Scrapbooks of architectural photographs from various countries
- Wilson, George. Late 19th century. Folio 3.1

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The name and address were clearly legible, though I suspected the writing may be nearly 100 hundred years old. Who was George Wilson who lived at "The Poplars", Crockenhill, Swanley, Kent and why was I holding his scrapbook in my hands? Before I could even begin to answer the latter question, I knew I had to begin with the former. There was no date but I could search the national census entries for Crockenhill in Kent and hope that he had been living at The Poplars, sometime between 1841 and 1911. At first, I appeared to have hit a dead end. Online census transcriptions are not perfect but are usually good enough to be able to search by name, year and place which brings up a few choices. From there it is simply a matter of clicking through to the digitised original to check which entry contains the person you are looking for. In my case though, I was getting numerous hits for George Wilson in Swanley, far too many to check by eye, but none that were recorded at Crockenhill. I realised that I may need some more information on the place I was interested in. A search through trade directories for Kent revealed that Crocken Hill was a rural parish with a relatively low population. It also told me that it was the meeting place of several different parishes. This could partly account for my difficulty in finding it on the census. Now that I knew which parishes I was interested in, however, I could check them in turn to find Crocken Hill. When I found it, I could then read the entire return for the area and see if a Mr Wilson or a house called ‘The ‘Poplars’ surfaced. I won’t bore you with describing ecclesiastical districts, the archaic way they are arranged or the various problems with finding out where a geographic location is situated within a local government framework, but suffice to say when Mr Wilson finally surfaced in 1911 it was not a moment too soon.

The 1911 census was filled in by the head of the family rather than the census enumerator, and this turned out to Mr Wilson himself. As I looked at the elegant and fluid handwriting, I realised that I recognised it from the small sample I had from the flyleaf of the scrapbook. How strange to see the writing side by side after all this time! Now that I had found him however, would there be anything to tell me about why he assembled volume after volume of scrap books, filled with pages of detailed architectural images arranged with a careful eye and an exacting hand. The author had obviously had some knowledge of architectural history and when a resident lecturer here at York cast his eye over the volumes, he was more than impressed with the selective nature of the images. For example there is a page of French Gothic cathedral portals, all lined up side by side ready to be compared. Other architectural features are treated in the same way. This volume immediately spoke of purpose. It was as if Mr Wilson was creating a homemade reference book rather than simply collecting images. As I read the census return, my speculation seemed to be confirmed. The details from the 1911 census give us the following information about George and his family:

Name and surname Relationship to head of the family Age Marital status Profession
William Alphonsus Wilson Head 77 Married Retired surveyor
Clara Wilson Wife 70 Married
George Wilson Son 44 Single Modeller and draughtsman in an architectural modelling firm
Clara Wilson Daughter 43 Single Artist working on own account at home
Ruth Wilson Daughter 42 Single

I had been luckier than I expected. Here perhaps was the answer to my question about the purpose of the Wilson volumes, and why George seemed to have such an in depth interest in architectural history. Perhaps these were volumes he referred to when making his models or drawing up his designs? How they ended up in York is still a mystery, nor do we know why George and his sisters were still unwed in their forties. To have all three children unwed in the early 20th century was certainly unusual. We may well find out more about this family in the future but for now it is very satisfying to track down the George Wilson who put his signature in this scrapbook all those decades ago.

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Elizabeth Carter, Digital York