Category Archives: Heirlooms

After the Funeral? The Shipley Siblings and In-Laws (1893)

It’s rather battered – cracked down the middle, with cut corners and the left edge peeled off in a zig-zag flash – but this group portrait is among my most treasured family photos. It depicts several siblings from the Shipley family and their partners, taken in a back yard in 1890s Leicester.

All nine faces stare at the photographer’s camera; most of them look rather serious, one or two break out into a smile. I hop from one to the other, studying their faces and clothing. Was Uncle Fred as fearsome as he looked? Or Uncle Bill the joker of the pack? Had Uncle Harry’s new wife Sarah Bailey settled happily into the family? And how did Aunt Sarah manage to pinch her waist so tightly?

I was given this photo in March 1984 by Rosie Flude (nee Orchard), a distant cousin who wished me “best of luck in your hunt for the family tree”. Having discovered my enthusiasm for family history as a teenager, I was fortunate to meet Rosie and her sister Grace Cooke – then aged 78 and 89 respectively – in Grace’s terraced house in Aylestone, on the fringes of Leicester. We were generations apart, but over a cuppa one evening we shared stories and snippets about our Shipley forebears.

Why was this particular photo taken, I wonder? Rosie and Grace could only name a few of the faces in the group – including their parents, Sarah and Jack ­– but, with a bit of sleuthing, I think I’ve identified everyone. There are four siblings with their spouses – Frederick and Catherine ‘Kate’ Shipley, Sarah and John Charles ‘Jack’ Orchard, Harry and Sarah Shipley, and William Charles and Alice Elizabeth Shipley – together with their brother-in-law Albert Alletson Oldham.

The fact that Albert’s wife Ann Oldham is missing provides me with a vital clue; was this photo taken shortly after Ann’s funeral in June 1893, I speculate? Black dresses and black ties hint at a family in mourning. Comparisons with a couple of other family photos place this one in the early 1890s. And it looks like it might have been a June afternoon, warm enough for three of the men to remove their jackets outdoors.

I haven’t quite managed to pin down the back yard location but it’s most likely to be 6 Arnold Street, where the Orchards lived (and hence why they had the original photograph). That house has long been demolished but the configuration on old Ordnance Survey maps appears to align with the photo.

Having laid Ann Oldham to rest at Welford Road Cemetery, perhaps they’d come back to reminisce over a cup of tea? It seems curious to invite a photographer round to capture that particular moment – so maybe it was a week or two later – but I’m just so grateful that they recorded it for posterity. Even the neighbour was intrigued, sneaking a peek over the yard wall.

Alas, three of the Shipley siblings are absent from the photo, including Elizabeth Collis (my great great grandmother) who had been close to her late sister Ann Oldham. Their parents, William John and Ann Shipley, were still alive at this date but apparently not included in the gathering either. Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating glimpse of a significant family get together.

Archivists would be dismayed by the photograph’s condition. With its dog-earned corners and fault-line crack it has certainly seen better days. But let’s imagine it back in 1893, pristine and propped on Sarah Orchard’s parlour mantlepiece. Each time she wanders past, she can’t help but smile. Four generations on, and 130 years later, I too am captivating by it; as I wander around the group, from face to face, I feel a special connection with my Victorian family.

Ann Oldham (seated) and her sister Elizabeth Collis with their children in earlier times (c 1881)

Heirlooms: a patternmaker’s tool chest

A sturdy black patternmaker’s tool chest sits in the corner of my living room. It’s probably the largest heirloom that has made its way to me. Day to day, it doesn’t get any use – I’m not too handy in woodworking – yet I still get great pleasure from being its custodian. The tool chest embodies much about my Collis ancestors, many of whom worked as engineers’ patternmakers. Open up the lid and stories begin to emerge.

The tool chest, or many of the tools at least, originally belonged to my great great grandfather, Martin Collis (1853-1912); most of the chisels and planes inside are stamped ‘M COLLIS’. But it was his son – Martin Shipley Collis (1882-1951) – who probably made most use of it, working in the pattern shop at engineers AA Jones & Shipman and later as a self-employed patternmaker in partnership as Shipley & Collis. More of which shortly.

As a child, I remember the tool chest sitting in our garage – under cover and apparently under-used, even though my own father was a carpenter and joiner. A carpenter has need of hammers, screwdrivers and saws to make staircases, kitchens and cabinets. But inside a patternmaker’s chest you’ll find a very large number of specialised tools, particularly chisels and planes needed to shape and hone wooden models (or patterns) ready for casting in a foundry. So most of the tools in the chest – such as the spoon chisels shown above – have probably not been used since the 1920s.

Continue reading Heirlooms: a patternmaker’s tool chest

Heirlooms: getting started

In recent days of self-isolation, with more time than ever spent at home, I’ve found myself reflecting upon what might broadly be called heirlooms – objects around the house that were once owned, or created, by an ancestor that have somehow worked their way into my possession. None of these objects is intrinsically valuable, yet each carries with it a story from the past.

Inspired by The Pulse Glass – a book by Gillian Tindall that was serialised recently on Radio 4 – I’ve decided to take a closer look at heirlooms in a series of blog posts over the coming weeks. “Most of the objects that surround us, no matter how important in their time, will eventually be lost and forgotten,” writes Tindall, “But a select few, for reasons of sentiment and chance, conservation and simple inaction, escape destruction and gain new meanings.”

Continue reading Heirlooms: getting started

Martin Collis’ tool chest

Martin Collis toolchest collage

Lift the lid of the heavy tool chest and peer into the working life of Martin Collis. As an engineer’s pattern maker at a Leicester iron foundry, he fashions mahogany into models, ready for sand casting with molten metal. This is precise work, a task of fine tolerances and exacting standards: “measure twice, cut once”.

By scrimping his weekly wages, Martin populates the wooden chest with tools: dovetail and rip saws are inset into the lid, chisels, gouges and planes sit in the pull-out trays, with set squares and sharpening stones in the space below. As he hones his craft, his tools develop a familiar grasp – the turn of the gouge, the bite of the saw, the sweep of the plane.

He uses an odontograph to space the teeth on a gearwheel, juggling the geometry and jotting down his calculations in a battered notebook. He learns where to place the sprue and riser channels, so that the molten iron, bronze or aluminium flows freely. He develops an intuitive feel for shrinkage rates and machining allowances.

In the foundry they make a name stamp – and he wallops ‘M COLLIS’ into each boxwood handle. He’s in the pattern-making trade to stay.


Take a look at other examples of ‘Heirloom’ articles and suggestions for writing one yourself.