Researching your family history is a journey into the past, but it’s also a legacy for the future. Keeping a selection of family photographs printed, noting the date of the photo, its location, and the people in the photograph could be an invaluable help to future historians.
This is something Aoife O’Connor, editor of Small Lives: Photographs or Irish Childhood 1860 – 1970, found out when she faced the difficulty of identifying photographs for her book from the National Photographic Archive. Not all of the pictures included were identified by the time the book went to print and she’s looking for help with completing that project. Check out the facebook page for the book and do get in touch if you can help put the final pieces of the jigsaw in place. And you can share some of your own finest childhood snaps on our Facebook page!
Here Aoife talks about her work putting the book together:
‘In my book Small Lives the names and lives of the children in the photographs are often tantalizingly out of reach. A small detail, like a place-name can help enormously.
Many of the pictures in the book were taken by Arthur Henri Poole. Even though he ran a photographic studio he, like a lot of us, didn’t record much information on his photos. In this case an unusual surname and a definite address help to pinpoint exactly who the family are in the census records.
Take, for instance, the above photo of a baby on a pony. It belongs to a set of four photographs of the family, in two of the photos the father is also on his horse. The child can’t be more than a year old but he’s already being groomed (pardon the pun!) for life as a gentleman. The only information available for this intriguing photograph is Mr McCoy. John Shiel. Family group. Baby ?
The photograph can be dated to circa 1901/2 based on the woman’s clothing, and it’s a fair assumption that this is the couple’s first son. Given the approximate date of the photograph I immediately checked the 1901 census online for a McCoy in Waterford, but there was no sign of a John McCoy, or a John Shiel. Checking the 1911 census I did come across a John Wentworth McCoy but he was 8 at the time. Still it might be him in the photograph.
I was basing the date of the photograph on early 1900s fashions and it’s not impossible that his mother was wearing that dress in 1904. If I discounted Shiel as a red herring I could also reconcile the father’s name, which was James McCoy in the census but recorded for the photograph as John. A simple transcription error would explain it (also the names John and James are occasionally interchangeable).
It was a lot of assumptions to be making so I needed more evidence if I was going to name the baby. Following up on John Wentworth McCoy and his later career in the Navy, I found he had an older brother James, born in 1901. This was exciting new information. Could James be the boy in the photograph? It would be a closer fit to the date for his mother’s dress and first babies always create a stir and have more photos taken of them! But I couldn’t say for certain and wasn’t able to include definite details about the family in the book. I stared at the baby and asked, “Are you James?”
If this photograph had included the name of the house that the family lived in then I could have, perhaps, confirmed that the boy in the basket saddle was James Abernathy McCoy. That his mother, standing by apprehensively as her little baby sits strapped into a basket saddle, was a Quaker named Ethel Elizabeth Peet, and that his proud father was a solicitor. I could have told more of James’ story. That he went to a naval school in Hampshire, England, and was there in 1911, aged just ten. That he joined the navy at the age of twelve and went on to see action in both world wars serving on battle cruisers and destroyers. But without that small but vital piece of information I can’t confirm who this is or what life they went on to lead.
In the digital age we can easily take hundreds of photographs, documenting every-one and every event in our lives. Paradoxically, despite this abundance, photos and other personal papers stored digitally are more likely to be lost than preserved. Preserving a small printed set of family photos with name, date and where the photograph was taken means you are doing your bit to ensure that future generations can continue to tell your family’s story.