A wonderful resource for family historians whose families lived in West Sussex north of the Downs 100 years ago has just been made searchable online by West Sussex Record Office.
This is the catalogue of photographic portraits of more than 7,600 former inhabitants of the area, which were taken by the photographer Walter Kevis of Petworth between c1876 and 1908.
Walter Kevis was born in 1854, in London, the son of James Kevis, a licensed victualler, and Harriet his wife.
At some time between 1861 and 1871, Harriet died, and it is likely the family household broke up.
James went into private service, and it may be that Walter went into service during that period.
In 1875 he was briefly in service at Petworth House as a footman.
He established himself in Petworth as a photographer in c1876. From the surviving negatives he produced, it seems likely that much of his time was spent in making portraits.
Kevis retired in 1908 and left his negatives in his studio in Lombard Street, Petworth.
The shop below was taken over by his nephew, Henry Earle, who carried on the tobacconist’s side of the business until his death in 1950.
After his death, the negatives were rescued by George Garland, himself a Petworth photographer.
When Garland died in 1978 the Kevis negatives were bequeathed to the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, as part of the Garland Collection, along with his own negatives.
The Kevis portraits have been indexed by Roy and Sheila Morgan, two long-standing volunteers at the Record Office, who undertook the long and arduous job with their customary dedication and efficiency.
Sheila then transferred the data onto a spreadsheet which could be transferred on to the computer system, and uploaded onto the internet.
Despite their uncertain history, the negatives are mostly in excellent condition, and the photography is of a very high standard.
The majority of the portraits are taken in Kevis’ studio, with his scenery and props, which were designed to give people something to lean on or hold onto, so they could keep absolutely still for the long exposure time needed.
The collection includes every rank of society, from Lord and Lady Leconfield at Petworth House to a workhouse inmate.
It includes more than 300 portraits of people in service at Petworth House, where Kevis himself was a footman for a short time, and a smaller number of portraits of servants in other great houses in the area.
Some of the servants were photographed in their livery or working clothes.
There are also portraits of soldiers and sailors, policemen and firemen, a post man and a nurse, all in their respective uniforms.
There is the sad portrait of Harriet Holden, the invalid daughter of John Holden, on her sick bed, probably shortly before she died in 1884, aged 23.
And there are even portraits of people’s pets – dogs, cats, and even Miss Daintry’s pet rat.
The only information we have about any of the subjects of the portraits is what was written on the envelope in which they were kept.
The information which has survived about each negative is variable, sometimes consisting only of a surname, or there may be a surname and a parish or house name, and a date.
It is hoped that as more people become aware of the collection, in many cases descendants will be able to add information about the subjects of the portraits.
For some lucky people, the Kevis Collection will give them their first opportunity to see the faces of their ancestors.
The Kevis Collection also includes more than 600 images which are not portraits. These include local views, objects, and groups such as wedding parties, schools, servants, and cricketers, The catalogues of these have also been added to the database.
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