We are delighted to present a guest blog by Gretel McEwen, written in response to discovering her great aunt Gwenol’s photograph albums in our collections.
Behind the glass doors of Ceredigion Archives in Aberystwyth rest countless personal and family stories. They arrive in surprising ways and are meticulously catalogued and stored, awaiting their resurrection. My first ever visit to Aberystwyth, and I had come to see two forgotten pieces of my own family history, found by chance online – two photo albums put together with love by my Great Aunt Gwenol [ref. WP/5/8 and WP/5/9].
She was born a Satow, a fascinating and exotic family. Her father – Fedor Andrew Satow – was a judge in the court of appeals in Cairo, living six months of the year in Cairo and six months in Dolfriog Hall, Snowdonia.
His uncle, Ernest Satow, lived in Japan for many years and was head of the Japanese Embassy 1895 – 1900. He was famously accepted by his Japanese colleagues as an equal. Ernest took a common law Japanese wife of Samurai family, Takeda Kane – unable to officially marry as he was a British diplomat. Fedor, like his uncle, spent a few years working in the Japanese legation as young lawyer before taking up his Cairo appointment. He married my beautiful great-grandmother Adeline Akers-Douglas, daughter of the first viscount Chilston. A glamorous marriage and they had four daughters, the second of whom was my grandmother Joyce Adeline, born in Cairo.
As a child, visiting my grandmother, I absorbed the aesthetics of Japanese art. My Great Grandfather Fedor Satow, had been a collector of Japanese artefacts during his time at the legation in Tokyo, some of which my grandmother inherited. I bathed bronze tortoises in the birdbath, admired the bronze koi carp with the ivory and ebony eyes and adored the tiny ivory netsuke carvings sitting on top of the desk. Many years later, in a twist of fate, a turn of the Karmic wheel, my son decided to study Japanese, without being aware of our family connections, long archived in my childhood memories. He now practises as a bilingual lawyer, working between England and Tokyo, has married a Japanese woman and has two beautiful children – echoes of both his great-great-grandfather, Fedor Satow and his great-great-great-uncle, Ernest Satow.
In the summer of 2019 I began to explore my Satow family and its connections to Japan, for a textile project. I became immersed in photos; some borrowed from my cousin, others found online, a few in my existing albums, and of course the discovered albums in Ceredigion Archive. I wrote to Ania Skarżyńska, one of the archivists, explaining my interest in them. Her reply was warm, welcoming and interested, with an open invitation to visit the archive. In September my husband and I found ourselves in Aberystwyth, blown by autumn winds, salted by sea spray and hosted by a guest house reminiscent of classic seaside holidays.
What a moment, standing outside those glass doors of the archive, almost nervous about meeting my family again but in this new place. Such a warm welcome, and Ania so generous with her time and knowledge. The two albums had been deposited in the archive amongst a collection of Webley Parry family papers – the in-laws of my Great Aunt Gwenol’s husband David Heneker. First news flash! Gwenol was David’s second wife. I had never known this.
The next revelation was to meet my great-grandfather – I had never seen a photo of him. Fedor had died at the age of forty nine of septicaemia, leaving my great-grandmother at the age of thirty three with four young daughters, the youngest being a baby born in the year he died.
The albums through which I had browsed as a child showed my grandmother and her sisters playing in the garden, riding ponies and sitting in a dog cart, but the photos must have been taken after their father died. So Gwenol’s albums brought up powerful emotions. For the first time I came face to face with a man I had known through stories, but not pictures. He is sitting on a step in the garden, holding baby Gwenol and is clearly a delighted father.
There is also a photo of himself as a baby. The photographer’s plate reads H. Hoffer, Riga. So the family rumours that the Satows shared some Russian ancestry were true! Fedor’s family had certainly lived in Riga, when he was a baby – part of Imperial Russia at the time. I loved a picture of my great grandmother as a young woman sitting the garden at Dolfriog, with baby Gwenol in the family cradle.
I remember this cradle in my grandmother’s house. A calling card belonging to my great grandmother shows two addresses – Kass-el-Doubara, Cairo and Dolfriog, Penrhyn-Deudraeth, N. Wales. A story in itself of travels between Wales and Cairo twice a year, with young children. No small undertaking!
A very powerful experience to see the albums themselves. Childhood memories, half remembered stories told by people no longer here, all brought to life, made real. Ania suggested that I take photographs, promising to find time at some point to have the entire contents scanned and sent to me on discs. An extraordinary thoughtful kindness.
Those discs arrived recently and I was able to relive that wonderful morning in Ceredigion Archives meeting family through lost albums. I can now also share that experience with my own family so that they too understand their place in this family of exotic stories. Family stories and pictures give us a sense of belonging, of our place in history, of the roots of our identity. Thank you!