Thursday, April 3, 2014

There might not be any information

I was talking recently to a friend about one of her brick walls.  Her ancestor, Mary Smith, had a daughter (Sarah Agnes Smith) in Yass Gaol on 22 July 1879. Sarah's birth certificate does not have a father listed.
On 16 January 1880, Sarah (listed as being aged 2, though she would have been less than 6 months old) was discharged from the Industrial School to Joseph Territt or Ferritt of Crookwell (SRNSW: NRS 14723 [5/4837]; Reel 3852, Page 25-26).  The Industrial School was where destitute children were sent at that time. She was returned to the Industrial school on 25 July as the man who adopted her had died.
From then nothing is known about Sarah until she married Thomas Fanning on 29 November 1894 when she said she was 17 (though she would have been 15). On her marriage certificate it lists her father as John Smith, deceased and she makes no mention of a mother. Also on the certificate Naomie Veness is listed as guardian. There is no connection (as far as can be found) between the Smiths and the Veness or Ferritt/Territt families.
My friend wants to know what happened to Sarah between being returned to the Industrial School and getting married.  She is also interested to know what happened to Sarah's mother, Mary.
The first thing to bear in mind is that some really good research had already been done on this person. Not only had the records of the fostering of Sarah been found, but so had and advertisement in the NSW Police Gazette that showed where Mary was before Sarah was born. 
Information is requested respecting Mary Smith, who left her service with Mrs. Oddy, of Goulburn, op the 30th ultimo, and has not since been heard of. She is 24 years of age, medium height, strong build, fair complexion, fair hair , blue or hazel eyes; dressed in black lustre dress , black hat with white feather, and red and black plaid shawl. Mary Smith is said to have been far advanced in pregnancy, and it is feared that she has committed suicide. Information to the Inspector General of Police.
NSW Police Gazette, 9 July 1879, p 263 

Mary is not in the admission records of Yass Gaol, which are held by State records. Perhaps she was just taken into the gaol to give birth. 

Sadly, sometimes we will not be able to find the answer because it is not out there to be found. And it is not out there to be found because it was not created in the first place. Record keeping was not so prevalent in the 19th century as it is in the 21st. Firstly, there was no formal adoption in NSW until 1923. Before that informal arrangement were made to foster children (with or without the involvement of government departments), or children remained at an Industrial School or Orphan school until old enough to go out to work or to become an apprentice.  So there may well be no paperwork explaining Sarah's connection to Naomie Veness.  

But the good news is that there might be a clue as to what happened to Sarah's mother, Mary.

The NSW indexes to births, deaths and marriages ( have an entry for the birth of Sarah Agnes Smith, mother Mary Agnes (note the middle name), in Yass in 1879.  And there is a marriage of Agnes Mary Smith to to James MacInerhenry or McInerhenry in Wagga Wagga in 1880.  For those who don't know NSW geography, Yass is quite close to Wagga Wagga.  It is not uncommon for people to switch around their first and middle names, so I suggest that it is worth looking at this marriage to see if it is the right person. This illustrates how important it is to make note of any middle names, and to consider all possible variations on names when looking for "missing" events.

Some brickwalls just can't be demolished, but sometimes others can with a little bit of lateral thinking.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

My Genealogical Epiphany

I recently read a book that had absolutely nothing to do with genealogy, but it lead to me having a Genealogical Epiphany – a light bulb moment, if you like.  It has completely changed my mindset about how to approach genealogy & genealogical problems. [I apologise for the length of this blog post – it is necessary, so bear with me].

The book is The Riddleof the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox.
The book is all about the history of the decoding of the Linear B tablets from Crete.  Let me give you a little background.  In 1900, British archaeologist Arthur Evans found a number of inscribed clay tablet in the ruins of a Bronze Age Palace, which he declared was the Palace of King Minos.  The tablets had three different types of writing on them.  The oldest was a form of hieroglyphic writing which was unconnected to Egyptian hieroglyphics. The next they named Linear-A, and the final type they named Linear-B.  They all predate any known form of Greek writing (possibly any writing of any kind). It is just the last of these that have been deciphered. Scholars could not read the symbols on the tablets because they were small pictograms not used in any other known script (see below for a picture). To make matters even more difficult, they had no idea what language that were even written in. It can be hard enough to crack a code when only one of those things is unknown, but when both are unknown it unimaginably difficult.

Several people had theories about the scripts. Many people had developed ideas about which language they would represent (Etruscan, Hittite etc.) and tried to "force" that language onto the writings. In the 1940s an American woman, Alice Kober, set out to decipher the tablets. She was not the only one trying to do so at this stage. Other people (especially Arthur Evans) had been trying ever since they were discovered in 1900. She didn't even manage to fully decipher them before her death in 1950, but made such progress that an Englishman, Michael Ventris, was able to finally identify the language and decipher the tablets in 1952.
Clay tablet with Linear B inscription (Wikimedia Commons)

It is her approach to the problem that has led to my epiphany.

As I said, most people approached the tablets with pre-conceived ideas about the language they recorded, and attempted to prove their theory and use that to decode them.  Kober not only had a different approach, but she was total disapproving of those who were trying to use them to prove some theory or other.

Her approach was to let the data speak for itself.  She spent years and years collating how often each symbol appeared in conjunction with other symbols, what "words" there were that stated with each symbol, and so on.  Her meticulous work helped her identify male and female forms of certain words, and to identify that it was an inflected language, like Latin, where the word ending indicates which part of  speech the word represents in that sentence (i.e. subject, object, etc.). She made huge advances, and if not for her early death at age 43 would very probably have solved the riddle herself.

But I imagine you are wondering how this could lead to an epiphany. Well, it is "let the data speak for itself".  So often we come to a family history with preconceived ideas ('Grandma always said we were descended from Sir Walter Scott') or we have received a family tree from a relative who had "done it before" which we assume is absolutely correct.  It is easy for people to convince themselves that there must have been another child of so-an-so that did not appear in the parish registers when we either believe we are, or desire to be, related to a particular family. Even worse is the temptation to believe the published genealogies without verifying every step ourselves.  This is particularly the case with the pedigrees produced by John and Bernard Burke in the 19th centuries.  Most people seem to think that "Burkes" and "Burkes Peerage" are infallible sources of family genealogies.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

The moral of the story is to try to remove any preconceived ideas from your head.  Study the data.  Use ONLY to data to reconstruct a family tree.  If that agrees with a published tree, or a tree sent to you by a relative, then good. Otherwise, trust the data.

Oh, and the book makes a fantastic read – I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Could family histories help with Dementia?

I recently compiled a family history for a client, who was intending to give copies to her mother and sisters.  Her mother is 85 and suffering from dementia.  Having a family history to read, which was laid out in a structured and chronological order, has apparently helped her memory and improved her response to people now.  The photos which my client provided and which I included in the family history also helped prompt her mother's memories.

One case on its own does not constitute a scientific study, of course, but it is interesting.  I wonder if the same effect has been seen before?
The bound 263-page report I provided

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Biographical Database of Australia now live

The Biographical Database of Australia is now live.  I have been playing around with it a bit and looking at a few of my ancestors.  So far most of what I have found I had already looked at, like convict indents, musters and the 1828 census.

But there is a possible death for my NSW Corps ancestor, Joseph Quinn.  Joseph was a private who arrived on the Earl Cornwallis in 1801, was discharged from the army in July 1802 and at some point married Elizabeth Boardman, a former convict who had also arrived on the Earl Cornwallis.  No record of this marriage has ever been found, nor any baptisms for their three children (Patrick born c1808, Elizabeth born c1810 and John born c1814.  This is not surprising, as they were Catholics and between 1804 and 1820 Catholic Mass and church services were not able to be legally celebrated.  Joseph's wife died in 1829 and is buried in St Peter's Church of England in Richmond. After this nothing is known about Joseph or his son Patrick, though the lives of his other two children are well known.

The BDA has come up with a death in 1829 at the General Hospital in Sydney of a 32 year old Joseph Quinn, whose burial was recorded in the records of St Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Sydney.  Now the age doesn't match other sources (the 1828 census says he is aged 60) and I don't know how he would have got from the Richmond area to Sydney, but I still think it's worth further investigation (like trying to find the hospital records, if they still exist.

There is also a marriage of a Patrick Quinn and Elizabeth Browne in 1830 at St Mary's, which also warrants further investigation.

Without the BDA I would not have found these leads as it wouldn't have occurred to me to look at St Mary's registers for people I last knew as living in the Richmond area.

The site is easy to use, and the indexes can be searched for free. A yearly subscription which shows the results of those searches is just $25 (possible because the BDA is a non-profit project).

The Biographical Database of Australia can be accessed at

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Family History Conference in Canberra - report on the main talks

Here are some selected comments on the first day of lectures in the 2013 NSW & ACT Association of Family History Societies' Conference. I have not commented on everything, nor attempted to report everything that was said, because if I do I will never get around to posting this report.
The presentation by Chris Boyack on what’s new in FamilySearch didn’t tell me much that I hadn’t already seen or knew was coming (through reading blogs) except that in the future you are going to be able to add not just photos and stories to people on your online family tree, but also documents “like certificates”.  Those were his words.  I have serious concerns about that – certificates are copyright and cannot just be posted online without permission.
Martin Wood, maps curator from the National Library of Australia, spoke about using maps.  He started off with the comment that maps should be the first thing people look at, but are usually the last. He also told us that the National Library are in the process of digitising many of their out-of-copyright maps. These include the NSW parish maps, and in some cases these are different dates than the version on the Land and Property Information web site. The maps that have been digitised can be accessed through the NLA catalogue - restrict the search by selecting "maps" and looking for those online.
Gail Davis's talk on Education and school records in the State Records of NSW was full of information as usual. In fact it was so full of information that I missed taking down some of the details.  The main thing to remember is to consult the various Archives In Brief (numbers 9, 26, 76) and Short Guides 6 and 10 for all the details.  I really enjoyed her talk, and got a lot out of it (even if I couldn't write down all the dates at the time), but I did hear someone near me say that they hadn't enjoyed it - that it was just too much information too quickly and that they didn't like her presentation style.  I guess that just shows that everyone has different methods of learning.
The conference dinner on the Saturday night was really well done - one of the best I have attended. The table decorations were fantastic and all in keeping with the conference logo colours and images.  The food was really good, as was the entertainment, and I had good company at my table. 
My favourite talk of the whole conference was Angela Phippen's talk on Royal Commissions and Legislative Council Select Committees. It sounds like these would be boring and contain no information of value, but nothing could be further from the truth. Angela gave examples from five Royal Commissions: one into the Lunatic Asylum in Gladesville from 1846; one on noxious and offensive trades from 1882; a report from the committee on immigration from 1835; a report on the condition of the working classes of the metropolis from 1860; and a report on alleged Chinese gambling and immorality from 1892.  This was covered at a much faster rate than Gail's talk, so it wasn't possible to take down all the details. But fortunately Angela had given us a handout with the details of the five reports she had covered and also the finding aids.  The main point was to illustrate what a wonderful resource this can be, and how a dull title might be hiding invaluable information that appears to have no connection to the title.
The final couple of highlights I want to mention are Cora Num's talk on Women migrating alone and Angela's on Women and Divorce.  Both were excellent.
Before we knew it the conference was over for another year and it was time to say good bye to those people that we only meet at these sorts of events.  Can't wait for next year's conference.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Family History Conference in Canberra - Day One

Now I have a bit of time to write about the NSW & ACT Association of Family History Societies Conference in Canberra.
The first day was a family history fair, along with some talks.  There were free 15 minute talks on the main stage, along with three other talks that had to be paid for.  One of the latter which I attended was the Trove Masterclass.
This was a fantastic learning experience.  It was a masterclass, not a beginners class, and although I knew some of what was spoken about, there was still plenty for me to learn. One was Lists. You can use lists to accumulate pointers to items in Trove that you are interested in relating to a topic, and also to live web sites (but not the archived web sites on Trove).
The other thing that I was unaware of were the RSS feeds that can alert you to new newspapers being added or new editions of existing newspapers.  This feature can also be used rather like a Google Alert, in that it can tell you about new results of a specific search.  This is fantastic, as it means you don't have to keep repeating a search and looking through results that you have already seen in order to find any new material.
I also picked up some ways of improving a search: 
  • proximity search, e.g. "john smith"~1 will pick up the words john and smith with a maximum of one word in between (allowing for middle names or initials to be captured in the same search)
  • Trove normally does a fuzzy search, so that plurals etc match what has been entered.  To stop this do a "fulltext" search.  Enter the keyword fulltext: followed IMMEDIATELY (i.e. no spaces) with the word you want an exact match on (e.g. fulltext:Huddlestone will not also pick up occurrenced of the name Huddleston)
I also listened to one of the main stage talks - Gail Davis from the State Records of NSW talking about How To Find NSW Court Records. As always, it was a fantastic presentation, though a little rushed, given that she had such a short time slot.
Apart from those talks I spent the day looking at the stalls and spending some money, mostly on second hand books.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Launch of the Biographical Database of Australia

Yesterday I went to the launch of the Biographical Database of Australia at History House in Macquarie Street.  The BDA won't be online for a couple more weeks but when it is it seems set to be a very valuable tool in researching people who lived in Australia. Don't go looking for it yet, but once it does go live I will make the URL known.

The BDA is the brainchild of Keith Johnson and Malcolm Sainty and will include tens of thousands of records of people who were born in Australia, or born overseas and came to Australia.  They include not only records of Europeans, but also Aboriginal Australians, Chinese immigrants and so on.  The only restriction is that the subject must be deceased.
 Left and Right: Malcolm Sainty and Keith Johnson at the launch

The "unique selling point" will be its ability to link different references to an individual together, despite name changes, errors when recorded or so on.  To give a couple of brief examples, one of my ancestors arrived in 1820 as a convict under the name James Ansley.  By the time he died the family name had morphed into Annesley (perhaps to sound more like the aristocratic Irish family of that name).  He appears as James Ansell in one of the musters, and at various other times he has appeared under the name Anslow, and another as Annerley.  Another convict ancestor, Elizabeth Boardman, appears under the name Broadman in one of the musters.  It is the aim of the BDA to link these people together and identify them as the same person. Input from subscribers will be welcomed to achieve this, as well as work by historians and other genealogists.

The number of datasets included in the BDA will increase over time, but at the initial launch it will include information from all the early musters and censuses, records of the NSW Corps, church records up to about 1833, convict records and much more.

Searches will be free, but to view the full list of references to an individual (called their Biographical Report) an annual subscription will be required. As the BDA is a not-for-profit organisation, subscriptions will come at the very reasonable price of $25 p.a.