Friday, March 27, 2015

AFFHO Day 1 - Some of the talks

Here are a few thoughts about the talks I attended on the first day of the AFFHO congress in Canberra.

The first talk I attended (after the morning's keynote) was by Simon Fowler, whose talk was entitled Shovelling out Paupers: Researching assisted emigration in English archives.  I was most remiss and didn't take a photo of Simon, as I was too busy taking notes based on the talk.

Simon's talk was predominantly about some of the non-official schemes that assisted or paid for emigration from the UK. Sadly, some recurring themes were that it was "difficult" and there "weren't many records", so people who were looking for a list of online sites to check were disappointed.

Nonetheless, I found it very interesting and also useful, in that it mentioned many charitable and other non-official schemes to assist people to emigrate from the UK.  The other value to me was that he mentioned lots of schemes that went to places other than Australia and New Zealand, reminding me that there were other places where assisted emigrants were sent.

Another talk I attended was Paul Milner's Buried Treasure: what's in the English Parish Chest.  This didn't really cover any ground that was new to me, but I enjoyed seeing the examples he showed.  His talk was restricted to the records found in the parish of Leeds in Kent (not the one in Yorkshire), which was a good way to approach the subject.

Paul Milner

The final talk I attended was Helen Smith's In the Workhouse: Caring for the Poor.  Helen started with an overview of the background to the provision of poor relief since the Dissolution of the monasteries and the introduction of the New Poor Law Act of 1834.  She then focused on the outcomes of that act, such as the establishment of the Poor Law Unions and the construction of the workhouses.

Helen Smith

She then went on to describe the workhouse system, what life was like in the workhouses and then how to identify and find people who had (or may have) been in a workhouse. Finally she talked about where to find any records that may survive relating to a workhouse.


In contrast to the of the day by Roger Kershaw (see here), Helen did not read out her talk, but spoke to the slides.  Her slides effectively illustrated what she was talking about, and she was animated and interesting - all in all a talk that was well worth attending.

AFFHO Conference - Day 1 Keynotes

The 14th Australasian Conference on Genealogy and History opened this morning.  This triennial event is in Canberra this time, and is being attended by about 550 people. This year, for the first time at one of these conferences, 40 librarians attended a "Librarian's Day" on the day before the conference opened. 

The proceedings commenced with Kerrie Gray, conference convener, welcoming the attendees. She then introduced the Immediate Past President of the Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra (HAGSOC), Rosemary McKenzie, who told us all about the history of HAGSOC. Josh Taylor from Findmypast then told us about some of the recent and upcoming changes to Findmypast.  One of the exciting datasets that should be coming before the end of the year is the 1939 register from the UK, which was taken just before the outbreak of the second world war. As the 1931 census was destroyed in the bombing, and the 1941 census never took place due to the war, this is an important census substitute. This register is being indexed using "intelligent character recognition" which electronically "reads" the handwriting.

Josh Taylor from Findmypast

The keynote speaker, Dr Mathew Trinca, Director of the National Museum of Australia, then spoke on the importance of the stories of ourselves.  He himself was of Italian stock.  His mother was the Australian-born daughter of Italian migrants who arrived in the 1920s, and his father was a migrant himself who arrived shortly before the Second World War when he could see war looming on the horizon. These people's lives were their stories. They had both come from the same little town in the North of Italy near the Swiss border.  Matt's grandfather came out first to find a job and get settled, and then a few years later his mother and her children came out - later more children were born in Australia.

Dr Matt Trinca

Matt's father initially went to Melbourne, then worked in a gold mine in Kalgoorlie.  He kept a nugget of gold from that time and it is from that nugget that Matt's own wedding ring was made.

At university he started to think about his own story set against the past and his mixed Italian & Anglo-Celtic upbringing. He also started thinking about his father's story, and the hardships and prejudice he faced. He then highlighted two books written as migration memoirs.  The first, They're a weird mob by John O'Grady writing as Nino Cullota, approaches the subject from a humourous angel.  The other book he talked about, Romulus my Father by Raimond Gaita treats it in a more serious manner.

Matt made the point that all these stories, especially those about his parents' and grandparents' lives in Italy, help him make sense of who he is. He began to see his own family's past as connected to others. History is as much about the present conditions and preoccupations as it is about the past.  His own family history is closely connected to the pattern of Australia's past which is the history of a series of migrations, both before and after the Second World War.

Matt's Italian-Australian family

He then went onto talk about the "Defining Moments" project being run by the National Museum.  It encourages people to record the stories of people that connect them to the Museum's listed 100 defining moments in history, and acknowledges the connection between the history of a family and the history of the nation.

Strangely, since his talk was all about stories, he didn't encourage us to write down our own stories, or even to contribute to the web site, which would have been a logical conclusion to his talk.



The second Keynote of the day (during the immediate post-lunch session) was Roger Kershaw on Tracing Free Immigrants to Australia. I had attended a talk by Roger in Adelaide at the last AFFHO congress, which I thought was excellent, so had high expectations of this keynote speech.  Sadly I was rather disappointed. Firstly, Roger read the entire speech from notes. Most of the time his head was pointed down towards those notes, not looking at the audience. The keynote speaker in the morning had done the same thing, but his talk was captivating enough that we forgave that. Roger's talk was so full of important and interesting content that it was impossible to be able to write down all the notes I'd have liked to make - especially the references to certain document classes in the National Archives (those references weren't reflected on the slides, which would have made that task easier for me).  Disappointingly, his talk was also rather dry. While I was losing my place in the talk I was hoping that what he was reading was the contents of the paper he had submitted for the proceedings. However when I looked at my copy of the proceedings (on a USB drive) this was not the case.  I think I will probably be able to find the TNA references at least in that paper (which actually looks like it will be excellent and useful), but much of what he said is probably lost to me forever.


In summary, this was an important and interesting talk, that was let down by cramming too much information into a short time and by missing references to the sources of documents on the slides.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Visit to the Australian War Memorial


Today I visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. In exactly one month it will be 100 years since the ANZAC forces (and the English, French and other forces serving with the British) landed in the Dardanelles (i.e. Gallipoli).

I happened to arrive when a free guided tour was about to start.  As I had never been on one before I decided to join in.  It was supposed to last for 90 minutes, but it was closer to 2 hours by the time our guide finished.  At 11am the last post is sounded, which was 30 minutes into our tour, and I confess I got rather choked up.  The tour was excellent, and (as always) the war memorial was very moving.  Because we are going on a Western Front battlefields tour (where my grandfather served) in July, and because at the moment the focus is on Gallipoli and the First World War, I spent most of my time (after the tour) in the WW1 galleries.  These have been newly refurbished, but still feature the wonderful dioramas.

A picture speaks a thousand words, so I will fill this post with photos.

The Memorial Hall and Rolls of Honour Galleries

The WW1 Roll of Honour,
commemorating 62,000 Australian dead

The Unknown Soldier
"He is all of them. And he is one of us"

One of the boats from the Gallipoli landing

Lone Pine Diorama

Somme Winter Diorama

Somme Winter Diorama

Bullecourt Diorama

Ypres Diorama

When the Australians liberated Villiers-Bretonneux they
renamed all the German-named streets

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Year of Anniversaries

This year is a significant anniversary of a number of major historical events.

It is 100 years since the Australian, New Zealand, British and assorted other allied forces landed at Gallipoli.  Australians tend to assume that only themselves and their Kiwi cousins were at the Dardanelles, but other forces were also present. Amongst them were the British army, and accompanying 11th Division of the British Army was the 34th Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Amongst the members of that Field Ambulance was my son's great-great-grandfather, William Henry Bell.  William Bell had been born in 1880 in South Hetton, Co. Durham, and was working as a coal miner when war was declared. He enlisted early, and though his service records haven't survived, we know from his medal index card that he first served overseas in Egypt on 14 July 1915.  He was said to have enlisted at the same time as two of his brothers. Certainly his younger brother, George Robert Bell, has a regimental number two lower than William's, and their brother John James Bell also served in the first world war. The 34th Field Ambulance was not amongst the first landings at Gallipoli.  In fact they landed at Suvla Bay on 7 August 1915.  

In his book Great Britain's Great War Jeremy Paxman describes the chaos that surrounded their landing and their time in the Dardenelles. Unlike Paxman's Uncle Charlie, about whom he writes in the book, William Henry Bell did survive the Gallipoli campaign.  He was eventually sent to the Western Front, where he died on 25 April 1918, leaving a wife and three young children.
Private William Henry Bell on left. Some of the others in
the photo may be his brothers

It is also 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo.  My son also has an ancestor who was there. Thomas Fife was a gunner in Captain Mercer's "G" troop of the Royal Horse and Foot Artillery.  Sadly, as a member of the rank and file, there is little other information available about his involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. Thomas Fife also survived Waterloo (as he is known to have fathered children up to at least circa 1836, but when and where he did die is not known.

300 years ago the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion (known as "the Fifteen") took place. My son does have ancestors from Cowper in Fife (though I have been unable to trace them beyond the 19th century), so it's vaguely possible that he had an ancestor or relative involved in the Fifteen.

1415 is a date which is well known to lovers of Shakespeare. It was during that year that King Henry V defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt.  I have no idea whether my son or I have any relatives who fought in that battle.


And finally, this year also marks the 800th anniversary of King John signing the Magna Carta.  I suspect if my son had any ancestors there, they were merely holding the horse for one of the Barons, or doing his laundry, so some other menial task.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

More Rootstech lectures

I attended Audrey Collins' Talk Scandals in the Family. I had heard the talk before as a downloaded podcast from the National Archives, but it is just such a cracking good yarn that I thought I'd listen to it again.  As Audrey says, it's definitely in the "you couldn't make it up" category.  It revolves around the Boynton family of Burton Agnes and their shenanigans over a couple of generations. If you have never heard the podcast, I recommend you listen to it or download it from here.


I then attended Deciphering Old Handwriting Online, given by Amy Harris.  It was focusing on the training and resources available on the BYU website, which I had been completely unaware of. As well as interactive tutorials, the site also has a lot of articles on the background to writing - how the parchment was produced, how the pens were made etc. Amy said she always makes her students practice writing in the old scripts with old-style pens, as the act of doing the writing help you understand why some strokes are fainter than others and therefore helps build skills in deciphering the old texts. It was an excellent session and I look forward to exploring the site.


I have been reading Michael D Lacopo's blog Hoosier Daddy for some time and really enjoying it, so when I saw he was speaking I definitely wanted to attend one of his talks. She Came from Nowhere: A Case Study Approach to Solving a Difficult Genealogical Problem was based on the search for a woman from Virginia.  Despite the fact that I have absolutely no American connections, far less Virginian ones, I thought it was a great session and the general approach to finding the identity of a female ancestor was worth listening to. The important lessons from this lecture included the following:
  • If your brickwall is insurmountable re-assess the situation: are you looking for the right brickwall?
  • You MUST understand the social history that bound the people at the time. When you have a tough research problem put yourself in your ancestors' shoes.
  • Don't just look for your ancestor within a source - evaluate the source itself.  Are there gaps, was it made at the time, is it an original or a transcription, etc.

My next talk was Using Word for writing a Family History by Penelope Stratton. A lot of the session was devoted to how to make a NEGHS-style register report or ahnentahfel report, which is their standard. I personally think that most people would rather receive a more interesting style of report, but there are occasions when the more formal report is appropriate.  I learnt quite a few tips from the session which I can see myself using in the future, so it was worthwhile having attended.


Finally I went to a hands-on lab: Historical Photo Restoration with Photoshop Creative Cloud, run by Nancy Barnes.  This was a bit of a disappointment.  Not because of any problem with the teacher - Nancy was very, very good - but because there really wasn't enough time to get to the point where I really learnt anything except some new keyboard shortcuts (and those are actually very useful).  I have been using Photoshop for nearly 20 years, and most of what was covered was beginner level stuff. I really would have preferred this to be an advanced course. But then again, it's not as if it claimed to be one. It's a pity that living on the other side of the world I'm unlikely to get to another of her sessions on Photoshop that will go further than this session did, because (as I said) she was a very good teacher.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Final Rootstech Keynotes

The third day of Rootstech had two keynote speakers.  The first was A.J. Jacobs, journalist, author and editor of Esquire Magazine. He is also the instigator of the Global Family Reunion.  He had previously decided to spend a year living by every single "rule" or edict in the bible (not just the 10 commandments).  One of those was not to gossip - not an easy task for a journalist.  The bible also says not to shave the corners of your beard. As he wasn't sure what constituted the corners of the beard, he decided not to shave at all for a year.  He also spent a couple of weeks looking for an adulterer to stone.


A.J. Jacobs in front of a picture of himself unshaven after a year
More recently he was contacted by someone claiming to be a very distant cousin, saying that he had 80,000 people in his family tree.  This sparked Jacobs' interest in genealogy, and led to his conclusion that we are all related, and all cousins (I'm not going to enter into the debate - it would take much more space than is appropriate for a blog).

He regaled us with tales of his very obscure connections to Gwyneth Paltrow, President Obama, Donny Osmond and even Judge Judy. 

Just to show you how obscure some of these connections are, he has played his own version of "Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon". Jacobs' first cousin twice removed's wife's niece's husband's first cousin once removed's niece's husband is Kevin Bacon. Close family, then. Hmm.

He says that this inter-connectedness is important to help us understand how certain diseases are passed down.  He also said that discovering you are connected to someone famous like Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein can help bring history alive for younger people.  Fair enough.

Out of the discovery (or, at least belief) that we are all related, all cousins and part of one big family he came upon the idea of throwing a giant party - the Global Family Reunion (taking place in New York on 6th June) - to celebrate our shared heritage. He has Daniel Radcliffe, George Bush Senior and of course, cousin Gwenyth taking part. For those who can't be in New York they can hold Branch Reunions. All proceeds from the Reunion go to Alzheimer's research.

It is his hope that this event will help use realise that we are all related and that we'll be a little kinder to each other since we tend to treat family kinder than strangers. 

On each of our chairs in the hall was a sign saying "I am a cousin".  We all had to hold them up while he took a selfie (one to rival Ellen Degeneres's one), which was a bit of fun.


Now, I'm not going to try and prove or disprove the connections he is claiming because I am sure some of them are based on unsubstantiated and unsourced trees out there on the internet, but I promise the following is true:  my cousin's aunt's mother's milkman was Benny Hill!

The second keynote speaker was Donny Osmond.  I was not a Donny Osmond fan growing up (nor a fan of the Osmond Brothers), but I have to say his presentation was interesting - after all he's had 50 years in the public eye to refine the art of being an entertainer.


Donny Osmond loves family history. For him it is all about the stories. He says that the more you discover about your ancestors, the more you discover about yourself. This is what I believe too, as the experiences of our parents influence their characters and personalities, which influence the way they bring us up and also our characters and personalities. In turn, our parents were influenced by their parents, who were influenced by THEIR parents and so on back ad infinitum.

Donny sang a bit of his big hit Puppy Love with a video of a young Donny performing the song on the big screen. I was made to feel very old when our 23 year old Australian genealogical friend Caitlan Gow posted on facebook that she had never heard of Donny Osmond. She did know Puppy Love, but didn't realise that he had done the original.  Oh, dear.

The Donny of today singing in front of the Donny of the past

Donny then recounted the story of how the Osmonds learnt that they had achieved their first Number One single with One Bad Apple, which was an amusing story, and then backtracked to tell how they had been discovered by Walt Disney and then had appeared on The Andy Williams Show.  Much to the delight of the audience he then sang Moon River with lots of pictures of himself and his brothers when much younger showing on the screen behind him.



A young Donny with Andy Williams

Andy Williams with the young Osmonds

Andy Williams with slightly older Osmonds.
Those hairstyles certainly stand out

He made the point that his entire history has been documented and recorded since he was young, but was that true for the members of the audience? Aren't their lives as significant? Don't their children and  grandchildren deserve to know what they were like?  So he encouraged everyone to record their story, even if only on the voice recorder on their smart phone.


The ancestors of the Osmonds who came to America.
They didn't inherit their smiles from her

The full Osmond family

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Rootstech Speakers

I attended a couple of good talks today.  The first was by Rosalind McCutcheon and was entitled Irish Records: Beyond the Obvious.  Roz is responsible for the creation of the Early Irish Marriage Index, which collects marriage information from all sorts of unusual places.  It is definitely worth checking.

She was a very interesting and engaging speaker, and I certainly learnt about some new records.

She also informed us that an brand new Early Irish Birth index had been launched today. What wasn't pointed out was that full access is only available to members of the Irish Genealogical Research Society, but a surname search is available to anyone.


The Second was The Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk: How Curiosity and Persistence can uncover Buried Secrets by Tammy Hepps. Instead of being satisfied with collecting just names and dates, Tammy kept digging and discovered a story almost too incredible to be true.  Each time she thought she had discovered all their was to know she she had a few unanswered questions. It was a very funny talk and very interesting.  And I even learnt something.  Who knew that in the early twentieth century margarine was made from rendered animal fat and milk?  I certainly didn't!