I often like to research my family history using the Ancestry website, I have dipped in and out of it for years but put the most work into it in around 2014. I asked my Grandad and my mum to send photographs of my ancestors; I’ve got a particularly memorable one of my Grandmother as a young woman sitting on a wall in the 1950’s in a huge beautiful purple skirt, surrounded by flowers. She’s smiling and the sun is shining, it just feels really joyful. I have another of my Grandad’s mother, Johanna, with a big smile on her face, hairstyle typical of the time and small round spectacles. Many times I’ve looked into Johanna’s face to see if I can discern her character and personality. I also took photographs of objects and memorabilia that my mum and dad had at home, such as a watch that belonged to a Great Grandfather I never met, given to him to mark his retirement. I wanted to build a fuller picture of their lives and imagine the extended family members I never met. I was searching for characteristics that might in some way help me form my own identity, although at the time this motivation isn’t conscious. I would search for addresses on Google Maps to see if their houses still existed and researched the history of the areas. I loved looking at the hand written census information and trying to decipher Victorian hand writing. It was even a thrill to see evidence of those who were living and who I’d met, even birth records of my parents or brothers, marriage certificates and more. I think there’s an aspect to it of validating memories – of solidifying and evidencing my existence. There’s also this idea that someone in the future could look back at our names, my name, as part of their research and it could have some meaning to them.
One thing I always look forward to discovering is my ancestors occupations. One was an Umbrella Hawker in Victorian London, which I took great pleasure in imagining. Another was a brick layer, and another a hatter – almost entirely working class occupations.
When researching my Great, Great Grandfather on my mums side I discovered a potential source. My Great Grandmother was called Johanna Dixon, my Grandfather knows little about his own Grandparents (Johanna’s mum and dad) so was unable to confirm whether this could be accurate or if these people were my ancestors. After checking names and calculating dates and birthdays I decided there were too many similarities to rule this source out completely. From the source I could see that the family lived in Widnes, which is in Cheshire in between Warrington and Liverpool. Moses Dixon was the head of the household aged 50 in 1901, his wife Johanna was aged 42 and they had a few children including John, aged 14. Both John and his father Moses worked as ‘soap works labourers’ (see screen shot below). I researched soap factories in Widnes around 1901 and instantly found William Gossage and Sons – in 1850 William Gossage moved to Widnes to establish an alkali works. Following an experiment of adding sodium silicate to soda ash, he discovered he could produce soap at a much lower cost than by the methods existing at the time. In 1855 William Gossage gave up making alkali to set up a soap works as William Gossage and Sons. Shortly after he started to add pigments to the soap, producing mottled soap which became extremely successful commercially under the brand name of Gossage.
I deduced that it was very likely that Moses and John Dixon, my potential ancestors, probably worked at Gossage’s Soap Works. Whilst researching the factory and looking for photographs of the area, I stumbled across a free BFI film of factory workers leaving the very same factory, from the same year the census was taken (1901). I was completely transfixed.
The film is 1 minute 25 seconds long, black and white, silent and titled:
Workers Leaving Gossage’s Soap Works, Widnes (1901)
Widnes workers take a well-earned dinner break.
The description beneath the video read:
These mesmerising scenes were captured outside soap and chemical manufacturers William M. Gossage and Sons. Located on the west Bank of the St Helen’s Canal in Widnes, the company was responsible for around half of all of the UK’s international soap trade at this time. Unlike most ‘factory gates’ films, which show only building exteriors, this one gives us a glimpse of the glass-roofed interior.BFI
Initially, I couldn’t believe my luck. I hurriedly sent the video to my mum explaining the context of the research. The thought going through my head upon watching it the first time was ‘two of these men could be my ancestors’. There are so many people in the video, so I watched it a number of times with the same thought in my mind, analysing faces for recognisable features (although realising this would likely be fruitless). I assumed Moses and John wouldn’t have been one of the better dressed, higher class gentleman with chains hanging from their waistcoat pockets or bowler hats, and were more likely to be one of those donning flat caps. I wondered which of the younger men could be aged 14, and looked to see if any of them leaving looked like a father and son headed in the same direction. The tags that the BFI have listed beneath the video include Gossage’s Soap Works, Factory workers, Women workers, Child labour and Soap. I realised that the film had historical significance in addition to my personal significance.
Over the next few weeks I watched the film over and over again. My fascination with it hasn’t subsided. Each time I watch it, I see something new. It’s such a short but busy film. I see people bumping into each other to look at the camera. I see a young boy handing out newspapers at the gates. I notice stained white aprons, white smocks and trousers and what the few women who are present are wearing, how they wore their hair. How the first few people run out of the factory gates, evidently impatient to get home or very hungry. Two men lean against a wall smoking a pipe and keeping an eye on the crowd and another on the camera. Many men hold the same box with a handle – did these hold work tools or food? One man playfully taps another on the shoulder, maybe they were friends. Maybe neighbours. I start to imagine them working side by side and considering the working conditions. I look into the background of the frame and see people coming out of a door on the right hand side or from around the corner. They are silhouetted and behind them I see large containers or carts inside the factory. Above them are lamps and a glass roof. One boy mindlessly and habitually holds a piece of paper or card to his mouth and plays with it nervously. People congregate either side of the gate, and frame the shot. Some children can’t contain their curiosity and come for a closer look at the camera. The look on their faces is one of amusement and bewilderment as they look to those around them for confirmation of what’s happening. I analyse the way people move. I see the tartan pattern on a boys flat cap. Some people are laughing at the camera. It’s very sunny, which you can see from the shadow cast on faces from flat caps and hats. Perhaps it was summer. They all appear to be wearing so many layers, they must have been so warm. Especially one young woman with a black shawl which she wore covering her hair and shoulders. I wonder how long their working days were and whether they were allowed holidays. I find it easy to imagine what the soap smelt like, and the tobacco smoke. And the heat, presumably freshly printed newspapers and the horses that pass by.
As well as the actual content of the film, I find myself ‘stepping into their shoes’ or trying to understand the scene from their perspective, I assume it was just one man (not a woman) and a hand-wound camera that they are all so fascinated by. Of course they were unlikely to have seen one before. In my final year of my Fine Art undergraduate course, I made a sculpture that looks like a Victorian camera. I crafted the handle out of wood and shaped it to comfortably fit my hand. I created a paper mechanism inside the main body of the camera that had the appearance of function. I feel compelled to move my arm as though I am the one shooting this footage in 1901 in Widnes, just as I did with the camera I made. I also imagined the steps and lives of the people after this scene, beyond the frame. Were their homes near by? What were they rushing back to eat? This footage feels really material – obviously it was shot on film or analogue and then digitised. It was produced when light hit the photographic film. Light from the same sun that warms my ankle as I write. The grainy texture of the image and slightly stilted movement contribute to the tactile materiality of it. I can easily imagine being there, filming this, smelling those smells, feeling the warmth of the sun and hunger, bemusement and impatience to get home. When I look at a still image of the film it feels as though the people are staring directly at me, it’s incredibly unsettling … I soon lost sight of what first made me watch this film, but simultaneously I’ve never felt closer to my past and the past of each of the soap work labourers in the film. I feel a great affinity. I become completely immersed and absorbed for 1 minute 25 seconds each time I watch this film, looking for details I may have missed before.