Sunday 17 April 2011

A Criminal Waste of History

I have no idea whether every family has a vulture but certainly we do. In their dotage this couple have no greater interest than visiting some even older and/or more infirm individual. By the time the latter has gone to meet their maker they have managed to get their name on the both the will and have volunteered to see to the house clearance.
Their inheritance is often "disappointing" yet can top this up by selling the odd antique to make a few pounds. I have no problem with this, they probably spend as much clawing their way into the will as they ever get out of it. However it has come to my attention their house clearances also include a little bonfire, where letters and bills are incinerated along with the wanton destruction of every photograph.
This horrendous act of burning old photographs was justified with "they are only personal photographs of people nobody knows" and proceeded to open an old tin bursting with black and white snaps. I began to browse through the contents, almost none of the photographs were larger than 3" x 2" and most were half that size.
They were quite correct. Snap after snap of sombrely-dressed strangers in uncomfortable poses. The occasional name, place or date written on the reverse helped not one iota until I came across two photographs of the same rather dapper gentleman. On the reverse I found noted Great Yarmouth on one and Lake Taupo on the other, along with the man's name - Mr Kempson. This was no stranger, this man was known to me.
During the first decades of the 20th century Maitland Kempson was a very successful businessman. Indeed he could afford the luxury of at least two domestic staff, a chauffeur and a children's nanny - the former was my grandfather, the latter he was to marry. Maitland Kempson (wonderful name) also enjoyed his retirement to the full, travelling the world in luxury aboard some of the world's most prestigious liners.
His travels are not well documented (as far as I know), although he made at least one trip to New Zealand - for Lake Taupo is a lake in the crater of a volcano in New Zealand. I also know he made at least three voyages to North America for his name is listed as one of the survivors in a book covering the last of those voyages.
Returning to my grandparents for a moment, although I cannot remember my grandfather, my grandmother often told me stories of her time in domestic service and how handsome John looked in his uniform. She also spoke of a large trunk, one which was given to them as a gift when John finally left his employ. This trunk was itself of interest for it was said to have been saved (along with its owner) from the Atlantic when the Titanic sank. Even at a young(ish) age I remember this story troubling me, for it simply did not make sense to bring a large trunk on a lifeboat when so many were doomed through lack of space.
Hence I dismissed this narrative and not until these photographs came into my possession did I consider doing any research. However research was not difficult, for Maitland Kempson is a most unusual name and his status made him quite easy to trace. Both trunk and owner were indeed fished from the sea, however this was not a ship sunk by an iceberg but another famous sinking during the First World War when RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland on 7th May 1915. It sank in 18 minutes, with the death of 1,198 of the 1,959 on board. This event is held to have brought the United States into the war.
Maitland Kempson died shortly after the second photograph was taken, the Great Yarmouth trip was to prove his last holiday. The trunk was sold to a collector around the time I was born. This was the second time I found family memories to be misleading, my genealogical research was inspired by such - maybe I shall relate that story another time.
Most importantly it shows how the wanton destruction of photographs is criminal and should never happen. Agreed few will be of any interest, yet they can be useful tools in genealogical searches, and as historical documents are irreplacable.

1 comment:

  1. I quite agree - old photos and letters should not be burned. Even if no one knows the people, they are a priceless social record. I remember my mother burning my grandparents' love-letters from the First World War and no amount of pleading was going to stop her. They were private, she said, they wouldn't like strangers to read them. True - but they could have been locked away until everyone who knew them was dead. Social documents are so important. Individuals have no right to destroy them.

    Well done for tracing this chap - what a fascinating bit of family history to have!