by Sam McBride

A Facebook group I regularly participate in is a forum for discussion and analysis of the content of old family photographs. Participants include people with knowledge of clothes, hairstyles and other clues to help identify the approximate year the photo was taken.

I have long been curious about a photo that was in my grandfather E.E.L. “Ted” Dewdney’s memorabilia with no identification except information on the back of the print saying it was taken at a Victoria, B.C. studio. I checked online and saw that the studio was in operation periodically between the 1860s and 1890s.

\above: unidentified lady in two copies of this photo that are among Ted Dewdney’s memorabilia. Below: back side of print shows the name and address of photographer

There were actually two copies of the printed photograph in Ted’s material, which led me to suspect the lady was of substantial importance to Ted. As his mother, Caroline Leigh Dewdney (1851-1885) died when Ted was just four years old, I thought the lady in the photo may have been her. I have no identified image of my great-grandmother Caroline, who was often referred to in family papers as “Carrie”. Her father William Leigh (1815-1884) was born in Warwickshire, England, and arrived in Victoria as an employee of the Hudson Bay Company in about 1855. His wife Matilida Capron accompanied him in the long journey from England to Panama, across to the Pacific, and sailing from there north to Victoria. Their four children with them included toddler Carrie. William worked as a builder and farm manager before working for the City of Victoria as city clerk for 20 years until his death in 1884.

After I submitted the photo for consideration by the Facebook group, the first comment was that the image looks more like a painting than a photograph. It was probably painted in full colour and photographed by the studio. Several other respondent expressed agreement that it is an image from a painting. Estimates of the year of the painting, based on clothes and hair, were in the 1840s, before Carrie was born. That led someone to suggest that perhaps the lady was Carrie’s mother Matilida, who I also have no identified images for. An intriguing thought. The lesson is to be careful not to go too far in assuming things in family history.

One of the Facebook commenters took the time to colourize the photo I posted. I have been hesitant to colourize or otherwise Photoshop my old family black and white photos because of concerns with authenticity, but I must admit this looks pretty good.

I was in Victoria for a vacation recently, and happened to be staying at a hotel on James Bay, close to Dallas Road where the Leigh and Dewdney families lived in the pioneer years of the city. I imagined the lady in the photo being on the same beaches and pathways you see there still today. And perhaps residing in, or visiting, one of the heritage houses that go back well into the 1800s.

This is my great-great-grandfather William Leigh (1815-1884). My suspicion now is that the lady in my unidentified photos may be his wife Matilda Capron Leigh. Based on analysis of clothes and appearance, it is NOT his daughter Carrie Leigh Dewdney.