Meet the heirloom detectives

They scour flea markets and vintage fairs for love letters, postcards and war medals in a bid to return them to their families. Hanna Woodside meets a unique band of historical sleuths.

The walls of 34-year-old historical researcher Charlotte Sibtain’s London home are covered in wedding photographs: hundreds of them. The pictures aren’t of her own wedding, however, but those of total strangers.

‘I probably have in excess of 400 wedding pictures,’ she says of the images, which date all the way from the 1800s to the 1960s.

Charlotte’s BBC Radio 4 programme The Wedding Detectives finds her teaming up with YOU magazine’s Cole Moreton, 54, in an attempt to track down the owners of the photographs – which she also shares on her Instagram account @VintageWeddingPhotos. What started as a ‘rescue mission’, says Charlotte, took on an emotional aspect. ‘This is someone’s special day and it made me sad to think they got separated from their albums. It was a way of saving them and celebrating that couple with everyone.’

A wedding photograph from Charlotte Sibtain’s collection

In each episode, Charlotte and Cole choose a random photo from the collection and attempt to uncover the story of the happy couple before putting the photo back in the hands of someone who will cherish it. Combing through official records and old newspaper articles, visiting key locations and interviewing local historians, they have uncovered tales of heartbreak, scandalous affairs and even murder. But the story that moved Charlotte and Cole the most was that of Bill and Eileen Cunnington, who married in Hackney, East London in October 1939, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Bill was 26 and Eileen 21.

‘We found out fairly quickly that Bill died the following year. He was a Hurricane pilot and his plane ran out of fuel, crashing into the sea on a mission to Malta; his body was never found,’ says Cole. ‘But we hoped perhaps Eileen had lived a long life.’ She joined the WRAF after Bill’s death, working at RAF Durrington, but died in 1945, just 27 years old, of an agonising stomach disease. ‘Within six years of their wedding day, these two young people had died. When you look at their wedding photo, contained within that picture is a really precious moment,’ says Cole. ‘You simultaneously feel tremendously sad for them but also pleased you’ve been able to mark what has happened in their lives.’

Bill and Eileen Cunnington’s wedding day joy in 1939 was to be short-lived

Although Bill and Eileen had no children, Charlotte and Cole managed to track down Eileen’s niece – also named Eileen, in honour of her late aunt – and return the photo for safe-keeping, much to Charlotte’s joy: ‘To me, these are treasured items. To be able to give a family a piece of their history back is the best part of what we do.’

Charlotte and Cole are not the only so-called ‘heirloom detectives’ with a penchant for the romantic. Chelsey Brown, 28, only began detecting in July 2021, but she has already reunited over 200 families with lost heirlooms: letters, photos, diaries, postcards, drawings and even an old cookbook. The interior designer from New York often scours vintage markets for antiques but spotting personal items always tugs at her heartstrings. ‘I have this feeling whenever I see these heirlooms that they should be with their families,’ she says.

Chelsey Brown

Choosing items with identifying names and addresses, she traces descendants using census records and the ancestry website ‘Lots of people have public family trees on there, so it’s easy to message them and get a response,’ explains Chelsey.

‘I guess it’s bizarre when a stranger says, “Hey, I found this item that belonged to your ancestor.” But most people are really excited to hear from me. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I became addicted to it.’

Chelsey can’t resist picking up anything with a romantic story behind it. ‘I returned a Valentine’s Day card to a lady that was from her great-grandfather to her great-grandmother. She had no idea how it ended up at the flea market but she was in tears, she was so excited to get it back.’

Letters discovered by Chelsey Brown from a son to his mother, dated 1943

While Chelsey typically buys items that are over 100 years old, a bundle of love letters from the 1960s, written from a soldier named Bobby to his sweetheart ‘Cookie’, caught her eye. Incredibly, Chelsey tracked down Cookie, who is now 78 years old. ‘She remembered meeting this man in the 1960s, when she was working as an airline hostess, but never received the letters,’ says Chelsey. ‘I know she was excited to finally have them but she was also a little sad. A part of her must have been thinking: what if I had received these letters?’

Occasionally, Chelsey’s detective work even helps to solve a family mystery. ‘I returned the diary of an 11-year-old girl from 1946. There was an entry in the diary about Uncle Joe falling down the stairs and cracking his skull. The family hadn’t known how he had died so suddenly, but I had the answer in my hands.’

Chelsey loves what she does so much that she’s taking a ‘career detour’ to become a full-time heirloom detective. Sharing her success stories with her 184k followers across Instagram and TikTok, in November she landed a sponsorship deal with MyHeritage. ‘I’ve spent thousands on heirlooms and postage but I never ask for payment from the families I contact. Now I can carry on without worrying so much about my rent.’

Recently she returned a letter written by a Holocaust survivor shortly after she was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘She wrote to relatives in England to say she was alive, but that everyone else – her mum, dad, husband, two sisters – had died. It was heartbreaking. She never had children but I was able to return the letter to her great-niece. That was very emotional.’

For the recipients of the lost treasures, the reunion can be deeply moving. In December 2020, Jocelyn Trent received a message from a stranger on Facebook. ‘He told me he had found two First World War medals, which belonged to my grandfather Charles Sherman over a hundred years ago. And now he wanted to return them to me.

‘It was a bit of a shock. Why did he have them? How did he find me?’ says the 65-year-old social worker from Peterborough. ‘But it was exciting to know that the medals had somehow survived all these years. When they arrived in the post, I burst into tears. It was very emotional to hold them in my hands.’

The mysterious stranger behind this remarkable good deed? Postman Adam Simpson-York, a 35-year-old father-of-two from Ipswich. Adam is part of a community of heirloom hunters who rescue ‘orphaned’ artefacts – long-lost war medals, old love letters, faded wedding photos – from Ebay and car boot sales. They may not be valuable antiques, but they were once treasured objects to the people who owned them.

But what possesses someone to spend so much time reuniting strangers with an old family heirloom? For Adam, it started as a way to pass the time during the winter lockdown in 2020. With a longstanding interest in genealogy, having successfully traced his own family tree, Adam decided to use his research skills on a new project. ‘There are thousands of old war medals on Ebay,’ he says. ‘I thought: why not try to get them to the soldiers’ relatives?’

Adam Simpson-York’s Medals Going Home project reunites families with long-lost war medals; he finds them on Ebay and then searches military archives to trace the original owners

Since starting the Medals Going Home project, he has returned almost 40 medals (mainly from the First World War) to grateful families across the UK. ‘Around the rim there’s usually a surname and a regiment number. That’s all I need to get started,’ says Adam, who pays roughly £20-£30 for each medal. Searching online archives of military records to identify the medal’s original owner, he uses the digital National Archives and to build a family tree. ‘It takes some digging, but I’m a problem-solver. I’m good at this sort of thing.’ If Adam finds a living relative, he contacts them via Facebook.

Jocelyn is delighted her grandfather’s medals, honouring his service as a siege battery gunner with the Royal Garrison Artillery, are now in their rightful home. But it wasn’t just the medals that she got back. Thanks to Adam’s research into her family tree, Jocelyn discovered that she had a whole family she knew nothing about: ‘Sadly, I have lost my husband, both parents and my brother, so I thought my only family was my daughter – and she lives in Hawaii. Then I find out I have 18 second cousins! Adam put me in touch and it’s been lovely chatting with them,’ says Jocelyn. ‘What Adam has done is absolutely incredible. I gained a new family in the space of 24 hours.’

he first postcard Helen Baggott researched was sent to soldier Gilbert Freedman in 1913

For the past two decades, Helen Baggott, 60, has been collecting postcards from the turn of the 20th century, looking into the lives of the people they were sent to all those years ago. ‘You can search the address on Google Maps, and if the original house is still there it’s lovely to imagine them walking up the steps to their front door,’ says Helen, a freelance writer and editor in North Dorset. She now has more than 500 postcards and has shared many of them in her two books, Posted in the Past and Posted in the Past: Second Delivery. ‘It’s almost like the postcards are waiting to share a story. They’re a real snapshot of someone’s life.’

The very first postcard Helen researched was sent in 1913 to a soldier living in London’s Chelsea Barracks. ‘I discovered that Gilbert Freedman, the soldier, had been killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. I wanted to honour the life he sacrificed, and tell his story.’ After months of painstaking research, she wrote up Gilbert’s life story in a blog post and shared it on Facebook. ‘Miraculously, by the following morning, the granddaughter of the brother who sent the postcard contacted me. It was a real wow moment – like it was meant to happen. People are very pleased their ancestors are being remembered, that they haven’t been forgotten,’ says Helen. ‘There are so many history books about the rich and the famous but ordinary people matter, too.’

heirloom detectives
Lynn Heiden has photo albums dating back to 1856.

Like Helen, Lynn Heiden can’t help but feel a connection to the strangers she spends weeks researching. Lynn, 68, also from Dorset, has collected hundreds of vintage photo albums – the oldest dating back to 1856 – since retiring in 2005. Every day, she posts a photo from her collection on Twitter (@lynnswaffles), writing detailed blogs about the people pictured in them. ‘I like to create a family tree for each of them, so relatives can find them if they’re searching online.’ So far she has been able to reunite over 20 families with photos of their ancestors.

Among Lynn’s favourite finds is a set of photos she bought on a whim at an antiques fair; it was only when she got home that Lynn realised they belonged to Mary Ansell, the actress wife of Peter Pan author JM Barrie.

Many of the photos had never been published before. Lynn pieced together Mary’s life story on her blog and shared copies of the unseen photos. ‘Over Christmas 2020 I received an email from a lady called Jessica in California. She had started researching her family history and found my blog. She was a descendant of Mary Ansell but had no idea about the JM Barrie connection. We had a long chat and I was able to send all the photos over to her. So now they’re with their rightful family.’