Disappearing Act: The Budibent Twins and their Hidden Mother….

Today’s post looks at a seemingly innocuous looking plate depicting two small babies. The plate was originally singled out for research by one of our team as the pair were recorded as twins and it seemed likely that a match could easily be found. This indeed proved to be true. Susan Giddings, Local Studies & Archives Assistant at Sutton found out a good deal about the pair from the census, birth, marriage and death records and military records, but what really makes this plate interesting from the perspective of this blog is what, or who else can be seen (or rather not seen) in the image itself.


The Budibent Twins. Photographed 3 Dec 1912 by David Knights-Whittome

Sue explains; “I thought the backdrop on the photograph was a little weird and at first thought the twins were lying on cushions with cloths or drapes over them, but on a closer look they are actually sitting on their Mother’s (we presume) lap. There appears to be a cushion behind the drape and I believe the top crease to be where the mothers head is. The decoration on the lower material is the front panel of her Edwardian skirt.”

Hidden mother photography is a well documented Victorian phenomenon. It was in the main necessitated by the long exposure times which were required by the collodian wet plate photographic process. It could take well over 30 seconds for an image to register on the plate, a period of time during which it is hard for an adult to sit deadly still, yet alone a child or small baby. In such cases, the only option for a photographer was to either photograph the child with an adult – there are indeed many Victorian studio portraits of family groups – or, if a lone image of the child was required, to somehow conceal the adult by draping them in fabric, carpets or curtains and attempting to disguise them as chairs, couches or studio backdrops.

In our case the circumstances are somewhat different, which is why this plate is so interesting. By 1905, when Knights-Whittome was in business in the local area,  ready-made dry gelatin plates had been readily available for some time. These plates were convenient and quick to use with exposure times of a fraction of a second. In our work so far we have uncovered plenty of examples of child portraiture in which Knights-Whittome has successfully photographed small babies without the need to resort to any such measures. Sometimes, it is true, the figure of an female adult – we guess either Mother or Nurse – are obvious, standing to the edge of the image ready to be cropped out later.  Sometimes, we see a pair of disembodied hands positioned ready to catch or prop up a slumping baby. Here, the fully concealed mother serves the sole purpose of positioning the two babies side by side looking at the camera. Seemingly, this was something that could not have been achieved in any other way. To a 21st-century viewer, once you have clocked the hidden figure it is impossible to ‘unsee’ her. The image looks bizarre and awkward, but we have to admit that it took a bit of looking in the first place to really see what was happening here, so alien it is to our modern experience. So far, this is the only ‘hidden mother’ we have come across in the collection which makes it an exciting find for us. Examples of the practice can be seen in Linda Fregni Nagler’s book The Hidden Mother, images from which are available on the Guardian website.

As to the twins, the subject of this portrait, the boys were christened Clement Bryan and John Willson Budibent. They were born on 7 September 1912 to John Bryan Budibent and Ethel Gertrude née Bryan of The Cottage, 1 Thicket Road, Sutton. There is a possibility that their parents were related, maybe cousins.

John Willson Budibent grew up to marry Nancy Frances Felgate in Leicestershire in early 1944 and was living in the Southfields, London area in that same year.

He first joined the Military Police Corps and later was based at the company headquarters of the 156th Battalion in the Army Air Corps, the Parachute Regiment where he was a private. John served with the intelligence service of this company along with his twin brother.

The Parachute Regiment took part in Operation Market Garden*, 17–25 September 1944. The 156th Battalion was dropped in on the 18 September and in the book “From Delhi to Arnhem” by John O’Reilly, it states that John was fatally shot down during the drop although records show him as dying on the 25 September. John was buried in the Airborne Cemetery in Arnhem, Oosterbeek, he was 32 years of age.

Nancy was expecting his child at the time of the Operation and tragically John would never meet his son. The birth of John B. Budibent was registered in the January – March quarter of 1945.

Clement Bryan Budibent served with his twin brother in the intelligence department of the 156th Battalion

Clement was to become a prisoner of war (POW) but at which stage of WW2 we don’t know. Most files on WW2 are currently not available. The records UK, British Prisoners of War 1939-1945 available on Ancestry, show that his rank at the time of being taken prisoner was a Private, army number 7684669, with his regiment listed as Army Air Corps. His POW number was 18655 and he was held at Stalag V-B, Villingen-Schwenningen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Clement survived his ordeal and the war. In early 1940 Clement married Joan G. Caplan and they went on to have a daughter Janet L. Budibent whose birth was registered in the January – March quarter of 1948. Clement died in the Alesbury Vale district, Buckinghamshire in 2005.

Looking at the innocent faces of these adorable identical twins in the context of the time in which they were photographed it is easy to breathe a sigh of relief that they were too young to face the horror of WW1. Certainly their families must have thought so. Who at the time would have thought that one day they would have to face a second world war, playing significant roles and paying the ultimate price.

Today, Monday 7th September, marks what would have been the twins 103rd birthday.

*Operation Market Garden – Carried out between 17-25 September 1944 Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne raid at that time. It was fought over the Netherlands and Germany but was to prove an unsuccessful attempt to end the war by Christmas 1944.

The British 1st Airborne division was dropped at Arnhem but they encountered a far bigger resistance than was expected and 11,000 men were never to return home. The film “A Bridge Too Far” by the late Sir Richard Attenborough is based on Operation Market Garden.

Cemeteries in Netherlands (for John Willson Budibent’s grave)
Ancestry  (for UK WW2 Memorial Books and UK Army Roll of Honour 1939-1945)



4 thoughts on “Disappearing Act: The Budibent Twins and their Hidden Mother….

  1. ‘The Budibent Twins & their Hidden Mother’. I am the ‘Janet L Budibent’ referred to as the daughter of Clement Bryan Budibent. My cousin, John B Budibent, is the son of his twin brother, John Willson Budibent. Confusingly, all of us were/are known by our second names, so my father was Bryan, his brother Willson, my cousin Barry and I am known as Lavinia! My mother’s maiden name was Caplen, not Caplan, and I was born on 4th February 1948. I lived in Epsom Downs for the first 21 years of my life and attended Rosebery County Grammar School in Epsom!

    The parents of my father and uncle, John Bryan & Ethel Gertrude Budibent , were unrelated, it’s just coincidence that my grandmother’s maiden name was Bryan.

    Willson and Bryan worked in the City and joined up together when war broke out in 1939. They did a variety of things (always together) culminating in Operation Market Garden. They were in separate planes and droppped on the 18th September 1944, Bryan was badly injured and captured by a German patrol while being helped to esape by a Dutch farmer and was in various POW camps until April 1945. My mother had assumed he had been killed as there was no word of his fate. Willson did indeed die on 25th September 1944 but what happened to him between 18th and that date, I do not know. My cousin, Barry, was born on 14th January 1945.

    As you can imagine, I was absolutely thrilled to come across this photograph (previously the earliest one I had of the twins was when they were aged two, by which time they had moved to Lincolnshire) and the whole story of the glass plate negative collection is fascinating.

    Lavinia Martins (nee Budibent)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, thank you so much Lavinia for letting us know more about your father’s life and answering some of the post’s questions. It’s so great when we are able to match the photographs up with living relatives of today, and we are so pleased you were able to find a previously unseen photo!


  2. Is there any chance of being able to have a digital copy of this photograph? I am currently digitising all our old family photos to make into an album and it would be fantastic if I could include this one of the twins and the story behind it.


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