A family in sepia

May 24th, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

There is a safe in the basement; well, more a small strong room: a pantry like recess in the wall with wooden shelves and a steel door two inches thick.  It is full of treasure, not that much of it would have great monetary value.  Old books on ecclesiastical subjects and prayer books take up most of the space; the treasure is in three wooden boxes and two albums.

The albums are family photographs from the turn of the Twentieth Century: a young man in yeomanry uniform stares at a camera during the Boer War; a family group in Edwardian dress sit in a formal arrangement on the steps of a Rectory in Newport, Co Mayo.  There are photographs from a town in England called Hoxton and photographs of a clergy training college in Cambridge.  Occasionally, people are named, sometimes there are just initials, as though those who looked through the album would automatically know the identity of the subjects.

The lantern slides are marvellous – three boxes of three dozen; the boxes made especially to hold the slides.  They seem to be of tours of England; presumably someone who had visited the places pictured would have given illustrated talks on their travels.

The albums would probably have little commercial value; they are personal pictures without provenance.  On eBay, the lantern slides might make a couple of hundred, but that is no reflection of their true value.

To some family, somewhere, these images are of inestimable value.  These anonymous photographs of far off people and places are not just images staring from a page, but are flesh and blood people.

Treasure is of no value if it remains buried, and albums and slides in a safe are as much buried as a pirate chest on a desert island.  Perhaps there are no heirs to the pictures; the Dean in 1911 had only one child, a teenage daughter, and with the Great War wiping out a generation of young men, perhaps she never married.  It would be a pity to discover that there were no descendants, that the family line of those photographed had been cut off as surely as those in the Bible under some Old Testament curse.

Genealogy is usually a case of going backwards in time.  If the treasure is to be discovered, there is a need to go forward in time; to try to identify those sitting in stiff formal poses and look for the following generations.

The danger is, of course, that people reunited with their forebears might prefer cash to heredity, and stick the whole lot into an antiques auction; to sell their granny, as it were. Looking through the pictures, it would seem unlikely anyone would wish to sell them; it would not be just their granny they were selling, but something of themselves.

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  1. What a find! We have some quite old photo albums in my family but although we can identify very few of those photographed, the albums are priceless. When one is related to those in the photos, you’re right, one looks for the features of the the current generation in the faces of past generations. It’s not vanity, it’s just a desire to establish a line linking us to these real people in the past and to see from whence and from whom one came. My grandmother was a chemist and my grandfather a druggist. They recorded in their shop ledgers every prescription they filled. When my grandmother retired, my uncle, an historian, donated the pile of old prescription ledger to the National Library. Historians may be interested in those ledgers from a socio-medical perspective but they wouldn’t pore over the script trying to find the living chemist and druggist behind the writing. I regret not having one of those ledgers.

    You don’t know who the people in the albums you found are but it’s good that you appreciate them and think about them.

  2. I’ve been Googling names on the Internet! There are pictures of a church in Hoxton, which is in the east end of London, and pictures of the Church Lads Brigade from there on the summer camp in 1902. Someone out there knows the family.

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