Listening to family stories as a child sparked Leigh Toselli’s interest, but - for her - it’s all about photographs and their stories.
A South African fashion, beauty and decor stylist, Leigh, 52, lives in Johannesburg with her French photographer husband Patrick and three sons (Devin, 25; Rowan, 23; and Kieran, 20).
Her biography reads like an A-Z of fashion, and she’s worked on every facet of image in the industry. She authored a series of books on beauty and image, and was also co-presenter of the South African version of the BBC show, What Not to Wear.
A few years ago, Leigh was trying to find a way of restoring, filing and sharing old family photographs.
Old photographs that gather dust seem so sad; all too often these are neglected and the names and faces forgotten. So I started asking the older generations to put names and anecdotes to the photos.
Family trees didn't really interest me, as they were simply a list of dates and names. That is, until I realized I could put faces to the names! Suddenly, my family’s history became a fascination - seeing family resemblances and spotting faces in old albums became a bit of an obsession.
She has discovered that many of her ancestors were settlers in one way or another, and was intrigued to discover a great-great-great-grandfather arriving in South Africa with the Burne Settlers and watching a fellow ship sink offshore.
Their landing was far easier except that on arrival they discovered their expected housing wasn’t available, so the solution was a tarpaulin over their four-poster bed in the open on the rugged Albany coast near Port Elizabeth.
One can only imagine what fears must have filled their minds and how tough they were to have only a piece of fabric protecting them from the African climate and whatever savage beasts lurked beyond!!
Mostly, it’s been a fascinating read on the early settlers, their initial hardships and eventual successes.
On her maternal grandmother’s line, Leigh was fascinated to discover ancestors guillotined in the French Revolution.
Piecing that together is challenging because the French records are so complicated. Without actual birth years, it’s proving quite daunting! This line is also about discovering Mauritian and Madagascan sugar plantations.
Leigh joined MyHeritage some time ago.
I love the fact that we can share family photographs and download them into our own albums - so that one lucky family member is no longer hogging the whole album. I love the way old photographs keep emerging.
I also enjoy Smart Matching which is constantly finding new relations all over the world.
Once she has finished uploading the old photos, her next project will be uploading all the press-clippings and advertising campaigns in which the entire family has been involved.
We were all - grandparents to grandchildren - a model family and I have most of the clippings and pictures and want to share them. This way all images will be preserved and shared with future generations.
Leigh finds it scary just how quickly old photos and newspapers degenerate. Part of her fascination with photos has resulted in her digitally restoring and enhancing the old images.
I’ve started with the oldest first and am gradually working through this huge number of images. I haven't even reached the more recent images which fill my cupboards! I love the fact that we now have an archive where we can check on all the family names, and not have to rely on memory (which fades). The little badge behind each name that explains your connection to that person is a favorite feature!
Although none of her family is involved in the research, her parents are always intrigued by the discoveries. However, she does have a few cousins who add snippets now and then.
Leigh now holds the unofficial title of family archivist.
At a recent family reunion, I presented a slideshow of family photos that interested most of them. Bits of information gleaned from photos can reveal many things!
MyHeritage has helped build bridges in my family. Certainly there are many more cousins to whom I am now connected, and I now get to share some of their lives via the site. I just wish the older generation were more familiar with computers as they have the memories.
Leigh’s family is huge, she says.
At this stage, I have all my family connections all in one place - my husband’s family, my grandparents’ branches. It’s a little unwieldy but, as time permits, I will separate out each line. This is a bit tricky as I have a Mac computer and literally do all this work online. I'm not using the actual software, so I'm hoping MyHeritage will become Mac-friendly.
My family is split among South Africa, England and France, with newer generations literally all over the English-speaking world. So many Smart Matches!
It has been fascinating - I love the fact that the further back you go, the more people are doing the same research and that has been a huge boon in terms of the amount of time spent researching!
Leigh has discovered many relatives and connected many dots, Making contact, she says, has been fascinating and sharing information has built bonds.
After all, there is so much shared genetics and it’s amazing to discover just how much we have in common.
During her research, she found an unusual French surname – La Reservee – as her great-grandmother’s maiden name. A recent Smart Match showed the connection was indeed family and after a phone call, a rendezvous was arranged at an organic market where Leigh’s parents sell their hand-crafted rocking horses.
Not only did we discover that we live relatively close to each other, but she works a few stalls away from my parents at the market, and we’ve been buying organic vegetables from her for years without knowing our connection!
I found the experience startling! Not only was my grandmother her father’s aunt, but we'd been bumping shoulders for years! Thanks to her help, a previously unknown (and forgotten) side of the family is gradually being revealed through old photos and “new” cousins.
It was also a jump start to the older generation’s memories, which is resulting in an expanded family tree. When we have the next family reunion, we'll have the La Reservee branch come along!
Leigh is still chasing the enigmatic background of her great-grandfather who came to South Africa to fight in the Anglo Boer War. Supposedly an aristocrat, he is proving to be her biggest challenge to date. His origins are a complete mystery, but she hopes something will turn up eventually.
Here are Leigh’s tips for those just starting out:
- Ask lots of questions - families have a wealth of information, especially the older generation. Find time to sit down with them and with old photos. Ask questions as photos stir up all sorts of forgotten memories.
- Family legends don't come out of nowhere. Dig around and you'll be amazed at what you can discover. I discovered an entire community of cousins. None of us knew anything about each other, and this is still unfolding.
- South African genealogy is not the easiest to research and, having discovered the new Research button, I am following up as much as I can. It can become addictive - be warned!
We thank Leigh for sharing her story. Did you enjoy reading about her South African research? Let us know in the comments below.