Religious Affiliation and Who’s the mom?

When I examined the original parish register at the Bury St Edmunds branch of Suffolk Record Office, back in 2002, the name of this bride’s father stood out.  As I was following my Coulson relatives, I did not investigate further at the time.

Bride: Lily May Smith, age 20
Groom: George William Coulson, age 27
Date: 23 June 1905
Location: All Saints, Hitcham
Father of Bride: Alice Jane Smith (deceased)
Father of Groom: John Coulson (deceased)

Alice Jane Smith does not sound like a man’s name, so why would a woman be recorded as a ‘father’?  Could Lily May have been the illegitimate daughter of Alice Jane Smith?  My first step in pursuing this question was to verify the marriage entry from an independent source.  A gravestone at the Wattisham Strict Baptist chapel commemorates this couple and confirms their approximate dates of birth.  The Baptist chapel at Cross Green in Hitcham was a satellite of the Wattisham chapel.  In my experience, people who are missing from the established Church of England registers for All Saints, Hitcham, often turn up in the Baptist records.  George was baptised at All Saints.  The couple could have married in the Baptist chapel at this date.  As there is a long history of non-conformists marrying in the established Church of England, we can’t assume that this couple’s choice indicates their religious affiliation.

Lily & George W Coulson gravestone

Lily & George W Coulson gravestone
Wattisham Strict Baptist Chapel, Suffolk, England

In loving memory of
beloved wife of
died 9th Dec 1958
in her 73rd year
safe in the arms of Jesus
also of
died 31st July 1959
aged 8[1] years
for ever with the Lord

George and Lily appear on the 1911 census at Brettenham Road, Hitcham, with daughter, Violet; brother-in-law, William Smith, aged 61; and mother-in-law, Susannah Smith, a widow aged 72.  The mother-in-law relationship to George suggests Susannah was Lily’s mother, but her age is too old for that to be likely.  I found no reasonable match for Alice Jane Smith, which is consistent with her deceased status on the 1905 marriage register.

In 1901, Lily was living and working as a servant in the household of a farmer in neighbouring Bildeston, so we can glean no helpful relationships from that record.  Susannah (aged 65) is recorded on the Hitcham census with husband Robert Smith (aged 79) and two adult un-married daughters, Alice (aged 35) and Elizabeth (aged 21).  The 1891 Hitcham census is even more helpful as Robert Smith’s household contained wife Susan (aged 50), daughter Alice (aged 23) and granddaughter Lily M (aged 5).  It does not identify Alice as Lily’s mother, but I will be surprised if the civil birth registration for Lily (1886, Jan-Mar quarter Cosford district, vol. 4a, p. 691) does not confirm my suspicions.  The evidence so far clearly suggests Lily May was raised with the support of her grandparents, Robert and Susannah Smith.

© Sue Adams 2013

Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description

Genealogists have a lot to learn from archivists when it comes to the personal collection of documents we accumulate.


When new materials are received, the first thing an archivist does is record:

  • where it came from
  • who it belongs to
  • roughly what is included
  • any legal agreements or conditions of use imposed by the donor

My parents gave me a box of genealogical goodies few months back as they had moved to a smaller residence without stairs.    Dad said he doesn’t mind what I do with it.  These statements comprise a very informal, and somewhat vague, accession record.  When presented with such a collection, we often do not make notes of the provenance or context of the acquisition, but we should.

Accession information is generally included in archive catalogues only as a reference or access category, as some of it may be private e.g. the donor’s identity.  Acquired collections may resemble an auction job lot you bought for the one item that was not junk, so they need to be sorted and organised.  In archival terms, the collection needs to be arranged.


Archival arrangement collects items together in a way that preserves the provenance and context in which they were created and used.  The arrangement is reflected in the structure of the catalogue.  Each item is assigned a logical position within a hierarchy of categories.  Taking an example from my personal archive, the marriage certificate for Joshua Arthur Smith & Beatrice Elizabeth Davis (RWC/1/6/4), was acquired as part of a discrete bundle from Winifred Clarke (RWC/1/6) in connection with the death of Raymond Walter Coulson (RWC) and filed by his administrator (RWC/1).  I sorted the items in Winifred’s bundle by date of creation, as they weren’t in any order.

In a big archive’s online catalogue, you might only see the entry for the marriage certificate, but you need to check the hierarchy to get the full story.   My personal catalogue looks like this.

Reference Title Description Dates
RWC Raymond Walter Coulson (1922-1997) collection Papers, photographs, correspondence, memorabilia and probate documents of Raymond Walter Coulson of 322 Aston Hall Road, Aston, Birmingham, who died intestate on 24 May 1997.
RWC/1 Probate file Compiled by [my dad], administrator for the estate of Raymond Walter Coulson, between May 1997 and January 1998.
RWC/1/6 Winifred Clarke late Coulson, nee Smith (1906-1996) collection Bundle of birth, marriage and death certificates, probate and burial documents, 1 photograph.  Given to [my dad] in 1997 by the residential home where Winifred Clarke last resided, as no other relative had claimed them. 1860-1996
RWC/1/6/1 Marriage Certificate – George Smith & Clara Webster 20 Jul 1860
RWC/1/6/2 Marriage Certificate – Walter Davis & Elizabeth Walton 06 Jul 1874
RWC/1/6/3 Birth Certificate – George Edward Coulson 21 Nov 1902
RWC/1/6/4 Marriage Certificate – Joshua Arthur Smith & Beatrice Elizabeth Davis Church of England, St Saviour’s church, Saltley parish, County of Warwick.  Original certified copy of the Marriage Register, page 109, no 217,  23 May 1904 23 May 1904
RWC/1/6/5 Birth Certificate – Joshua Arthur Smith 28 Aug 1923
RWC/1/6/6 Marriage Certificate – George Edward Coulson & Winifred Smith 14 Dec 1929
RWC/1/6/7 Death Certificate – George Edward Coulson 04 Feb 1957
RWC/1/6/8 Death Certificate – George Edward Coulson 04 Feb 1957
RWC/1/6/9 Bill for funeral of George Edward Coulson 22 Feb 1957
RWC/1/6/10 Grant of exclusive Right of Burial 01 Mar 1957
RWC/1/6/11 Will of Winfred Clarke 14 Jan 1971
RWC/1/6/12 First Codicil to Will of Winfred Clarke 16 Nov 1973
RWC/1/6/13 Death Registration certificate – Winifred Clarke 03 Jul 1996
RWC/1/6/14 photograph – elderly woman & baby n.d.


Archival description pulls together the information needed to identify, manage, locate, and interpret the contents of a collection and explains the context of a collection’s creation and functions.  Information that applies to a whole group of items is included in the record for that level, becoming more specific at deeper levels of arrangement.  My example includes an item level description of the marriage certificate, and how and why it was acquired (i.e. the context) in other levels of the hierarchy.

Genealogical citation geeks may recognise many of the elements of a genealogical citation are included in my catalogue.  That makes me wonder why catalogue details are not embedded in digital images of documents we routinely download.  Now that would really add value to online data offerings.

Detailed description takes lots of time and archives receive many accessions, so do not expect archive catalogues to contain item level descriptions with names of people.   Only very important collections may be fully described.

Winnie’s collection

The collection accumulated by Winifred, known as Winnie, is an excellent springboard for researching her family, particularly the Smith side.  If you want to put a face to the name, she featured in ‘Is it George or Jack?  Engagement photograph identification’.  This collection identifies her parents, grandparents, and all 4 great-grandfathers.

Chart of Winnie's ancestor & custodians of her collection

Chart showing Winnie’s ancestors and the relationships of custodians of her collection

The chart presents Winnie’s relatives and shows people who have had custody of her parent’s marriage certificate (green), and the person whose death lead to its acquisition (red).  A bread crumb trail of custody is:

Beatrice & Joshua > Winnie > elderly residential home > Dad > Me

Marriage Certificate - Joshua Arthur Smith & Beatrice Elizabeth Davis

Marriage Certificate – Joshua Arthur Smith & Beatrice Elizabeth Davis

Bride: Beatrice Elizabeth Davis, aged 26
Groom: Joshua Arthur Smith, aged 41
Date: 23 May 1904
Location: St Saviours, Saltley, Warwickshire

Beatrice and Joshua appear on the 1911 census at 13 Ash Tree Cottages, Alum Rock Road, Saltley, Birmingham.  The household was headed by Clara Smith, Joshua’s mother and included 4 year old Winifred, the couple’s daughter.  I can’t help wondering if the mystery photo of an old woman and baby might be Winnie and her grandma Clara.

The National Archives reference for this census record is RG 14/18344/25.  Fancy trying out the catalogue?  Can you work out what each of the reference elements means?

The 25 item refers to the number marked on the schedule, a form comprised of one sheet of paper.  The catalogue does not include any item level information i.e. individual schedules, but the group of schedules.

RG Records of the General Register Office…
14 1911 Census Schedules
18344 Registration district no 385 (Aston),  Registration Sub-District no 5 (Erdington), Enumeration district no 25

© Sue Adams 2013

Correction 20 January 2015: The National Archives reference should be RG 14/181344 not RG 14/18172, so this post has been updated accordingly.

Is it George or Jack? Engagement Photograph Identification

The 15th post in the 50 Marriage Mondays series illustrates how documents handed down through the family can both clarify and confuse.  Winifred (known as Winnie) Smith’s papers included her marriage certificate.

Marriage Certificate - Coulson, George Edward & Smith, Winifred

Marriage Certificate – Coulson, George Edward & Smith, Winifred

Bride: Winifred Smith
Groom: George Edward Coulson
Date: 14 December 1929
Location: St Saviour church, Saltley, Birmingham

The photograph collection that belonged to Mabel Coulson, Winnie’s sister–in-law, includes pictures of Winnie.  This pair of photos clearly represents a couple.  The young woman is Winnie, so it would be natural to assume that the young man is her husband George.

Winnie & Jack engagement photos

Winnie & Jack engagement photos

However, the family folklore says that the young man is John William (known as Jack) Coulson, George’s brother.  Winnie and Jack were engaged and it is thought that the photos commemorate the betrothal.  Tragically Jack died of tetanus on 11 April 1927.  Can the photos be dated to confirm or refute the story?

The Local Photographer

Portrait of Winnie in fox fur

Portrait of Winnie in fox fur

Mabel’s collection includes another photo of Winnie.  All three are postcard prints, a format popular from the 1890s to the 1960s, marked with the photographer’s details:

LOUIS, 104 Alum Rock Road Studio, Birmingham

Arthur Louis is listed as a photographer at the address in the 1932 and 1939 Kelly’s Directory of Birmingham.  I have not yet consulted earlier trade directories, but there is evidence that Louis was in business as early as 1924.  Pictures from a Family History attributes wedding photographs for a couple who married on 26 July 1924 to Louis.  Winnie was recorded on the 1911 census at 13 Ash Tree Cottages, Alum Rock Road, Saltley, Birmingham, the same address as her residence on her marriage to George.  Winnie lived at 131 Washwood Heath Road, Birmingham in 1957 when George died and in 1971 and 1973 when she first made and altered a will.  All of Winnie’s known addresses are in close proximity to the photographic studio.  The 1924-1939 date range of Louis’ business does not rule out either Jack or George as the subject.

Costume evidence

In the engagement photos, Winnie’s round neckline and long, single string of pearls suggests a 1920s date.  Winnie’s short waved bob and Jack’s very short hairstyles were popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  Jack’s tie-bar suggests a 1920s date, but wearing a V-necked pullover rather than a waistcoat was more popular in the 1930s.  So, the internal dating evidence is not definitive, but points more to the 1920s.

The fox fur stole dates Winnie’s portrait to the 1930s.  As the composition and studio background differs from the engagement photos, I think this photo was taken on a separate occasion.  I also think Winnie looks a little older in this picture, putting the engagement photos at an earlier date.

Now turn over

From the front, the two engagement photos match in composition, background and possibly date.  You won’t have noticed from the digital copies presented that they are slightly different sizes.  Stacking photos like a pack of cards is a quick, accurate way of comparing by size.

Photo Width (mm) Length (mm)
Winnie engagement 87 135
Jack engagement 85 135
Winnie in fox fur 85 135

Winnie’s engagement photo is 2mm wider and also has subtle differences on the printed post card back compared to the other photos.

Back of Winnie's engagement photo

Back of Winnie’s engagement photo

An interpretation

What do I make of all this?  A possible explanation that is consistent with all the evidence is as follows:

Winnie and Jack had their photos taken when they became engaged.  Copies were distributed to friends and relatives, which is how Mabel, the sister of Jack and George, came to own the engagement photo of Winnie.  After Jack’s death and probably a few years after the engagement, Winnie decided to have her photo taken.  By that time Mabel had no photo of Jack, so asked for a copy.  Winnie obliged and also gave Mabel a copy of herself in the fox fur.  Consequently, the same card stock was used for these two prints.

Shrimpton, Jayne. (2008). Family Photographs and How to Date Them. Countryside Books: Newbury.

© Sue Adams 2012