Found abandoned in charity shops, old wedding snaps can hold a host of secrets

Like many former brides, Charlotte Sibtain has a number of beautiful wedding photographs dotted around her London home.

Black and white, and in all shapes and sizes, they compose a striking montage of a day which, traditionally, is the happiest of a couple’s life.

Charlotte, 33, has been married for four years but none of these photographs is of her own nuptials.

Instead, they are snapshots of strangers’ weddings — more than 400 in total — which she has lovingly collected from antique shops, car boot sales and markets over the years.

Charlotte Sibtain has a number of beautiful wedding photographs dotted around her home

Charlotte Sibtain has a number of beautiful wedding photographs dotted around her home

But Charlotte does not see them as people she has never met. ‘I may not know them, but to me they’re still special,’ she says. 

‘They’ve got married, they’ve got dressed up. Then these pictures have been tossed away and discarded. 

‘So I try to rescue them, look after them and then, in an ideal world, give them back to their families.’

Charlotte’s hobby has led to her being dubbed ‘the wedding detective’. 

No wonder, considering her painstaking sleuthing has resulted in many a discarded album being re-united with delighted relatives.

Her work has uncovered some heart-warming — and in some cases eye-popping — stories, ranging from lifelong friendship to infidelity and even murder and led to her becoming the subject of a three-part series on Radio 4.

‘What I love about wedding photographs and albums is that behind these individuals from decades ago are people we can all identify with — the slightly odd uncle, the grumpy bridesmaid, the over-enthusiastic mother of the bride,’ Charlotte says.

‘I also like the fact that when you look at the photographs you can tell what has been going on during that period — in wartime you can see evidence of rationing and the dress fabric is more make-do.’

Brought up in Brighton alongside her older sister, Charlotte has always had a lifelong love of history courtesy of her parents, who worked in education and were avid antique collectors.

She was raised in a house she describes as ‘stuffed to the rafters’ with everything from ancient ice skates to old cameras and sewing machines, and spent many happy hours as a child at antique markets and car boot sales — a hobby she carried into adulthood.

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

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

Her unusual collection was kick-started 15 years ago, when, then aged 18, Charlotte found a small stack of black-and-white wedding photographs nestled between some 1970s postcards in a dusty corner of an antique market in her home town.

‘They were simple examples of 1940s and 1950s weddings and very typical of the time — you could even say they were unremarkable,’ she says.

 ‘But to me, it felt each one was unique and special: the dresses, the flowers, the venues, the guests. Each picture told its own personal story.’

Moreover, coming from a family where photos are treasured and kept in ‘countless’ albums, she was saddened by the way these pictures had been cast adrift.

‘I thought it was such a shame that they’d ended up discarded in their box somewhere, unappreciated and not looked at,’ she recalled. 

‘So I bought three and framed them and put them up on my wall.’

Little did she know it would be the start of a longstanding passion: Charlotte now has hundreds of vintage photographs and wedding albums in her South-East London home, hunted down from charity shops and flea markets to car boot sales.

Ranging from the 1920s to the 1960s, all human life is here, from the four large prints of a wealthy family wedding in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ — all velvet and fur and spats on the groom’s shoes — to a snapshot from a working-class wedding dated 1910 which features the family on dining-room chairs placed on a rug in the middle of the street.

Her detective work began when she realised that one of her albums, from the 1950s, had the names of the bride and groom inscribed at the front — inspiring Charlotte to track down their descendants in North London and hand it over.

‘They were stunned at first because they hadn’t seen it for more than 20 years and had no idea how it got lost, but they were so thrilled to see it,’ she recalls.

 ‘It made me think this could be a thing I could do more often. But it’s hard as often there is so little information.’

It’s certainly no easy task: often armed with little other than a hastily scribbled date or location of the wedding on the back of a photograph which has come loose from an album — or sometimes just the name of the bride or groom — Charlotte has frequently had to piece together tiny fragments of information and use her instinct.

Since that first reunion she has tracked more families, using local libraries, censuses and newspaper archives, each one with their own compelling story — although arguably none more gripping than that behind the two photographs she pulled at random from a pile earlier this year and which featured in the first episode of the three-part Radio 4 series.

Marked with the name of a local press agency, one featured the name of the wedding venue, St Peter’s Church in London’s Belgravia, while the other was inscribed on the back with the words ‘Paull’ — spelt with a distinctive two ‘ls’ — and Sonya, the ‘impossibly glamorous’ bride.

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

Little could Charlotte have known that from this she would uncover a trail that took her to West Cornwall and an extraordinary story involving Einstein, Marconi, landed gentry in decline, infidelity and a trial for murder.

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 which was the inspiration for author Mary Wesley’s coming-of-age novel The Camomile Lawn.

Such was Boskenna’s allure that guests as distinguished as Lawrence of Arabia, Albert Einstein and D.H. Lawrence were all drawn there, as well as the Italian radio pioneer Marconi, who is said to have fallen in love with Sonya’s mother, Betty.

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

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

Years later, Betty would be caught up in another drama when Paull Hill — her second husband and the man who had proudly walked 19-year-old Sonya down the aisle in 1959 — was charged with murdering his wife’s much younger lover.

Scandalously, aged 61, she’d started an affair with Scott Tuthill who, at 25, was 36 years her junior. 

According to court reports from the time, Scott died in 1979 after he was shot in the leg by a 12-bore shotgun — fired by Paull after he tried to confront Betty at their house.

At his subsequent trial, Paull pleaded self-defence — and the jury believed him.

‘The jury was out for just an hour before the foreman gave the judge the ‘not guilty’ verdict,’ recounts Charlotte.

‘Hill walked from the dock out of the court doors. He said: ‘I would do it again without the slightest hesitation.’ ‘

The discovery left her ‘staggered’, she confides. 

‘We went from a picture with little detail of a couple in a church in 1959 all the way back to the golden age of a country house in Cornwall. And then we come to a murder,’ she says.

So what happened to Betty’s daughter Sonya? She and her husband, Tim, had two sons, the first born a year after the wedding. 

But their relationship must have broken down quickly, because Tim remarried seven years later. He died in America in 1997, aged 67. Sonya died in 1998, aged just 58.

Charlotte has since returned the photograph to Timothy and Sonya’s two sons — who didn’t want to take part in the documentary.

Not all the stories Charlotte has unravelled proved to be quite so dramatic, but they’re certainly enticing and heart-warming, like the June 1952 Deptford wedding of George and Kathleen Sewell. 

Charlotte found their wedding album in a charity shop several years ago, and it has long been one of her favourites.

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

It gives a real sense of the couple they were,’ she says.

The wedding of George and Kathleen Sewell in June 1952  in Deptford

The wedding of George and Kathleen Sewell in June 1952  in Deptford

After sourcing their marriage certificate, Charlotte was able to ascertain that the 36-year-old bride was a nursing officer, while her older 52-year-old groom had marked his profession as ‘film director’. 

‘That caught my attention,’ says Charlotte.

In fact, George was something of a pioneer: a passion for moving pictures had been forged in the unlikely setting of the World War I trenches, when, aged 18 and serving in the London Regiment, he had volunteered to play background music on the piano when a silent movie was screened for the entertainment of the troops. 

By 1932, he had written the first book on amateur film-making.

The same decade, he founded the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, an organisation that exists to this day.

He was held in such high esteem by his peers, that he was given a glowing obituary in MovieMaker magazine following his death in 1971 aged 72.

‘George is dead — it seems unbelievable as he has been part of the movie-making scene as long as there has been a movie-making scene,’ the obituary reads. 

‘In fact, he was the ringleader of the small group that started it way back in the 1920s.’

What’s more, some of his filmmaking also survives to this day, including a short film called The Gaiety Of Nations about the origins and effects of the Great War.

‘It was made 91 years ago but shows real expertise and love of the medium,’ says Charlotte. ‘It was spine-tingling watching it.’

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

Sadly, as the couple had no children, following Kathleen’s death in 2013 there was no one to take ownership of their album which, like so many others, was likely to have been lost through house clearance.

Unable to find any living relatives, Charlotte ultimately handed the album over to the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers. 

‘It felt like the right place to go and I think George in particular would have been pleased,’ she says.

She found a home, too, for the wedding album of Brian and Jean Staddon, who had married at Windsor Parish Church in September 1959 and whose pictures had been 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 learning that Brian had died in Weymouth in 2017, Charlotte contacted the funeral directors who had organised his funeral and were put in touch with Philip and Maureen de Havilland, who had overseen the arrangements and turned out to be the couple’s best friends of 40 years standing.

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

The couples loved to socialise together, while Jean and Brian had lovingly adopted the role of godparents to two of the de Havillands’ daughters.

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

It was the de Havillands whom Jean asked to accompany her and Brian on a valedictory cruise on the QE2 after learning in 2006 she had terminal stomach cancer and, following her death the following year, the de Havillands continued to look after her widower.

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

‘Brian and Jean just came across as lovely ordinary people who were so in love with each other until the end — and giving their friends their wedding album felt like the right thing to do. 

They were so pleased to have it.’

And while she confides that parting with her photographs can be difficult, she hopes nonetheless to do it many more times in the future.

‘You do become attached,’ she admits. ‘At the same time, I don’t think of myself as their owner but their custodian.’

With the rapid advance of technology there is, of course, every chance that in due course the wedding album could become a thing of the past, as young newlyweds increasingly place their memories on their laptops and mobile phones.

‘It kills me to say it but there is definitely less emphasis on albums — although I think people still like to have a framed photograph or two in their home,’ Charlotte says.

Either way, she has one message for those newlyweds picking up their prints from the developer. 

‘I really encourage everybody to label their photos,’ she says. ‘One day someone will thank you for it.’ 

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

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

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