The impenetrability of the unrecorded past

This is one of my favourite family history photographs.


I’ve inherited it from my grandmother but I’m not even certain if she is in the photo. I don’t know anything about the photo. I’ve guessed that it might be at a wedding celebration but it might not. There’s no information about where the people are; who they are; what they’re doing all together; even when it was taken. The woman on the front row on the right looks a bit like another photo I have which I’m sure is of my grandmother. Obviously there’s no one alive today from that era who can provide the answers.

Why didn’t they write some names, dates and details on the back?

You would think with the great attention that was being given to emerging literacy in those days, they would have wanted to practise their skills and annotate their photos. I suppose if the photos went in an album originally they wouldn’t have thought there was any need. I know my grandmother and her mother and her sisters could write well because I’ve got a collection of postcards they sent to each other in the early years of the twentieth century when they went on holiday.

So why didn’t they add some captions to their photos?

I’ve spent hours (years!) researching my family history; and that of my husband’s family too. I’ve accumulated all sorts of documents that have been saved over the years. I’ve become my family’s custodian of old photographs; postcards; letters; diaries; receipts; birth, marriage and death certificates; birthday cards; wedding cards; engagement cards; funeral cards; school magazines; church magazines; newspapers and newspaper cuttings; medals; coins; jewellery; samplers; a christening gown; a wedding dress; a decorated rolling pin; nanna’s bag; a sewing box; china; glassware; two glass fronted cabinets; and a tiny silver thimble.

My family and friends were interested in my family stories and hearing more about our ancestors but I knew that with only a little time to spare there was a limit to the amount of information they could take in. That was when I started looking for alternative ways to share our family history and in the last couple of years I’ve tried a variety of social media and blogs to tell them about my discoveries.

The photo below is one of the few in my collection that does have a name on the back. Someone has written “Mrs Smith” and I think that is my great grandmother. I think she’s the one on the right as she closely resembles the older woman in the first photo. Even with the note of a name, there is little else to tell the story of what is happening. Who are these people? Where are they? What occasion caused them to come together for a photo?

When the past is unrecorded it can be the source of great interest and intrigue but also of total frustration. And even when the past is partially recorded it can still leave more questions unanswered.

Ever since the 1950s my husband’s grandmother had told him that one of her brothers had been drowned whilst working in the London docks. His mother and her sister confirmed the story and so for years this is what he believed had happened to his great uncle.

You can imagine how astonished he was when my family history researches revealed that great uncle Jack had not been drowned at all but had deserted and possibly executed during the First World War.

Obviously the story of his drowning had been fabricated to cover up the family’s perceived disgrace. If I hadn’t stumbled upon a brief record which documented the fact of his great uncle’s desertion my husband would never have known the truth. The lie about the manner of his great uncle’s death would have continued on down the generations.

Just a chance family history find opened up the past and yet it posed more questions that  still couldn’t be answered. Was Jack suffering from PTSD or another medical cause for his desertion? If he’d come home on leave and decided not to return, what had become of him? Was the story of the drowning made up to facilitate his escape from the horrors of the Western Front?

We’ll never know. Michael’s grandmother and her only  surviving brother both died in the 1950s and if they knew the truth they’ve taken the story with them to their graves.

It’s salutary to think that even in this day and age with all our sophisticated technology so much of our existence is completely unrecorded. It just vanishes into the ether and future generations will struggle to imagine what life was really like for all of us.

Thanks for reading my blog today.

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