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 (canterburyphotography.blogspot.co.nz), 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 (canterburyphotography.blogspot.co.nz).

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.

 

Thankful Thursday: to archivists everywhere

In my working life, I’m a writer and researcher – and since 2011 – an archivist. As part of a project by the Rotary Clubs of 9910 District, Auckland, to preserve their history, I was employed to establish and run their archive. I got the gig as a final year Masters of Information Studies student and am enormously grateful to the forward-thinking, resourceful and energetic team of Rotarians who instigated and help drive this project. Although still in it’s infancy, this archive will enable future researchers – including family historians – to know more about the work of Rotary, and the men and women who have been members.

Photo credit: Plumerio Pipichas via photopin cc

Photo credit: Plumerio Pipichas via photopin cc

So I hope you’ll forgive what might look like a bit of self-congratulation here, because this post is a truly heart-felt thank you to the thousands of archivists – professional and volunteer – whose work in preserving records of the past is essentially what makes family history research possible.

The National Archives, Kew, England.

The National Archives, Kew, England.

In the last few weeks I’ve spent time in two government archives – the National Archives at Kew, London and the Fife Council Archive Centre in Markinch, Fife. In some ways, they could hardly be more different. The National Archives are housed in a stunning new building with a cafe, restaurant and shop, and receives many hundreds – if not thousands – of visitors per week. On top of that, thousands more searches are carried out of its online records through the catalogue Discovery.

By contrast, the Fife Archive is located in the basement of a 1960s office building on the edge of Markinch. There is no cafe, shop or enticing artwork on display. But that’s where the difference ends really. Both archives are staffed  efficiently and effectively by professionals who seem utterly dedicated to the preservation and sharing of Britain’s documentary past.

At the National Archives I learned more about the fate of my great grand uncle Stewart Cruden who died in 1942 aboard the Shera, a converted whaling boat in the Arctic Convoys of World War II. The sinking of that ship was the subject of an official enquiry and I was able to read the files relating to that enquiry, including the testimony of the three men who survived. While my uncle wasn’t mentioned by name, I feel I know a little more about his death and can share this with my mother, who knew her uncle, remembers the telegram arriving with word of his death, and has lived for 70 years not really knowing the circumstances in which he was lost.

At the Fife Council Archives I read the patient notes of my great, great grandfather Rankine Gourlay when he was a patient in the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum. I learned a great deal about his history, physical health and mental condition. Heartbreakingly, I read the final note, from October 14 1891 which says:

“It was thought advisable to send him to the poorhouse and so today he was discharged.”

Rankine Goulay spent his last 12 years in the Kirkcaldy Combination Poorhouse, dying in July 1903.

While at the Fife Archive, I also searched the Minute Books of the Dysart School Board, looking for information about my great grandmother, Anne Nicholson, who was a teacher. That search proved fruitless, as the books for the years I wanted are not in the collection.

And this is the researcher’s on-going problem; records that we know were made but that have not survived to be seen, read, searched now.

Even in the relatively short time I’ve been researching my family I have experienced this repeatedly. My great grandfather’s war records – probably destroyed along with so many others in the Blitz; the same great grandfather’s time in Edenhall Hospital. Records from that institution have been transferred to the Lothian Health Services Archive in Edinburgh, but not records for the “right” time period for me. And probably most frustratingly, the School Board records which would almost certainly have included the resignation and possible re-appointment of my great grandmother who had a child out of wedlock while teaching and would have had to resign, but was back teaching when she married four years later.

It’s easy to feel frustrated by these omissions, but instead I feel enormously grateful for the records that have been preserved. I am thankful for the foresight and often bloody-minded perseverance of those people who have recognised the value of historical records and fought to preserve them – often in the face of indifference and hostility. This is less the case for official government records than for those of companies, voluntary and community organisations and families, but it is precisely those records which give us a deeper understanding of our ancestors. The details of someone’s funeral from an  undertaker’s account book or a newspaper clipping from a church scrapbook – these are snippets that help us understand who our ancestors really were – to flesh out and clothe the skeletons that BDM and census returns give us.

And it is for those small gems of human history that I thank archivists everywhere.

This post was partly inspired by Geneabloggers Daily Prompts.

Family or lineage? (Happy Birthday Great Grandad)

I hadn’t thought about it too much until recently, but I am definitely a family historian rather than a genealogist. While I’m interested in tracing and recording my lineage, I’m much more interested in understanding the lives my ancestors led and the societies that shaped them.

This realisation has come about in part because of a conversation I had with my dad a couple of days ago. It’s a major source of disappointment to him that, to date, none of his grandchildren have his surname. Although I’m not married – so still use the “family” name – my partner and I chose to give our son his surname rather than mine.

uncle toms back garden001

A rare Leslie family photo. My dad is on the left holding my brother. I’m seated on Uncle Tom’s knee. My favourite uncle ever, Tom Leslie was my grandfather David Leslie’s younger brother.

I also have two brothers. One of them changed his middle and surnames years ago so his three children don’t meet with Dad’s approval either. My other brother has recently adopted a child and my father was jubilant because he finally has a grandchild with the “right” name.

My relationship with my dad is prickly at the best of times, and I have to admit to feeling quite pissed off with him. He probably didn’t mean it, but it really sounded like his biological grandkids were somehow second-best because they won’t carry on “the name.” Our conversation reminded me that when I first talked to him after my son’s birth, he was decidedly sulky  over the naming of my baby.

I was wondering if that’s maybe why I haven’t made much of an effort to trace the Leslie branch of my family, so I went back to my family tree and noticed that it is 146 years today since the birth of my great grandfather David Leslie.

David Leslie was born on July 23td 1867 in Auchtermuchty, Fife, to George Leslie and Janet Trail (who sometimes appears in the records as Jessie, and with her surname sometimes shown as Traill or Jrail).

Birth extract: David Leslie (my great grandfather), 23 July 1867)

Birth extract: David Leslie (my great grandfather), 23 July 1867)

David appears to have been the fifth of seven children born to George and Jessie, although it seems that Jessie also bore a daughter, Christina Trail, the year before her marriage to George.

The 1871 census shows the family living in Auchtermuchty, with Jessie as the head of the household.

I found this record a while ago, and had assumed that George must have died. Since then however, I’ve found his death certificate – dated 1902. George also appears alongside Jessie in all the subsequent census records up until his death.

A search on Scotland’s People shows sixteen people called George Leslie in the 1871 census, and given what I know about George, six of these are possible matches. At the moment, I’m not keen to use up credits trying to find him, so until I can get to the library and use Ancestry, his whereabouts on census night will have to remain a mystery.

By the 1881 census, the family had moved to Kirkcaldy. The family consisted of George and Jessie, plus Jessie’s daughter Christina, George jr. William, Elizabeth, Isabella, David, John and Jessie jr. The three younger children were all at school, though it’s likely that my great grandfather would have left at fourteen to go to work. George seems to have spent his working life as a labourer.

By the 1891 census, David was working in one of Kirkcaldy’s potteries as a kilnsman. This is the occupation also shown on the extract of his marriage certificate in 1892, when he married Isabella Gourlay. David’s mother Jessie was one of the witnesses to the marriage, along with Isabella’s brother Thomas Gourlay. I know that Isabella’s father Rankine Gourlay would not have been at the wedding, as he was a patient at the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum at the time.

David and Isabella had six children; my grandfather David being the fourth.

David Leslie sr. died in 1940 when my father was eight years old. My great grandmother Isabella died in February 1961, just months before I was born.

As always, the more information I have about ancestors, the more I want to know. But I can’t say that I am any more interested in the Leslie family than any other branch of my tree. I do want to know why George wasn’t at home on census night 1871, and I’d like to know when he made the move from Elgin to Dundee. I’m curious about whether he had siblings and who his parents were, but I’m not driven by any need to prove some sort of lineage. My research will, I think, always be guided by how interesting I think characters are and how much I can learn about their stories.

I can’t help thinking my dad would probably disapprove of this too.

Nine weeks, two days, seven hours … and yes, obviously I am counting

arctic convoy exhib

Planning for my UK trip is getting quite advanced.

As well as organising to spend time at the Kirkcaldy Library and Fife Archives, I’ve discovered this exhibition at the National War Museum in Edinburgh. My mum’s great uncle Stewart Cruden served on the Arctic Convoys and died aboard the HM Shera in the Barents Sea in March 1942. His ship – a converted whaler – capsized because of ice. There was an official enquiry into the sinking, a copy of which is held at the National Archives in Kew. I hope to get to there to read this report too.

Weekly Photo Challenge: escape – some faces from the Scottish diaspora

Weekly Photo Challenge: escape – some faces from the Scottish diaspora

Two little boys - born one day apart - who share the same great, great grandparents. One branch of the family in Australia, one in New Zealand, united for a summer barbecue in Victoria, Australia.

Cruden decendents. Two little boys – born one day apart – who share the same great, great grandparents – Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black. One branch of the family in Australia, one in New Zealand, united for a summer barbecue.

This week’s Daily Post Photo Challenge Word is escape, and for family historians it’s hard not to think about escape in terms of those ancestors who left their homelands for opportunities in other parts of the world.

I’m a Scot; and if any nation could be said to have populated the whole world, it’s us. Continue reading

Remembering Emily: an anniversary

Visiting Emily's grave on the 127th anniversary of her death.

Visiting Emily’s grave on the 127th anniversary of her death.

Yesterday I went back to Symonds Street cemetery; this time with two wonderful women friends who also wanted to remember and honour Emily Keeling (and all the other victims of domestic violence) on the 127th anniversary of her murder.

We brought flowers to lay on her grave; we took photos to share with our networks. We left our tokens of love and remembrance and an unspoken promise to remember not only Emily, but all of the victims of domestic violence.

Most of what I have left to say about the experience of remembering Emily is not really family history, so I’ve blogged about it elsewhere. But I do want to add a final thought.

Writing about Emily Keeling has reminded me how fundamentally good people are. Since my first post about her, so many people – men and women – have told me how moved they have been by her story. So it was really special for me to be able to share the anniversary with two such dear friends.

As I grow older I treasure friendships more and realise that, particularly in our modern world where we may be physically and emotionally estranged from family, friendships often provide the bedrock of our existence. For family historians of the future, really understanding the lives we are leading now will involve mapping not only the ties of blood and kinship, but those of friendship too.

A challenge indeed!

Remembering Emily

Flowers for the grave of Emily Keeling; shot to death in Auckland in 1886..

Flowers for the grave of Emily Keeling; shot to death in Auckland in 1886..

Well, it took me a the best part of a week to get back to Symonds Street Cemetary, but Emily’s grave now has flowers. They’re fabric, rather than “real” because I figured they will last longer (and because it’s impossible to buy fresh flowers in that neighbourhood on a Saturday afternoon), but I noticed that when I was there, a few more graves also had flowers laid on them. The cemetary is being tidied up by  a group serving community service sentences, and it looked a lot less overgrown than on my last visit. The group’s supervisor told me a few people had been in to bring flowers while they were there, so it’s nice to know that those long-dead Aucklanders are not totally forgotten.