When Caroline Duncan drives around the Swan Lake area, she sometimes ends up back in 1912.
It’s a game of fantasy made vivid by the municipal archivist’s work cataloguing a massive photo collection taken by Anne Alice Girling, a photographer who moved to Swan Lake from England in 1912 and documented every aspect of life in young Saanich.
On Oct. 4, 100 years to the day since Girling’s family arrived on the Island, Duncan and Girling’s great-niece, Maureen Mackenzie, scanned through the prolific photographer’s work. The two women have gotten to know each other through the 916-image, 535-glass plate negative, 357-film negative and 24-print photo collection, which they continue to catalogue and discuss as Mackenzie uncovers new details from the family.
“We don’t always have this connection and looking through these, the family becomes very real to me,” Duncan said. “(Maureen) embodies all of the history. It brings all of the history completely to life.”
Girling was born in Suffolk, England in 1880 and studied photography at Woolwich Polytechnic before immigrating to Canada with her parents and seven siblings. She was a tiny woman – just four-foot-seven. She never married and kept a close relationship with her family, with whom she lived her entire life.
“If Annie was here, we’d ask what it was like coming over to Canada, but we don’t need to because we can see right here, with all of it documented, the life that she had through her photographs,” Duncan said.
From 1912 until 1940 Girling shot still lifes, captured quiet moments in nature and experimented with adding colour to the glass negatives. Her photos detail life in Greater Victoria: regattas on the Gorge, heavy snowfalls, the legislature lit up at night and landscape shots at Swan Lake – where she often took photos during brush burning for a dramatic smoky effect – but she also kept her lens focused tightly on her own family.
She often posed her brothers and sisters and their pets, revealing the tender relationship she shared with her siblings, seven of them younger than herself.
The collection could easily have been lost or destroyed, but luck and one determined student kept it intact. Until 2008, the photos, along with Girling’s 1901 mahogany Instantograph camera were in the care of Lindsay Lambert, who had been given the collection 31 years earlier and kept them preserved without ever knowing to whom they had belonged.
The Girling family had moved from Swan Lake to Thetis Lake, then finally to a home near the University of Victoria on Finnerty Road, where Girling died in 1953, leaving behind her massive body of work.
Somehow the photo collection, abandoned in the home, remained intact. When UVic purchased the Girling home in the 1950s, a university staffer discovered the images and held onto them until 1977. He then passed them to Lambert, a UVic theatre student with a strong interest in vintage technologies.
Lambert eventually moved to Ontario. He attempted to give the photos and negatives to museums, but without any reference details, archivists were reluctant to take the donation.
Four years ago next month, Lambert was visiting Victoria, equipped with the entire collection in hopes of donating the mystery to the Saanich archives. On that trip he happened to read a letter to the editor in the Times Colonist from Mackenzie’s husband Richard, who made reference to one of her great uncles pictured in the collection. Lambert finally matched a name to the work.
Lambert called the Mackenzies, and suddenly Maureen had a tea crate with nearly 1,000 photographic insights into family members she remembers meeting just once as a young child.
“It was wonderful,” Lambert said. “Everything came together beautifully. … I hung on to (the collection) for all those years for a reason.”
But the notion of scanning nearly 1,000 glass plate negatives, before the identification process could even begin, kept the archivist grounded during the windfall.
“(Lindsay) was showing us the camera and showing us the negatives, giving us a history lesson and I was just starting to get a sense of the significance. I was a little overwhelmed with the work ahead,” Duncan said.
While the bulk of the process was completed in 2008, additional details continue to trickle in today. Every November since 2008, Duncan, Mackenzie and Lambert go on an Girling adventure to uncover elements of the family’s past.
Last year they visited the site of the family’s Ralph Street home, which is now a part of the Swan Lake-Christmas Nature Sanctuary. There, they could see evidence of the home’s foundation and canary wheat grass planted by the Girlings. This year they’ll continue along a similar adventure, visiting Greater Victoria locations that Girling photographed.
“I go to auctions downtown and I find boxes of photographs … Nobody knows who they are and they’re not valued in the same way,” Duncan said. “There’s a story behind it and that story has been lost and this is why this is such a significant collection – the story hasn’t been lost, it’s stayed with it and has been protected and preserved and found its way home.”
“It’s a real gift,” Mackenzie said. “I always tell Lindsay that. It’s like it was meant to be.”
See Anne Alice Girling’s photos at the Arts Centre at Cedar Hill until Oct. 28. See her exhibit online through the Saanich archives at this link.