Story of a Photograph: The Ghostly Pair

I have recently been going through a few of the collections we have on our Flickr site to add more information and references. That way we give a bit more meaning to the pictures and know where they came from. I was looking at a collection called the Strachan Collection (Ref: GD/X256). This is a family collection, largely relating to Peter Strachan who was a Coal Merchant in the Maryfield area. He lived at 76 Clepington Road, with his wife and two children, Robert and Agnes. There is a picture of him with an assistant and his coal cart pulled by a horse. He first appears in the Dundee Directories in 1911. So its likely he started the business around this time and the picture was taken then too. However this is not the picture we are investigating today.

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Peter Strachan (right) and his coal cart on Clepington Road, c. 1911

Whilst adding information to Flickr, I check to see if any other photographs from the collection could be added. There are a few, but sadly many are unidentified. There are a couple which could be worked out using a bit of research. For example, I’m pretty sure this is the MacKenzie family who were related to the Strachan’s through Peter’s Cousin Betsy Ogilvie Cochrane (the mother in the picture is possibly her daughter Mary). They are the only family who had a daughter, then three sons, and then another child. But whilst the pattern and ages fit, there is no sure fire way of knowing. This could be another family I have yet to discover or possibly even just some friends of the family. But this isn’t the picture that interested me most.

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Pictures in the Strachan Collection (Ref: GD/X256)

The most interesting picture was in a small folded frame. Its kept closed with two little hooks on the side. When you open it out, one side is filled with a plush velvety sort of material, which acts as a cushion. The picture is on the right hand side. Its in a golden arch frame and set behind some glass. Sadly its a bit faded and has been tarnished – the glass and the cushion have not been able to protect it from everything. The picture itself is of a young couple, we look to be in their 20s or early 30s. Its got a mirror like quality, and when you move it, the image turns from positive to negative. Plus its heavy, really heavy. At first I thought this was the frame but I’m pretty sure its the picture itself.

Now if you are a photographic expert you may have guessed what I’m about to tell you. This is no ordinary picture. From descriptions I am pretty sure this is a Daguerreotype – one of the earliest forms of photography popular in the 1840s and 1850s. The metal plate, the mirrored surface, the little cushioned frame, the glass cover and the negative look all point to this type of photography. If we look at the picture more closely the style of clothes fits in with this. The cut of the woman’s dress, the style of her hair and the size of the man’s bow tie all suggest to me 1850s or 1860s. But with nothing distinctive will we ever figure out who this is?

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The image in it’s frame case.

My first thought was this this was a member of the Strachan family. In the collection there is a copy of a Burgess Ticket for a James Strachan dated 24th April 1802. Based on the estimated age of the daguerreotype and the people in it, they were probably born between 1820 and 1840, so this could be the next generation. But none of the dates matched – everyone was either too old or too young. Plus the Strachan family seem to have all been carters. Daguerreotypes were expensive, so, although possible, its unlikely that they would have afforded to get a picture like this taken.

As when doing any research you should look back at what you know and what other people before you have found out. I took look back at the deposit file. These files are where we keep information about the person who gave us the records (the depositor), information about where they came from (context) and other information what happens to the collection, e.g. loans and conservation work. Sadly there is not much paperwork for this collection, but then that is not surprising with a small collection. It arrived at the Archives in 1993. The depositor’s husband was a descendant of the Cochranes and MacKenzies, and a distant cousin of the Strachans. Unfortunately we think she died some years ago. There is however a clue. There is a note about a framed photograph. It mentions the name Jean along with “insurance certificate we already have” and the name William Caithness. This puzzled me. Do we have a certificate for a lady? Is this Jean and William Caithness?

I searched our list of collections for anything relating to William Caithness. I found that in 1984 an insurance certificate was given to the Archives. It was issued to William Caithness for a ship named Jean and dated 1832. This was given to us by the same depositor. So was there a link or was it just a note that this woman had given us another document a decade earlier? As far as I could tell there was no connection between the Caithness family and the Strachans. Peter Strachan’s great uncle Thomas Paris did marry a Jean Caithness, but again the ages don’t match up. And there is no William in the family that I could find.

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William Caithness’ insurance certificate for the Jean (Ref: GD/X135)

So I turned my attention to the ship called Jean. After looking in the Shipping Register for the Port of Dundee, I found a ship called Jean. It was built for Alexander Paton, George Paton, William Caithness and Isabella Clark. This must be the one. It seems that William was married to Alex and George’s sister Isabella Anderson Paton. They were married in 1829. The had two children: a boy named George born in 1832 and a girl named Jean Ross in 1830. Is it a coincidence that the ship was launched in the same year his daughter was born? Jean, or Jeannie as she was also known, married David Brimer Hampton, a clerk at Monifieth Foundry, in 1859. Finally a date that matched. Does this mean that the picture is of Jean and her husband David. Is this what the note meant – this was a picture of the woman who had inspired the name of the ship? The daughter of a shipowner and a clerk are the sort of people who you might expect to have a daguerreotype wedding or engagement photograph.

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Is this Jean Caithness and her husband David Hampton?

The sad thing is we will probably never know who is in this picture, unless some relative gets in touch. (The couple had no children so its unlikely). As to the connection between the Caithness/Hamptons and the Strachans – I’m still puzzled. However as both families seemed to have connections to Monifeith, Carnoustie and Panbride it is possible there is a connection that I haven’t come across yet. On thing is for sure, this could well be the oldest photograph that we have in the archives, and for that it is to be celebrated – regardless of who it is in the picture.

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