A rare visit from my grandparents, April 1966
While I was growing up in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I was often envious of my friends with their large networks of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. My parents had both emigrated from the countries of their birth – England and the Netherlands – before they were married and I hardly knew my grandparents. By the time I left home, I could count on one hand the number of times that I’d met members of my family outside the immediate circle of parents and siblings. The photograph above shows one of those rare occasions in April 1966, after my grandparents had made the adventurous journey by train and ship from the English Midlands to the Eastern Highlands of Rhodesia. A decade ago, events unfolding in the country of my birth precipitated a further scattering of family members, something my father resignedly referred to as La Diaspora Continua, and I emigrated with my wife and children to New Zealand.
Perhaps it was a lack of contact with extended family that precipitated my fascination with my Dad’s large accumulation of family photographs. He inherited the collection, along with a hefty archive of family papers, from his parents. Much of the older material had originated from his great-uncle Hallam Payne (1870-1960), who had been the family archivist, although the existence of several items from the early 1800s points to an earlier origin for the hoarding gene. With my Dad’s encouragement, I drew my first rudimentary family tree when I was nine or ten years old. Nevertheless, it was only fifteen years ago, with my purchase of an early version of FTM, and an introduction to the internet, that my interest was piqued.
Like many readers of this blog, I’m sure, I've since become a family history addict. Building on the archives passed down by family members, I’ve spent an enormous amount of my spare time researching and building up the framework of ancestors and cousins, boring and confounding family members and friends alike with my tales of discovery. I still do make the occasional breakthrough, resulting in the adding of an extra generation or two, or the discovery of a new umpteenth cousin.
Along the way I have developed an even greater interest in the vast body of material which envelopes the bare bones of the family tree. I find that I have an intense need to discover ever more and more details of the life of a particular ancestor – anything that might embellish the character that my mind builds up around the bare essentials of a name, two or three dates, and a position in the tree. That’s why I tend to use the term family history instead of genealogy to describe my passion. It is ironic therefore that, despite being bored to distraction by history in my school years, I am now most intrigued by the historical aspects of my research. So much so, in fact, that I have some considerable trouble keeping myself from getting “too distracted.”
I don’t really have much fascination with how major historical events in history might have influenced my family. Perhaps I have a little more interest in how a particular ancestor might have played a role in some local incident. I find myself more absorbed with building up a timeline of events that are likely to have shaped peoples lives, and hoping that this exercise will reveal something of their characters. In the course of this quest, I’m always hunting for new tools that might have the potential to open further avenues of research. However, I repeatedly find myself returning to the family photograph collection for clues and inspiration.
I would even go so far as to say that photographic portraits, both formal and informal, now form the fundamental framework of my attempts to unravel the life stories of these people who I never met, either because they lived so far away, or because they died long before I was born. Once the photos are assembled into chronological order, I am often able to gain an impression of what the person looked like and, if there are enough in the sequence, how they changed through the course of their life. While it helps me to build a concept of that person, I find that a detailed examination of the photographs can often reveal far more. Apart from a simple observation of the identity of the subject, other factors such as photograph type and style, studio name and location, inscriptions, clothing, studio backdrops and accessories used, other backgrounds, such as buildings, may also be usefully analysed. I will admit to setting less store on things like family likenesses, and expressions on the subjects’ faces, but they can be useful in certain circumstances.
Henry Payne (1842-1907)
Henrietta Payne nee Benfield (1843-1917)
A rather nice portrait, expertly colourised
by a kind Photo-Sleuth reader - just one of many examples of the
collaboration and co-operation which I have experienced.
Often, when I approach portraits from my family collection from a fresh point of view, I make exciting new discoveries. In my series of articles on Photo-Sleuth, I like to share these findings with fellow family and local history enthusiasts, and hope that they will prove to be of some use to others in their own research. It is, of course, a collaborative process, and I continue to learn a great deal from such exposure. I have presented my own analyses of some of the old family photos that researchers have kindly sent me from all over the world, and I value enormously the numerous and varying contributions that I receive.
It is to my own ancestors that I return perennially, building up a more detailed picture in my mind of who they were, how they lived, and why they chose to make certain decisions and changes in their lives. It is also important to me how those decisions and changes – in particular the successive emigrations, from village to village, county to county, country to country, and continent to continent – shaped the individuals and families that eventually produced me. The family photograph collection chronicles and illustrates many moments within that process of movement of my family through the Diaspora. What remains is for me, and others who follow, to document, describe and interpret, joining the lines between those moments to relate the stories of our tīpuna
In the spirit of collaboration referred to previously, I wondered if Shades of the Departed
readers would like to offer some comments on the photograph that I’ve used to illustrate this article, "A rare visit from my grandparents." I’ve provided a few clues, which keen sleuths are welcome to use to delve a bit deeper, using whatever means they might have at their disposal. However, I’d also be interested in any general observations that you might have, so please feel free to leave comments or contact me privately by email. I will reveal more of the story behind the picture, together with a full analysis of the contributions, in a future article on Photo-Sleuth
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