On the trail of my great-grandfather

A few months ago I was given a DVD with scanned images of my great-grandfather’s photos from the 1930s – 1960s. I was looking through them and this photo seemed particularly interesting.

A lot of the pictures are family photos or travel shots, but this was just an ordinary street. A candid snap-shot of a different era. I always like this kind of historical photo.

The photos on the DVD weren’t in any particular order, so I had no idea where this place was. I knew my great-grandfather had taken a lot of the photos while travelling from England to Australia by ship and had stopped off in Europe, Africa and India along the way. I had a feeling the photo was taken in South Africa but I wasn’t positive.

Zooming in and reading the signs revealed some clues to the location. The mixture of English and Dutch-looking text confirmed that it was South Africa.

One of the clearest signs says “Waldorf Cafe”, so I tried searching for a Waldorf Cafe in South Africa. There were a few hits, but looking at Street View, they didn’t match. This did lead me to discover that Street View was actually available to a lot of South Africa, which boosted my hope of finding this location, based on a single 50 year old photo.

Next I tried searching other words that I could see, thinking they might be the town name. “Gebou” was next, but that turned out to just be the Afrikaans word for “Building” (thanks Google Translate).

Finally, there was the small, blurry sign for the hotel. I thought it said “Barys Hotel” so I searched for that in South Africa with no luck. Then I noticed the word “Pary” half cut off on the right side of the frame and realised that is probably what the sign said.

This was a big help. Parys turned out to be a city in South Africa. I started searching for hotels in Parys, which returned 3 results – all of them tiny buildings and in fairly remote looking places. Parys isn’t large, but looking through Street View one street at a time wasn’t practical. I needed to find a main street.

Parys, South Africa

Looking at the layout, I noticed a small section of fairly dense streets (in the centre of the image above), and decided to go in for a look. Immediately this looked familiar and after looking through a couple of intersections, I had found something that looked very close.

Zooming in and studying the details confirmed that this was it! While the buildings on the street seem to have been remodeled significantly, the hotel in the background is largely unchanged. Comparing the distinctive roof shape is what clinched it for me.


Compare the original to the street view image.

My great-grandfather, Percy Evans.

I’m surprised partly by the fact that I was able to find this location, based on a single photo and minimal clues. But mostly I am impressed with the technology freely¬†available¬†to us, that allows me – on a whim – to research a photo, find its location, then lets me look through current photos of an entire city to pin-point the exact location. That is amazing.

Being able to look through my great-grandfather’s photos, tracing the route he took, seeing the places he stayed, being able to virtually walk down the same streets, really brings the history alive.

4 thoughts on “On the trail of my great-grandfather”

  1. Hi, As a committee member of trhe Parys Museum, I found your posting of great interest. We would love to quote/publish it in our monthly museum newsletter with your permission of course. At the same time, in return, we would like to offer you any photographs, articles etc. on Parys. What is of interest is the fact that your graet grandfather would have reached this far North into South Africa. Any other photos you might have you may email me and I will try to identify them for you.
    Hoping to hear from you.
    Email either at info@parysmusem.co.za or myself at jcr@gojcr.com

    1. Thanks – glad you liked the post! I’d be more than happy for you to quote or publish it in the newsletter. I do have a couple of other photos that I could use some help identifying, so I’ll email them to you and see what you think.

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