’s mining industry from the early Nineteenth to the mid-Twentieth Centuries, I was able to use the collections above to gain an understanding of their environment which I never could have done with words and pictures alone. For example, this recording of retired collier Horace Brian, who was born in north Derbyshire two years before my great-grandfather Tom England in 1876, provides me with an idea of what Tom’s accent may have sounded like, as well as some of the experiences he would have had at work. The British Library’s sound effects collection was also of help here due to it’s large number of mining-related recordings. One entitled At the coal face was of particular interest to me because, as a coal hewer, it would have been the daily soundtrack to Tom’s working life for close to half a century.
Old film footage is perhaps the most evocative media through which we can learn about past societies. Although I have not yet been lucky enough to find any of my ancestors on film, my research has certainly benefited from the growing number of online film archives which are now available. Two of the most important are the news archive British Pathe, and the collections of British Film Institute, both of which contain early footage of many UK towns and cities. Although their URL unfortunately no longer appears to be active, there was also a BFI-led initiative called Your Film Archives which aimed to provide a single-search interface allowing users to across seven regional film collections. These were:
It was while searching the Yorkshire Film Archive’s collections when a run of lucky strikes led me to discover of a piece of early film footage relating directly to my family. I had been searching for ‘Leeds’ just in case there were any contemporary films of Vicar Lane where my great-great-grandmother’s shop Sillers Prams was located (see photograph above). Among my results was a street scene from 1898 which, although not featuring Vicar Lane itself, was still interesting for its depiction of late-Victorian city life.
The film ends with ‘phantom ride’ through the busy streets shot from the top of an electric tram. On about the third watch, two minutes and ten seconds in I spotted the words ‘Mail carts’ on the side of a building, which immediately raised alarm bells as I knew my great-great-grandmother had run a mail carts shop in Leeds city centre prior to establishing her pram business. The word above it looked like it could possibly be ‘Sillers’ but I needed to work out the location of the film to be certain.
I found the locations of my great-great-grandmother’s shops at 49 and 51 Vicar Lane via Google Maps, then attempted to follow the tram’s route on the map with my finger in time with the footage to see if they lined up correctly. Unfortunately they didn’t. As a last resort I checked the film’s comments for clues as to the location shown in the its closing seconds, when I noticed someone had mentioned it ‘obviously’ showed the route along Boar Lane from the Queen’s Hotel to the junction with Briggate. This was slightly disappointing at first but then I remembered that Emma Sillers’s first shop had been on Briggate in about 1900, roughly when the film was shot. I looked up the shop’s exact address which was 150 Briggate, then checked Google Maps for its present day location and there it was on the junction with Boar Lane, leaving me in no doubt that the mail carts shop in the film must have belonged to my ancestor. Later I was able to track down the photograph below via the Leodis website showing the same shop in the film four years on.
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The websites mentioned above are just a few of my personal favourite image, sound and film archives and is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list. If you work in this area or know of any interesting local or national collections please feel free to mention them in the comments section.
On a visit to Bermondesy Antiques Market late last year, I discovered a box of old photographs and family records which later research revealed had belonged to a woman named Doris Eileen Chaplain (née Jones) of Ilford (see The Bermondsey Hoard). A few weeks ago I returned to see if the box was still there with the hope of purchasing another batch, but unfortunately this time the stallholder nowhere to be seen. I did however pick up a number of photographs which have been just as interesting to research, though some have been rather less forthcoming in giving up their secrets.
Some performers were easy enough to identify as their names were conveniently included beneath their pictures. Such was the case with the two postcards below featuring “Miss Gabrielle Ray”.
“Miss Gabrielle Ray”, c. 1907.
“Miss Gabrielle Ray” in “The Lady Dandies”, 1907.
Although her name was unfamiliar to me at the time, the “dancer, actress and picture postcard sensation” Gabrielle Ray was said to have been the most photographed woman in the world at the peak of her popularity in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Her rise to fame and later struggles with alcoholism and mental health problems are described by H. Jaremko (1996) in the short biography below:
Gabrielle Ray was born in Stockport, near Manchester (UK) in 1883. She was quick to take to the stage first appearing in 1893, aged 10, in a production of “Miami” at the Princess’s Theatre in London. She continued touring and acting throughout the late 1800’s until she was spotted in 1903 by famous theatre manager and impresario, George Edwardes. From that point on she was catapulted into fame one major London show following another… In 1912 Gabrielle Ray announced she was retiring from the stage to marry Eric Loder. However, the marriage was unsuccessful and divorce followed. Attempting to return to the stage proved a less easy task in 1915 and while she continued to attempt to revive her career, in the early 1920s she finally lost interest. There then followed years of leading a more hedonistic lifestyle which eventually led to alcoholism and depression. In the late 1930s Gabrielle Ray was admitted to a mental home in Surrey, where she was to spend the rest of her life until 1973 when she died aged 90, to all intents and purposes, completely forgotten by the public that once so loved her.
After digitising these postcards I was able to find out more using Google’s reverse image search function, which enables you to search for identical or similar images to the one you upload. A search using the photograph on the right led me to another Gabrielle Ray fansite and a contemporary full-page advertisement for her 1907 play “The Lady Dandies” in The Illustrated London News.
The identities of some performers have proved more elusive however, such as that of of the woman in the photographs below.
Unidentified female Music Hall performer in jockey outfit, c. 1905.
Unidentified female Music Hall performer in clown outfit, c. 1905.
She appears again in a series of posed photographs with an older male performer who was probably her partner in a comedy double act (to my eyes she looks like a distant Music Hall ancestor of Miranda Hart).
Unidentified male and female Music Hall performers, c. 1905.
Unidentified male and female Music Hall performers, c. 1905.
Unidentified male and female Music Hall performers, c. 1905.
Unidentified male and female Music Hall performers, c. 1905.
I checked a number of online Music Hall image archives such as StageBeauty.net and Vaudeville Postcards to see if I could put a name to either of their faces but found no matches. Even after digitising them a reverse image search yielded no results, suggesting that this may be the first time any of these photographs have appeared online. For a time I thought the man might have been Dan Leno but now I’m less convinced, and I’m still no closer to finding out the woman’s identity. At some point I’d like to get the opinion of someone with an expertise in this area, but for the time being I’m happy just to share these rare images with the world.
My final purchase was the superbly bleak and atmospheric family photograph below. There was no name or date on the back so I have absolutely no hope of identifying them (from their clothing I would guess it was taken in around the 1890s, but as the woman seems to be wearing fairly generic mourning wear it’s hard to say for sure), but I just liked the composition and the enigmatic expressions on the sitters’ faces. I’d love to know what was going through each of their minds when this was taken.
Last week I visited Notting Hill’s wonderful Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising at their new home on Lancaster Road. For anyone who’s never been, it’s a lovingly-curated collection of posters, ephemera and everyday items in their original packaging from the Victorian era to the present day arranged in roughly chronological order. Although I had been once before it occurred to me on this second visit what a unique resource it is for family historians. I can think of no other place (with the exception of the equally fantastic Geffrye Museum) which succeeds in creating such a vivid, colourful picture of what our ancestors’ world must have actually looked like, from the adverts they would have passed on their way to work, to the contents of their larders or children’s toy chests. If you’re based near London I strongly recommend you go and see it for yourselves, and if not you can find out more in this interesting write-up from the Guardian website.
After my visit, I noticed the faded writing on the side of the building below while walking up Portobello Road.
This, combined with what I’d just been looking at in the museum, reminded me of an evocative term I’d come across not too long ago: ‘ghost signs.’ This refers to the old, often barely legible traces of signs for long-departed businesses which one can occasionally still find gracing the sides of buildings. In many cases they can provide an interesting glimpse into a building’s history and the lives of its former occupants, as in the example below at the corner of Regent Square and Sidmouth Street.
Although the original sign appears to have been painted over at least once and a large chunk of it has completely faded away, you can still make out phrases like:
Cures Wounds & Sores
King’s citrate of magnesi[um]
Invented in 1844
The original safes[t]
These fragments suggest the building was at one time a chemist’s shop, and according to blogger Sebastian Ardouin it had indeed been a branch of Bates & Co. of 1 Regent Square. Unlike the various soap boxes, cereal packets and ‘liquid beef’ posters which make up the Museum of Brands’ collections, these rare survivals of Nineteenth and Twentieth century advertising cannot be preserved indefinitely under glass, but perhaps some form of national photographic database could achieve the same effect. I initially thought this might be a good project for the Museum of Brands but it appears something similar is already under way courtesy of the History of Advertising Trust. Their archive of over eight hundred ghost signs can be browsed by subject (e.g. ‘Alcohol & Tobacco,’ ‘Tradesmen & DIY’) or searched by keyword (e.g. ‘Leeds,’ ‘Buckton’) and anyone can add their own photos.
Clearly this is a valuable tool for social historians, but perhaps, as the archive grows, it could be of use to family historians too. I love the idea that there might still be an old sign for my great-great-grandfather’s china shop on the side of some neglected Doncaster terrace, or for my great-great-grandmother’s pram business somewhere in Leeds, and maybe with the help of this database I’ll eventually be able to track one down. The closest I’ve come so far is my father’s discovery of his fifth great-uncle German Wheatcroft’s initials ‘GW’ scratched into the wall of a warehouse he’d worked at by the side of Cromford Canal.
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If, like me, you can’t get enough of this sort of amateur sleuthing I recommend this post from James Ward’s always-entertaining blog I Like Boring Things. In it he attempts to solve the mystery of a partially obscured 1980s poster at Waterloo Station using (among other things) a contemporary Pet Shop Boys video. Next week I’ll be returning to my own family history, specifically that of my grandfather Frederick England’s maternal family the Lings, but until then happy ghost sign hunting.
A few months ago on a rainy Friday afternoon at Bermondsey Antiques Market, I was browsing the rather meagre range of stalls which had yet to pack up for the day when I was asked by one trader whether I was looking for anything in particular. I gave him my best cheerfully non-committal “just browsing” and started planning a hasty exit, but after he insisted there was “more in the van” I decided there was no harm in politely rifling through a few more boxes before making my way home. Instead, my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up spending £20 or so on a collection of early 20th Century photographs and documents, none of which featured anyone whose names I knew or to whom I had any connection. Since then I’ve started using them as a learning tool in my day job as a local studies librarian when teaching family history, because as with my mother’s collection of family records, they’ve proved a good means of showing how to build up a family tree from a relatively small number of primary sources. Here’s how I got on.
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The photographs and documents I bought had all come from the same tin box, and although they featured a number of individuals it was clear from the context that they had once all belonged to the same person. Part of the reason I decided to buy so many of them was that I was saddened by the idea of them being picked off one-by-one (most likely by television companies to be used as set-dressing, according to the seller), causing any chance of discovering the stories which connected them to be lost forever. Purchasing a decent sample of them would at least, I thought, help preserve some of this person’s story.
But who was this person? Helpfully, many of the photos featured names on the reverse, mostly written in the same hand, and among them was the postcard below featuring a little girl. On the back was written “Me (Doris) (Canada)” in the same handwriting featured on most of the other photos.
Once I’d identified Doris as the collection’s former owner, it became clear that all the other photos and documents in my possession had to relate to her somehow. A second photograph (below) in which Doris had identified herself on the reverse showed her as a young woman, while a third from around the same time showed her at the centre of a group of female friends or relatives.
The hairstyles and clothing of the women in the second photograph (always the best means of dating old photos!) suggested they were taken in the 1940s, and given her youthful appearance this would put Doris’s birth year at around 1925. Fortunately this wasn’t the only clue I had to go on, as among the records I’d picked up was a godparent’s oath which commemorated the baptism of a Doris Eileen Jones at Ilford Parish Church on 23 October 1927.
This had to be the same Doris. Not only did the (presumed) birth year fit perfectly, the place, Ilford in Essex, had appeared before as the photographer’s address on one of the later photos.
With her date and place of baptism now known I was able to find the index entry for Doris’s birth certificate via FreeBMD, which confirmed her birth was registered in Romford registration district (Essex) in the fourth quarter of 1927, and that her mother’s maiden name was Woollard. As the photographer’s address on the later photo had suggested a long-term residency in Ilford, I decided to see if I could find an index entry for a marriage certificate in the same district. I set my date range between 1945 and 1957, guessing that she would most likely have married between the ages of eighteen and thirty, and among the most promising results was a record of a marriage between a Doris E. Jones and a spouse by the name of Chaplain in the June quarter of 1949. While normally an index entry alone would not be enough to prove a match, on this occasion I knew I’d found the right record because of the photograph below.
This photo had at first appeared to bear no discernible relation to Doris, but on discovering her potential marriage to a man named Chaplain in 1949 it quickly began to make sense. On the reverse someone had identified the subjects as ‘Dennis, Mum, John, Henley Road House’, but below that in Doris’s handwriting was the name ‘Chaplain’ in brackets. It would appear therefore that the picture had originally belonged to her husband and that she’d added his family name later to avoid confusion. A bit more digging via FreeBMD revealed that her husband’s name had been John G. Chaplain, identified in the photograph as the boy on the right.
I have yet to find out what ultimately happened to Doris. It seems likely that she has passed away, as I can’t imagine she’d have sold such a large collection of family photographs during her lifetime, but I haven’t been able to track down any record of a death certificate. It’s possible she’s still alive of course, but another intriguing possibility is that she emigrated to Canada, as her location in the first photograph and the maple leaf pin she’s wearing in the second suggest some kind of family connection to that place. Hopefully someone who knew her, perhaps one of her descendants, will stumble upon this blog one day.
Hi all, welcome to the first of what I’m hoping will be a regular series of blog posts about the characters and stories I’ve unearthed during my first five years as a family historian. My main aim is to provide a source of information for the small number of individuals who happen to be researching the same people as I am (do get in touch if you’re one of them!), as well as a place to share research tips
I’ll also be posting on a number of loosely related topics which are of interest to me such as social history, music, online resources and my work as a local studies librarian. The reblogged post below (originally published on 18 January 2015 on the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals’ Local Studies Group blog) falls squarely into the latter category, but may also be of interest to anyone wanting an overview of the range of digitised historic newspapers now available online. More typical posts to follow over the coming weeks…
A few weeks ago I attended a half-day event at CILIP HQ on the use of newspapers for historical research. The event, organised by CILIP Local Studies Group, featured two very interesting talks by Edmund King, former head of the British Library‘s newspaper library, plus a personal account by Diana Dixon of the way local newspapers have enabled her to piece together previously untold stories from her family history.
Most of the day focused specifically on digitised newspaper databases, and in particular the British Newspaper Archive which Edmund King oversaw the creation of at the British Library. Like Diana Dixon I had used the BNA for my own family history research and at the local studies library where I work, but had not previously appreciated the full range of international newspaper databases which can now be searched online. Some of these databases mentioned by Edmund King in the first of his talks included:
Chronicling America – Historic American newspapers from 1836-1922, sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Library of Congress (free)
Gale News Vault – A broad selection of international newspapers and periodicals (paywall)
Google News Archive – Google’s discontinued newspaper scanning project, whose content is still available to search (free)
Newspapers.com – Database of 3,400 newspapers, mainly American (paywall)
Trove – The National Library of Australia’s digitised newspaper collection (free)
Welsh Newspapers Online – Welsh and English-language newspapers from 1804-1919, digitised by the National Library of Wales (free)
Several of the above can be cross-searched via Elephind.com, which is attempting to create a single-search interface for all the world’s online historic newspapers (they have quite a long way to go admittedly, but a noble aim nonetheless). As local studies specialists we might question how useful international databases like these are to our daily work, which tends on the whole to focus on local people and events. The truth of course is that historically these ‘local people’ often moved around considerably, especially within the Empire, and events on one side of the world would often be reported on the other due to the complex web of family and business connections which linked people across the globe. Indeed, comparing the regional and international reportage of local events can often provide unique insights into these events which local sources alone could not.
Next Diana Dixon provided a very useful overview of some of the ways local newspapers can be used by family historians. In the past I had used reports of local births, marriages and deaths as an alternative to ordering GRO certificates, but had not thought to examine the long lists of wedding guests and mourners frequently included in these same reports to put together a detailed picture of an individual’s extended family and social circle.
After tea and coffee Edmund King’s second talk focused on some of the more unusual items which can be found in the British Newspaper Archive. We would naturally expect to find reports of local events, births, marriages and deaths etc., but many of the ‘lighter’ pieces can be equally revealing. These include poetry, cartoons, celebrity portraits, ladies’ fashions, maps, literary reviews, serialised novels and items of musical interest, which can all help flesh out the world in which our ancestors lived.
All of the above were all illustrated with examples, and one of the best in my opinion was a brief mention in the Oxford Journal on the 23rd of February 1765 of a visit by:
“One Wolfgang Mozart, a German boy of about eight years old…who can play upon various Sorts of Instruments of Music, in Concert, or Solo, and can compose Music surprizingly ; so that he may be reckoned a Wonder at his Age” (p. 3, col. 1).
It is inconceivable to think this wonderful description would have been found without the BNA’s search engine, and it is worth remembering how lucky we are to have such an excellent tool at our disposal.
It was a very interesting and informative day, and a great opportunity to meet with colleagues and share experiences. If there are any historical newspapers in your library’s collections which you would like to see digitised, you can submit a request on the BNA forum.