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.