Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Who do you think they were?

Are you a genealogist/family historian who carefully writes up all your research notes and findings, with everything neatly catalogued and recorded?  Or, are you like me - love researching but not so good about the recording and documenting of your family history?  I have piles of notes - both hand written and electronic.  Some are my own notes, but others are letters, emails and research undertaken by other cousins and family members.  I keep promising myself that one day I'll properly chronicle all of it  - and because I have been researching for nearly 40 years, there is plenty to do!  But, I keep putting it off and putting it off, and off and off...

After my posts on this blog about my Gurney family of South London, Family History is Like a Box of Chocolates, my cousin, Barbara got in touch with me and sent me new photos of my family which I'd previously not seen.  This prompted to go through all my notes and all my files trying to find a letter my grandmother wrote to me about her Gurney family, shortly before she died 30 years ago.  Of course, I couldn't find the letter, but what I did find was a small packet of original old photos from the early 1900s which I knew I was given when I was 18 years old by another family member from another ancestral line. To my shock, I realised that I could not immediately identify the people in each photo.  Frustratingly, I knew that I did once know who was who, but with the passage of time - my own life-time(!) - who I knew them to be had left my mind.

It got me thinking.  One day, my descendants may take over my papers.  Whilst they would probably be able to work out from names/surnames who all my notes and documents relate to, what they wouldn't be able to do is identify uncaptioned family photos.  And it's probably these uncaptioned original photos which would fire up any new passion in family history with my future descendants.  Digital copies of photographs I've carefully filenamed according to the people in the photo.  So my descendants would be able to identify people in digital copies (that is, of course, if digital format survives and is still electronically readable - but that's a whole different topic!) But original hard-copies of photos?  Who would my descendants think they were? In the words of Stephen Fry and his QI programme, Nobody knows...

I decided there and there to break a habit of a lifetime - as a child, I had it drummed into me to NOT write on books or photos... But, going against my upbringing, once my memory-lapse was over, I there and then wrote the names and relationship to me on the back of all my original photos. 

So now, all original family photos in my clutches are all neatly labeled.  

Except the one below.  

My grandmother knew who it was - it was in her collection.  But with her death 30 years ago, the identity of the lady in photograph died with her.


Unknown Cole or Gurney

All I have to go on is the name of the photographer who took the lady's portrait, and the fact that I already have  photographs of the majority of women from all branches of my paternal ancestors dating from this time - and she isn't in any other photograph. The photo was taken between 1865 and 1875.  I know this because of the precise name of the photographer's studio on the photograph - Maull and Co - and the very distinctive pattern on the floor of the studio.  I have seen several CDVs both on that well known internet site and on google, all of which have the same patterned floor, the same caption for the photographer and the same side-table.   Also, Maull changed his studio's name several times so the precise style and name of caption on the card can also date it.  A quick investigation on google shows that Maull and Co were an upmarket photographers and had London studios at 62 Cheapside (City of London), 187A Piccadilly (West End), 55 Gracechurch Street (City of London) and Tavistock House, Fulham Road (south west London).

Maul and Co are well documented on the internet because they were such upmarket photographers.  Maull took portraits of many serving members of parliament, along with "noted individuals" (mayors and other local "big-wigs", and the Mrs Beeton), and fellows of the Royal Society.  In 1873, Princess Alexandria (who later became Queen Alexandria when her husband became King Edward VII in 1901) used Maull and Co to photograph herself with her sister, Dagma (the wife of the Russian Tsar Alexander III).

Going purely on the basis (and massive assumption!) that this must have been a wealthy member of my family, I can only assume that the portrait is that of one of my Parnall ancestors.  The Parnalls were a family of four brothers and two sisters - tenant farmers from Llansteffan - a beautiful remote and rural sea-side village in Carmarthenshire, Wales.  They left Wales sometime in the 1820s to make their fortune in London.  And, two of the brothers (Robert and Henry) and one sister (Anne) found that the streets of London were paved with gold and made an absolute fortune - they became the equivalent of multi-billionaires of their time.  Sadly the other two brothers - William and Thomas - didn't make a fortune but instead were made bankrupt and probably either went to debtors gaol or their wealthy siblings paid off their debt; and both died, broken, at a young age (I am descended from William).

For many many generations, Robert, Henry and Anne - who had made their fortune in the clothing industry - looked after all of their extremely large extended family in Wales, London and Suffolk - including all the descendants - children and grandchildren - of the two bankrupt brothers.  With the evidence that the Parnalls were so wealthy and effluent, it is not too much of a leap to consider that this is a photograph of a Parnall woman.  But which one? It can't be my great-grandmother,  Louisa Parnall (William's grand-daughter), being too young as she was born in 1856 (and if you click the link, you will see a photograph of Louisa).  So possibly her mother, Frances ("Fanny") Parnall nee Sawkins - who would have been between 30 and 40 years old at the time of this photograph.

Who was the lady in the photo? Nobody (alive) knows... Apart from a best educated guess that it was Frances ("Fanny") Parnall nee Sawkins.  Of course, if someone from the past had written on the back of this photograph who she was, then I wouldn't have to make such a massive (and perhaps incorrect) assumption and deduction.


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And that's my post for this month - my cautionary tale about "Who do I think she was".  The moral to my tale being... please label your photos for your future generations!  I look forward to sharing with you more of my discoveries over the coming months - see you next time on this blog on 18th April 2014. In the meantime, you can catch me on my blog Essex Voices Past or on twitter @EssexVoicesPast

You may also be interested on my previous posts on this blog

12 comments:

  1. Great post. I have some pictures, that hopeful reading this will help me in my sleuthing

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    1. Thanks Fran. Happy sleuthing!

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  2. Timely reminder. I had better purchase another photo frinedly pen and get labelling.

    I'm also going to add a footer like yours to my posts on this blog - Great idea.

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    1. I use the footer idea on my main blog to add links to related previous posts. I do find that people click them!

      Hmm photo-friendly pen - hadn't that of that! In my haste, I just grabbed the nearest biro to write on the back. But you are right, I should find the right pen for the job.

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  3. Two copies of a particular photo were given to me by two separate branches of the family, and both told me that the subject is Mary PEACOCK. Her birth/death/census dates and places fit the known dates/place of the photographic studio named on the photo. But the same photo is in PictureQueensland and Trove, identified as a different person (whose dates/places do not fit at all). This happened because a third branch of the family gave the wrong name when donating the photo to the John Oxley Library.

    When you make a digital copy of a photo, there is an easy way to ensure that details written on the back (or a source citation) are saved as part of the image. See Judy Russell's step-by-step instructions in 'An image citation how-to'.

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    1. Yes, there's always the problem with the wrong caption being put on a photo. But it least they won't end up with no caption whatsoever so you've got no idea where/who they belong to - or worse still, ending up unloved on eBay!

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  4. A very timely reminder. I was so grateful for the collection I inherited from my Great Aunt Jennie, as she had written on the back of most of her photographs. I must admit I have been slow to follow suit, but you never know when you could be hit by the proverbial bus, and it is never too early to start labeling.

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    1. Yes that every present bus is a bit worrying! For me, the fact that I'd forgotten photos that I once knew so well was a worry and showed that even during a person's lifetime (mine!) memories can play tricks.

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  5. Well, I know I am not current on labeling. Wincing. Need to work on this. Thanks for the reminder.

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    1. Get labeling Carol! More important than writing up as it's these photos which will grab future generations interest

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  6. Wincing as well! I also need to go through all my scanned photos and correct the file names to give more details of who is in the photos. Thanks for the nudge. Also love the idea of your little foot note to recent posts. It is a nice idea. A quick link to recent work.

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    1. Thanks Diane. I get a lot of "hits" from people following my "you might like this" links. I also often go back over old posts and add any new relevant recent links onto old posts. Anything to keep fickle readers on my site!

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World Wide Genealogy Team