Saturday, 31 January 2015


Gertie's twins
I bought this ‘Cabinet Card’ photo a few years ago through the ebay website. It was taken in the Adelaide studio of a South Australian photographer. This photo was completely unlabelled except for the words ‘Gertie’s Twins 1901” written on the back. I thought as a random act of genealogical kindness I would try to identify these two handsome babies.

I think everyone who has a large collection of family photos will often find a photo or two that might be unlabelled or labelled but are of people not apparently related to the family that has the photo. What do you do with photos like these? It’s sadder still to think of how many people there are interested in researching their own family history who have no old family photos of their own whatsoever. I’m sure there are many photos like these that would be treasured if they were in the right photo collection. How do you reunite these photos with their appropriate ‘families’?

When I started researching the identity of Gertie’s twins the only clue I had was that their mother was named Gertie and they were probably born around 1899 or 1900, and of course that they were twins. I hoped they had been born in the place where they had been photographed as this would narrow down the records I needed to search considerably.  I began an exhaustive process of looking at South Australian birth records for twins from these years that had a mother named Gertrude. I was very sorry to discover how common a name ‘Gertie’ was back then. It took many hours.
I eventually had three possible candidates. Were they John and Marguerite Brennan born 12 April 1900 or Dorothy and Thomas Crookall born 14 April 1900? I thought that the babies looked to be identical and of the same sex so I went with the third pair I had identified as a most likely; Leonard and Reginald Balls whose mother was named Clara Gertrude Balls (nee Jones) the father was Edward Henry Balls.

Through the website I managed to contact a living descendant of the ‘Balls’. She thought they did in fact belong in her family tree and were Leonard Harry Balls (13th March 1900-18th Dec 1957 and Reginald John Balls 13th March 1900-31 Dec 1965). I sent her a digital copy of the image. I don’t know if it was the satisfaction of identifying the photo after many hours of searching, or just the knowledge that there are people whose surnames are slightly funnier than my own, but it was a great moment of triumph that I will never forget. This was my small random act of genealogical kindness.

It is very hard to reunite a photo like this with their ‘family’. You can often see a family tree that someone has created on the website that it would fit into nicely but how do you put it on there? I have found that when you try and contact owners of a tree with a photo like this you can be met with a lot of suspicion. I was lucky with ‘Gertie’s twins’ that my own surname was so similar to the person I was contacting that this wasn’t a problem as the person I contacted initially thought I was related. There is no facility on to upload family photos that are not part of your own family tree. I suppose you could start a new Ancestry tree for each photo you have but you would end up with a lot of one person trees if you did this. I don’t think it would work.
There really should be some kind of a website where you can reunite photos like these with living descendants, for whom a photo like this would be a real treasure.

While I use the phrase random acts of genealogical kindness it is not my own. There is a group of volunteers with that name who help people with family history research. They don’t unfortunately reunite photos with families as I have just described here but they do other research for people and have just now got their website going (Jan 2015) after many years of being offline.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of the RAOGK group Wikipedia describes them as:

a web-based genealogical research co-op that functions solely by the services of volunteers. Volunteers from any part of the world may offer services to any requester, such as research of birth, marriage, and death records, public records, obituaries, and deeds. Some volunteers photograph burial sites, cemeteries and tombstones. Volunteers also offer "lookup" services in various history and genealogy books, such as those books owned by the volunteer or books held in libraries and historical societies. Any fees requested by the volunteers are reimbursements for actual costs involved, such as gas mileage, photocopying, record fees, or postage. However, in most cases, the services are rendered free of charge in the spirit of offering a random act of kindness to a stranger in search of family ties.

In 1999, the RAOGK website was founded by two researchers, Bridgett and Doc Schneider, who saw the need for such a volunteer service in their local area. The small website grew very rapidly from being solely a statewide offering in the United States to an international global volunteer organization with some 4,300 volunteers around the world and a staff of about eight, also volunteering their time. In 2007, more than 71,000 requests were handled by the system, 10% of them to volunteers outside of the USA.

This is a really worthwhile group and should be supported. I can see why it would have started in the US where looking up things like ‘vital’ (BDM) records can be a nightmare as they all seem to be state based. The RAOGK group is not just in the US it is international. When I last looked at their website there were 4 volunteers listed to help people with Australian records.

You can check out their new website through this link.

Unfortunately the RAOGK Group do not provide a service that reunites people with lost family photos. I think this is something that is sorely needed. If anyone has any ideas about this please leave a comment.

Friday, 9 January 2015


                 Marine Terrace, Geraldton, Western Australia c.1910

One of my favourite hobbies is collecting old photographs. You can buy them fairly cheaply at antique stores, at post card fairs and through internet sites like ebay. The photos I like best are the ones that have a bit of a mystery to them. I particularly like unlabelled or partially labelled photos which I think might be able to be identified with a little detective work using online genealogical resources like the website.
There is often a lot of historical information in a photograph that you might not realise is there until you look at them closely. This is especially true for photos of streetscapes or buildings. Old photos can have a lot of resolution in them and, when scanned, can be blown up to reveal a lot of interesting detail. With careful cropping you can often find smaller pictures within the larger one. You can discover things you didn’t know were there.
I bought the photo I feature here in a post card fair in Melbourne. It is what is called a ‘real photo’ postcard. It’s a photo taken by someone with their own camera and developed as a post card so it could be sent through the post to friends or family. It’s an original image, there might have been only a dozen or so printed. It’s usually unlikely to find that another copy of a photo like this has survived. If you own it you own the only one. This kind of post card started at the end of the 1800s and was most popular in the first few decades of the 20th century. The motor cars in this photo suggested it was taken in the early 1900s.
The postal service back then had a morning and an afternoon delivery. The quickness and magic of receiving a family photo like this through the post in a day or too must have seemed like email or text messaging does to us today.
When I bought this photo it was completely unlabelled. The back was blank except for the Kodak Australia marking which identified it as developed in Australia. I thought it was probably taken somewhere in Melbourne as that’s where I bought it. I thought the business signs within the photo might be the best way to identify it. The shop sign ‘Misses Andrews & Billett Lady Drapers and Costumiers’ looked promising but I could find nothing in the Melbourne street directories for the period in which it would have been taken. Nothing came up when I did a search in the Trove website and nothing came up in the Ancestry website using the slightly unusual name Billett either.
But it was the word Magriplis in the shop sign Magriplis Leading Fruiterer and Confectioner that identified the photo. I hadn’t realised that that was a family name when I first looked at it and, when searching, I discovered that families with the name Magriplis, only seemed to be living in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
Using website I found that the Magriplis fruit shop was on Marine Terrace, the main road of Geraldton, Western Australia. Doing a Trove search using the words ‘Andrews & Billett Drapers and Costumiers Geraldton’ also brought up a newspaper article that identified this same location. I had a look at a ‘Streetview’ of Marine Terrace, Geraldton today from ‘Google Maps’ I could see what was left of the Andrews & Billett building, which looked it had been extensively renovated over the years. It was on Marine Terrace, this verified the location of the post card.
A digital image of this photo has been donated to the collection of the Geraldton Regional Library. If anyone would like a copy please contact the friendly librarians at that library.