Positive search via war negatives

Relaxed and fresh-faced, scores of soldiers posed in a Wellington photography studio before sailing off to the horrors of World War I.

Now Te Papa history curator Lynette Townsend is trying to trace 172 of the Kiwi soldiers from the glass plate negatives left behind.

"They are really compelling images. You just get drawn into their faces. You can't help wondering what they are thinking."

BAIGENT PHOTO: Circa  1914-19, identities unknown.
BAIGENT PHOTO: Circa 1914-19, identities unknown.

The photographs were taken at the Berry & Co photography studio in Cuba St between about 1914 and 1919.

Ms Townsend has dubbed them "The Berry Boys".

"Most of them would not have really known what their fate was going to be. They were about to embark on a life-changing event that for some of them meant the end of their life."

Te Papa's William Berry Collection contains about 3000 glass plate negatives found in a cupboard in the 1990s by tenants of 147 Cuba St, Wellington.

It was the former premises of Berry & Co, well-known portrait photographers, established in 1897 by William Berry.

Ms Townsend is using a variety of clues to help her in her quest.

The first is a surname scrawled on the negative. Uniforms and badges can help to link a name to a rank or unit, so an online search can be performed.

"But it's not always clear. Sometimes the names and military regalia don't match up, or there may be multiple possibilities. And sometimes the negative is not clear enough for me to identify uniform badges."

Ms Townsend has so far traced about 10 soldiers. One was William Anderson, pictured sitting in front of a worried-looking woman, probably his mother. Her fears were justified – he died of disease just months later in England.

"You go through high and lows. You wonder, did they survive the war? At the end of the day you're quite emotionally exhausted."

Ms Townsend is also trying to identity a soldier, slouched on a seat with a bandolier over his left shoulder and riding spurs. The name Baigent appears on the negative, but this could relate to a woman in one of two photographs.

Ms Townsend said she felt a duty to the men.

"It is going to be a long and challenging task but one that I am compelled to do and I now feel a huge responsibility to find out who each person is, discover what happened to them during the war and if they survived how their lives panned out."

Can you help identify any of these people? Email news@dompost.co.nz

The Dominion Post