Finding Aunt Lizzie

Take some old photographs, keen volunteers and some serious local history detective work in the available surviving records… and a wealth of stories about people and places can be uncovered.

A few years ago, preparations were being made for a major refurbishment of Lancaster library.

This called for a big clear out and, during this clear out, in an attic room at the library we uncovered an old and dusty Victorian photograph album.

The ‘Aunt ‘Lizzie’ Album

This album had, presumably, been donated to the library many years ago and had long been forgotten. No-one knew anything about it, its contents or its owner, just that there on the cover was embossed the name ‘Aunt Lizzie’.

Whilst of little historical value if you are unable to put names to the faces, an old album of photographs is an interesting curiosity and so it was decided to use as the centre of a display which attracted the attention of a trio of family history enthusiasts, Jean, Mavis and Pat.

They now take up the story…

“A Family History Day at Carnforth Station and there, on the table of exhibits from the library was a dusty old photograph album inscribed on the front with the name ‘Aunt Lizzie’.

Although shabby, the quality of the album shouted out, but the real treasure was inside – many photographs of elegantly dressed people, most with names written in pencil beneath them.  We wondered who these people were and who Aunt Lizzie was?

Our genealogical curiosity thus aroused, we volunteered to try to find out who these people were. So began six months of research. We discovered that this particular style of album was produced in the late 1880’s which meant that it may have been given to Aunt Lizzie around that time. The photos may or may not have been in her, or another’s, possession before then. Our objective was to identify the 124 individuals who stared back at us from the album’s pages, to find out why they were in Aunt Lizzie’s Album, and what connected them.

We actually handled the album very little, perhaps three or four times in total, but we witnessed its rise in status from a dusty neglected object to one to be handled with white gloves, supported on a cushion and stored in its own archive box.

Inside the Aunt Lizzie album

Our first task was to go through the album page by page, removing each photograph to examine the reverse for any notes or data and recording all visible information, including the photographer’s names and locations. Photographs were allocated an identity number and sorted into alphabetical order by surname. The result was a list of 40 family names to research.

Days and weeks of research followed both at the Library and on the Internet. Phone calls and e-mails, often into the early hours, plus regular meetings together left us little time for our own family research which we had put on hold.

Excitement grew as we began to realise just what we were examining. The people in the album were a mixture of national dignitaries, local dignitaries, clergymen, women and children, themselves a snapshot of the nineteenth century society they lived in. The album also contained scenic photographs of St Petersburg and Switzerland.

We discovered connections between many of the individuals. There were marriages that brought generations together; political, business and social circles; neighbours and the Church, especially the Bible Society. As we delved back into their ancestry and forward into the lives of their progeny we discovered a worldwide scenario. The people in Aunt Lizzie’s Album led us across the globe to Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Canada, Europe, India, Russia, South Africa, South America, and the West Indies. Who wouldn’t be excited by such a voyage of discovery?

The reward for the extensive amount of time invested was excitement and fascination throughout the research and the achievement of amazing results. We now have a true picture, of real people, who were involved in the social, political, business and religious history of nineteenth century Lancaster and played an important role in the life of Aunt Lizzie.

Have we finished?  We could carry on for years, but we have fulfilled our initial objective of identifying the individuals, with a just a few exceptions.

Unknown woman
Unknown man

And have we found Aunt Lizzie?

Jean, Mavis and Pat were able to compile extensive family trees for those featured in the album and compile a large amount of biographical detail and this is their conclusion:

“Initial thoughts were that she must be Miss Elizabeth Smith Threlfall, born 1805, in Lancaster and who lived most of her life in St Leonardgate.

As the most senior surviving daughter of John & Jeanette Threlfall she would be ‘Aunt Lizzie’ to all those listed in the Threlfall Pedigree.

Elizabeth Smith Threlfall

However, towards the end of our research we learnt that most of our Lancaster men were committee members of the British & Foreign Bible Society and that Lord Shaftesbury was the President. This explained why Robert Moffat the African Missionary, who translated the Bible & The Pilgrims Progress into Setswana, featured in the Album. It also explained why there were so many clergymen in the Album.

Shortly after this we discovered that there was a Ladies Association of the Bible Society and five of our Lancaster ladies were committee members – including Miss Bailey.

The whole Album seemed to make more sense now. The Bible Society linked the National Dignitaries, the Lancaster Dignitaries and the Threlfall family.

But, this new information took the focus away from Elizabeth Smith Threlfall and placed it firmly onto Miss Elizabeth Threlfall Bailey.

She had spent her early life in Blackburn but in 1881 she was living with her two maiden aunts Ellen & Elizabeth Smith Threlfall in St Leonardgate. One aunt Miss Ellen Threlfall died later in 1881.

Elizabeth Threlfall Bailey was still living there in the 1891 census and her last remaining aunt, Elizabeth Smith Threlfall, died a few months after the census.

Elizabeth Threlfall Bailey then moved to Liverpool where she died in 1894. The very last photograph in the Album, of Sydney & Margaret Park of Wigan, was taken in 1892 by Medrington of Liverpool.

We were quite convinced at this stage that Elizabeth Threlfall Bailey was ‘Aunt Lizzie’ until two relevant doubts arose: Can we be sure that Elizabeth Smith Threlfall was NOT in the Bible Society too? Would Elizabeth Threlfall Bailey have known the Rev. Alex S. Page? He left St Anne’s, Lancaster in 1864 – she was still in Blackburn in 1871.

Elizabeth Threlfall Bailey

The jury is out!

All the photographs from the album are now featured in the Aunt Lizzie Album collection on Red Rose Collections and our volunteers will now be adding as much biographical detail as possible to many of the portraits in the near future.

Follow us on Twitter: Libraries @LancsLibraries also check out Lancashire Archives @LancsArchives and Museums @LancsMuseums

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