Monday, 24 February 2014

The mystery of 138 photographs

Meet Nellie, photo dated 9th June 1918. Unfortunately I have no idea who Nellie is. I found her photograph, along with another 137 others, crammed inside a small leatherette pouch (see below), which my sister had once passed on to me along with some family history notes she'd made. Neither of us were really sure from which side of the family they'd come.

The photographs were a motley collection, from tiny proofs to studio portraits like the one of Nellie above. Many were faded to the point of obscurity, several light damaged or torn, or of people so far in the distance it was impossible to discern their features.

On the reverse of some were places, dates (ranging from 1916 to 1918) and sometimes names. Most, however, merely had comments such as "What do you think of this one? Afraid the scenery is not very picturesque."  and "I look as though I've seen a ghost. Taken in the dining room. The book I have in my hand is the album I have got your snaps in."

On the back of one (again, of Nellie) is written "To dear old Frankie with heaps of love from Nellie, June 15th 1916" and another, "My cousin Ted. No doubt you remember him". If only! 

Some of the places were familiar to me from holidays or family connections. Colwyn Bay, Crewe and The Great Orme in Llandudno. Then on the back of one, "Rapparee beach" in a handwriting I'd seen before. I realised it had been written by my great aunt, Hilda Victoria Griffiths. The beach she referred to is a cove on the north Devon coast, not far from where I live today and a little further along from Minehead, where I knew Hilda had spent many holidays. When I studied the photograph more closely, I could see the picture was of her.

So where did all the other people fit in? Were they friends or family? With a bit of detective work, there must be some way of establishing whether there was a family connection .

I assumed the photograph of four women taken "outside the office" would be work colleagues, listed left to right as: Erica Thomas, Dorothy Baid, Gladys Peacock and Rita Thomas.

But what about the people mentioned on the back of other photos, Chris, Mabel, Dolly ("and her small brother"), Rose, Gracie, Rita, Olga, Vera.  

Some names recorded included surnames, Gladys Osborn, Else Steadman, Dorothy "Jane" Breide, Colonel Thistlewaite, Mrs J & Col J, Mabel Talbot.

The last name triggered something. Didn't we have a Talbot in the family tree a generation or two back? Before I could check, I discovered a significant piece of the jigsaw. A tatty piece of paper, tucked in between the photographs mentioning a wedding, between Mabel Talbot and J Herminan Mowels.

 Was it the wedding depicted on this faded and tatty photograph?

A search through the marriage indexes on gave me the official details. John Herniman Ben Mowels married Mabel Maud Talbot in Sussex on May 27th 1918.

A systematic search of on my maternal family found that my Great-grandmother's sister  Polly Benbow Baugh had married a George Talbot. Their eldest daughter was Mabel Maud. At last, a connection. Mabel and my great aunt Hilda had been first cousins.

Of course, I'm still none the wiser as to the identity of Nellie. My search will continue...

Some of the other photos in the collection:


If you have any information to add, do please get in touch.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Romance in the records

photo courtesy of riptheskull (flickr)

The story of how couples met and fell in love is an appealing one. My parents met at a Wolverhampton dance hall when my father asked my mother to dance.

My husband's parents met on a flag day, when they were both standing outside Westminster Abbey, collecting for Great Ormond Street Hospital.

My maternal grandparents met while treading the boards across the country [see Strictly Music Hall].

For our ancestors further back, although we can't always know the details, information in the records may give us a clue to the story behind how couples came to know one another.

My great-grandfather Thomas Diggory was a groom living in Frodesley, Shropshire on the 1881 census. At the rectory, Richard Gleadon the rector had in his employ, a cook called Eliza Roberts, my great-grandmother. She and Thomas would marry 5 years later.

Thomas James Diggory b 1857

As I discovered last week [Great Witley Gives Up its Secrets], my great-great grandmother, Eleanor Williams's future husband James Hick, was the lodger!

While tracking Susan Sawyer, wife of the unfortunate Charles Gabriel Baker [Ancestors in the Spotlight] I found her on the 1851 census, aged 18, working as a milliner in James Smith's establishment in 58-59 South Audley Street, Mayfair. Amongst the other 30 milliners, drapers, haberdashers and silk mercers, also residents of 58-59 South Audley Street, was another milliner called Ellen J Baker.

Ellen Jane Baker was Charles Baker's sister. At first I thought it likely that Susan met Charles through her fellow worker. Perhaps the two girls were friends? Perhaps Charles visited his sister in London?

But Ellen was 4 years older than Susan, 7 years older than Charles, who would have been only 15 in 1851. Later that year, Ellen married Thomas Moxon and so would have no longer worked and lived alongside Susan. If they had been friends, perhaps she was invited to the wedding and met Charles there!

But one fascinating find concerning matters of the heart came to light on the 1881 census in Lambeth. It concerns the infamous black sheep in my family called Edward Henry Coules Colley who vanished from the family home some time after 1881 "never to be heard of again". In my post, Ancestors in the Spotlight, I revealed that he had run away to Australia in 1887 with a certain Elizabeth Woolf, who he eventually married (bigamously, I believe) in 1906, after fathering 8 children.

However, it seems that the passionate affair was not a recent liaison but had started several years before. Elizabeth had given birth to a boy, Leon, in 1876. Edward's wife Frances, had had daughter Maud in the same year. In 1880, Frances gave birth to Nelly, and Elizabeth to Albert.

By the time the 1881 census was taken, while Edward was still living with his wife, Frances in one part of Lambeth, Elizabeth was living at her uncle's house a few streets away and calling herself Mrs Colley.

Abandoned wife Frances Colley (nee Ellisdon)

By the time Edward and Elizabeth sailed to the Antipodes, their son Reuben had been born in 1882 and their daughter Violet in 1884.

I wonder how long Edward intended to maintain this 'double life'. Did he finally decide it was time to leave or did Frances discover his adultery and throw him out? And when? In 1887 when they left for Australia? Or before? As always, one disclosure merely leads to another question...

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Great Witley gives up its secrets

Witley Court
(courtesy of

BBC's Country File visited Witley Court, in Great Witley, Worcestershire, this week. The house, once a place of splendour with a reputation for grand parties on a lavish scale, is now a spectacular ruin following a devastating fire in 1937. English Heritage now manages the ruin along with its stunning gardens which are now open to the public. Find out more here.

Ernest George Shelley

Great Witley plays a part in my family history. My grandfather (above) used to be employed during shooting parties in the village in the 1920s. When the film Gosforth Park came out, it became a firm favourite of mine, not only for being a murder mystery, but because it appeared to portray what my grandfather would have experienced in his role as a member of staff at the shooting parties, allegedly at Witley Court. I even imagined that my grandmother, a parlour maid, might have met my grandfather at one of these events.

The truth of the matter is less glamorous, as the timescale doesn't quite fit the facts. My grandfather was employed as a gardener in the 1930s at a country house called The Foxhills in Wombourne, some 20 miles away in Staffordshire. On shooting weekends he, along with all the under-gardeners, would be called to Great Witley to be beaters, walking across the fields with sticks, beating the undergrowth to flush out the game for the shooters.

But by this time the famous Witley Court had been sold by its extravagant owner and so the shoots were organised from the nearby Hundred House Hotel.

Hundred House Hotel, Great Witley
(sold in December 2013 and expected to remain a prestigious hotel)
photo courtesy of

But my grandfather had another link to Great Witley. His mother, Jane Hick, grew up there. 

I discovered Jane on the 1881 census in Great Witley, working as a domestic servant. In 1891 she was a cook and housekeeper in London. But I hadn't been able to locate her on earlier censuses. So thinking it was about time for another try, I decided to track her father instead, in the hope of finding Jane in the same household.

James Hick, born in 1834 in Herefordshire, duly turned up on the 1871 census with his wife Eleanor and his step-daughter Jane Williams. This explained why I'd failed to find her under the name Jane Hick. Perhaps Jane had been the result of a previous marriage.

Wind back ten years to 1861, the year Jane was born, and there is she is, Jane Williams, aged 2 months, grand-daughter to the head of the household, Thomas Williams, living in Little Witley, with Thomas's unmarried daughter Eleanor, aged 20.

And at the bottom the other inhabitants are listed. Two lodgers. One of them, James Hick, aged 27.

So, was James the father of 2 month-old Jane? Or did he take on the baby when he married Eleanor later that year? Perhaps Jane's birth or baptism records will tell the tale!