Saturday, 14 February 2009

Letter to America - A moment in the life of a young girl in late Victorian Derby

I've long had a fascination for old photographic portraits, and it was probably during an investigation into the life of my paternal grandfather a few years ago that this matured into what should more accurately be described as an obsession. I hardly knew my grandparents. They lived on another continent - half-way around the world - and what memories I have of them are understandably hazy. I met my grandfather only a few times in my childhood, the last occasion being a year before he died, when I was in my early teens and he was eighty-two. Although my Dad had many anecdotes about his father, he admitted to knowing very little about his early life. My aunt and cousin, who lived with Grandpa and Grandma for many years, have explained that he almost never talked about his war service years. As a result, my initial research relied heavily on linking up a framework of dated events and a sizable collection of photographs taken throughout his lifetime.

I'm sure other photo-sleuths will attest to the peculiar mixture of a sense of accomplishment and gratification, that one receives from the process of trying to extract as much information as one can from a photograph, inevitably accompanied by a modicum of frustration in the knowledge that one almost certainly hasn't discovered everything there is to find. A typical example for me was the war-time photograph of my grandfather which I featured in a previous Photo-Sleuth article, "His lordship taking his rum ration."

As I delve further into the background story relating to such photographs, which capture but a brief moment in the general narrative of the subject's life story, I suppose that what I'm hoping to do is build up in my mind a character portrait of the subject. Conventionally posed Victorian and Edwardian studio photographs certainly provide fewer circumstantial and peripheral clues to a subject's character than the less formal snaps which became commonplace after the turn of the century. Nevertheless, in spite of the stiff, arranged postures and the photographer's presumed instructions not to let a smile pass across their subject's lips, I believe that such a portrait can offer a valuable window into their lives, particularly when presented as part of a narrative, and with the support of other material. On a more practical note, a portrait may also be used as a convenient focusing point on which to base one's initial research of an individual in a family tree.

Recently I've been trying to sort scanned images of a collection of old family portraits belonging to my aunt. Amongst these are a number which ostensibly include the three sisters of my great-grandfather Charles Vincent Payne (1868-1941). Some of the identifications were inscribed on the reverse in recent decades by my aunt and, by her own admission, may not be entirely reliable, since the last of the daughters died over forty years ago. Henry & Henrietta Christina Payne of New Normanton, Derby, who featured in a previous article, had seven children altogether, including three girls.

Their eldest daughter Lucy Mary was born on 29 November 1876 at 38 St James' Road, Normanton, the house that Henry had built for them the previous year, and from which he was licensed to sell beer in September 1877. Maggie, as she was known in the family, grew up in Normanton, her mother running the grocery shop and off-license while Henry was building houses in St James' Road and nearby Crewe Street. Although I haven't had an opportunity to check the actual records, I assume that she attended St James' Road Board School in the 1880s, following her three older brothers and being followed in turn by another brother, two sisters and eventually by my grandfather - her nephew - in the late 1890s.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Lucy Mary Payne (1876-1953), aged about 14
Taken c. 1890-1891
Carte de visite by Chas. S. Swift of 106, Normanton Rd. Derby
Photograph collection of Barbara Ellison

This carte de visite portrait by Charles S. Swift of 105 Normanton Road, Derby (Studio Location) was probably taken in 1890 or 1891, and shows Lucy Mary Payne when she was about fourteen years old. It's the earliest image that I have of her, although there are a further nine portraits and portrait groups (Collection: The Daughters of Henry Payne) taken at irregular intervals throughout the rest of her life.

Although I can't be certain of the exact date, Charles Swift had certainly opened his Normanton Road studio by the time of the compilation of the 1891 edition of Kelly's trade directory - perhaps in late 1890 - having previously worked for his brother William E. Swift in the latter's studio at 30 St. Peter's Street, Derby. William sold his studio to R.K. Peacock and moved to Skegness some time after 1887. The rather crudely painted canvas backdrop used is the same one that can be seen in another of Swift's photographs (Image), and likewise the photographer has inadvertently included some of the rucked up right-hand edge in the photo. His later photographs showed a little more skill, a reason to suspect that the portrait of Lucy Mary was taken early on during his professional career.

Image © The National Archives and courtesy of Ancestry
1891 Census: 38 St James Rd, New Normanton DBY
NA Ref. RG12/2739/99/18/106
Image © The National Archives and courtesy of Ancestry

In the 1891 Census, shown in the enumerator's sheet above, Lucy Mary is fourteen, and it seems likely that she visited Swift's studio at around this time. Her father described himself as Vaccination Officer (a position to which he had been appointed by the Derby Board of Guardians in 1885), Rent Collector (presumably for the houses which he had been building, but perhaps on behalf of other property owners too) and "Off Beer Licence Holder." His eldest son Charles Vincent (my grandfather), by then aged 23 and working as a joiner/carriage finisher at the Midland Railway works, had moved out and was boarding with a family nearby in Pear Tree Street. The second son Charles Hallam had also left home by then, but had moved significantly further afield. He too had entered the building trade, but had travelled to the United States in late 1890 and was successful in finding employment as a carpenter at the Pullman Car Company railway carriage works in Chicago (Illinois).

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Envelope addressed to C.H. Payne, Box 165, Roseland, Chicago, America
Stamped & Postmarked Normanton & Derby 12 Jan '91
and Roseland & Chicago ?26 Jan 1891 on front and reverse
Collection of Brett Payne

In my collection of family papers is an envelope addressed to Hallam in Chicago, stamped and franked at Normanton and Derby Post Offices with the date 12 January 1891. Inside the envelope are letters to Hallam from his father and from his three sisters Maggie, Lily and Helen.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Letter from Henry Payne to his son Charles Hallam in Chicago,
dated 12 January 1891 at Derby
Collection of Brett Payne

In his letter, Henry thanks Hallam for his recent letter accompanied by a "book of Pulman," a large format bound collection of mounted prints depicting Pullman's developments in southern suburbs of Chicago, which has fortunately survived in the family archives. He describes the effects of the severe winter on employment in Derby and relates a couple of anecdotes which provides some insight into the family's day-to-day life in Derby.
We are having awfully cold weather here now for the last six weeks. Many are out of employ. I saw your old friend Smith otherwise Carbo, to day. He, with others had been discharged from [Midland Railway] Signal dept. at Christmas, and is now walking about. Out door work is completely at a standstill on account of the severe weather ... The youngsters are giving you a history of their Switchback slide running across the green from top corner of Crewe St. to half way down St. James's Rd. The lads have had splendid up & down sliding or as they call it Switchback ... Your mother desires me to tell you to be sure and be a good lad & save your money. She occasionally fills a plate at meal times forgetting there is one short at table, but Fred says it don't matter he can manage it ...
The letters from Hallam's sisters are charming, although pretty much what you would expect from a fourteen, eight and seven year-old, respectively, with those of the two younger characterised by rounded, shaky handwriting and a few spelling mistakes.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Letter from Lucy Mary Payne to her brother Charles Hallam in Chicago,
dated 23 December 1890 at Derby
Collection of Brett Payne

Maggie writes:
Dear Hallam
I wish you manny [sic] happy returns of your Birthday, all of us do if they had not time to say so in their letters. We are going to have a little entertainment. We have all sent a few cards to you. I send you my Photo. Ma says when you have half an hour to spare pop across & put hinge on Table door. It wont take long. We often look at the time & think what time it is with you. The snow is coming down fast. Ma & Pa went to our entertainment last Friday & left Frank to serve beer, just fancy. I played a duet. With love from Maggie.
How exciting to find in there the reference, "I send you my Photo." Could she be referring to the photograph of her featured above, now in my aunt's collection? I think it very likely. Hallam was, according to my father, an inveterate hoarder and almost certainly would have brought back to England such letters and photographs when he returned home in November 1892. My grandfather inherited all of Uncle Hallam's family photos when he died in 1960, and they were subsequently passed on to my aunt a decade and a half later. Even if this is not the exact portrait, I think we can safely say that this is more or less how she would have looked at the time she wrote the letter.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Charles Hallam Payne (1870-1960), aged about 20
Possibly taken c. 1890-1892 in Chicago
Tintype by an unknown photographer
Photograph collection of Barbara Ellison

I don't have any portraits of Charles Hallam Payne that I can categorically state were taken during his brief stay in Chicago, from late 1890 until November 1892, but I believe this tintype to be a very likely candidate. Unfortunately it is slightly out of focus, roughly trimmed, has experienced some darkening and loss of contrast, and the lacquer used to coat the image now has a honeycomb of fine cracks, but it still gives a good impression of Hallam as a young man. As referred to in Maggie's latter, Hallam turned twenty on Boxing Day 1890, and he looks to be about that age in this photograph. In the last decade of the nineteenth century tintypes of this size were far more commonly used in the United States than in England. In fact, of only two other tintypes of similar vintage in our family collection, one is of my grandfather Charles Leslie Lionel Payne in a baby carriage, which I am fairly certain was taken in late 1892, also in Chicago.

While this investigation is by no means complete - I expect to continue finding more snippets relating to Lucy Mary's childhood in the years to come - I am starting to build a mental picture, not only of her but of the family and their life at that time.

I can envisage Henrietta getting the four youngest children ready for school each day, and them heading off on the journey which would only have taken them a couple of minutes, as the school was situated diagonally opposite their house, and the gates were just a few yards up Hastings Street. I can imagine the enormous amount of fun that she and her brothers would have had playing in the snow after school had finished for the day, making tracks to slide on when it all turned to ice, not to mention the pile of dripping and muddy clothes that Henrietta would have had to deal with when they got home.

I can easily see her sitting down reluctantly with her two younger sisters, each clutching identical single pieces of notepaper, two days before Christmas, after having been nagged by their mother. Then I imagine them wondering aloud what they could write that might be of the remotest interest to their older brother, who had set off a few months earlier on an exciting adventure across the seas. They were perhaps sitting at the same kitchen table in the St James' Road house where, a few minutes earlier, Henrietta had distractedly served an extra plate of food for an her absent son, which was then wolfed down eagerly by an ever hungry eleven year-old boy. Since my own pre-teenage daughter is learning to play the piano and also performs at concerts two or three times a year, the entertainment referred to by Maggie is another facet of their lives that I have no difficulty in bringing to mind.

To me, the photograph is what brings it all to life, and the family photo collection therefore is the most important part of the material heritage I have received and which I will pass on to the next family historian in due course.


  1. I treasure our family photos, too. Your post prompted me to write a post about one of my own attempts to interpret a photo I found in my dad's stuff.

  2. Thanks for the note, IW. Sorry I can't tell you much about your family photo, but it may well prompt me to post some of my own from that neck of the woods, and perhaps learn a little more about Norway along the way.


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