I have been hooked on history, especially family history, since I was a child. For many years I concentrated on finding out more about my Mum’s side of the family, while my Heritage family history remained a mystery since my Dad never spoke about his family. All I knew was that he had a sister in New Zealand and had had an elder brother called Ron who was killed in WW11. His silence spurred me on to find out more. One afternoon I secretly ventured into our attic to see what I could find. Among suitcases, Christmas decorations and old kitchen utensils, I found several boxes of old books, some of which had the name of Dad’s brother inscribed in the front. Even better, however, was the box stuffed full of memorial cards and old family photographs! Memorial cards were popular in the 19th and early 20th century, being sent to friends and family after someone had died. They usually provide vital information about the deceased including full name, date of death, age and burial place. The wodge of cards I found were later to provide many clues for building my family tree while the photographs were (like most old family photos!) all unlabelled and very frustrating.
I sat for some time staring at the faces of the people in the pictures, wondering exactly how they were related to me and what their names were! Most of these were group photographs taken at weddings and a precious memory of each event, but also a record of so many of my relatives. When I was older I plucked up the courage to ask my Dad about his family and to my surprise he didn’t mind talking about it at all! (‘You never asked’, he said!) We spent an afternoon going through each of the photographs and he told me the name of all those relatives he remembered and I duly wrote them in pencil on the back. These days of course I use an acid free archival pen!
Earlier this month I celebrated my 50th birthday! While on the one hand I wanted to celebrate successfully reaching such an advanced age, I was also determined to combine it with a family reunion, concentrating (due to space restrictions) on my maternal family. It seemed that the only time we all got together was at funerals. With all the invites sent, I waited impatiently to see who would be able to make it. A few people, sadly, could not make the chosen weekend, but twenty nine relatives could and, together with many friends and colleagues, we had a truly wonderful weekend blessed with ideal weather conditions for an outdoor party!
Much interest was stimulated by the family tree chart, showing how we are all descended from James Postlethwaite Wilson and Mary Dickinson. Another success was my request that each relative bring a family photo of a common ancestor or relative. This revived many old memories as did a wonderful cine film of a 1957 family wedding. We spent hours re-running the five-minute film and identifying family members past and present! A few photographs remained tantalisingly unidentified or undated and for these I shall be engaging the services of Jayne Shrimpton to help identify them with her brilliant photo dating and analysis service. You can learn more about photo dating through Jayne’s many books, while she also writes a very informative column for Family Tree Magazine.
Remembering future generations is just as important as looking back in time. Our ancestors often left a healthy paper trail for us to follow, but those who come after us may find it much more difficult as our trail becomes increasingly digitised. Will our digital photographs be passed on to later generations? Will they be labelled?
My party was an excellent opportunity to make a photographic record of so many family members. Here I would like to thank Mia Bennett for spending much of the weekend snapping away in a series of informal but also formal group shots. These are currently being printed out and labelled so that in times to come, everyone will know who we were and what we looked like! My favourite shot (below) was our attempt at a Victorian non-smiling pose. If you look closely you will see that not everyone managed not to smile but this picture, together with the other photos, are a great record of a wonderful day and will help provide a paper and digital record of our present-day family.