Some random musings on sharing our social lives

Black & white wedding photo, April 28 1920. A double wedding in the Gray family. Ethel Gray (bride standing) married William O'Brien (seated to her right) and Doris Gray (seated) married Fred Wright (standing to her right).

April 28 1920, a double wedding in the Gray family. Ethel Gray (bride standing) married William O’Brien (seated to her right) and Doris Gray (seated) married Fred Wright (standing to her right). Photo courtesy of Peter Duncan.

When the Big T and I attended a wedding on New Year’s Eve, it didn’t take long before photos of the event started to appear on guests’ FaceBook and Twitter feeds — including mine.

FaceBook post documenting a wedding. Su Leslie, 2016

Covering the wedding, FaceBook-style.

At this particular wedding, there was no “official” photographer; instead guests captured the event on their smartphones or cameras, then shared widely,with much tagging, liking and commenting.

It’s an often-made criticism of social media that platforms like FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter are filled with the minutiae of people’s lives; cute pet moments, a new dress or shoes, meals and drinks — what, where and with whom. Events — from kids’ play-dates to weddings — are photographed and shared with friends, family and followers around the world.

For some, this is over-sharing. Too much content spilling, uncensored, into too many other lives. And when we compare this very public exposure of everyday life to how (and with whom) we shared memories even fifteen years ago, it does seem that social media has provided a brand new platform for the public dissemination of trivia.

But it’s not really new. Lately, I’ve been reading newspaper social columns from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For a country with a very small population, New Zealand had a surprisingly large number of newspapers for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these have been digitised as part of a project called Papers Past, managed by the National Library of New Zealand.

While social columns I’ve seen in more contemporary newspapers seem to focus on major events and on celebrities or prominent people, these earlier papers covered not only the major touchstones in people’s lives — like weddings — but also much less momentous events; parties, kitchen teas, even people visiting friends and family, or going on holiday.

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Press, Volume LXXII, Issue 21762, 20 April 1936. Found at Papers Past.

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Social column from The Press (Canterbury, NZ); 26 March 1925. Sourced from Papers Past

Accessing this very large and easily searchable archive of newspapers has proved really useful in helping me research my son’s paternal ancestry. The article below, about the marriage of two of the Gray sisters in 1920, has helped confirm familial relationships and put faces to names in the wedding photograph above.

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DOUBLE WEDDING AT HORORATA: Star, Issue 19944, 10 May 1920. Image: courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

But more than that, the social columns have provided insight into the millieu in which ancestors existed — much as FaceBook, Instagram etc. do today. Sports club memberships, community involvement, even golfing victories and assertions of various ancestors’ “popularity” and attractiveness were all reported  — not to mention (sometimes very detailed) descriptions of the women’s clothing.

Thus I know that the bridesmaids in the photo above were wearing dresses of “vieux rose” (a sort of dusky pink) and “heliotrope” (a pinkish-purple). FaceBook of course, would have provided me with photos, but given variation in lighting and camera quality, these may or not have represented the colours accurately.

The newspapers were also remarkably candid in reporting people’s whereabouts;  presumably with their knowledge and consent. For example …

“Mrs F. G. M. Raymond (Beverley Road) left yesterday on a visit to her mother …”

… seems to my jaded twenty-first century sensibilities practically an invitation to burglars. Most people I know are quite cautious about sharing holiday posts and photos on their social media accounts while they are still away, but perhaps folks were more honest in those days.

Perhaps the biggest difference between old and new is in who decides what is newsworthy.

While I’ve identified a number of ancestors in the Christchurch area during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only a few families appear in the newspaper social columns. They lived in the Hororata area and would probably be termed “prominent” families.

Whether on FaceBook or in old-fashioned print, newsworthiness is socially constructed. The difference is that the social columns were created by third-parties;  journalists operating in a commercial environment, with time, space and social constraints. In the press, news is what sells papers (and advertising).

By comparison, anyone with a social media account can make their own news — and anyone whose friends or family have an account can, willingly or not, become part of that news.

Screenshot of the blogger's FaceBook profile picture.

#OMG #oneforthealbum. Is this how I’ll be seen by future family historians?

 

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Another road leads back to Scotland

James Gray and Isabella Thompson. Photo c. 1890. Source: Peter Duncan / Gray family archive.

My son’s 3x great grandparents, James Gray and Isabella Thompson. Photo c. 1890. Source: Peter Duncan / Gray family archive.

Since I wrote the most recent post about my son’s paternal line (Opening the door on a new journey), I have been contacted by two relatives from the Gray branch of that family. Both have provided me with useful background information and in one case, photographs.

We knew that Andrew GRAY was the only one of my partner’s great grandparents not born in New Zealand. My father-in-law believed that his grandfather came from Scotland, probably from around Glasgow, but wasn’t really sure.

Arrival in New Zealand

From New Zealand Yesteryears I was able to find details of Andrew Gray’s arrival in NZ at the age of four. The passenger list shows that he traveled with his parents, James (farm labourer aged 36) and Isabella (aged 34), and his sisters Isabella (7), Agnes (2) and Ann (10 months) aboard the ship Matoaka, arriving in Lyttleton on December 1st, 1860. They had sailed from Bristol on September 2nd

Although the ship’s manifest shows Isabella’s surname as Gray, I know from James’ Will that her maiden name was Thomson.

Marriage of James and Isabella

The only likely record I’ve found for a marriage between James and Isabella was in Glasgow in 1852. The OPR record (from Scotland’s People, below) says:

Gray   James Gray, Carter in Glasgow, Isabella Thomson residing there, married 16th July by Mr John Graham, Independent Minister in Glasgow.

 

Marriage record, James Gray and Isabella Thomson, 1852, Glasgow. Source: Scotland's People.

Marriage record, James Gray and Isabella Thomson, 1852, Glasgow. Source: Scotland’s People.

To corroborate this, I searched for birth records the Gray children listed on the Matoaka’s passenger list.

The children

The eldest, Isabella, was shown as aged 7 in December 1860, so was probably born around 1853. However, a search in Scotland’s People didn’t find any records — in Church of Scotland, Catholic or other parish registers of any children called Isabella (or name variants) born to James and Isabella Gray/Thomson (name variants included here too).

I did have more luck with Andrew (born 1855), Agnes (born 1857) and Anne (born 1859). All three birth records show the same parent details, and the two older children were born at the same address — Crofthead Cottage in the parish of Cadder, about 7km north of Glasgow. The address for Anne’s birth is “Bishopbridge (Bishopbriggs?) in the District of Cadder.”

Statutory record-keeping

1855 was the year in which compulsory civil registration of births began in Scotland — taking the place of parish registers. As all the birth records I found for the Gray children are post-1855, I’m wondering if perhaps James and Isabella’s children weren’t baptised (at least not in churches for which records have been digitised).

Records for 1855 are particularly interesting as, for that year only, the birth register recorded some additional information:

  • Other children and whether they were living or deceased
  • Ages of both parents
  • Birthplaces of both parents
  • Parents’ usual residence
  • Baptismal name (if different)

Andrew’s birth registration tells me that James was aged 33, a mining labourer and born in Garnkirk, a settlement near the southern border of Cadder parish. Isabella was aged 30 and had borne two other children: one girl, living — Isabella; and a boy, deceased.

Isabella Gray Maiden name Thomson ?? 3rd child 30 Years, Muirkirk??? From birth record, Andrew Gray, 1855. Source: Scotland's People.

Isabella Gray Maiden name Thomson ?? 3rd child 30 Years, Muirkirk??? From birth record, Andrew Gray, 1855. Source: Scotland’s People.

As to her place of birth: I’m having trouble reading the hand-writing on the record. It looks like Muirkirk — a small town in Ayrshire.

What do you think?

Where to next?

My usual method for unraveling ancestors’ lives (certainly those born in the 19th century) involves beginning at the end — with death certificates. In Scotland, these include the deceased’s parents’ names, father’s occupation and whether the parents were alive at the time of their off-spring’s death.

Because James Gray and Isabella Thomson left Scotland in 1860, their deaths occurred in New Zealand.And while that may be convenient, death certificates here are costly to obtain and, in my experience, contain very limited information.

I have searched Scottish records for James and Isabella’s births, and have found several possible matches for each. However, in the absence of any corroborating evidence (parent’s names for example), it isn’t possible to be sure which (if any) of these records is correct.

I will have to “bite the bullet” and order their NZ death certificates and hope that they are more informative than others I’ve accessed.

In the meantime, I plan to work forward, from their arrival on the Matoaka, to the lives they and their children built in their new country.

Opening the door on a new journey

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Merle Wright, c. 1916-18 Photo kindly sent to us by a descendant of friends of the Wright family.

Like me, my partner has memories of knowing three of his four grandparents. In fact, he was in his teens when all three died. Yet, as seems universal with children, he learned little about them as people. So little in fact, that when I asked him once what his (paternal) grandparents were called, his reply was “er, Nana and Pop?”

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“Nana and Pop” — Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray (middle and right), with my father in law Roger. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

That throwaway line was the beginning of a slow and rather tentative search. The first thing of course was to replace “Nana and Pop” with Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, who married on October 2nd, 1926 at St. John’s church Hororata, New Zealand.

The Wright and Gray families

Wallace Gray was born on 21 December 1892. He was the second child of Andrew Gray (1856? – 1915) and Emily Ann Oliver (1860?-1945).

Andrew Gray had arrived in New Zealand as a small child, aboard the ship Mataoka which docked at Lyttleton on December 2nd 1860. His parents, James Gray and Isabella Thompson travelled from England with three other children as well; the youngest only a few months old.

Emily Ann Oliver was the second child born to William Oliver and his wife Emily (maiden name unknown). Their first child, a son, was born and died aboard the ship Glentanner on the voyage from England to New Zealand. Emily Ann was the first of eight Oliver children to be born in New Zealand.

Andrew Gray and Emily Ann Oliver had seven other children together.

Newspaper report, wedding of Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, 2 October, 1926, Hororata, Canterbury, NZ. Image courtesy of Papers Past/Fairfax Media.

Newspaper report, wedding of Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, 2 October, 1926, Hororata, Canterbury, NZ. Image courtesy of Papers Past/Fairfax Media.

Robin Douglas Gray, born 1889. He married May Chapman in 1913, and died in 1967.

Winifred Olive Gray, born 1890, died 1891.

Eric Andrew Gray, born 1895. Also served with the NZ Expeditionary Force in France. He died 27 March 1918 during the Third Battle of the Somme. I’ve written about this here and here.

Doris Emily Gray, born 1897. She married Fred Nathaniel Wright (Merle Wright’s brother) in 1920.

Ethel Fyllis Gray, born 1899. She married William O’Brien in 1920, in a double wedding with her sister Doris (see clipping below.)

Aileen Annie Gray, born 1900. Married Reginald Rees in 1923.

Mavis Isobel Gray, born 1902. Married William Patterson in 1928.

***

Merle Matilda Laura Wright was born on 23 August 1904, to Sidney Robert Wright and Jessie Susan Harris. They married in 1890, in Timaru and had eight children together.

Both Sidney and Jessie had been born in New Zealand. I’ve written about this part of the family here. Since then I’ve learned more about the immigration of these families to New Zealand, so will cover this in a later post.

Their eldest child, Harry Marshall Wright, born 18 August 1891, was killed in action during WWI — on August 7th, 1915 in the Sari Bair offensive at Gallipoli.

Margaret Wright, born 1892, died only nine hours after her birth.

Fred Nathaniel Wright, born 13 December 1894, also served with the NZ Expeditionary Force in WWI. In 1920 he married Doris Emily Gray — a sister of his future brother-in-law, Wallace Oliver Gray.

Alice Vera Wright, born in 1896, never married. She died in Christchurch, NZ in 1954.

Sidney John Wright, born 1893. Died aged 3 days.

Clara Duffill Wright, born 1906. In 1929 she married Arthur Edward Perkins. They divorced in 1957.

Frank Robert Wright, born 1910. In April 1936 he married Joan Ellis Luxton in Christchurch. Frank died in 1992; Joan in 1996.

Like his brother Eric, and brothers-in-law Harry and Fred Wright, Wallace Gray served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI. He was wounded in France, in December 1917 and evacuated to England. While there, he contracted a serious illness and was deemed unfit for military service.

Bringing the characters to life

While it is satisfying to add names and dates to the family tree, the real pleasure in researching Merle and Wallace’s lives has come from the rich detail provided by newspaper cuttings found in New Zealand’s online newspaper archive, Papers Past.

Merle Wright and Wallace Gray lived during a time when newspapers not only flourished, but devoted considerable column inches to reporting social events — in much the same way we use social media now. Weddings, bridal showers, birthday and coming-of-age parties; all sorts of social occasions were reported — often in rather flowery detail. From these, we have added depth to my partner’s knowledge, particularly of his grandmother.

We found a number of clippings recording her involvement in organising social events in Hororata prior to her marriage, while later we find numerous references to her golfing abilities — golf tournament results obviously being a regular column.

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Merle Gray, 1936. Press, 8 October 1936. Image courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

On a practical level, these stories have also helped identify new family members, narrow down search dates and confirm relationships between individuals. For example, from the newspaper report above, I know that Merle’s sister Clara wasn’t married at the time of Merle’s wedding, so I could confine my search for her marriage record to later dates.

It was common to list all of the attendees at social functions, so it becomes clear that courtship very much took place within the small community — these young men and women were very likely to marry the boy or girl “next door.”

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As well as members of the Wright family, this event was attended by Wallace Gray and his sister, and members of the Oliver family (cousins of the Gray’s). Image: Fairfax Media/ Papers Past.

When Wallace Gray married Merle Wright in 1926, they were already related by marriage. Wallace’s sister Doris had married Merle’s brother Fred in 1920, in a double wedding where another Gray sister, Ethel was also married.

doris-and-ethel-gray-double-wedding-1920-papers-past

DOUBLE WEDDING AT HORORATA: Star, Issue 19944, 10 May 1920. Image: courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

The end of the (official) road

Merle died in 1979 and Wallace in 1981. They had raised three children together; Patricia, Shona and my father-in-law Roger. We know that Wallace ran the local garage in Hororata for many years and that during the 1950s the couple moved to Hamilton, then Auckland before finally settling in Timaru; electoral rolls and street directories help map their movements over the years.

But beyond that, public records have no more to offer.

When I set about answering that initial question about “Nana and Pop”, my partner had fairly limited interest in his family’s history. As I uncovered more and more — and particularly since finding Merle’s photograph in Papers Past — his interest and enthusiasm have grown. It is now time to visit the few remaining members of the family and ask the questions we didn’t even know we had.

It’s time to close the circle.

Friday flip through the archives

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.