The Baby and the Photographer

7 02 2011

Simpkins Gregory

Harry Kenneth Price Simpkins, a baby photographed by William Walker Gregory in 1884

Who were they?

With a few clues from an old postcard, photograph or letter, it is sometimes possible to piece together a profile of the lives of the people who owned them.  Tantalisingly, these exercises often open up even more questions that may never be answered.

The Baby

Harry (or sometimes Kenneth) was born on 14 April 1883 in Marlborough, Wiltshire, England.  Unfortunately he does not seem to appear on the 1891 or the 1901 censuses so I do not know who his parents were.

He travelled to the USA and returned in 1914 aboard the Lusitania just over a year before the ship was torpedoed and sunk in May 1915.  He is listed as a Clerk.
In 1923 I found his return from Argentina, along with his wife Carola who I can’t locate in the English records so might assume was born in South America.  By now he is a Bank Manager.

In 1926 the couple return to these shores again, and Harry is a Clerk for the Bank of London and SA (South America), which is also given as his destination address.
In 1935 the couple are here again and are heading for an address in Gloucestershire.  Harry is listed as a Railway Employee this time.

In 1954 he returns to England form Buenos Aires alone at the age of 71 and it is possible that his wife has now died. I have no idea if there were any children, but certainly none travelled with them on the few journeys I have found (I would guess that they were more frequent than these records suggest).  Despite his age, he is listed as a Railway Clerk.

Two years later and Harry is back in England again (from Buenos Aires) and is now listed as having no occupation.  Presumably he finally retired.  His address this time is The Canning Club – a gentlemen’s club in London for those with connections to Argentina.

Harry Simpkins died in Islington, London in 1981 at the age of 98.

There isn’t a lot of detail but we can piece together a picture of a man who travelled a great deal, who worked and married in Argentina, and who returned frequently to England.  We don’t know if he had any children and know nothing of his parents (though this could be discovered by purchasing his birth certificate).  Why does he not appear on the two available censuses after his birth?  Maybe his connection to Argentina began early in life.  It is possible that his father also had connections there and moved the family abroad.  Maybe, like so many families, they just didn’t fill out their census returns.

The other puzzle is Harry’s change of occupation from clerk to Bank Manager then back to clerk seems fairly straightforward, but then he leaves banking to be employed in the railway industry.  By his apparent final return to England he was a member of a ‘gentlemen’s club’ and this might suggest either some affluence, social standing or at least good connections.  So was he the manager of a small bank and then a very important clerk after that?  Did the railway industry headhunt him?  Or did he lose his ‘mojo’ after marriage and slide down the ladder over the years.  Or did the Wall Street Crash in 1929 have anything to do with this?

I am sure that some of the answers are out there and maybe one day I will extend this project beyond these initial musings.

The Photographer

William Walker Gregory, at the time this portrait was taken, lived and worked at 30 High Street, Marlborough, Wiltshire, England, with his wife Louisa and two of his three children – Helen and Florence.  There was a son between these two girls but no trace of him after the 1871 census when the family lived in Jersey and the boy was about five years old.

William Walker Gregory was the son of William Gregory (born about 1797 in Derbyshire) and Dorcas (I can’t find her maiden name unfortunately but she was born about 1795 in Worcestershire).  He was born in 1833 in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England and was the middle child of three, having two sisters – Mary and Anne.  His father was a Master Draper in Huddersfield who died in 1869.

By the age of 18 William Walker Gregory was his father’s apprentice and he eventually became a Linen Draper (until at least 1861 and at that time resident at Belmont Terrace, Brunswick Place, Huddersfield).  He married Louisa Dyson, daughter of a Cloth Finisher, in 1959.  The couple’s first child, Helen Louisa Gregory was born in 1863, then Frederick William Gregory in 1866.  At some point between Frederick’s birth and the arrival of their third child, Florence, in 1869, they moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands.  On the 1871 census, William Walker Gregory is listed as a Photographer.

I have found no record of the death of young Frederick and only know that by 1881 the family were back in England (this time Marlborough, where the above photograph was taken).  Frederick would have been about 15 or 16 by this time and it is possible that he remained in the Channel Islands, or that he had moved elsewhere and was working, but we can only speculate.  There is a Frederick W Gregory in 1891 in Huddersfield, with a wife, of the right age and birthplace, who is a Photo Dealer’s Assistant, but there is no way of verifying that this is the same person without further investigation.

One of the pitfalls of this kind of research is making assumptions – they are always dangerous.  Follow up every possibility, but believe nothing until you have proof.

Three years after the 1881 census, this photograph was taken.  William and Louisa were still at the same address in 1891, but William died in 1895 at the age of 62.
In 1901 his widow Louisa was living with their married younger daughter Florence in Lewisham.  I can’t find a record of her death.

The questions left open from this short investigation are interesting.  Why did the family move to Jersey?  What happened to Frederick – did he die or did he move back to Yorkshire?  And what made William Walker Gregory become a photographer after starting out as a Draper?  Perhaps it was a passion of his and he gained a solid grounding in a dependable trade, saved his money for equipment, learned everything he could, until he was able to “give up the day job”.  Perhaps there was an opportunity in Jersey to pursue this career, or maybe they moved there for other reasons and he fell into a photographic job.

If these people were part of my own family tree then I would dig deeper, purchase birth, marriage and death certificates, and research the local histories of the places they lived relevant to the time period.  The purpose, however, of this project (which includes old postcards and letters as well as photographs) is the take away a little of the anonymity of these finds.  I hope you have found it interesting.

As posts aren’t always regular on this blog it’s definitely worth subscribing to the RSS feed so you don’t miss any updates.  The Who were they? project will become a recurring feature along with the On the Window Trail posts about the works of Lawrence Lee.  You might also like to take a look at my other blog.

In this series:

December Diary (part 2)

2 01 2011

The first half of December threw some interesting weather at us, with a week of snow, freezing temperatures, and with the thaw a dense fog which gave the place a very eerie look indeed.


The light still shining at the Wheatsheaf

The second half was really the busy half – it seemed to go in a blur.  There was the work Christmas meal followed swiftly by a night out with friends after which I visited my local pub which had a nasty fire back in November.  It’s still not open and at the beginning of the month they had been hoping to have it open by Christmas Eve but the snow put paid to the work starting on time.  I went in for a look around with my friend who runs it.  So sad to see all the damage, but she had a nice little setup with a couple of comfy chairs so we had a couple of drinks there before heading home.

The following weekend saw me out and about again for a pre-Christmas drink with a group of friends.  We visited several places in town and I do believe there is video footage of me singing karaoke but I believe it has been kept from the internet to protect the ears of the world.


What would your expectations be?

One disappointment that night was the 80s bar in town.  Well we thought it was an 80s bar.  It’s called 80s.  The sandwich board style sign outside read “Live Bands, 80s Music, Guest DJs” (though with apostrophes I am not prepared to reproduce here).  So we were surprised, on a Friday night, to find that there was no 80s music playing.  We asked the barman first, who said it would be on ‘later’ (it was already almost midnight).  I then cornered the owner/manager to say that we’d all paid to get in and had been expecting 80s music and he said “there’s nothing I can do about it, that’s just the name of the club”, before disappearing rapidly through the fire escape door.  Well if it’s your club then you CAN do something about it – a refund would have been nice.

Still, the Christmas spirit hadn’t been diminished and we went elsewhere.  A couple of days later my daughter and I went over to Portsmouth on a special hovercraft charter into Gunwharf Quays and did some serious shopping.  We were absolutely frozen by the time we got home but it was a good day and we managed to get most of the things we wanted.

a Day In the Life Of ...

The December DILO is always Christmassy for me.

The main photographic event of the second half of December was the quarterly a Day In the Life Of … (DILO) event.  Every solstice and equinox the members of this Flickr group take photos of their day and post them to the group.  Some collections really are of their day to day lives and that makes a fascinating snapshot of the world four times a year as there are members from every continent.

There is a theme set every time, but we try to keep it to a subject that is accessible to all – so a Christmas theme is definitely out.  However, this time the theme was ‘Celebrations’ which can encompass many things.  My friend Duncan and I headed out to see what festive things we could capture.  First of all we went to Cowes and were quite surprised to see that the decorations in the street and in the shops were quite subdued.  I’m not sure if it is because there has been, in recent years, this habit of throwing things out and buying new each year.  Perhaps everyone decided not to buy many decorations this year (although the domestic outdoor lights were still very much in evidence on the journey there).  With a few exceptions it certainly seemed a little lacklustre.


Mistletoe on a door near the floating bridge

After having made the trek from the seafront, through the main shopping street and up along to the floating bridge at the river’s mouth, we were really feeling the cold so paid a visit to Corrie’s Cabin – the best chip shop on the Isle of Wight in my opinion.  I don’t remember it having an indoor sit-down area before but perhaps I’d never wanted to sit down indoors for chips until that day.  A big plate of cheesy chips and a pot of tea and we felt human again.  By this time the light was going and as we walked back to the car, the town did seem a little more festive as the lights in shop windows and the large tree by the Vectis prettied up the place.

Phase two of the DILO day was spent in Newport.  Before we’d set off for Cowes we had a coffee in Newport and were trying to decide where to go.  I said “how about we go to Cowes while it’s daylight and then we can come back to Newport for the dark light”.  I knew what I meant!  When you are a photographer everything is light. Even the dark!


This is my favourite window every year. Click to see it in 2006.

I popped home quickly for my tripod and first of all wanted to photograph the tree that’s on top of the fire station every year.  Once again the photos weren’t good so I’ll have to give it another go next year.  It did make an eerie appearance in one of my fog photos earlier in the month however.

We then wandered around town but again the street decorations were poor and there were still a lot of people bustling around doing their last minute shopping.  I was very glad I had only my fresh food left to buy.  I had a go at capturing some traffic trails with varying degrees of success and some of the better window displays. Eventually we ran out of town and lights and decided to call it a day.

And then, of course, came Christmas. My daughter and I spent a quiet day as planned and it was a little different this year as my brother and his family now live on the mainland so we didn’t have the morning visit to them.  Dinner was timed to coincide with Doctor Who as usual and all the rushing about had paid off.  The next day it was out for drinks with friends and then to the mainland to visit my brother (and IKEA!). My friend’s birthday (awkwardly on the 30th but this year a 1950s themed party which was great fun) was followed by a quiet but fun New Year’s Eve and December (and 2010) was done.

There are plans for another outing to photograph Lawrence Lee’s stained glass windows in January, so if you’ve been missing them your wait will soon be over.

I hope you all have a wonderful 2010, and thanks for reading.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

As posts aren’t always regular on this blog it’s definitely worth subscribing to the RSS feed so you don’t miss any updates.  You might also like to take a look at my other blog.

December Diary (part 1)

December Diary (part 1)

8 12 2010

It seems that I have neglected this blog for some time, but the main reason for this is that we haven’t been out photographing stained glass windows since the spring and I had kind of forgotten that I’d originally planned to keep this one going with photo outings of other kinds as well.  So in order to try to remedy the situation, I thought that maybe a monthly ‘diary’ entry would be useful.  A photographic diary that is.


Snow on the Isle of Wight - twice in one year!

December began rather startlingly with a downfall of snow.  “We don’t get snow on the Isle of Wight”.  Well that statement might need to be revised as we’ve had snow twice this year – a heavy fall which lasted over a week in early January, and now this, admittedly shorter-lived, covering – and before Christmas!

When I moved to the island in 1993 my daughter was just two years old and I was looking forward to us making our first snowman together that winter.  Everyone laughed at me when I mentioned this and I was told that it never snows here.  Well we did get a light dusting three times that winter and everyone blamed me!  We made our tiny snowman and that was that for several years.


Snow transforms everything - I love it!

There must have been another light snowfall after she started school because I remember taking her up the road in less than an inch of the stuff to be surprised at the school gate when I was told the school was shut!  I’d never heard anything like it and couldn’t understand it.  When I was a child we’d go to school in the snow, or if it was really bad we’d walk up there to get homework.  I suppose nowadays teachers don’t live nearby and of course the ‘Elf & Safety’ brigade probably have something to say about it all.  Still, considering the number of 4x4s that are apparently necessary to take children to school, a little snow shouldn’t be any trouble at all.

Anyway (before I descend into a rant) the snow this December was what we would call ‘wet snow’ as opposed to what my grandfather used to call ‘Continental snow’.  This wet stuff falls loosely and only sticks around because it freezes.  It usually provides an even layer and can disappear as quickly as it arrives.  ‘Continental snow’ is more ‘powdery’ and it drifts well.  The resulting layers are more compact and it stays for ages – this is what we had in January.


It was freezing!

So the snow of the night of December 1st surprised a few people as the previous settled-for-more-than-a-day snow here (if memory serves) had been in 1997.  It delighted many more people the next day.  The park was full of adults and children playing in it that Thursday, but it was not as good as January’s fall for snowballs and snowmen.  There was still some of it about on the Friday but that night the rain began and I could hear the icicles breaking off and landing outside my house.  The sound of running water and further dripping confirmed that the thaw had begun and by Saturday morning, barring a few patches on fields and on the hills, the snow had gone.


Fog hanging over Newport at midnight

It was still bitterly cold though and there were mutterings that it would snow again.  On Sunday afternoon I read reports online of fog in East Cowes, but the skies were clear in Newport.  However, by the time it was dark it had reached us and the air was icy.  By the end of Sunday night there was an eerie glow everywhere and combined with the very still water of the high tide (it was a new moon), Newport actually looked quite pretty.

Since then the sun has tried its best to peep through the clouds but it’s struggling and it still feels very icy.  Portsmouth had some glorious sunshine the other day but on my return I could see that there was still heavy cloud over the island (the fabled “own weather system” clearly visible).  However, I did manage to stop on the way back over the downs to take a few shots of the hazy valley below.  If we get a clear morning this week I think there are going to be some spectacular sun and mist shots to be had.  But probably not to be taken by me.  I don’t do mornings.

Hazy view

Hazy view across the Arreton Valley

Part 2

As posts aren’t always regular on this blog it’s definitely worth subscribing to the RSS feed so you don’t miss any updates.  You might also like to take a look at my other blog.

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