Family Photographs from the First World War: A Young VAD Nurse

In 1918 Dorothy Corpes (1901-62) visited her local photographic studio to pose for a portrait wearing her outdoor uniform as a newly-trained VAD recruit. She was about to join the nursing staff of Afton Lodge Auxiliary Hospital in Freshwater, Isle of Wight. Many uniformed nurses of the First World War were volunteers trained by the British Red Cross Society or by St. John Ambulance - separate societies who since 1909 had been establishing Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) to recruit and equip local volunteers to provide field nursing services.

To become fully-proficient members of their VAD, girls had to train and pass exams in first aid and nursing. The term ‘VAD’ came to be used for the nurse herself, and by 1914 several thousand VAD volunteers were already trained, both those classified as mobile (who could serve in any theatre of war worldwide), and the majority who registered to work only in their local Auxiliary War Hospitals. Wartime recruitment of VADs was a great success: nursing was becoming popular, especially among ‘respectable’ girls who wanted to do something useful towards the war effort.

Within the hospital hierarchy, role and rank was distinguished by the colour of indoor uniforms, Commandants wearing a dark red dress, Red Cross nurses the iconic pale blue dress, while Order of St John VAD nurses wore grey dresses with a St. John armband, all uniforms completed with starched white caps, collars, cuffs and aprons: hemlines were worn slightly above the ankle or at low calf level, revealing black stockings and regular footwear.   

The varied duties of VAD recruits included receiving wounded soldiers and exchanging their soiled service uniforms for comfortable ‘hospital blue’ uniforms, assisting the ‘walking wounded’ with dressing and using crutches, feeding and teaching crafts to the bed-ridden, emptying bedpans and changing surgical dressings. Young inexperienced volunteers regularly witnessed shocking, unforgettable sights.

The selfless work carried out by all nurses throughout the war seized the imagination of the general public, the ‘Romance of the Red Cross’, especially, inspiring various souvenirs from china cups to picturesque postcards. Along with posters and photographs, such imagery testifies to the tremendous contribution of the nurses who gave their energies and, in some cases, their lives during the Great War. Furthermore, some VADs stayed on and continued nursing after the war, like Dorothy, pictured above c.1920. In October 1923 she married Charles Mabbs, the young soldier featured with his two brothers in an earlier post. 

With thanks to Beryl Venn, daughter of Charles and Dorothy

Family Photographs from the First World War: My Father’s Wartime Photographs

image

One hundred years ago today Britain entered the First World War and over the next 4/5 years the conflict would affect virtually every family in the UK. My father, William George Shrimpton (in the pram), was born in the middle of the war, on 19th November 1916, and it appears that, 9 months later, his father still hadn’t seen him. Like many mature WW1 servicemen who were married with young families, his father missed the birth of at least one baby and his infants taking their first steps.

image

Photographs taken in Britain and posted overseas played a crucial role in keeping soldiers in touch with their families back home. The two postcard photographs above were taken by a professional photographer on the same day, 12th August 1917, according to a hand-written note on the back. Set, I presume, in the garden of my father’s parents’ North London family home, they portray my grandmother, Amy Shrimpton (nee Brooks), with her three children, Amy (b.1914), Doris (b.1915) and William/Bill - or ‘Sonny’ - (1916) as my father was called by his family.  

image

A message was written on the landscape postcard and, sealed in an envelope, this photograph was sent to the Front to my grandfather, William George Shrimpton Snr (1883-1957). Intended to show him how his baby son and little daughters were progressing, it would also have assured him that he was in his family’s thoughts. My grandmother’s message suggests that her husband hadn’t been home on leave for some time and, in her brief message, she politely wishes him luck. 

'Best of Doris and Sonny. What say you don't know him. They all say how much he is like you. Best of luck Dear, X Amy'

My grandmother (1882-1972) must have had a tough time on her own during the war, giving birth and looking after a baby and two toddlers, as well as running the house, but her story mirrors that of millions. Fortunately my grandfather survived the war, evidently brought the photograph(s) safely home with him and they were found just 3 years ago when my sister and were clearing out the attic and discovered memorabilia that we hadn’t seen before. 

Tags: WW1

Family Photographs from the First World War: A Separation Portrait

image

A fairly common type of photograph surviving in family collections from the First World War is the ‘separation’ scene combing two different but linked pictures. Soldiers serving overseas would usually take away to war a photograph of their family, to remind them of loved ones at home. Sometimes while abroad, a serviceman would be photographed in a local studio, like the soldier above, a Sergeant-Major with the North Staffordshire Regiment, pictured wearing khaki drill uniform in Alexandria, Egypt, c.1916-18. He might then have a small copy of the existing photograph of his family inserted into the corner of his portrait as a little vignette image - a kind of thought bubble, as seen here. The new photograph, posted back to Britain, would give his wife and children (or, in other instances, his parents and siblings, or sweetheart) an updated image of him and would also demonstrate visibly that they were very much in his thoughts, despite the distance separating them.

image

In this case, both the soldier’s separation photograph and the earlier family portrait included as a vignette have survived in this private family photograph collection, as seen above. The fashion clues here suggest that the wife and four children were photographed c.1914-15, probably around the time the soldier first joined up. These separation photographs are particularly poignant images from the First World War, expressing something of the human sentiments that lay just beneath the surface of the military action. 

Family Photographs from the First World War: Band of Brothers

image

Many servicemen during the First World War visited their local photographer for a commemorative portrait and often friends or brothers would pose together, wearing their various military uniforms. Above are three brothers who, born between 1891 and 1894, were healthy young men when war broke out in August 1914. The photograph is undated must have been taken during the war.

John (Jack) and Charles Mabbs (left and centre) served in the 25th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, while their younger brother Frederick Mabbs joined the 7th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. Jack was wounded in Mombasa in 1915 and later received the Silver War Badge (also called the Silver Wound Badge), while Fred, who served in France and Belgium, was also wounded, judging from the wound stripes seen here on his left sleeve. Fred’s nickname was ‘Duke’ because he had met the Duke of Windsor and had offered him a cigarette (which he took!).

image

Happily, all three brothers survived the Great War and Charles, who had been involved in guerilla and commando warfare, remained a career soldier, going on to train British Commandos in the Second World War. Charles ended his days as a Chelsea Pensioner and the above photograph was taken in 1968, shortly before his death. 

With many thanks to Beryl Venn (nee Mabbs), daughter of Charles Mabbs, 12th August 1891 - 5th July 1969. 

Family Photographs from the First World War: An Unidentified Royal Artillery Horseman

image

Most of my time is spent dating and helping to identify other people’s family photographs, but here is an image from our own family collection that remains a mystery. Found amongst my father’s effects, clearly this postcard portrait was taken during the First World War, probably by a professional military photographer and most likely in England. The upper corners have been cut down, perhaps to fit the card inside a frame at some stage.

image

The uniform and insignia of this proud horseman place him with the Royal Artillery, one of the British Army’s largest regiments during the Great War. The single sleeve stripe or chevron shows his rank to be lance bombardier (equivalent to lance corporal), while uniform details that reflect his mounted role include his leather ammunition bandolier, breeches, puttees and spurs. The white lanyard over his left shoulder was a distinguishing mark of the Royal Artillery, later moved to the right shoulder c.1921.

Nothing is printed or written on the back of the photographic mount, so any clues are contained in the visual image alone. Frustratingly, we don’t recognise this horseman: comparison with other photos confirms that he is not my grandfather, William George Shrimpton, who did serve in the war. Perhaps he was a great uncle - one of our grandfather’s or grandmother’s brothers: if so, his surname would be Shrimpton or Brooks. Can anyone help to identify him please? 

: . 

Tags: WW1

Family Photographs from the First World War: A Departure Scene

 

Among our family photographs dating from the First World War, perhaps the most common type of image is the poignant portrait of the serviceman departing for war. Not only adventurous youths but also mature men with steady civilian jobs and families to support signed up or were conscripted into the army.

Many new recruits had studio photographs taken in uniform to indicate their new role, membership of a military organisation and to demonstrate that they were serving their country. The soldier in the above scene wears the 1914-pattern leather belt typically worn by Infantry Service battalions, introduced in haste to equip a rapidly-expanding army. His wife and three young children are well-dressed in the ‘Sunday best’ fashions typical of the mid-1910s.

This kind of formal group portrait was essentially also a departure scene - a last photograph taken together as a family. The soldier would take a copy away to war with him as a precious keepsake depicting loved ones at home awaiting his safe return. His family would keep another copy in the house, perhaps propped up on the mantelpiece as a daily reminder of their absent husband and father. Such photographs provided a crucial way of maintaining contact throughout the duration of the war. This soldier has not yet been identified, so it is not known whether he lived to see his wife and children again. 

Tags: WW1

Family photographs from the First World War: A Rural Scene, c.1915-18

image

A contact and I have been working on this rural Wiltshire scene in connection with a Great War memorial project. The photograph is undated, like so many old photographic images, and I have been ‘reading’ the picture clues to determine an accurate time frame. The evidence of fashion is always reliable and here the young woman standing in front of the fence wears a tailored suit datable from its length and cut to c.1915-18. It follows the general style of many WW1-era female uniforms and in fact the contrasting collar and cuffs of her jacket could possibly signify some kind of uniform. Might she be a visitor to the cottages - a messenger or despatch rider or similar…? Perhaps she has just dismounted from the motorbike to the left of the picture.

 image

Although there are several women and children in the photograph, the absence of adult males is striking - another detail that supports the probability of a First World War date. Two or three households occupied these semi-detached thatched cottages, one family with 13 children residing there from 1908 until 1975, when the final family member moved out. For some years three brothers were the last remaining residents: one had lost his leg in the Great War and had a peg-leg; he cooked for the other two, who worked as foresters and gardeners on a nearby estate. Tragically, another brother had been killed at Gallipoli in 1915 – perhaps in the same year or shortly before this picturesque photograph was taken.   

Photos, artworks and costume items at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2014

image

Every year I date photographs and, unofficially, various other family heirlooms, at the annual Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history show at Kensington Olympia. This year I worked for Genes Reunited and for Family Tree magazine, who kindly gave permission for me to feature this photograph and the photo below.

One of the first items brought to the FT stand on Saturday was a beautiful 19th-century bonnet belonging to Jean Follett from the West Surrey Family History Society. Mainly hand-sewn, this delicate item from her family collection had been expertly fashioned from fine white cotton material, shaped with cording and ornamented with broderie anglaise. Perhaps a baby’s cap or a sun bonnet for a child or small woman, I thought a date in the 1830s possible from the tall shape of the crown, but there also appeared to be traces of some machine-stitching, suggesting possibly a later date or subsequent alterations. I suggested that Jean contact her nearby Chertsey Museum, who have a dedicated costume curator. Hopefully they will be able to take an expert look and narrow down the identification for her.

image

Another highlight of Saturday was a visit from FT reader Heather Redman from Hampshire, who brought along a wonderful early 20th century snapshot album containing many photos taken by - and of - her paternal grandfather, John Neale. Heather has sent me scans of some of the pages and kindly gave permission to share these on my blog.

image

Many families did not acquire their first household camera until the inter-war era, but there were significant numbers of keen ‘snap shooters’ around the turn of the century and by 1900 it seems that John - still a young man - was using a personal camera to record his life, for example, his local surroundings, his work as a smart shop assistant at Guards outfitters in Romsey, group outings such as cycle trips and boat rides with friends/work colleagues and hockey matches.

image

These candid views not only show vividly how Heather’s grandfather and other young people living near the south coast enjoyed spending their free time, but also offer superb glimpses of everyday warm weather dress at the very end of the Victorian era. Ladies wearing cool cotton blouses and carrying parasols arrange their cumbersome skirts, gents have donned comfortable knee breeches for cycling and straw boaters are popular hats for summer..

image

During the early 1910s John was even experimenting with indoor photography, as seen in the top of the above two photos, depicting his second wife and young son, Heather’s uncle, born in 1907. Illuminating interiors for amateur indoor photography was not at all easy in the days before modern, safe flash equipment, but here is a rare scene showing relatives at ease in their own home over 100 years ago, just before the First World War. The snapshot below the interior shot is post-war in date - late 1910s or early 1920s, judging from the fashions. Charabanc outings were enormously popular until the later 1930s and many of these photos survive in family collections.
Who Do You Think You Are? Live always produces some wonderful family heirlooms and I would like to thank everyone who shared their photographs and precious mementoes with me and others on the stand. More impressions of the show courtesy the Family Tree team can be seen here: http://family-tree.co.uk/2014/02/enjoyed-wdytyalive/
Until next year…

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs

image

My latest book was published last week: Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs: A Complete Guide for Family and Local Historians (Pen & Sword, January 2014) http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Tracing-Your-Ancestors-through-Family-Photographs/p/6043/ 

image

This in-depth guide is the result of over 25 years’ professional experience of dating, analysing and interpreting many thousands of photographs from private family picture collections, as well as images from lpublic archive, library and museum collections. Covering early photographs dating from the 1840s and 1850s to mid-20th century snapshots, the book spans a hundred years of photographic images that have never been published in book form before.

image

Dealing firstly with how to date photographs, the book demonstrates how to use various photograph dating techniques to establish the most accurate time frame possible. This includes recognising different photographic formats, investigating photographers and studios and estimating the date range of the card mount.  

image

There are also chapters explaining how to date the visual image from the composition of the subject(s), from the studio or natural setting of the photograph, and, especially, from the fashions worn by our ancestors - their clothing, accessories and hairstyles.

image

In the next section, the book explains how to study photographs at a more advanced level, offering tips for spotting the occasion behind the photograph, identifying and understanding photographic copies and dealing with old photograph albums and their contents. It also addresses the main issues that arise when scrutinising old photographs, for example judging age and facial likeness or estimating social status.

image

The next major section of the book deals with the ways in which photographs reflect the lives of our past family members, providing important and fascinating details about ancestors’ and relatives’ weddings, occupations and leisure activities.

image

In recognition of the 2014 centenary of the outbreak of WW1, there is a dedicated wartime photographs chapter which discusses at length how to date, investigate and understand the kinds of photographs that survive from the First World War, as well as from the Second World War. These were major conflicts that affected all of our families and for which there survives much visual evidence.

image

Photographs with strong local connections also have their own chapter of the book, emphasising the powerful links that exist between personal family history and the wider history of the area in which forebears lived. This explores school photographs, pictures of local industries in which ancestors were employed, district sports teams to which they belonged and so on, suggesting ways of investigating these photographs, using the many local resources available to researchers. 

image

Many of us have forebears who moved abroad or who travelled with work and so photographs taken overseas are also covered in the book - both formal studio portraits and casual outdoor snapshots from locations as diverse as Canada, Malta, India, South America and Egypt.

I hope that there will be something for everyone in Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs. Among the 150 dated illustrations, there should be many examples that typify the kinds of photographs occurring in today’s family and local picture collections.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs (Pen & Sword Books, January 2014) http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Tracing-Your-Ancestors-through-Family-Photographs/p/6043/ 

Uncle Holly and Selfridges Christmas Grotto

As small children growing up in a Buckinghamshire village during the 1960s, every December my sister and I were taken on the train to London as a pre-Christmas treat. We went especially to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, marvel at the magical window displays in Selfridges and visit Santa’s Grotto there. Every year we came home exhausted, but each with a special present from Father Christmas. In fact, it wasn’t so much Santa that I remember, but his sidekick, Uncle Holly - a festive character dressed in green and wearing a top hat, who greeted children while they were waiting to see Santa and gave them a badge. 

Judging from online references to ‘Mr Holly’, as I think we called him, he seems to have been part of the Selfridges and Lewis stores’ Christmas Grotto experience during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, but evidently then fell from fashion. Here I am, aged three, in a knitted cardigan, proudly displaying my Uncle Holly badge. The next year my baby sister would have her own badge too. Sadly we didn’t keep them, but here is visual proof: I was once a Member of the Uncle Holly Circle.