A mystery solved

A mystery solved

Gaynor Haliday reveals how a family conundrum was explained, and an important archive photograph identified

Gaynor Haliday, proofreader and copywriter

Gaynor Haliday

proofreader and copywriter

Joseph Haliday
Joseph Haliday, from the author’s family collection

How many people have old photographs of unidentified ancestors that they wish they could learn more about?

My discovery began one winter’s afternoon when, delving into a dusty box retrieved from my late parent’s loft, I found individual photographs of two men. Each was wearing the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) special tunic, with its high collar and off-centre concealed button fastening, and side cap, but there was no clue as to their identities.

Like many family historians I’d already researched my family’s participation in World War One, in my case uncovering a long list of maternal line ancestors who’d served in various battalions of Kitchener’s Army – and even family members who’d emigrated and received Draft Registration cards in the USA.

I’d learned about my grandfather Herbert Haliday’s war exemption through his work in a munitions factory, and had in my possession a picture postcard sent to him by Ernest, his eldest brother; the photo and microscopic writing suggesting he was in training “somewhere near Cupar in Fife”.

But when my search for evidence of his two other brothers, Cecil and Joe, proved fruitless, I’d assumed that age or inadequate fitness had prevented them from serving.

However, with new records continually being made available there’s always the tantalising prospect of finding another snippet of information, and the release of the RFC records was such an occasion.

Surmising the photographs might be of the two brothers I typed Haliday into the search and was delighted to discover their records.

As with many remaining war records the information was scant, but with their dates of birth (July 1880 and January 1886) and addresses in Manchester there was no doubt that the documents of these ‘air mechanics’ related to my two great uncles. Even their civilian occupations (Cecil as a process engraver – who later became an accomplished professional photographer, and Joe as a plumber) matched those of the 1911 census.

Small, light men – 5’5” and 5’3” respectively, with 30” chests – they must have been selected as ideal candidates to operate the newly-developed aircraft.

So my mystery photos were identified, although which was who and what part they’d played I’d no idea.

Half watching Antiques Roadshow one Sunday evening, a photo of a WW1 pilot demonstrating an aerial reconnaissance camera fixed to an aircraft suddenly caught my attention.

The image bore such a startling resemblance to my father as a young man that I had to rewind the programme to look at it again. Of course it couldn’t have been my father as he was only a baby at the time, but was it one of his uncles?

Finding the image online as part of the Imperial War Museum’s archive, I compared it with the photos I had of Cecil and Joe. The younger-looking of the two certainly resembled the photographer in the IWM image. However, as Joe was the younger of the two brothers and a plumber I concluded that my notion that the man in the IWM archive could possibly be Cecil was just wishful thinking!

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Over time I re-examined the two images from various angles and wondered how I could possibly tell which man was which. Even though I had another photo of the whole Haliday family, in which the identities of each of my grandfather’s siblings had previously been pointed out to me, I couldn’t remember who was who. And since they were children, rather than adults, at the time of that photo, it wasn’t much help.

Cecil Haliday in his RFC uniform
Cecil Haliday in his RFC uniform

However, sometimes if you look hard enough, the obvious leaps out. In this case it was the observation that the older-looking man was wearing a wedding ring – meaning he was Joe who’d married in 1916.

So – the man who resembled the IWM image was definitely Cecil. My notion seemed less fanciful after all. But his rank as air mechanic gave no clue as to his role in the RFC.

Another step nearer my positive identification came when I discovered the RAF Muster Rolls (see www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/royal-air-force-personnel/). Listed was number 78944 Cecil Haliday with his RFC and subsequent Air Force trade classifications both cited “photographer”.

Further records revealed his 1917 -1919 membership of the Amalgamated Society of Lithographic Artists, Designers, Engravers and Process Workers trade union as being away on active service.

Cecil Haliday in an RFC reconnaissance aircraft
Cecil Haliday in an RFC reconnaissance aircraft with a camera fixed to its fuselage, 1916 Imperial War Museums

Armed with this knowledge I decided it was time to contact the IWM, the perfect opportunity arising when I visited the WDYTYA Live exhibition in April 2016. Showing Cecil’s photo to Helen, a photo archivist, she was amazed at the facial similarities in the two images, and agreed they could be of the same man.

As requested I forwarded the photo and my gathered records – and was delighted to receive confirmation from Geoff Spender, assistant curator at the IWM, saying: “I agree with the both of you that the pictures are a close match. I can’t find any source for the original date and rank information in the caption, so have updated our catalogue to reflect the identification as Cecil Haliday… It’s quite rare that we’re able to positively identify new individuals in our First World War collection.”

Both men survived the war, with Joe returning home to his new wife and recommencing his plumbing trade. However, Cecil’s experience as an aerial photographer had given him new skills. Entering a national photography competition, in which he came second, he used the prize money to set up business as a professional photographer in Manchester. He remained a confirmed bachelor and lived with his spinster sister until his death in 1955 aged 75.

I am thrilled to have made this connection and proud that the widely-used IWM image now bears my ancestor’s name.

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