The Photo Album – Researching a Family History

The Photo Album: how pupils worked together to reunite a family with their heirloom

Our story begins with a Victorian family photo album which goes under the hammer in a Hampshire auction house. It is bought as a present for a member of staff at Milbourne Lodge who loves history. She gifts it to us, in the Art & IT Dept, and we task pupils to find out more about the photographs as a genealogy project.

At the back of the leather-bound book pupils discover folded sheets of thin paper with passages from the family bible written in beautiful copperplate script. Over time, they learn to decipher the passages. The album is filled with ‘Cartes de Visite’- photographs the size of a visiting card popular during the 1860s. We find names for the studios where the pictures were taken, but not their subjects. Many are local to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

An inscription tells us the album was presented to Hannah Louisa Mitchell, by her Aunt Kent, on the occasion of her 21st Birthday in September of 1861. We sign up to and begin researching her family tree. In the weeks that follow, pupils piece together clues and find links to the village of Denmead in Hampshire. Through the village Facebook page, we launch an appeal for anyone who may know the family.

Hannah Louisa Mitchell married Walter Restall and for decades W. Restall & Sons owned and ran the local grocery store. Pupils uncover archive photographs. In 1912 the grocery store bought its first delivery van, the same year in which Milbourne Lodge School was founded.

Success! Within hours of the Facebook post being published an email arrives with proof positive that we have found a living relative. Pupils continue to work on the project during the spring and summer terms, completing the family tree and deciphering many of the Bible passages. Looking at the words, they think whoever copied them originally might have been dyslexic as there are many spelling mistakes and the letters ‘b’ and ‘d’ are often transposed.

July 2022, it is the final week of the summer term at Milbourne Lodge. We invite Hannah Louisa Mitchell’s relatives to tea so that pupils may finally reunite her family with the album. Christopher Deane and his wife will take the treasured heirloom back home to Portsmouth – where the tale began. We do love a happy ending, even if it has taken 160 years to achieve.

The genealogy project also dovetails perfectly with our Numbers theme in Art & IT this year.

*Pupils recorded an interview with Christopher Deane in which he talks of his childhood and Saturday job, at Restall’s in Denmead. Listen here …

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