Over the years I’ve commemorated many historical anniversaries on here, but this time it’s a personal one. Today marks ten years since I launched History Geek! So, to celebrate I thought I’d take you on a whirlwind recap of some of the adventures we’ve been on over the last decade.
I started this site as an outlet to share my passion for the past and hone my storytelling skills. Unlike my television work I wanted it to be something I had complete control over, detached from commercial considerations and mainstream demands; a place where I could tell the stories I wanted to tell, in my own way and at my own pace. Most importantly, I wanted somewhere to share my private collection of historical images and ephemera, a place to explore their stories.
Hitting the publish button for the first time was rather nerve-wracking. I was still a teenager when I first had the idea to start a website to share the stories behind my collection of First World War postcards, but I never launched ‘Somewhere From France’, it was too scary to put myself out there, especially when suffering from a large dose of imposter syndrome. But the idea persisted over the years, evolved a fair bit, and with the encouragement of others I decided to finally give it a go, with the site going live on 2 May 2012. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who encouraged me along the way. I could never have imagined all the places it would take me to, the doors it would open, connections made, and stories uncovered. I’m glad I took that leap of faith.
Over the last decade I’ve published a total of 126 posts, with lots of additional content shared more regularly on my Facebook page and Twitter. Follow me there if you don’t already! It’s been great to hear from so many of you too, from the schoolteacher who used a post to get their students excited about local history to the D-Day veteran who landed at Omaha Beach. Thank you to everyone who has been in touch.
Now it’s time for some highlights! One of my earliest posts remains the most popular, the Truth Behind New Zealand’s Most Photogenic Criminal was a brief and hurried look into the story behind a viral meme. This led to a front-page story in the local newspaper and several amusing radio interviews about Edwardian ferret pinching. It’s Murphy’s law that the content you put the least amount of effort into gets the most attention, something I discovered again recently when my mundane Tweet about electrical cables went viral.
I’ve enjoyed exploring the stories behind postcards, both the pictures on the front and the messages on the back. These have included the Earliest Known Photograph of a New Zealand Tornado, Christchurch’s Giant Water Chute, and one of my favourites, the opportunity to crack a secret code! One of the things I love the most about using postcards or ephemera as a starting point is that you never know where the research will take you, or what stories it will tell. In a way you let the story call to you, and it often leads to people, perspectives and places that don’t usually make it into the history books.
My all-time favourite niche obsession is my collection of dance cards and ball invitations and I’ve particularly enjoyed researching and sharing some of their stories over the years, three of them exactly one hundred years since they were held – the 1912 Lyttelton Railway annual ball, the 1914 Fairfield Freezing Works Fancy Dress Ball held just as news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand reached New Zealand, and one that really sent a chill up my spine, the military-themed ball held in the Wellington Town Hall at the exact same time as New Zealand’s worst military disaster unfolded at Passchendale on 12 October 1917. That uncanny coincidence still gives me goosebumps.
To mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign I shared the story of my great great uncle Thomas Gillanders, who lost his life the day of the landing. It was special to pool together letters and memories from the wider family and combine them with military records and historical accounts so that Tom would be remembered one hundred years on. Over the years I’ve also shared some First World War postcards and the stories behind them, including one of my favourites, this one of Polderhoek Chateau with a message on the back from a soldier who was wounded there. This postcard has since been reproduced in a book, online article, a museum exhibit, and a battlefield tour app.
Towards the end of the First World War commemorations I shared this postcard sent during ‘Black November’, the peak of the 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand. I wrote “There is still a lot to be learned from the outbreak and in an age where intercontinental air travel is only a credit card swipe away and high-density living is the norm we would do well to learn what lessons we can.” Oh bless that innocence! Just sixteen months later New Zealand was in lockdown as our generation faced our own pandemic.
Most of my History Geek research is conducted online or onsite at libraries and archives, but occasionally I’ve had the opportunity to venture a little further. One memorable occasion was a visit to Makara, Wellington, to see some of the locations where a series of candid photographs of a Home Guard unit were taken in 1942. A landowner kindly allowed me to go exploring up behind his house, following the footsteps of the Home Guard troop, to the frontlines of an invasion that fortunately never happened.
My largest History Geek project so far involved a collection of nearly two hundred glass plate negatives documenting everyday life in Edwardian New Zealand. I spent countless hours scanning and restoring them all and embarking on a quest to identify the photographer. A time-consuming project, but extremely rewarding, watching the images come back to life one by one and eventually leading me to the person who was behind the camera. One of the things I love the most about sharing stories like these is how others build upon them, in this instance not only has James Campbell’s photography been rescued from obscurity but thanks to others there is now greater recognition of his entomological work! I still hope to revisit this collection at some stage, and hopefully make it to Te Aroha sometime to see their beautiful domain.
It’s been really satisfying to see all these orphaned images be used and appreciated, on here but also published in books, articles, gig posters, museum exhibitions, and elsewhere. Fostering connections and a greater appreciation for the past in different ways. In the last six months some previous unseen glass plate negatives were published in Matthew Wright’s ‘The Battlecruiser New Zealand’, some amateur snapshots and postcards in André Brett’s ‘Can’t Get There From Here : New Zealand’s Shrinking Railway 1920 – 2020’, and a dazzling image used as cover art for Philippa Werry’s novel ‘The Other Sister’.
When I started History Geek I could never have envisaged where it would take me, the people I’d meet or the doors it would open, and likewise I don’t know what the next ten years will bring, but I can let you in on my latest project. Over the last year I’ve been focusing my efforts on digitising as much of my collection as possible. It has been a colossal undertaking, with over ten thousand images scanned so far. Glass plate negatives, albums of snapshots, slides, ephemera, dance cards, even a school detention slip! Each one a different window into the past, with a story waiting to be uncovered and shared.
So, I do hope you’ll stick around. To stay connected you can subscribe to this site by hitting the big red follow button over on the side, and follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks to everyone who has encouraged, supported, and collaborated with me over the last decade, there are far too many of you to mention by name, but you all know who you are. I do want to give a special shout out to my parents, and also my late grandparents, three of whom passed in the last decade. Thanks also to all my followers, the loyal ones and new ones alike, I look forward to sharing many more time-traveling adventures with you all in the future!
© Lemuel Lyes