The gifts of sound and vision

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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Images

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):

Deacons of Riddings Baptist Church
The deacons of Riddings Baptist Church, c. 1910, featuring my great-great-grandfather Thomas England on the far left. (via Picture The Past).
Sillers Prams
Sillers Prams, 1937, Vicar Lane, Leeds (via Leodis).

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.

Sillers Mail Carts
Vicar Lane, Leeds, c. 1910, showing my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s mail carts shop on the left (via The Card Index).

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.

Sound

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.
  • World and traditional music – Includes examples of regional folk music from the British Isles alongside many other countries.

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.

Film

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.

Sillers mail carts screenshot
Screenshot from ‘Leeds Street Scenes’ (1898) showing a mail carts shop sign near the top left (via Yorkshire Film Archive).

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.

Sillers Mailcarts 1902
Sillers Mail Carts, 1902, 150 Briggate, Leeds. The sign for my great-great-grandmother Emma Sillers’s shop can be seen beneath the larger sign for ‘Yorkshire Relish’ (via Leodis).

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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.

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