I make no excuses for the title; if it bears any semblance to a well-known book and play by the author Mark Haddon it is purely deliberate.
Just recently I logged onto the Newcastle’s Classic photos page on Facebook and came across this photograph dating back to round about the late 19th century. It shows a group of people waiting expectantly for some unknown reason. Most of the figures appear to be gazing up the street in anticipation, though it could well be that the person behind the camera had instructed the crowd in their pose. The lady at the back beside the wall appears to be biting her fingers with a look of apprehension on her face as she watches for someone or something to appear down the cobbled road. I thought maybe a visit from some dignitary was expected but surely, that being such a rare occurrence at the time such a visit it would have surely drawn greater crowds of people. One will never know the occasion of the scene. Nevertheless, the photo is a wonderful testament to the society of the day, a true reflection of the history of the people of Newcastle upon Tyne.
As the city expanded and the population increased, travelling down towards the quay side were rows of rundown lowly buildings, well past their best, inhabited by ordinary folks who rented individual rooms to house their often large families. The buildings themselves, were most often the remnants of houses abandoned when the gentry and more affluent members of the time moved away to the more pleasant suburbs; away from the overcrowding; away from he stench of the working river. The dwellings left behind quickly became slums, as families too large for the individual rooms struggled to live in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. Families consisting of mum and dad and ten, fifteen or up to twenty children was not unusual. Neither was the fact that some families with more than one room dwellings often rented out one of the rooms to a couple of lodgers to compliment their lowly wages. How different to our world today.
It was only when I looked further at the buildings and focused on the figures that I became intrigued as to why they were standing there waiting. Back in those days people had to stand posed for quite a while before the photograph was taken: I couldn’t imagine many children today staying still for so long. Photograph wasn’t available for everyone, yet here was a street scene that could have been taken right off the page of a Dickens’ novel. As I further scanned the photograph I was taken aback by the curly-haired youngster standing in the foreground. She was so familiar I felt I knew her. But how could that be? I may be getting on a bit, but I certainly wasn’t around a hundred plus years ago. Where had I seen her before? Could I have seen this photograph previously but forgotten about it? I didn’t think so. The girl did seem familiar yet I didn’t recall the buildings. Maybe I was imaging it, but I did feel like I knew this girl from somewhere.
I wondered, did I have a copy of this picture amongst my own? Maybe I had a copy in my family tree or in a folder waiting to be added into my family history album. It was then that it occurred to me that this young girl closely resembled myself at a similar age, a face I remember seeing in a photograph taken by my Dad in my granddad’s garden when I was about twenty months old. I remembered the photograph being in my cupboard so I dug out the box and trawled through the old pictures until eventually I found what I was searching for. Yes, the young girl looked a bit like me as I’d thought but on closer examination I was confronted with could only be described as my doppelgänger, which was quite a shock. I told myself it was just my imagination: but closer examination with a magnifying glass confirmed what I had initially thought might be a slight resemblance was anything but. Those two pictures could have been of the exact same person. Yet more than a hundred years separated them. Both girls look well fed and cared for, especially the girl in the oldest of the two photos. In comparison, Some of the other children looked a bit unkempt, were barefooted and looked a bit grubby.
I was intrigued, I copied both the photographs, cropped the old one and put the two figures next to each other.
The result took my breath away. Maybe it was just a coincidence, maybe it was just a trick of the camera creating the resemblance, so I dug through more photos and there near the bottom of the box was another picture of me that also mirrored this girl from so long ago.
This set me to thinking, who had that young girl been? Could she have been one of my ancestors? The photo was taken somewhere in old Newcastle where my great grandparents had lived. In fact, my paternal Nanna had been born in Nunn Street, almost in the centre of the town so there is every possibility that there is a family connection. Who could this girl have been? Perhaps I will never know, but one day I will find the time to do some research, hopefully finding out the reason the people are standing there, and from that find out her identity.
And so, thereby begins the tale of,
‘The Very Curious Incident of the Girl in the Photograph’