The Abbotts: a snapshot of a very English family

Taken in November or December 1917, as the First World War raged in Europe, it offers a snapshot of life when millions of British families were changed forever. The three women, three children and three men ­pictured are all dead but their image lives on.

The unknown photographer has somehow captured the pride, courage, fear and hope holding a family together as they coped in uncertain times.

It was one of four photos exhibited at the gallery in central London called The Nation’s Family Album. Each image was chosen to show how families have evolved over generations, starting with the Abbotts and ending with families living in modern Britain.

In a collaboration with family genealogy site Ancestry, some 125,000 digitised photographs depicting British family life, prepared for the exhibition, which ended earlier ­ this year, can be seen online at – yet little was known about the Abbotts, until now.

A short caption identifies the man in ­ the uniform as Lance Corporal George Stanley Abbott, who was on his first home leave after fighting for three years in the ­ First World War. George wears a good ­conduct stripe on his uniform, an emblem of ­his fortitude.

Simon Pearce, family history expert for Ancestry, explains: “I can see that George had served several years and he had ­performed his duties well. He was in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, which at that time was based at the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.

“His cap badge really stood out for me. I can see his father is wearing the same badge on his lapel. That was a good way of showing family support for soldiers. For me, it shows his pride in his son. Our records show George had been gassed at Ypres in Belgium in 1915 but he survived.” Sadly, shortly after this picture was taken George was sent to Salonika in Greece, where he died of pneumonia on September 28, 1918.

Now, after weeks of research helped by Ancestry, the Daily Express can identify everyone in the photograph and tell the remarkable story of the Abbott Family, who lived at an ordinary terraced house at 3 Picardy Road in Belvedere, Kent, an aspiring suburb on the fringes of south-east London at that time.

Seated in the centre are George William Abbott and his wife Eliza-Ellen surrounded by seven of their eight children. An eighth child, Charlie, was born in 1897 but died in 1906 of unknown causes.

George was a labourer and bricklayer who spent many years building houses and is thought to have built his own home in Kent. Smartly dressed, he kept his moustache tidily groomed and evoked a sense of calm. The strain of those times is, however, more noticeable in the flawless features of his wife. She clasps her hands tightly and her smile looks a little tense as though she has much on her mind. In the Scouts uniform on the back row is Henry Abbott.

Gazing at the photo, his son, David, 89, tells the Daily Express: “Doesn’t my Dad look very smart in his Baden Powell uniform? The uniform has two white stripes which shows he was a patrol leader. I love his hat and he’s got a nice cheery grin on his face. He was born in 1900 at the turn of that century when there was so much change in the world with cars, trains and aeroplanes, which all fascinated him.

“Within three months of that photo being taken, he got his call-up papers and joined the Royal Flying Corps as a mechanic, working as an apprentice at Vickers in Erith in Kent. The corps became the Royal Air Force and ­ so he was a founding serviceman. During the war, he serviced seaplanes which were kept near Newhaven in Sussex. That was a very important job because the seaplanes played a vital role in the war.

“After the war, he was laid off from the RAF and went back to Vickers to complete his apprenticeship. I think he struggled to find work, like so many other men at that time. He went into the building trade.” In 1924, Henry married Lilian Somerscales, David’s mother, and their only child was born 10 years later. Next to Henry in the middle of the back row is Minnie, who was born in 1898 but died from Spanish flu in 1918. “She was only 20,” says David from his home near Chichester, West Sussex. “Her death came as a terrible blow to the family.”

Next to Minnie is Frank, born in 1903. Although only in his mid-teens, he is smartly dressed and bears an uncanny resemblance to his father. “He worked in south London in the non-ferrous metal trade,” says David. “They would get great piles of telephone wires and suchlike and put them in a furnace to burn off the covering and then you have copper, which was very sought after.

“He married a lady called Dorothy and they went to live in Welling in Kent. They adopted a girl as a baby. His wife died young in 1944 and he later moved to Margate and died in September 1981.” In the next row on the left is Ethel, who looks resplendent in her Red Cross Voluntary Aid detachment uniform. David says: “She was the eldest child and wanted to do her bit for the wounded. She probably worked in hospitals.

“If a Zeppelin dropped some bombs, she would have got involved helping the injured. She married an army officer after the war and they went to India, where he was posted. When they came back they split up and she didn’t remarry.” A smile spreads across David’s face as he recalls the two children at the front in the photo. They sit on a carpet with a bowl of flowers. John, the youngest in the family, is dressed in a sailor suit, which was also very popular then.

David explains: “He was too young to serve in the First World War, but obviously the impact of that period played a part in ­ his growing up as he saw his big brother going off to fight.

“He became a carpenter and then he and my father did painting and decorating. When my father got a job in a factory, John went on to build houses.

“John married and had three children and went to Australia as Ten Pound Poms to start a new life. He built his own home there and they had a good life.”

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Rose, sitting at the front in her party ­dress with a flower in her hair, was aged 11. “In the photo she looks a little shy,” smiles David. “I think that was the first photo of that kind she would have been in. It would have been very new to her.”

Rose became a pharmaceutical chemist. “At her first interview, she was told they weren’t expecting any women candidates but they agreed to give her an interview anyway.

She thought she would not get anywhere but after speaking to her they said she was the best candidate and she got the job as a dispensing chemist ­at a hospital.”

She married Cyril Emery in 1933 and ­had a son, Robert, in 1936. Her husband died of consumption in 1937 and she never remarried.

Summing up the Abbotts, David, who worked in horticulture, growing flowers for 60 years, said: “When I look at our family photo it replicates what was going on in thousands of families in Britain at that ­ time. They represented the working poor at that time.

“My grandmother brought each of the children up to be responsible for their next youngest brother or sister and this responsibility continued throughout their lives.

“For example, when Minnie died of Spanish flu, my father, for whom she had been responsible, was particularly affected, as Ethel had been when George died.

“There was a strong sense of duty instilled throughout the family. Each of the children improved themselves, generation by generation. We also suffered tragedies, but there was always hope.”

David married Marion Hughes, who died in 1995, and they did not have children.

“Thousands of people have seen our ­family at the gallery,” he says. “Now they also have the stories which bind our family history to this day.”

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