Saturday, April 29, 2017

Meet the family – new and improved

This post, my first in a very long time, will only be of interest, I’m afraid, to people named Blackwell or Breen, if to anyone.  (Sorry Smith relatives.)

My ardour for family history research cooled for no particular reason after my last period of prolonged activity in 2015. The work to that point, though, had produced some fruitful and, as it turns out, lasting online relationships. I met three distant cousins in England who shared my interest in family history. We’ve kept in touch. Unlike me, they have continued to work away at compiling information about the history of the Blackwell clan.

Tom Jolliffe first made contact with me in response to this blog almost exactly two years ago. Tom’s mother, Cyrilla (1911-1992), was one of the Manchester Blackwells, daughter of Ernest (1876-1941) and grand-daughter of Marsden (1840-1906). Marsden’s older brother, Richard Henry (1838-1919) was the founder of the Australian branch of the family, our great grandfather. RHB emigrated to Oz in 1878.

Tom and his wife Gina maintain the TJ family tree at Ancestry. It's a private site, but if you're interested in looking at it, let me know and I'll try and get you an invitation. The tree covers the Marsden branch of the Blackwell family in detail.

Perhaps more interestingly, the Jolliffes have in their possession a photo album that came to them from Tom’s mother. She received it from a cousin, Mabel Holmes, daughter of Julia, youngest sibling of Marsden and RH. The album includes studio portraits of Blackwells dating back at least to the 1880s. You can find a virtual version here at Google Photos.

Richard Henry Blackwell

Tom originally sent me confirmed pictures of RHB and his friend William Drummond from this album, which I published here in 2015, and above. (Drummond was Richard Henry’s great friend who, according to family legend, once saved his life. RHB honoured his pal by giving his surname to son Matthew Drummond, our Blackwell grandfather. My brother Stephen also bears it.)

I hadn’t taken a proper look at the album until recently. It contains other interesting Blackwell portraits, including probable likenesses of Anne (Marsden) Blackwell (1806-1889), wife of Matthew (1804-1859), and of Kate (Sadler) Blackwell (1884-1919), our great grandmother. There are also portraits of RHB’s and Kate’s two sons, Matthew Drummond (our grandfather) and Richard Marsden (great uncle), as teenagers.

Unlike the pictures of RHB and Drummond, the Kate and Anne photos are not labeled. Tom has identified them based on fairly convincing-sounding evidence, however.

Anne (Marsden) Blackwell

The person he believes is Anne appears in three or four pictures in the album, more than any other. This makes sense given she was the family matriarch. And this woman certainly looks the part of a matriarch. She also looks about the right age. The photographer (see the graphic on the reverse below) was Marcus Guttenberg, active in Manchester between 1878 and 1891. (See the exhaustive entry on Guttenberg at this interesting site, set up to help family historians date photos.)

Anne died in 1889, so the picture would have been taken – if it is her – between 1878 when she was 72 and 1889 when she was 83. This woman is also never paired with a portrait of a spouse, as many others in the album are. Matthew had died in 1859, which is before the period when it was common for middle class folk to commission studio photo portraits.

Kate (Sadler) Blackwell

The picture that Tom believes is Kate Sadler Blackwell was taken in Melbourne, as you can see from the reverse side and from the embossed signature in the picture, and appears in the album paired with one of the confirmed pictures of RHB. If it is our grandmother, which seems very likely, she was a handsome woman.

Matthew Drummond Blackwell

If you take the time to go and look at the Holmes family album at Google Photos, you will see that the pictures I’ve included here look a little different there. All of the originals are faded and  discoloured with age. Many are marred by mold stains, scratches and abrasions to the emulsion and other blemishes. I’ve used Photoshop to restore them as best I can. Restoring old damaged photos is an art (or a craft anyway) and I’m definitely an amateur at it. But at least now you don't look at the pictures and see only their distracting flaws.

The one of grandfather Matthew Drummond as a teenager was the most challenging. The matting around the image was so badly stained with mold that I eventually gave up and reconstructed the mat in Photoshop. A bit of a cheat, but needs must. The one of great grandmother Kate was also badly stained with mold spots – it looked like she had smallpox – and I ultimately found it impossible to eliminate the mottling in the background, an artifact of the clean-up process.