The two photos were stuffed into a bucket, under a table, at an antiques market in Brighton. Charlotte Sibtain dusted them off – and fell in love.
The images, believed to have been taken in the 1950s, show two couples on their wedding day, the brides with bouquets in hand, the grooms by their side.
“I think the thing that really drew me to them was the sadness that they’d been chucked away or lost,” says Sibtain, now 33 and based in London. “It’s a really special day, getting married, so it turned into a bit of a rescue mission.”
That first spontaneous buy led to a fascination with vintage wedding shots that’s still going strong nine years later. Sibtain now has a collection of more than 400 images – taken from the late 1800s to the mid-1960s – purchased from charity shops, antique markets and Ebay.
Dozens of the photos hang on the walls of the home she shares with her own husband, but Sibtain’s passion is tracking down the people in the snapshots, then reuniting families with these precious pieces of history.
She successfully tracked down her first family after buying “the most beautifully crafted wedding album” on Ebay. It belonged to a couple named John and Irene, who got married in 1957 and had handily written the name of their church where they wed on the front page.
Sibtain contacted the church, who were able to locate John and Irene’s family. And though the couple had sadly died, their daughter and granddaughter still lived in the area. She met with the pair and presented the album, which even contained receipts from John and Irene’s honeymoon, plus a horse shoe Irene had been given for good luck.
“It was amazing. The daughter was absolutely stunned, I think they both were,” says Sibtain. “They both thought that it was lost forever and had no thoughts of it ever coming back.”
John and Irene’s story turned out to be very undramatic – “They were just an ordinary couple with ordinary jobs, who fell in love and had a couple of children.” But that’s what Sibtain loves about these photos: “They’re just ordinary people.”
It’s unclear how John and Irene’s album had been lost, but Sibtain says house moves are often to blame. The first emotional reunion inspired her to uncover the stories behind more of her collection.
She’s since reunited six families with lost photos and hopes to find many more – but it isn’t always easy. Just 20% of the photos she buys are marked with key information, such as the couple’s name and location.
She begins her detective work by searching for marriage certificates on genealogy websites, using any information she does have. Certificates then provide full names and ages, plus the date and location of the wedding, making surviving family members easier to find.
Next, she turns to newspaper obituaries and social media tributes posted following the death of a loved one. “I love getting stuck down a rabbit hole, trying to find information or clues,” she says.
Has she ever stumbled across a divorcee or estranged family member who’s purposefully thrown away their album?
“No, I’ve not had that yet,” she laughs. “I am waiting for that though, because I feel like that will probably happen at some point. You assume everyone will be excited, but there probably are some people out there who don’t want these back.”
Sibtain has always loved history and was fascinated by her parents’ antiques collection that filled her Southampton childhood home. Her favourite in her own collection, is an image believed to have been taken in Darlington in the 1920s.
“It’s from an upper middle class family. It’s very 1920s, a very crisp and beautiful shot,” she says. “The groom is wearing spats and he’s in a beautiful tuxedo, the bride has got this beautiful big bouquet. They just look so glamorous.”
A close second is a group shot taken in the street, which Sibtain estimates to be from between 1910 and 1920. The picture is a standout because it has “so many characters in it!” – from the two children at the front looking sufficiently bored, to the adults behind failing to muster much more enthusiasm.
The image is among those she proudly displays in her home, where she has three walls covered in other people’s wedding photos. Her husband, Joplin, is thankfully on board. “Initially he thought it was a little bit weird,” she laughs.
“He’s a fan now, I’ve converted him.”
Sibtain doesn’t favour one period over another and instead, loves how her collection moves throughout history, reflecting society at the time.
“During World War Two, for example, there was obviously rationing, not much material and not much of anything to go around. There was a whole make do and mend vibe and you can see that in the pictures from this period,” she says.
Vintage wedding photos can go for £40-£50 online if they have some form of historical significance, but Sibtain has never spent more than £25. Most of her collection costs no more than £2 per piece.
“I do try to buy up the whole wedding though,” she says. “Sometimes sellers split them up and try to sell them individually, which just kills me every time.”
Despite her own expense, Sibtain never asks families to reimburse her for the photos. She’s a researcher by trade, but this is very much a hobby. She shares her collection on Instagram, so others can share in the joy of vintage photos (or even spot long lost relatives).
Her biggest hope, is that others see the beauty in these snapshots of history.
“There’s a lot of people out there who would quite quickly sell stuff,” she says. “So if the project can inspire and encourage people to look after their family photos and treasure them and frame them and really make the most of them, that would be great.”