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Friday, 6 May 2022

Ten Years to Identify My Mystery Photo - Sepia Saturday

"Unknown Faces" is the theme of this week's Sepia Saturday prompt, and here I relate  how it took me ten years to identify the photograph below. 

For over 10 years I puzzled over  "Who is this striking family group?"   The photograph mounted on heavy dark card,  came to me in 2001 from  my great aunt Jennie Danson,  of Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire.    Unlike many of Jennie's photographs, she had not written anything on the back - perhaps because of the dark mount, and there was no photographer's name and address  to indicate where it had been taken   But it  must surely be of one of of my great grandmother's sisters - Anne, Jane, Alice, or Jennet?  The composition of the family and ages of the children ruled out Anne, Jane or Jennet. So was  this Alice and James Mason and family?   This was a mystery.

Alice's Background 
All the research into my mother’s Danson and Rawcliffe families showed them to be very firmly based in the Fylde area of north west Lancashire around the settlements of Poulton-le-Fylde, Fleetwood and Blackpool.

Alice was born in 1853 in the village of  Hambleton, near Fleetwood, the fourth  of eight daughters (five surviving infancy) of Robert Rawcliffe and Jane Carr.  In the 1871 census, she was a 17 year old domestic servant at the home of Thomas Shepherd.   Two years later Alice  married John Mason, son of Robert Mason and Elizabeth Jolly. 

The 1881 census saw the family living in Fleetwood, Lancashire, where John was   a general labourer with four children - Robert William, aged 7, Jane Elizabeth 5, John Thomas 3 and baby James Richard,  9 months - their names all reflecting those of extended family members.  A second daughter Margaret was born in 1882 christened Margaret Alice - the reverse of her mother's names.

There the trail ran cold.  I had been unable to trace the family in the 1891 and 1901 censuses, but had not investigate any further.    

The American Discovery 
It  came as a complete surprise when  a casual browsing of Rawcliffes on Family Search resulted in an  entry for Alice Mason née Rawcliffe (1853-1930) with the statement that she had died  in  Jamesburg, Middlesex County, New Jersey - the first time I was aware of any potential American connection.  All the information fitted with "my Alice" - dates, names, places etc. 

I was keen  to find out more about my first known emigrant. ancestors.  

American Research 
I boosted my Ancestry UK subscription for a short term, so I could access American records. The results:
  • The  New York Passenger Lists on Ancestry revealed  that James Mason had emigrated from Liverpool in 1886, joined a year later by Alice, aged 34  and now with six  children aged from  13 to 1 year (plus two pieces of baggage).   How on earth did she cope on the voyage?  This was the first revelation too  of another son George Rawcliffe Mason, born in 1885 in Fleetwood.  

  • Between 1888 and 1898, Alice had a further five children, born in the USA - Arthur Valentine (born appropriately 14th February 1888), Harold Arthur Victor, Lillian Eveline, Bessie Irene and the youngest Florence Adelaide - their names in sharp contrast to the family names of their siblings, born in England.  Arthur, Bessie and Lillian sadly all died in infancy. Were  the crowded living conditions in Brooklyn, New York a factor here? 
  • The family took out US citizenship in 1895.  
  • The 1900 census for the City of New York, Brooklyn showed a large Mason household of ten living at 72 Hall Street in what was probably an apartment building with four other families at the same address.  John was described as an insurance agent.
  • The 1910 census for New York found the family still on  Hall Street,  Brooklyn, with John working as a labourer at the Customs House. 
  • At some point the family moved  across the river to Jamesburg, New Jersey. The 1920 census saw a depleted household with John and Alice, now both 66, with their eldest and youngest daughters (Jane  and Florence) and widowed son Robert with  his baby son, also Robert.  

The  Search for my America Long-Lost Cousins
 My early research had been in  the days when Family Search gave contact details of the submitter of the information, so I wrote away.  Frustratingly my letter was returned "Not known at this address.   I put enquiries on various message boards but with little success.  I did get one potential positive response  of a connection, but my request for more details was ignored.
Then I set up my blog in 2010  and posted about my mystery photograph.   A year  later came SUCCESS!!  The granddaughter of Florence Mason (the young girl in the top photograph) was pointed to my blog by another relative.  She got in touch and she had the very same photograph  as mine,  but mounted with the name of a photographer in Brooklyn, New York.

We  exchanged e-mails, photographs and information of our ancestors down the generations and remained  in touch with one another until Bonny's sad recent death.
This discovery meant a lot to me, as Bonny's contribution added a new dimension to my family history and  gave a tremendous boost   to my blogging activity.  Her relations are still in touch through my Facebook page. 


John Mason (Alice's husband)  with his youngest daughter, Florence

It was special to receive a later photograph of the Mason family (below)  with all eight surviving children. 

Top - Robert, Jenny (Jane Elizabeth), Mother Alice, Father John, Harold
Bottom - Thomas (John Thomas), Alice (Margaret Alice), Florence, George and James
Alice died in 1930 and John 7 years later, both buried in Fernwood Cemetery, Jamesburg, New Jersey.

So it is all thanks to the power of the Internet and of blogging, that my mystery photograph was eventually identified and I discovered the story of my first emigrant ancestors.
 It pays to be patient in family history research!  
If only I could discover why the Mason family  took this step of adventure from the small Lancashire coastal community of Fleetwood to the teeming streets of New York, along with researching  the story of my other American cousins.   That will be my next challenge!      
Adapted from posts first published in 2011-2013.  

Sepia Saturday gives bloggers an opportunity to share their family history through photographs.

Click HERE to read tales from other Sepia Saturday bloggers


  1. Wonderful story of finding the names for that photo, and then gaining another great one of all the family. I often get contacted for information but don't have any answers for the ancestors I've identified through other sources.

  2. Genealogy is not for the impatient. TY for sharing your inspiring story.

  3. I agree, the internet and blogging can be very helpful in solving mysteries from the past. Sometimes clues and answers can suddenly turn up when you least expect them. I find I'm still making new discoveries in old albums I inherited 10+ years ago, as just learning one little thing about someone or something may also be the key to more.

  4. Well done. I've had similiar experiences finding names from identical photographs in two different places.

  5. Wow, what a remarkable endorsement for blogging as part of one's family history research. I have also had cousins reach out and share research and photographs after finding my blog -- and was able to connect my Welsh-Irish cousins for a family reunion in 2017. I wish blogging was a better appreciated avenue for making connections. Your post ably shows the value.

  6. What a super detective story, Sue! Even though the age of the internet has opened new archives for family research, there are still many hurdles and obstacles to overcome before some puzzles can be solved. And Immigration is one of those big challenges to work out. I'm amazed how often some people traveled in past times. Recently while working on one identification puzzle with a common name I got lost in the archives of ship manifests, but because immigration officials required people to add the names and addresses of family/business contacts I was able to figure out that I had the right person.

  7. One heckuva sleuthing job! :) Well done. You have way more patience than I do when it comes to finding out who's who in unknown photographs. But as you've proven - patience is its own reward.

  8. Thank you all for your appreciative comments.


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