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Snapshots of strangers :: A bittersweet romantic mystery

The remaining siblings, not photographed here, also surfaced on findmypast: Caroline Mabel, born in 1873; Edgar two years later; and Walter three years after that, marking a 20-year gap between the eldest and youngest children. There were also another two, Joseph and Sydney, who appeared in the 1871 census but sadly did not make it past childhood.

On Findmypast, learning about the de Mattos family was straightforward. The site’s census records and births, deaths and marriages collections soon helped paint a vivid picture of this large Victorian family — but not the full picture. The identity of Lionel’s mysterious fiancée remains a crucial missing piece of the puzzle.

Our prime candidates are the three sisters among this large family. Firstly, Edith may be ruled out on the rounds of her marriage in 1891. The next possibility, Elizabeth, wed Alfred Parkes in Tonbridge, Kent, the year after Lionel died.

Meanwhile, Caroline Mabel, the youngest sister, never married. By the age of 39, some 14 years after Lionel’s death, she was recorded in the 1911 census as ‘single’, residing with her parents in Tonbridge Wells, Kent. Of the three sisters, Caroline was the closest to Lionel in age, and the only one born after him (by two years). While we can’t be certain that she was indeed Lionel’s betrothed, at this stage she seems the most likely contender.

And it’s not the only question mark lingering over these photographs. Another is the identity of their original owner who painstakingly listed the birth and death date of every person depicted.

In 19th-century England and her colonies, it was often unmarried women who gathered and cared for the family photographs and keepsakes, like unofficial keepers of the family’s memories, stories and material traces. Could Caroline Mabel herself have collected these images, perhaps with a view to pass them on to later generations?

This brings us to the central mystery figure of the saga: to whom did they last belong? And how did these original 19th-century photographs, shot in Victorian London and Kent, come to be discarded in a Brisbane tip over 100 years later?

Even if we were to hypothetically suppose that Caroline was both the photographs’ original owner and the mysterious fiancée, the question of their discovery in Australia is no less complicated. Findmypast records indicate that she lived in Kent her entire life, dying in Tonbridge in 1949 at the age of 76.

It remains yet another unresolved question, despite hours of research by the Days, Vicki, and myself. Curiously, several individuals surnamed ‘de Mattos’ appear among Findmypast’s Queensland collections, but I’m yet to establish a connection between them and the family of 11 from Tonbridge.

Whoever their successive owners, the near-pristine condition of the cartes de visites, more than a century since the first was taken, suggests that they had been cherished. It seems likely that the images were passed along a particular branch of the family tree until it simply withered away entirely, far from its roots in Kent.

This transcontinental story is clearly not over yet. For all their helpful clues and stubborn secrets, these lost images may well be the sole surviving remnants of a long-forgotten family; the final trace of the military beau who followed in his father’s footsteps in medicine only to meet a tragic fate.

Rescued from oblivion a century and a world away from their origins, we hope these enigmatic portraits make one final journey, to take pride of place on the mantelpiece of their subjects’ descendants — wherever they may be.

Help us trace the descendants
This story originally appeared in issue 23 of Inside History. Are you related to the de Mattos or Tomlinson family, or do you have any further information about them? Email contribute@insidehistory.com.au to help us reunite these photographs with their rightful owners. 

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