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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Bermondsey revisited

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.

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One stall which immediately caught my eye was selling vintage carte de visite of Victorian and Edwardian Music Hall performers. I’d been interested in this subject ever since reading Dave Russell’s Popular Music in England 1840-1914: A Social History so decided to buy a small selection and see where my investigations led me.

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”.

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-lady-dandies-the-illustrated-london-news-9th-february-1907
Advertisement for “The Lady Dandies” featuring Miss Gabrielle Ray. Source: The Illustrated London news, 9 February 1907, p. 216 (via Gabrielle Ray).

The identities of some performers have proved more elusive however, such as that of of the woman in the photographs below.

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).

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.

Victorian Family
Unidentified family, c. 1890s.

First steps in family history (part 1)

Like many people, my interest in family history began innocuously enough through conversations with my mother about her childhood. I was curious about her family because her father, Frederick England, had died before I was born and naturally I wanted to find out more about his life and the sort of person he was. I was especially intrigued by the tantalising snippets of information I’d heard regarding his ‘exotic’ traveller family and tales of his experiences during World War II. Below I’ll describe some of the family records I came across when researching my maternal grandfather and how these helped me piece together part of his life story

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After acquiring my grandfather’s Africa Star service medal I’d decided to track down his wartime letters. The box said to contain them was so full of old letters, cards and other family records deemed worthy of preservation I initially had difficulty finding them, however eventually I came across a number of photographs of my grandfather in uniform. On the front of one of them was inscribed “Your loving son Frederick,” and on turning it over I found a message he had written to his parents from Bari, Italy in July 1944.

Frederick England2
Inscribed photograph of Frederick England, dated July 1944.
WW2 postcard
Reverse of the above.

The date and location both suggested he’d fought in the Italian campaign as well as in North Africa, but the content of the message gave no indication as to his regiment or division. Examining the photograph however I noticed a badge on his right shoulder depicting a white rhinoceros in a black oval which I thought could be a helpful clue.

I ran a Google search for WHITE RHINO ARMY BADGE and among the top results was an item from the Imperial War Museum’s online catalogue (see image below). Clicking on the link revealed a larger image of the badge on my grandfather’s uniform, as well as some accompanying information connecting it to the “1st Armoured Division & 2nd Armoured Brigade,” a tank division of General Montgomery’s 8th Army which was active in North Africa and Italy.

White Rhino Army Badge
1st Armoured Division & 2nd Armoured Brigade badge (via the Imperial War Museum).

 

Shortly after this discovery, in the same box I found an envelope containing an old two-page letter which the owner had clearly taken care to preserve. Reading through it I realised to my delight that this was another of Frederick’s wartime letters, only this one was longer and more revealing. In it he discusses his brother “Norman’s safe arrival home” after a period in a German PoW camp, his subsequent frustration at not being able to see him, the progress of Tito’s campaign in Yugoslavia, and at the end he offers his opinion on the recent general election, stating “I don’t know who to be disgusted with, Labour on Con.” In addition to providing an insight into his feelings during an important event in British history, this detail enabled me to pinpoint date of the letter with greater accuracy (i.e. 1945, the year of the general election) as the only date given in the letter was “May 26th.” Finally, the return address provided me with vital information about his rank and regiment (see below).

1945 letter return address
Detail from Frederick England’s letter, 26 May 1945.

If my interpretation of his handwriting and military abbreviations is correct the first line reads “6983one Tpr F England,” the first part being his service number and the ‘Tpr’ abbreviation before his name stands for trooper, his rank (the cavalry equivalent of a private). This is followed by what looks like ‘A Sqn’ referring the name of his squadron, while ‘9th Lancers’ is the name of his regiment and ‘GMF’ I believe stands for Ground Mobile Force. Using these details I was able to work out exactly where he was and what he was doing throughout the war, including during key events like the Battle of El Alamein, by consulting published regimental histories such as John Bright’s The Ninth Queen’s Royal Lancers 1936–1945.

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The story above illustrates just how much we can find out by digging around in our attics and spare rooms even without the help of Ancestry or findmypast. Family records like these can provide us with all sorts of insights into the lives of those to whom they belonged, and can gradually help us build up a timeline of an individual’s life. For example:

  • Details of births, marriages and deaths can be found in all sorts of documents, including obviously birth, marriage and death certificates, but also address books and calendars, family bibles and news cuttings.
  • Family relationships can be inferred from beneficiaries listed in wills, or posed family photographs.
  • We can work out where our ancestors were and when from seemingly ‘dry’ documents like passports and insurance policies.
  • Details of occupations, income and war service can be gleaned from obituaries cut out of the local paper, or war medals.
  • Their appearance of course can be revealed through photographs, passports and driving licenses.
  • And if we are lucky we may even be able to gain some insight into our ancestors’ inner thoughts and feelings from things like diaries, letters, journals, greeting cards.

In the next post I’ll be looking at how records like these helped me trace my grandfather’s family back a generation and discover his traveling ancestors, the Lings.