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Old wedding photos posted in charity shops can hold a variety of secrets


Like many former brides, Charlotte Sibtain has a number of beautiful wedding photos in her London home.

Black and white and in all shapes and sizes, they make up an impressive montage of a day that is traditionally the happiest in a couple's life.

33-year-old Charlotte has been married for four years, but none of these photos show her own wedding.

Instead, they're snapshots of strangers' weddings – more than 400 in all – that she has lovingly collected over the years in antique shops, auto boot sales, and markets.

Sonya Diana Fleur Paynter on her wedding day in Eaton Square in St. Peter in December 1959. Pictured with stepfather Paull Hill

But Charlotte doesn't see them as people she has never met. "I may not know them, but they are still special to me," she says.

“They got married, they got dressed. Then those pictures were thrown away and thrown away.

"So I try to save them, take care of them and then give them back to their families in an ideal world."

Charlotte's hobby has led to her being referred to as a "wedding detective".

No wonder when you consider that their careful investigation has led to many discarded albums being reunited with enthusiastic relatives.

Her work has uncovered some heartwarming – and in some cases breathtaking – stories ranging from lifelong friendship to infidelity to murder, and has resulted in her being the subject of a three-part series on Radio 4.

"What I love about wedding photos and albums is that behind these people from decades ago there are people we can all identify with – the strange uncle, the grumpy bridesmaid, the over-excited mother of the bride," says Charlotte.

"I also like the fact that you can see in the photos what happened during that period – in times of war you can see signs of rationing and the fabric is more make-do."

Growing up in Brighton with her older sister, Charlotte has always had a lifelong love of history thanks to her parents who worked in education and were avid antique collectors.

She grew up in what she describes as “crammed with rafters” from old skates to old cameras and sewing machines, and spent many happy hours as a child at antique markets and selling car boots, a hobby that she continued into adulthood wore .

Charlotte Sibtain distributed a number of beautiful wedding photos in her home

Charlotte Sibtain distributed a number of beautiful wedding photos in her home

Her unusual collection started 15 years ago when, at the age of 18, Charlotte found a small stack of black and white wedding photos among postcards from the 1970s in a dusty corner of an antique market in her hometown.

"They were simple examples of weddings in the 1940s and 1950s, and very typical of the time – you could even say they were inconspicuous," she says.

“But for me everyone was unique and special: the clothes, the flowers, the venues, the guests. Each picture told its own story. & # 39;

In addition, she came from a family where photos are valued and kept in "countless" albums, and was saddened by the way those images had drifted away.

"I thought it was such a shame that they were thrown away somewhere in their box, unnoticed and not looked at," she recalled.

"So I bought three and framed them and hung them on my wall."

Little did she know this was the beginning of a long-standing passion: Charlotte now has hundreds of vintage photographs and wedding albums in her southeast London home, chased from charities and flea markets to car boot sales.

From the 1920s to 1960s, all human life is here, from the four great prints of a wealthy family wedding in the & # 39; Roaring Twenties & # 39; – all velvet and fur and gaiters on the groom's shoes – to a snapshot of a 1910 working class wedding with the family on dining room chairs on a carpet in the middle of the street.

Her detective work began when she discovered that one of her albums from the 1950s had the names of the bride and groom inscribed on the front. This inspired Charlotte to track down and hand over her descendants in north London.

"They were stunned at first because they hadn't seen it in more than 20 years and had no idea how it got lost, but they were so excited to see it," she recalls.

“I thought this might be something I could do more often. But it's hard because there is so little information. & # 39;

It's certainly not an easy task: often armed with something other than a hastily scribbled date or wedding location on the back of a photo that has peeled off an album – or sometimes just the name of the bride or groom – that Charlotte often does had to piece together tiny fragments of information and use her instincts.

Since that first reunification, she has tracked down more families through local libraries, censuses, and newspaper archives, each with its own compelling story – though arguably no more gripping than the one behind the two photos she accidentally pulled from a pile earlier this year and those in the first episode of the three-part Radio 4 series.

One was marked with the name of a local press agency and bore the name of the wedding venue, St. Peter's Church in the London borough of Belgravia, while the other was labeled “Paull” on the back – written with two prominent “ls”. and Sonya, the "incredibly glamorous" bride.

Sonya Diana Fleur Paynter on her wedding day with Timothy (Tim) in December 1959

Sonya Diana Fleur Paynter on her wedding day with Timothy (Tim) in December 1959

The photographs reeked of Hollywood glamor and turned out to be appropriate high society, the wedding of Timothy and Sonya Bryant in December 1959.

Little could Charlotte have known that she would uncover a lead from it that led her to West Cornwall, and an extraordinary story with Einstein, Marconi, landed gentry in decline, infidelity and a murder trial.

Sonya was the granddaughter of Colonel and Ethel Paynter who owned Boskenna House in West Cornwall, a mansion and 2,000 acre estate that became a magnet for the rich and famous in the 1920s and 1930s and the inspiration for the coming of the Author Mary Wesley was. Age novel The Camomile Lawn.

Boskenna's attraction was so great that guests like Lawrence of Arabia, Albert Einstein and D. H. Lawrence were drawn in as well as the Italian radio pioneer Marconi, who is said to have fallen in love with Sonya's mother Betty.

Years later, Betty would be embroiled in another drama when Paull Hill – her second husband and the man who proudly walked 19-year-old Sonya down the aisle in 1959 – was accused of murdering his wife's much younger lover.

Scandalously, at the age of 61 she had started an affair with Scott Tuthill, who at 25 was 36 years her junior.

According to court reports from that period, Scott died in 1979 after being shot in the leg by a 12-hole shotgun – fired by Paull after attempting to confront Betty at her home.

In his subsequent trial, Paull pleaded for self-defense – and the jury believed him.

"The jury was only absent for an hour before the foreman gave the judge the 'not guilty' verdict," says Charlotte.

Hill walked out of the court door from the dock. He said, "I would do it again without the slightest hesitation." & # 39;

The discovery made her "stagger", she admits.

“We went from a detailed picture of a couple in a church in 1959 to the golden age of a Cornish country house. And then we come to a murder, ”she says.

Brian and Jean Staddon were married in September 1959 at Windsor Parish Church

Brian and Jean Staddon were married in September 1959 at Windsor Parish Church

What happened to Betty's daughter Sonya? She and her husband Tim had two sons, the first of whom was born a year after the wedding.

But their relationship must have collapsed quickly because Tim remarried seven years later. He died in America in 1997 at the age of 67. Sonya died in 1998 at the age of only 58.

Charlotte has since returned the photo to the two sons of Timothy and Sonya, who did not want to participate in the documentary.

Not all of the stories Charlotte unraveled turned out to be quite dramatic, but they are certainly enticing and heartwarming, like George and Kathleen Sewell's wedding in Deptford in June 1952.

Charlotte found her wedding album at a charity shop a few years ago and it has long been one of her favorites.

“It was put together so lovingly, with these really beautiful photos of this very smiley happy couple, along with some wedding telegrams and honeymoon receipts.

It gives a real impression of the couple they were, ”she says.

After obtaining her marriage certificate, Charlotte was able to determine that the 36-year-old bride was a nurse, while her older 52-year-old groom had marked his job as a "film director".

"That caught my eye," says Charlotte.

In fact, George was something of a pioneer: in the unlikely setting of the World War I trenches, a passion for moving images was born when he volunteered at the age of 18 and in the London regiment to play background music on the piano as a silent film was shown to entertain the troops.

By 1932 he had written the first book on amateur films.

In the same decade, he founded the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, an organization that continues to this day.

George and Kathleen Sewell's wedding in Deptford in June 1952

George and Kathleen Sewell's wedding in Deptford in June 1952

He was so valued by his peers that after his death in 1971 at the age of 72, he received a glowing obituary in MovieMaker magazine.

"George is dead – it seems unbelievable since he's on the movie scene as long as there's a movie scene," the obituary said.

"In fact, he was the leader of the small group they founded back in the 1920s."

In addition, some of his films have survived to this day, including a short film entitled The Gaiety Of Nations about the origins and effects of World War I.

"It was made 91 years ago, but it shows real expertise and love for the medium," says Charlotte. "It was a tingling sensation to see it."

After the war, George became a journalist and professional director, while he and Kathleen continued to live in the Middlesex house they had moved to when they married.

Unfortunately, since the couple had no children, after Kathleen's death in 2013 there was no one to take ownership of their album, which, like so many others, was likely lost due to house evictions.

Charlotte could not find any living relatives and eventually turned the album over to the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers.

"It felt like the place to be and I think George would have loved it," she says.

It also found a home for the wedding album of Brian and Jean Staddon, who were married in Windsor Parish Church in September 1959 and whose pictures were taken by a well-known local photographer, Kingsley Jones – a useful starting point for research.

Like Kathleen and George, the couple had no children, but after Charlotte learned Brian had died in Weymouth in 2017, she contacted the funeral directors who had organized his funeral and was put in touch with Philip and Maureen de Havilland who made the arrangements and turned out to be the couple's best friends of 40 years.

Charlotte learned the story of their enduring friendship, which began in 1977 when Brian and Philip both worked as prison officers in a Portland prison.

The couples loved socializing, while Jean and Brian had lovingly sponsored two of de Havillands' daughters.

"Jean had both made wedding cakes and decorated their wedding car," says Charlotte.

It was the de Havillands who asked Jean to join her and Brian on a valedictory cruise on the QE2 after learning she had terminal gastric cancer in 2006, and the de Havillands continued to care for her after her death the following year about her widower.

"They were best friends who were more like family," says Charlotte.

Brian and Jean just came across as nice, ordinary people who were so in love to the end – and giving their friends their wedding album seemed like the right thing to do.

They were so pleased to have it. & # 39;

And although she confides that parting with her photos can be difficult, she still hopes to do it several times in the future.

"You will be bound," she admits. "At the same time, I don't see myself as their owner, but as their manager."

With the rapid pace of technological advances, there is of course every chance that the wedding album will be a thing of the past in due course as young newlyweds increasingly store their memories on their laptops and cell phones.

"It kills me to say it, but it definitely puts less emphasis on albums – though I think people still like to have a framed photo or two in their house," says Charlotte.

Either way, she has a message for the newlyweds who are going to collect their prints from the developer.

"I really encourage everyone to label their photos," she says. "Someday someone will thank you for it."

The second of three parts of The Wedding Detectives can be heard on Radio 4 at 11 a.m. today.

Last week's episode can be found on BBC Sounds.

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