Every picture tells a story

Every picture tells a story

Every picture in the family photograph album can tell us something about its subjects – our ancestors and relatives. Photo expert Jayne Shrimpton explores some varied examples from different families

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Sometimes photographs fill in gaps in the official records, for example by indicating a person’s whereabouts in between census years

Whether formal studio portraits or casual snapshots, photographic heirlooms bring us literally face to face with our forebears. Old photographs can also be striking images, wonderful to view, yet their appeal goes deeper than visual effect: what often fascinates us more are the stories surrounding our family pictures – the events and human experiences that are revealed, or implied, in these enigmatic portraits from the past.

Establishing an accurate date range for old photographs provides an essential starting point for further discoveries. A realistic time-frame can aid identification of unnamed subjects and helps to pinpoint the special occasions in the lives of our predecessors that were often recorded in professional studio portraits, such as christening, engagement, marriage or mourning. Multiple photographs spanning many years illustrate vividly the different stages of an ancestor or relative’s life, the twists and turns of their personal story. Sometimes photographs fill in gaps in the official records, for example by indicating a person’s whereabouts in between census years. Perhaps a photograph demonstrates (or hints at) a significant occurrence that lies beyond the known family story, prompting renewed investigations and sometimes producing unexpected results. Indeed, many familiar themes that emerge when researching family history – the stories of rags to riches, disappearance, bigamy, adoption and more – are expressed or reflected in surviving pictures. The featured examples, reproduced by kind permission of their owners, may ring a few bells, while others might offer novel ideas and hopefully inspire another look at the family photograph collection.

A local character

Charles Albert Tucker mayoral chauffeur
Patrick Davison

Some of our ordinary working forebears became relatively well-known in their day, familiar figures in their local community or even further afield. Perhaps an ancestor’s occupation brought them into the public eye, as did that of Patrick Davison’s great grandfather, Charles Albert Tucker (1878-1955). Beginning his career in the Royal Marines, Charles later became a chauffeur and by 1919 was driving the first chauffeured motor car for the mayors of Southampton. ‘Charlie Tucker’, as he was known locally, retained this prestigious position for almost 25 years, during which time he worked for 23 successive mayors.

As the mayoral chauffeur, Charles was also responsible for driving visiting dignitaries. His passengers included Sir Winston and Lady Churchill and members of the Royal Family, including Prince Edward, who visited Southampton in 1924.

This important event was captured in the photograph above, in which the Prince climbs into the Mayor’s stationary car, Charles Tucker at the wheel. The picture below 2, c1930s, portrays Charles inside his car, looking distinguished in an immaculate coat and chauffeur’s peaked cap. ‘Charlie Tucker’ retired in 1943, but that was not the end of his story. He was mentioned twice in the 1949 autobiography of Sir Sidney Kimber, the first mayor whom he had the honour to drive, while his career and unique role as Southampton’s earliest civic chauffeur were commemorated in his obituary in The Echo  in 1955.

Charles Albert Tucker mayoral chauffeur
Patrick Davison

A happy ending

Supplied by Barnardo’s

Genealogical research sometimes leads to the upsetting discovery that our predecessors endured almost unimaginable misfortunes and hardships. Yet, as photographs can reveal, determined forebears were sometimes able to lift themselves out of poverty and deprivation, progressing to lead happy, settled and fulfilled lives. Such is the story of Margaret Appleton’s grandparents, Robert Monument (1887-1939) and Margaret Ellen Coote (1889-1964), both from north-east England.

Robert’s father, an alcoholic, sadly died in 1897, and his mother being found incapable of caring for Robert and his brothers in their dilapidated two-roomed lodgings, the five boys were taken into care by Dr Barnardo’s in 1898.

To the picture to the right, dated 17/6/98 and recording Robert’s arrival at Barnardo’s Newcastle centre when aged 10 years and 7 months, marks a new chapter in his story.

Two years later, in July 1900, Robert and one brother were shipped to Canada under the British Child Migrants programme. Although it is now acknowledged that the so-called ‘Home Children’ sent abroad had mixed experiences (see issue 2 of Discover Your Ancestors), Robert fared well there, before returning to England in 1906. Initially he worked as a boiler-maker, then a stone worker, before becoming a coal hewer; he remained a miner for some years and was employed at the Holmside and South Moor Collieries during the 1920s. Meanwhile he had met a local girl, Margaret Coote, whose father, also a miner, had brought her up following her mother’s desertion in 1901, when Margaret was aged 11. The photograph bellow represents Robert and Margaret’s marriage in December 1912 – a modest scene, but everyone well-dressed for the occasion.


In 1935, Robert took the momentous step of moving his wife and their four children out of their two-up, two-down terraced Durham house far south to Hayes in Middlesex, buying a spacious, brand new 3-bedroomed property with modern facilities. After a few years there together, sadly Robert died in 1939 of the miners’ disease silicosis, aged only 51. However, Margaret continued to live comfortably in the Hayes house among her children, as seen in the last picture, dating from the late 1940s. Grandchildren also arrived, including Margaret Appleton, whom her grandmother cared for when a child. Margaret Monument died in 1964, but their beloved home remained in family hands until 2008 – exactly 110 years after little Robert was first taken into care. Don’t we all love a story that ends well!

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Margaret Appleton

The family secret

The Smiles family

Close dating of photographs awards them a meaningful place within the family’s history but sometimes chronological accuracy combined with picture clues can lead to unforeseen revelations, as the Smiles family discovered. The picture to the right, portraying a young woman and little girl, bears no information, but fashion details dated the scene firmly to c1870-75, while the lady’s pronounced bump showed her to be pregnant. Although unnamed, Penny Smiles had tentatively connected her with an ancestor, Jane Haile (b1846), known to be pictured elsewhere, in a studio photograph with her half-sister and her daughter (below).

A facial match between Jane and the unknown woman seemed uncertain, but the girl appeared to be the same in both photographs – Jane’s daughter, Mary Eleanor Haile, born March 1872. This supported the probability that Jane was the mother in the outdoor scene, while Mary’s youthful appearance there suggested a likely date of 1874.


Mary was Jane’s only surviving child: according to family rumour she had previously lost a son, but it was understood that after Mary she could not bear any more children. However this photograph provided clear evidence that Jane did conceive again: so what became of the baby? Fearing the obvious, Penny consulted BMD’s and, sadly, found registration of the death of a ‘Haile Female Child’ in the locality during March quarter, 1874. This was news indeed to Penny and her mother, for evidently the baby had never again been discussed within the family. Picture dating and research had uncovered an unexpected event from the past, but now, 140 years later, the full story could be told.

Black sheep

Simon Martin

Many families have their ‘black sheep’, an eccentric or controversial ancestor who didn’t conform to expectations. Simon Martin and Natalia Rolleston’s forebear, William Vilett Rolleston (1842-1921), enjoyed a privileged background, yet as a ‘wayward’ youth, got himself into various scrapes from which his family had to extricate him. Vilett joined the army in 1859 as an ensign, but in 1864, just before his marriage, he resigned his commission and formed a partnership with a Joseph Gill to trade in palm oil from West Africa. While there, during 1867 he became involved in the dramatic rescue of Bishop Samuel Crowther, the first African bishop of the Anglican Church, who was being held captive by some disgruntled locals. Afterwards Vilett and Bishop Crowther remained lifelong friends.

Unfortunately, our hero was a poor businessman: in 1874 he was declared bankrupt with debts totalling some £45,000 (over £3.5 million today). In the bankruptcy notice he was described as late of Swindon but now residing out of England of no occupation, a phrase suggesting a retreat to a ‘safe’ refuge.

Just as the trail goes cold, an intriguing studio photograph provides crucial historical evidence. Taken in the Isles of Scilly and firmly dateable to the 1870s, this picture reveals Vilett’s whereabouts following his disappearance from Swindon and before resolution of his affairs in 1880. Besides evading his creditors, it is unknown what he did in the Isles of Scilly: perhaps he proceeded to Europe and had further adventures.

His curious appearance in this photograph may offer clues, yet, with hints of the smuggler or possibly Continental soldier, his unusual outfit remains unidentified by experts. Whatever it signifies, this elusive portrait of the family ‘black sheep’ at the peak of his unconventional career still inspires speculation.

The good life

Agnes Burton

Some of us have heard tell of a relative who gained a taste for the good life, developing high standards or perhaps coming to regard themselves as slightly superior to the rest of the family, despite their modest origins. Perhaps this was a forebear who was in service and grew accustomed to living cheek by jowl with the wealthy and fashionable, staying in impressive residences and wearing good clothes as a perk of the job – a smart uniform or luxury cast-off garments passed on by their master or mistress. This was true of Agnes Burton’s ‘Auntie Annie’ (Ann Plenderleith Hay, 1887-1965), who worked as a housemaid for an affluent Edinburgh family – the widow of a doctor and her sons, a stockbroker and a solicitor.

In this photograph, taken prior to Annie’s marriage in July 1914, she poses proudly in her housemaid’s uniform on the steps of No 46, Blacket Place, Newington, Edinburgh – an address identified by Agnes using the 1911 census. The property was recorded as having 16 rooms and a small household that, nonetheless, included four domestic servants. No wonder that Annie, whose parents and many siblings lived in a two-roomed miner’s cottage, subsequently became known as the ‘lady’ of the family, for she had glimpsed a more prosperous and genteel way of life. She is especially remembered for her love of clothes in later years and, particularly, her extravagant hats!

Before she left service and married, Annie’s employer gave her a set of late-Victorian wooden building blocks, a quality toy used by her sons, but passed on for Annie’s own children to enjoy and still in the family today.

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