Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Review - Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters

I'm constantly amazed by (and extremely grateful to) the huge number of volunteers who selflessly give their time and expertise to create databases which assist family historians.

Mary-Anne Warner and other volunteers are transcribing passenger lists held by the State Archives and Records Authority of New South Wales (SRNSW) and making them available on the Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters website. 

This unique website provides searchable access to a huge database of shipping records. It is an ongoing initiative and currently (January 2019) passenger lists from 1845 to early 1922 have been transcribed. The transcriptions are linked to scans of the original records held at SRNSW.

Shipping records are one of the major brick walls for Australian family historians and this site has the potential to help find that missing arrival.  It is not a sophisticated site by modern standards but it is well worth taking the time to understand how it works to get the most out of it.

There is both a Browse and a Search facility.  The Browse displays a calendar of ship arrivals for each month between 1845 and 1922. Clicking on a month shows all the ships arriving in that month and drilling down to a ship shows a transcription of the crew and passenger list.  

And here is the icing on the cake - 
scroll down to the bottom of the transcription to find the red link (or links) 
to an image of the original passenger list.

Above: Example of links at the end of transcribed passenger list retrieved using Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters

If you know the name of the ship but not the date of arrival take the advice on the website and search the SRNSW Index Vessels arrived in Sydney for all arrival dates for that ship.

The Search facility enables a name search. And this is where it can get a bit tricky. However with a bit of persistence anything is possible.

Here are some key points to remember when searching:

  1. The search is performed using Google's Custom Search Engine across the website.  It searches for the words you type into the search box in ALL of the transcribed lists on this site.  
  2. A search for (say) "John Smith" will find all the lists containing the name "John Smith" but it will also find lists containing "Mary Smith" and "John Brown".
  3. The search is not name specific.  That means it will look at all the characters in the transcribed document and may find a match with the transcriber's name, the ship's name or an occupation.
  4. Google will find all the matches and display how many were found but the list of matches returned is limited to 10 pages of 10 matches i.e. 100. The "John Smith" search finds over 6,000 results but only displays the first 100.
  5. A search can be sorted by relevance or date.  Relevance is based on number of times a word appears and if it is in a heading.  Be wary of using a date sort as that applies to the date transcribed - not date of ship arrival.

This may sound daunting, especially if you are looking for that proverbial "John Smith".  But there are ways around it.

  1. Include a year.  You may have a reasonable idea of the year your proverbial John arrived so include that in the search parameters - i.e. "1867 John Smith".  This will limit the finds to transcriptions  for that year.  There may be a few strays that are picked up because of an "1867" in a microfilm number but these are usually minimal.
  2. Include names of others who may have been on the same ship i.e. a wife or a brother.  Be careful about children's names as they are not always specified. e.g. "1867 John Mary Smith"
  3. Try different spellings.

Final thoughts:

  1. Have realistic expectations. Remember that many of these lists were of people who arrived as unassisted passengers.  Their details were generally not recorded as assiduously as those wonderful convict indents or the assisted passenger lists. A name may be simply recorded as "Mr Smith" or "J Smith". The steerage passengers may not even rate a name mention - just a head count. i.e. 10 men, 5 women, 4 boys, 2 girls.
  2. Like many things Family History it may take persistence and a bit of lateral thinking to find what you're looking for. 
  3. The creators and transcribers associated with this project are to be congratulated and thanked for their initiative and dedication. The number of hours that have gone into delivering this valuable information is unimaginable.
  4. I'd be grateful to hear from anyone who can add to this review. Hints on how to get the best out of it are especially welcome.

Friday, 25 January 2019


Family History is fun.  Family History is exciting.  Family History is satisfying.

Those moments when you've found that elusive shipping record or discovered another ancestor are all the sweeter if the chase has been long and hard.  That's why so many people become addicted.

It is easy to forget about recording the source while basking in the glory of a discovery.  But the victory is hollow if you can't repeat the find or if you can't direct others to it.  Without references to establish its authenticity a story is no better than a fairy tale.

Image from:  https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/background">Background vector created by rawpixel.com - www.freepik.com

It is worth investing some time in learning to create reliable references (citations) for your source material.  Unlike the moment of discovery, sourcing isn't much fun and it surely isn't very exciting.  However, it is satisfying to do it properly and know that your discovery is recorded for posterity.

It's beyond the scope of this brief blog to teach how to source.  There are innumerable books and websites that do that very well.    There are many acceptable styles of citing that can be followed.  It's best find the style that suits you and stick to it.  To get started just google "citations for family history" for suggestions.

Citation format is generally dependent on the type of source. For instance information found in a book is cited differently to information found in a journal or in an online database.  A good rule of thumb to follow is to record who created the source, what is the source, when was it created and where was it found.  To put it simply:

Learning how to cite sources properly will ensure that those Eureka moments are preserved.

Monday, 23 July 2018

How do you spell that?

I've been doing battle with the New South Wales Birth Marriage and Death Indexes recently.

It is a wonderful resource for family historians seeking people who lived - all or part of their lives - in New South Wales (Australia).  I am truly grateful for free access to this online database offered by the New South Wales Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages.  So my "battle" is not with the providers of the resource but rather with finding the person or persons I'm seeking.

I usually search by name.  I'm pretty sure most people would do the same. Recently I was looking for a Herbert family and you'd think that would be fairly straight forward. Nope. Not all of them were in the database as "Herbert", some of them were "Herberts" and still others were "Hubert".  Perhaps there were other variations I still haven't found.  The search engine doesn't provide a soundex facility but it does provide string matching (*) and character matching (?).  It is up to the user to be creative and look for all the possible variations. It helps to know how both the original records and the indexes were created. 

Image courtesy CC0
Civil registration began in New South Wales 1 March 1856.  Before that baptisms, marriages and burials were recorded by the churches. Most events were recorded by the officiating minister or priest.  He wrote what he heard - and remember that many people could not read and write in those days.  So when William Herbert married Mary Jones, the minister might have written his name as "Hubert". Or maybe he wrote "Herbert" but left a long squiggly tail on the last "t".

The church may have written (no typewriters in the early days) regular lists (called transcripts) of baptisms, burials and marriages to send to the administrative offices of their church. In some cases it is these transcripts that have survived rather than the original church records. And the trouble with transcripts is human error.  If the original writing was messy or the document faded or damaged the transcriber needed to make a guess.  So when William Herbert's marriage record was copied, the long squiggly tail on the last "t" might have looked like an "s", and he became William Herberts.

Civil registration forms were not widely used until about 1918, so many registrations were notified verbally.  The problems emerging here are the same as those encountered with the church records.  Basically, mis-hearing, bad writing and transcription errors.

NSW Registry staff kept indexes to assist in locating records. There may be errors in these indexes created by humans.

When looking for that elusive ancestor, I find it helps to put yourself in the shoes of the person who created the record you are seeking.  This can be applied to virtually all online searches - think who created the record and how they did it.

A detailed explanation of the NSW Registry records can be found here

Monday, 16 July 2018

Just By Chance

Have you ever thought about the decisions your ancestors made (or were made for them) that affected your life?

It amazes me to think that my great great grandfather was sentenced to death by hanging for larceny.  A stay of execution saved him from the gallows and sentenced him to transportation to Australia instead.  He subsequently fathered four children, three of whom survived to have large families of their own.

All of his descendants, hundreds - perhaps thousands, exist because of the fateful stroke of a pen that stayed his execution. If he had not survived would his wife have married someone else and had other children?  It is totally mind-boggling to ponder these possibilities.

And this is just one of the historical global and personal events that resulted is each of us being here.

Is it any wonder that knowing our family history is so fascinating?  Not only does it show us who our ancestors were, their stories reveal how the events of their lives and the decisions they made affected us.

One final thought.  Our lives and our decisions will affect our descendants. What a responsibility!

Friday, 29 June 2018

Like a Message in a Bottle

We all love to hear those stories of finding a message in a bottle on a remote seashore and how it changed lives. We don't expect to find a message in a bottle ourselves.

CC0 Creative Commons
But when you think about it, family history discoveries can sometimes be like finding a message in a bottle from a long-gone person. This was brought home to me last week when I found a short notice in the "Missing Friends, Messages Etc" section of the Argus running on 16th, 17th and 18th July 1857. It reads:
CATHERINE DORNEY acquaints her sister Margaret, wife of John Brown, blacksmith, of her arrival. Mr. O'Hara's, Prahran.

Tragically, Margaret had died three and a half years before that optimistic notice was published.  I am left wondering if John Brown, or someone who knew of him, read the notice and delivered the sad news of Margaret's death to Catherine.

Margaret Dorney was my third great grandmother. She had married John Brown, a blacksmith, in Cork, Ireland in 1841.  They immigrated to Australia in 1842 and lived in Melbourne and Adelaide.  Margaret died of consumption in Melbourne in 1853 leaving a family of four children, one of whom was named Catherine and known as Kitty.  

Until now I knew nothing of Margaret's family in Ireland.  But that little notice, so full of joyful anticipation, led me to her sister almost 161 years after it was published. I've learned that Catherine was just 17 when she arrived in Australia and so may not even have been born when Margaret left Ireland.

I'd like to find Catherine's descendants, if any exist.  Perhaps we can meet one day and remember our Irish grandmothers who were sisters - destined never to know each other. And then I'll feel that Catherine's notice in the Argus, like a message in a bottle, has found a destination and played its part in the Dorney family history.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Three Ps

Most serious family historians are unashamedly pedantic. That's fine – family historians need to be accurate. 

However, being overly pedantic can lead to becoming impatient and intolerant. Sometimes irritation with information that is not strictly correct in one part of a story can lead to missing vital clues in another.

Those public family trees scattered around the internet can be frustrating when they contain information that is obviously incorrect (i.e. WRONG!).  I can understand mistakes in choosing the wrong "John Smith" but find it difficult to figure how an ancestor could become a parent at 4 years of age. You get the picture. 

For many years, I've been looking for one of my families who lived in Uxbridge. They had 17 children and lived in abject poverty in the first half of the 1800s.  Many of the children died in infancy but some just disappeared, seemingly into thin air, between one census and the next.  My breakthrough came when I discovered a public tree on Ancestry.com.  Some of the information didn't agree with my findings and normally my pedantic, impatient, intolerant side would opt out with a swift click on the back arrow -  but this time I hung in there.  

Persistence paid off and lead to finding three of my missing people living in New Zealand. Whoo-Hoo!!

So while it's good to be pedantic, this example shows that family researchers need to be patient and persistent too.

CC Image

Thursday, 12 April 2018

True or False?

Most of us have a few family stories that have persisted.  Mum told us something her mother told her and we tell our children. The story becomes family lore. Maybe even family LAW.

Daily Herald (London) 10 Sep 1956
One of my mother's stories was that her great grandmother was Sarah Glenister and Sarah lived to be 100 years old and received 10 pounds of grapes from the Queen.  There was even a 1956 newspaper clipping from England to prove it. Gosh! Our family in the newspaper! It must be true!  AND ... we had a photo of great-great grandma Sarah, looking very severe in a high buttoned blouse.

My mother died in 2000 and it wasn't until a few years after that I seriously began to tracing my maternal relatives. I'd known my grandmother, one of the people I most admire ... but that's another story. And Mum had often spoken of her grandmother, Alice Higbed, born Alice Glenister.  Alice emigrated from England in 1915 as a widow, arriving in Australia on the same ship as her daughter, Evelyn, and Evelyn's husband Charles Brooker. Evelyn and Charles were my mother's parents.

I knew Alice had been born in England about 1860 as she died in 1936 aged 76.  But I couldn't find her birth registration.    Let's do a little bit of maths.... Alice's mother turned 100 in 1956... um that makes her birth year 1856. Hang on, how can that be? Alice was born in 1860 so her mother would have only been 4?

I ordered the marriage certificate of Alice Glenister and William Higbed from 1880. Alice's father was shown as John Glenister but Alice had signed her name Alice Maydon [sic] Glenister. The light was beginning to dawn.  I found Alice's birth in 1880 as Alice "Maydom" and, on ordering the birth certificate, found that her mother was Emma Maydom but no father was listed.

From there it was relatively easy to establish that Emma Maydom married John Glenister in 1864 and they had three sons. The eldest son, John, married Sarah Jane Fryer in 1887 and Sarah became Sarah Jane Glenister. It would seem that the Sarah Glenister who my mother thought was her great-grandmother was actually her grandmother's step sister-in-law.

Here's a little diagram to help you visualise the relationships:

Elizabeth West             Emma Maydom .............. m    John Glenister
|                                    |                                          |
William Higbed    m    Alice Maydom                  John Glenister   m  Sarah Jane Fryer
                               Evelyn Higbed (my grandmother)

But we're not quite finished as Sarah Jane Fryer gives her birth year in various censuses as 1861, 1862 or 1863 which doesn't fit with her turning 100 in 1956.  Unless she stretched the truth a little. That is a problem for another day but for the moment I have proven that my great-great grandmother was Emma Maydom born 1860 and not Sarah Glenister born 1856.

And who was the woman in the photo? That mystery is still be be solved. She could be Emma Maydom (my grandmother's maternal grandmother) but the is no resemblance to Alice Maydom, so I suspect she is my grandmother's paternal grandmother, Elizabeth West.

So don't blindly believe all those fascinating family stories. Check them out for yourself and more likely than not you'll find the truth is even more intriguing.