Friday flip through the archives


Originally posted as part of my 100 Days project. Kirkyard at Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland. Resting place of James Wallace and Ann Cunnison. Image: Su Leslie, 2013

Reading Amy’s account of visiting her Seligman family members’ burial place in Santa Fe, (My Ancestral Town, Santa Fe, New Mexico in Brotmanblog: A Family Journey) made me think about a wet and cold afternoon I spent in a tiny churchyard in rural Perthshire, Scotland, looking for the resting place of my 3x great grandparents James Wallace and Ann Cunnison.

I originally wrote about this in a post called On Stilled Voices and Visualising Silence.

Yesterday my 100 days project word was ‘silence’ — and I have to say it was possibly the most challenging to date.

Partly that might be because I’m away from home, without access to my normal work tools and archives and reliant on my iPad. Partly it’s just because silence is something I find difficult to visually convey.

Eventually I realised that the most profound silence is not an absence of sound, but an absence of communication. Last year, on my trip to Scotland, I visited a number of cemeteries and kirkyards, looking for the headstones of ancestors. I found more than I’d expected and will always treasure those moments with those tangible symbols of my lineage.

But alone in those bleak, quiet places, I also felt the profound loss of lives stilled. I come from ordinary folk who don’t in general leave traces of themselves in recorded history. Once those who knew them stop sharing stories, their lives are silenced.

If I learned anything from my kirkyard visits, it is to speak to family members now; record their stories and share them with the next generations.

Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have seen the point in visiting places just because my ancestors had lived there. But as I have become more and more interested in my family history, I’ve realised the power of any tangible reminder (photographs, objects, places) of those long gone. I’ve learned to listen to those echoes of past lives, and to hear traces of my own voice there too.

On finding out how deep my Fife roots actually go

place of birth pedigree chart su leslie

Pedigree chart, by ancestor place of birth.

After reading Amberly’s post (at thegenealogygirl) about creating a pedigree chart based on ancestors’ place of birth, I commented that mine would be pretty monochrome. All of the ancestors I’ve traced were born in Scotland, and even if I broke birthplace down by county, I’d still only have four colours; one each for Fife, Perthshire, Angus and Banffshire.

So I’ve gone to village level; back to my 3x great grandparents. And even then twenty four out of the thirty eight ancestors whose birthplaces are known to me were born in what is now Kirkcaldy, Fife. This includes Dysart, Abbotshall, Gallatown, and Kirkcaldy itself — an area of about seven square miles.

Su Leslie Birthplace Pedigree Chart Template (pdf file, in case anyone is interested).

Now I’m off to try and fill in the missing birthplace information. I may have to change my colour scheme though; I’m running out of shades of Fife green.


Season of joy and remembering

It’s celebration season in my family. Over the next few weeks birthdays and wedding anniversaries will keep the card makers in business and provide the impetus for scattered family members to reach out to one another.

Both the Big T and one of my brothers will celebrate birthdays, along with a sister-in-law, two nieces, a nephew and more than a few cousins.

My in-laws will celebrate 56 years of marriage this week, on the same day that would have been my parents’ 60th anniversary. My folks divorced many year ago, but next month we’ll raise a toast to my father and step-mother celebrating their 29th anniversary.

For the Big T and I, the biggest cause for celebration this year is our boy-child turning 18 in a few days.

Black and white shot of the Big T holding the boy-child, aged 6 days. Image: Su Leslie, 1998

That time the Big T got a baby for his birthday. Gayhurst House, Buckinghamshire, England. Image: Su Leslie, 1998


Looking a bit jaded after his 40th wedding anniversary celebrations, my father in law on the boy-child’s 2nd birthday. Image: 2000, Gray-Leslie family archive.

Our tiny (truly — 2.5kg at birth) baby has become a man. A kind, funny, articulate, responsible and hard-working young man who is sometimes unknowable to me. Yet there are still moments when I recognise the energetic, ever-curious and always smiling boy I’ve nursed, read to, played with and loved with an intensity I didn’t know was possible.

This year will be the thirtieth time the Big T and I have spent his birthday together …

… but, as with most years since we were children, my brother and I will be on different continents on his birthday.

su and craig 1965 or 66 small

Big sister, little brother. Kirkcaldy, 1966. Image: Leslie family archive.

I have only one photo of my parents on their wedding day, and they are — mysteriously — right in the background of the shot. I do however have this wonderful newspaper clipping. It’s not the most flattering photograph, but provides a wealth of information, right down to my mother’s going-away outfit.

kirkcaldy swimmer wed small

Fife Free Times, Feb 1956.

In part thanks to the efforts of the Big T’s aunt (in the gorgeous bronze dress below), we have a wealth of photos of my in-laws’ wedding.


Marriage of Isobel Joy Dove and Roger Andrew Gray, 1960. Image: Gray family archive.

3 J & R wedding

Wedding of Isobel Joy Dove and Roger Andrew Gray, Feb 1960. Image: Gray-Dove family archive.

This post was written for the Daily Post Photo Challenge. This week’s theme is seasons.


The Method Behind the Madness

The Method Behind the Madness

This is WAAY too good advice not to share.

The People of Pancho

Hello, People. I’ve gotten a few queries about how I manage my archive, so I’m going to digress a bit today and describe my process. If nerdy details are not your cup of tea, then please come back tomorrow when I’ll resume my usual programming.

I didn’t set out to establish an archive, or take up genealogy, or write a blog, but only to satisfy my curiosity about the contents of some forlorn cardboard boxes in the back of a closet at my maternal grandparents’ house. Emptying out a home after the death of its occupants is a weighty job under any circumstances, but my grandmother had a truly mind-blowing amount of stuff. We — her children, grandchildren, and our spouses — had a limited amount of time in which to accomplish the removal, so when I peeked in boxes and saw very old albums and hundreds of loose photos, I simply sealed them up and shipped them home with the…

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Help needed: do you recognise these WWII servicemen?


The Auckland Museum has just digitized and released a whole bunch of photographs taken during WWII by a local photographer, Tudor Collins. They all show American servicemen posted to the small town of Warkworth, New Zealand, prior to their deployment in the Pacific.

These are wonderful portraits of young men enjoying a few weeks of rest and Kiwi hospitality before being hurled into prolonged and ferocious fighting from which many did not return.

None of the photos were captioned, so the identity of the soldiers is unknown. The Museum has loaded them onto its website and is asking anyone whose relatives served in the Pacific, and who spent (or might have spent) time in New Zealand, to help identify these men.

I know a number of people who read this blog have family who served in WWII, and it would be great if you could visit the website to look at these images. There are a lot of them; but who knows, maybe one of those smiling young men belongs to your family, and you can bring their memory home for Christmas.

Ngā mihi o te Kirihimete me te Tau Hou

– Season’s greetings for Christmas and the New Year


Faces from an unexplored past

eft: Jessie Susan Harris, born 21 March 1868 Christchurch, died 13 June 1923, Hororata aged 55 right: Alice Margaret Wright, born 12 October 1872 Kaiapoi, died 10 August 1930 Washdyke photo by Eden George, Christchurch. From This photograph album was owned by Jack Thomas Frederick Baker until his death in 2003. It was previously owned by his mother Clara Elizabeth Harris (1873-1945).

Great grandmother, Jessie Susan Harris (left), and sister in law (?) Alice Margaret Wright. Photo by Eden George, Christchurch. From photograph album owned by Jack Thomas Frederick Baker, son of Clara Elizabeth Harris (1873-1945). With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to Clara’s album (, and others.

We can’t help ourselves. We look at family photos and can’t help trying to find some resemblance between those we know and love, and the the faces in pictures.

The hallway in my house has become a rogues gallery of family photos and there is much pleasure to be had watching visitors scrutinize them, trying to establish who’s who. My son is regularly mistaken for his father in one photo, and an older cousin in another; while I increasingly see myself in the faces of my maternal aunts.

For family historians, photographs are the ultimate treasure. We spend so long trying to put flesh on the bones of our ancestors, that to see the faces of these long-dead men and women is a sweet pleasure indeed.

My partner is fortunate to share in a large collection of photos (now digitised) from his mother’s side of the family, but until very recently we had virtually none from his father’s side.

Roger Andrew Gray with his parents, Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

Paternal line. Roger Andrew Gray with his parents, Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

This changed when a fellow blogger (Belinda Lansley, at Great Grandma’s Wicker Basket) recognised the Big T’s paternal grandmother, Merle Matilda Laura Wright as a friend of her own great grandmother, Dorothy Lord. In Belinda’s collection of family photos were several of Merle, her sister Clara and other members of the Wright family. These she generously shared with me.

Dorothy Lord, Clara Wright, May Lord, Merle Wright early 1920s. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for allowing me to reproduce this image.

Dorothy Lord, Clara Wright, May Lord, Merle Wright early 1920s. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for allowing me to reproduce this image.

Belinda also sent me the link to a photograph album belonging to another member of Merle’s extended family (Early New Zealand Photographers), and it is through these sources that we have begun to learn a little about this branch of the family.

Merle was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1904, to Jessie Susan Harris and Sidney Robert Wright. The couple married in Timaru in 1890, and had eight children; Harry, Margaret, Fred, Alice, Sidney, Merle, Clara and Frank (Source: Births, Deaths and Marriages NZ)

Jessie Harris (shown in the first photo with Alice Margaret Wright) was born on March 21st, 1868, in Christchurch, twin sister of Henry Richard Harris.

The photo below is Jessie’s brother Henry, with Sidney Wright — Jessie’s husband. It appears that both families lived in Ohoka, a small rural settlement near Christchurch, and would presumably have known each other. Did Jessie marry her twin’s best friend?

Jack Baker's album page 5

Henry Richard Harris (left) with Sidney Robert Wright. Photo by Eden George – Christchurch. With grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to Clara’s album (

Sidney was born three weeks after the Harris twins, on 9 April 1868. He was the third of six children born to Robert Marshall Wright and Matilda Ann Baker (married 1859: source BDM New Zealand).

Another photo in the same album shows Jessie and Henry as small children with their mother, Sarah Ann Duffull. A note with the photograph indicates that Sarah was born in Croyden, England. Her marriage, to Nathaniel Harris, took place in New Zealand in 1867. The couple appears to have had 10 children, including two sets of twins (source: BDM, NZ).

I haven’t been able to find New Zealand birth records for Nathaniel Harris, Robert Wright or Matilda Baker, so it would appear that all four of Merle Wright’s grandparents were born outside of New Zealand, and immigrated either as children, or young adults, making the Big T a fourth generation Kiwi.

Sarah Anne Duffull with her children Jessie Susan and Henry Richard Harris. c. 1871

Sarah Anne Duffull with her children Jessie Susan and Henry Richard Harris. c. 1871. Photo by Eden George – Christchurch. Grateful thanks to Belinda Lansley for sending me the link to this photo.

Far left, Jessie Harris, middle seated, May Lord. Other's unknown. Image courtesy of Belinda Lansley.

Far left, Jessie Harris, middle seated, May Lord, family friend and great grand aunt of Belinda Lansley, who has kindly shared this photo with me. The identity of the other women and the children is unknown.

One of the great joys of genealogy blogging is meeting distant relatives and others with shared connections to the past. When Belinda generously shared photos with me, she gave my family the chance to see the faces of men and women who helped shape the people that my partner and son are today. For that, I am extremely grateful.

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s My Backpack.


On letter-writing, or how will the future remember you?

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Bygone days. Sitting down with a cuppa to read the news from home. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

When was the last time you wrote a letter? A proper, personal (dare I even say, handwritten) letter — on paper?

I suspect the last time I did was in 2006; to my grandmother not long before she died.

I don’t even send all that many greeting cards anymore. Like letters they have been replaced with phone calls, Skype, emails and FaceBook messages.

For family historians, letters are invaluable. They are the “Sunday best” of information sources; the snapshots and snippets of past lives that reveal character as well as information. If public records provide a skeleton of our ancestors and clothe them in the uniform of their time, personal letters (and diaries) show us something of the colour and texture of a life. They are the ribbons and shawls that hint at personality and individuality.

Since literacy became widespread, letters have been a lifeline between family members and friends separated by distance. And with migration a feature of most nations’ histories, the number of people writing and receiving letters must have been huge. Within my family alone, I’ve found ancestors and relatives who left Scotland for every outpost of the British Empire, including my parents, who emigrated to New Zealand.

As a child I remember getting letters from my grandparents and aunts back in Scotland, and having to be chivied by my mother to reply. Well into my 20s I was still writing to my great uncle Tom, my paternal grandfather’s younger brother. I wonder now what he made of my letters — domestic details and tales of student life from someone he hadn’t seen since I was five. His letters to me always smelled of cigarettes; something I would normally hate, but actually made me feel close to him.

A rare photo of the Leslie side of the family. My dad holding my brother; me sitting on my great uncle Tom's knee.

Great Uncle Tom. A funny, wonderful man whom I utterly adored. Photo taken in Carshalton, Surrey, c. 1966. Leslie family archive.

In the last few years, my mother has given me a collection of family documents she has saved. Mainly photos, there are also a few letters, including two that survived an air crash (which I’ve written about in On Touching History), and the letter my grandmother wrote to tell Mum that my grandfather was dying. The telegram is postmarked two days later, and simply says:


Over forty years later, I can’t hold these flimsy pieces of paper in my hands without crying.

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother's employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Letters from home, a telegram and a note of condolences from my mother’s employer on the death of her father. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

In June 1917, The Big T’s great uncle Eric wrote a letter to his sister from an English hospital. He had been wounded on the first day of the Battle of Messines — the beginning of the terrible Passchendaele Offensive, and his letter describes the circumstances of his injury. The letter’s tone is light — partly to get past the censor, but probably also to protect his beloved sister from the terrible  realities of the war. Only once does the “mask” slip. He wrote:

... the only thing I am worrying about is that it will get better too soon. (1)

Eric Gray died on March 27, 1918 near Auchonvillers in the Somme Valley (written about in Death of a Soldier).

Aside from a few letters from the Big T and some greetings cards that I think are particularly funny, I’ve kept no physical, written correspondence with family and friends. And aside from the greeting cards, I don’t think I’ve received physical, written communications through the post in years.

The growth in cheap telecommunications has diminished the volume of written communication, and that which is not spoken is increasingly electronically composed and transmitted. As life is increasingly experienced — and expressed — electronically, those traces of us that once survived long sea voyages, aircraft crashes and years tucked away in shoe-boxes at the back of the wardrobe, are disappearing.

So what will family historians of the future make of us? How will the depth of love of a woman for her husband be known without the letter to a distant child telling of grave illness? What will a sister hold on to when her soldier brother does not come home? And beyond the content of letters, the richness of personality revealed in handwriting, grammar, spelling, even the paper used; these will not be available to historians in the future.

We’re told our digital footprint is permanent, and perhaps that is true. But does that mean we will be known by our Instagram-d dinner snaps and FaceBook selfies rather than the carefully thought-out and laboriously written words our ancestors shared. Scary thought!

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s my Backpack. The theme was Letters.


(1) The full letter can be found in We got dug in about five feed deep by dinnertime and then fritz started to shell ...