A Crowd-Sourced Favourite Photo Collection (52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – 2024 Week 03: Favourite Photo)

Is it even possible to choose one favourite photo? I know I couldn’t. All those “What’s your favourite…?” questions send me into a panic. What? You want me to choose a favourite? Right now? Just one? Favourite of all time, or at the moment? Cue brain freeze. I just can’t.

The topic did get me wondering, though, what photos hold meaning and memories for family members and so I decided to crowdsource a collection of photos from them that they might be willing for me to share.

I asked for a favourite family photo (of an individual or group, or of a place or thing with family connection/meaning) and, where known, an indication of when and where the photo was taken and by whom, as well as who or what is in the picture, and why it is a favourite.

A Couple of My Faves

Starting during my 2015 visit to Scotland, my uncle in Edinburgh began digitising the squillions of photographs that belonged to my grandmother and sending them to me (will I ever get them into some sort of coherent order?) It’s an absolute treasure trove though, sadly, there are already loads of people and places we don’t know, proving again why this process needs to be started as early as possible, while those who do know are still living.

Of course, this provided a massive pool of pictures to choose from but it was black and white photo number 627 from this collection that gained my vote this time round:

Grandad Bill and Granny Morag.

It shows my maternal grandparents, William (Bill) Donald Spence and Marion (Morag) Beaton Spence (née Macdonald). I don’t know when or where it was taken (possibly Orkney?), or by whom, but what I do know is that it makes me smile. I just love the expression on my grandfather’s face. He died in 1956 so I never met him but, in almost every photo I’ve seen of him, he looks very serious, professional, collected, polished. This picture, though, just seems to catch him in an unguarded moment of spontaneous joy and I love it!

I’m going with something old and something new, so now for one of my newer favourites: this is my Mum and I on the day I got married just a couple of years ago, sharing a moment outside the chapel before the processional, taken by Shawn Brown Photography. There were tears, especially as we remembered my Dad together, but there was joy, too, and I was profoundly grateful that Mum could be there to “walk” me down the aisle (with a little help from my friends!) The photograph was taken at the start of an afternoon that would forever change my life – a wonderfully happy afternoon, surrounded by so many of our friends and family, as I wed the one I love.

Myself and Mum.
Hubsy

On that note, Hubsy’s special privileges did not allow him an escape from this assignment. He took it very seriously, though, even giving me permission to “remind” (nag?) him to send me pictures. He sent three, and I’ll let him describe them…

“This photo is of my grandpa (Basil Wetton) and myself. It is the only photo that I know of, of both of us. It was taken in about 1973 when I was about 18 months old. He died when I was 2 years old. I still have distinct memories of him. He fought in World War 2 as part of the 2nd Transvaal Scottish Regiment. He was captured by the Germans at El Alamein after falling on a train track and breaking his back. He spent the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War camp. The photo was either taken by my mom or my dad at the front door of our family home in Bordeaux, Randburg.” We have since discovered that the photograph was taken on the day James was dedicated.

James and Grandpa, Basil Wetton.

“This photo was taken by my mom when we were children, of my sister (Kerry), my maternal grandmother ‘Ouma’ (Louise Zoutendyk), our beloved dog Pippa (my first pet) and myself. I have very strong memories of everything in this photo: the tea set, the tray, the tablecloth, the table and chairs, the clothes Kerry and I were wearing, Ouma’s clothes, the Christmas Cake we had every year, the decorations on the cake, the flower behind Kerry’s head, the pot holder hanging on the wall, the wall itself, the area of the garden in which that photo was taken… the ‘Pool Area’ of our family home in Bordeaux, Randburg.”

Kerry, Ouma (Louise Zoutendyk) with Pippa, and James.

“This is a photo of mom, Louie Wetton, but don’t you dare call her ‘Louie’ – it was ‘Lou’. This photo was taken by me in December of 2016 at Thyme on Nicol, one of our favourite places for lunch. She had recently come out of hospital. She had been very ill and the doctors had told me that it was only a matter of time and that we should prepare ourselves; she wouldn’t be coming out. That was the worst day of my life. I got home and walked around the pool area consumed with fear, anxiety, and dread. I prayed that God would give me just four more months with her. She came out of hospital the next day. I took this photo of her being very aware how fortunate I was to be with her in that moment. I can still feel how I felt at that moment. She died four months later.”

James’ Mom, Louie Wetton.
Uncle Ronald

Uncle Ronald was a close friend of my Dad’s before he married Dad’s sister and so became my uncle. Despite not seeing one another as frequently as when all the cousins were younger, our families have remained close over the years, sharing many holidays and making many happy memories together.

Uncle Ronald has been such a calm, consistent support to me since Dad’s death – always there, and always willing and able to offer a clear, objective perspective when I need it. He was the first to make contact with me after I spammed the family with my hare-brained idea about joining the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge, roping them into it with various assignments. He grilled me about the challenge and about this, the first family assignment, as well as about my blog, trying to understand the rather fluffy parameters of the project I’d placed before him. Then he sent me this – one of his favourite family photos:

From left to right: Cousin-in-law Angelo, Dad Edgar, Uncle Ronald, Lynette, Mum Shona, and myself.

This is what he had to say about it: “It was taken on Serapa in 2008 over the Christmas period. I see Angelo is driving so I presume Wendy took the photo. Not sure where Mark and Megan were, but I am sure they were on the farm. This photo brings back so many memories of the times, over the years, we all spent on Serapa especially over the festive season. We so enjoyed being with the Nelsons as we all have a love for the bush and nature. I wonder what we were all looking at? Was it an animal or a bird or did Wendy just force us all to pose for the photo? Whatever the reason, I think it makes a great family pic.” Serapa is a game reserve in Rooiberg, Limpopo, South Africa, in which Uncle Ronald has shares.

Auntie Althea

Auntie Althea is my Dad’s sister, and the one who ensured we continued gathering together as a family over the years. She and Uncle John still make a point of regularly visiting my Mum in frail care, for which I’m so very grateful.

Auntie Althea wins the over-achiever award for this assignment, providing me with eleven of her recent favourite photographs to choose from, telling me I could sort them out and wishing me luck!

Preferring to get permission from family members before posting pictures of them (and, more especially, of their children), I’ve only included a selection of these here, since I didn’t get round to contacting everyone before publishing this post.

One of the first ones she sent was of Uncle John with his grandchildren, though this was before little Fay was born:

Back: Cullen. Front, from left to right: Uncle John, Caleb, Abigail, and Jarryd.

I love the different expressions on all the faces, and Jarryd testing the heat from the candle!

This next photo Auntie Althea titled, “Christmas breakfast with Matthew, Michelle, and boys.”

Back, from left to right: Jarryd, Matthew. Front, from left to right: Caleb, Michelle, Auntie Althea, Uncle John.

Last year, Uncle John and Auntie Althea visited both the United Kingdom, catching up with family there, and Spain. This photograph is one from that trip: “A visit to the Cupani Wine Farm in Valencia, Spain, with Billy and Diane, and daughter, Vonnie.” Billy is Uncle John’s cousin.

From left to right: Uncle John, Auntie Althea, Vonnie, Billy, Diane, and one of the owners of Cupani.

Auntie Althea also included this shot: “Lunch with schoolfriends.” How incredible to have kept in contact with friends from schooldays over decades and to be able to share a meal with them!

Uncle John and Auntie Althea on the right of the picture.

The other photographs received from Auntie Althea included a few from a wonderfully memorable pre-Christmas family lunch we enjoyed at the frail care with my Mum on 19 Dec 2022, and the remainder are all from that UK holiday referred to earlier: a wonderful day with Uncle John’s sister, Lynne, and family, in Inverness; a picnic at Windsor Castle; all the family that have immigrated to England and Scotland; a family photo at Alistair and Stacey’s home in Bedfordshire with Sean and Emily (cousin and cousin-in-law respectively of Alistair and Matthew).

Stacey

Stacey is my cousin-in-law, having married Alistair, Auntie Althea’s youngest son. They and their children have now emigrated from South Africa to the United Kingdom, and so we get to see them even less than we used to but it’s a joy to be able to follow some of their adventures on Facebook. Stacey graciously sent me a couple of her favourite photos.

Alistair took this photograph in August 2023 during a family outing to St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, England. One of the reasons Stacey loves it is that they were all so happy and relaxed at the time.

From left to right: Stacey, Cullen, Fay, and Abigail.

This photo of Abi and Alistair was taken by Stacey in April 2023 and she shares why it is one of her favourites: “It was a beautiful country walk and I just remember how lovely it was to hear the two of them chatting and enjoying one another’s company.”

Abigail and Alistair.
Remembering

I have loved seeing the photo choices of family, and reading their recollections. How strange it is to imagine a world before photography when it’s something we tend to take for granted, especially in this digital age. I wonder how many memories and family stories have been lost over the centuries because there was no visual reminder of them. Perhaps our ancestors were just better at remembering and storytelling and listening than we are…

A One-Man Global Village (52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – 2024 Week 02: Origins)

Aside from a fascination with my origins, the desire to get my DNA tested was really fueled by two other motivators: the ability to (1) confirm research undertaken via traditional channels (essentially a paper trail), and (2) leverage the results in my research to, hopefully, further it and break through some genealogical brick walls.

From South Africa, it was (and still is) a tricky business getting tested through one of the companies that includes family matching since most don’t ship kits to South Africa and returning them is another drama. So I waited patiently(?) for a trip to the UK in 2015 to get tested (you can read about that here).

Spreading the Love

Of course, one test is never enough and I was hooked – now I was after my parents’ DNA! That way, I would be able to determine which family matches came from which branch of my family tree, and what I had inherited from whom. However, DNA has a rather nasty habit of revealing any skeletons in the closet, and so can be a bit of a sensitive subject.

Nevertheless, my parents willingly joined me on this adventure as soon as I was able to get a couple of kits into the country using a freight forwarder. And, guess what? They are my parents. I’m sure we all breathed a collective sigh of relief!

Mum

My Mum’s ethnicity estimate1 really held no great surprises: 86% Scottish, a little Irish, and a sprinkling of Norse – straightforward, tightly ringfenced, nothing particularly unexpected.

Dad

My Dad was generally a quiet man (though he certainly had strong opinions!) He was also a quietly enthusiastic and consistent supporter of my genealogical research and would often ask what new discoveries I’d made and whether I had found out any more about John Nelson (one of the aforementioned brick walls – my 2x great grandfather, with potential links to Ireland).

From research I’d already conducted, I expected Dad’s origins would be around 50 – 75% British and roughly 25% German.

One-Man Global Village

Well, note to self: “Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye.”

His DNA ethnicity estimate2 soon had me referring to him as a one-man global village! Okay, it’s perhaps not entirely accurate and a little dramatic, but I think that Dad, in his quiet way, was secretly quite pleased with the title and his rather enigmatic origins.

Questions

The English and Scottish influences account for around 55% of his ethnicity, and then there’s that Irish 6% (John Nelson, is that you?) and a touch of Welsh ethnicity, which is also a mystery.

But where, pray tell, does the Scandinavian ethnicity come from and why does the Germanic influence only account for 6% – so much less than expected? Perhaps the German branch is less German than we thought. Could that same branch be responsible for the Baltic, Eastern European, and Basque origins in the estimate, too?

Surprise!

It was the African, Indian, and Filipino origins that really blindsided me, though, but perhaps they shouldn’t have. You see, aforementioned 2x great grandfather, John Nelson, an enigma himself, married a lady by the name of Magdalene and of her we know nothing prior to the birth of her children with John – not a surname, not a date of birth, nothing of parents or siblings, just… nothing. My suspicion is that she may be the ancestor that carries this ethnicity. My theory would seem to be supported by my father’s only DNA match on the testing site with Magdalene in his family tree – he, too, shares a sprinkling of this ethnicity but, still, we have no conclusive evidence.

So, for now, at least half my father’s ethnicity, especially the origins of John and Magdalene Nelson, remain a mystery which, I suspect, will keep me out of mischief for years to come!

A Corunna Connection, a Cutlass, and a Centenarian’s Super-Stroll (52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – 2024 Week 01: Family Lore)

“Grandad told me… we had an ancestor called Danny McIntyre who fought in the Battle of Corunna. Grandad used to show us his cutlass which had a curved blade and was quite rusty.”1

Family Stories

So went one of many family stories I heard from one of my mother’s cousins while sitting around her kitchen table on my first trip to Orkney. While it grabbed my attention then, I later confirmed the details of the tale with her via e-mail.

“Grandad” referred to here (also known as “The Major” or “Major Spence”) was my great-grandfather on my Spence line: William Still Spence, a major with the Royal Army Pay Corps. He was, by all accounts, highly respected and there seemed little reason to doubt the story, though it sounded perhaps slightly fanciful and we had nothing else to back it up, though I did recall encountering a Donald McIntyre in our family tree.

Further, the story goes that, at the tender age of a hundred, Danny McIntyre would walk over the Orcadian hills from Costa to Stromness (a distance of some 13 to 18 miles, depending on the route, one way), knocking the thistles out of his path with his stick as he went, in order to collect his pension!2

Confirming Corunna

I doubt anyone in the British forces would want to be associated with that ill-fated Corunna Campaign in the winter of 1808-1809, when, outnumbered by the troops Napoleon had been amassing, they seemed to spiral into disarray and suffered heavy losses. They apparently rallied, though, and fought courageously in the Battle of Corunna while preparing to retreat from Spain, winning a tactical victory, some may say. Regardless, I was now determined to discover whether there was any truth to the tale that a family member had fought in that battle, and so the search began.

Since, at this stage, only one McIntyre had featured in my research (my fourth great grandfather), I turned my focus to him. Census records were my first port of call as I knew his first wife (from whom my ancestors descend) was Mary Begg, and his second marriage was to Betty Hourston, so their presence on a census record with him would help confirm I was looking at the correct person. It turns out that he appears in every census from 1841 until his death, each time in the registration district of Evie and Rendall, Orkney. Interestingly, in the 1841 census, he is recorded as Daniel McIntyre, an Army pensioner, and appears with his first wife, Mary, as well as Mary, the youngest of his three daughters.3 The 1851, 1861, and 1871 censuses all record him as Donald McIntyre, with his second wife, Betsy, and indicates that he is a Chelsea Pensioner (until 1955, the Royal Hospital Chelsea administered the payment of pensions, hence the name).4, 5, 6 So he was, without doubt, a military man, but that still doesn’t prove he fought at Corunna.

Next, I decided to look for the birth records of Donald’s children. Thus far, I’ve only tracked down one – for Elizabeth, his eldest, who happens to be my direct line ancestor – yay! In this, an Old Parish Record for her birth and baptism on 28 May 1814 in Stromness, Orkney, Donald is listed as a Private Soldier in the 9th R.V. (Royal Veteran) Battalion.7 While this Battalion (formed in 1805) initially served at Edinburgh Castle, a company was later dispatched to Orkney, which is likely how Donald came to be there, since he wasn’t an Orcadian by birth.

Now, with evidence of at least one of the corps to which he belonged, I attempted to track down military records for Donald. This met with some initial success: what appears to be his “Statement of Service”. This, indeed, has Donald serving with the 9th Royal Veteran Battalion between 28 November 1811 and 24 September 1815, aligning with the other evidence unearthed thus far. Then, from 25 September 1815 to 03 July 1816, he served with the 3rd Royal Veteran Battalion, which was reformed from companies of the 6th and 9th Royal Veteran Battalions. Interestingly, before both of these, from 10 April 1807 to 27 November 1811, he is recorded as serving with the 71st Foot Regiment – a regiment which saw action at the Battle of Corunna! He was discharged on 03 July 1816 as being “unfit for further Service” as a consequence of a “Wound on the Hip Joint”,8 leaving the fanciful side of me wondering whether this might have been an injury he sustained in battle that hadn’t healed properly! Perhaps we’ll never know. However, we do now know that Donald McIntyre served with a regiment in Corunna at the time of the campaign there.

It was his death record, though, that provided the most convincing evidence. As reported by his grandson, John Wood, Donald McIntyre died from old age on 28 December 1876 in Evie, Orkney. It was, however, a note scrawled in the margin of the entry that confirmed the tale for me: “Fought at Corunna!”9

And the Cutlass?

Ah, yes – the cutlass. Well, it has been seen personally by relatives still living. As we already know, my mother’s cousin was shown Donald McIntyre’s cutlass by her grandad, Major Spence. My uncle, too, wrote to my Mum and I in 2017 saying, “But there is no doubt that swords existed. I remember ‘sword fights’ at Fountainhall Road. At least I remember an old cutlass and a more ‘swish’ modern sword with a sheath.”10

What we don’t know is how Donald came to be in possession of a cutlass. Was it issued to him? Did he purchase it? Sadly, this seems to have passed out of living memory. What has now also become a mystery is what happened to it. In the same e-mail confirming the story she had been told about Donald fighting at Corunna, my mother’s cousin said, “I don’t know what happened to the cutlass after Grandad died but Auntie Margaret might have got it.”11 Sure enough, my uncle is in possession of a letter dated 04 December 1971 and signed by late Auntie Margaret which reads as follows:

The following two swords are to be given to Morag (Mrs M B Spence) or to her son [NAME FOR PRIVATE USE].

1 old fighting sword of Donald McIntyre

1 ceremonial sword (Queen Victoria) with case

which belonged to my father Major W Spence12

Attached to the letter was a second page relating to two more borrowed swords:

Borrowed from Morag (Mrs M B Spence) the two swords as follows:

1 ceremonial sword (Edward VIII) with case

1 Nigerian sword with brass head

To be returned to Morag on request.13

Intriguing – now we’re not only looking for a rusty old cutlass from the 1800s, but at least three other swords, too! We have tried in vain to find out what became of them by contacting cousins, piecing together memories, stories, and letters, and yet they appear to have vanished without a trace. One theory is that they may have been sold at some point, but there is no indication that the letters recording provenance were updated or cancelled (perhaps just an oversight?), and so the mystery remains.

A Centenarian’s Super-Stroll

Is there truth to the tale that Donald McIntyre regularly covered the distance between Costa and Stromness at the age of a hundred to collect his pension? Well, the census records alone all agree he was a pensioner.14, 15, 16, 17 His death record states that he was 104 years old when he died, so it certainly seems he lived to be a centenarian.18 His home was in Evie, a couple of miles from Costa. All these facts support the story that this man, beyond the age most of us will live, made the 26 – 36 mile roundtrip on foot to collect his pension on a weekly or monthly basis.

While there is still much to learn about (and from) the life and times of Donald McIntyre, a.k.a. Dan/Danny/Daniel, it seems quite plausible and probable from the evidence gathered that he did indeed fight at Corunna. It also seems possible that he walked between Costa and Stromness to collect his pension at the age of one hundred. What is certain is that he left a legacy still remembered by his descendants and, for now, his fascinating story lives on. As for the cutlass and the other swords, perhaps they are still “living on” somewhere but, for now, they do so disconnected from their stories.