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.


  1. What a beautiful story Eliot - a great act of Geneakindness.

  2. Thanks Jill, I like that word, Geneakindness.