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 oar 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 thefateful 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, has lead 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  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 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.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Maquarie Watchtower

Visitors to La Perouse may notice the old sandstone tower - a solitary sentinal near the middle of the grassy park that overlooks Botany Bay and Bear Island. 

Or they may not. It's not very big.

I must admit that I can't remember taking note of it when I first went to La Perouse to visit Bear Island in the 1970's. Little did I know then what a close connection it has with my family.

The Randwick and District Historical Society has an excellent encapsulation of the Tower's history here.  In a nutshell, it says that the Tower (also called the Barrack Tower) was probably built in the early 1820's although there is no known documentary evidence of its origin. Over the years it has been a military outpost, a Customs Station, a school and a residence for caretakers and tenants. The original sandstone tower was enhanced with skillions and outbuildings in the early days but these were destroyed by fire in 1957. The original tower was restored in 1961 and under the National Parks and Wildlife underwent major refurbishment in 2010.

So where does my family figure in all of this?  

Back in the wild Colonial days with smugglers, escaped convicts and other shifty characters looking for surreptitious ways into or out of old Sydney Town the entrance to Botany Bay was a critical outpost. Enter David Goodsir, my great great grandfather, appointed Landing Waiter at La Perouse in 1832 and later promoted to Coast Waiter.  David had worked as a Tidewaiter for the Colonial Customs Department since its establishment in 1827. This entity has since morphed into the Australian Border Force.

David and his wife Hannah (nee Coatman) married in 1833 and lived in the old Tower until David was appointed Tide Surveyor at Williamtown (Vic) in 1841. They had five children in that time - David James Cook (don't you just love that name?), Thomas, twins William and Alice Coatman and James Tod.  Little William died aged just 11 months. My great grandmother, Hannah, was born in Williamtown in late 1841.

I love visiting the Tower.  I touch its weathered walls. I sit on the flat sandstone outcrops nearby and imagine the Goodsir children playing there. I gaze eastward and see the Pacific Ocean as David and Hannah would have known it.  I turn westward to take in busy Port Botany, Bare Island, Kurnell Oil refinery and Sydney Airport and compare it to the fledgling settlement of fishermen's cottages bordered by the scrubby bushland and marshes that the Goodsirs knew. I see cars, buses, trucks, yatchs, cargo ships and jumbo jets and wonder what they would have made of our 20th Century civilization.  And I remember the stories about this family and their time at Macquarie Tower. 

Anne Lorimer Sheppard is my third cousin also descended from this Goodsir family. We co-authored The Tidewaiter's Legacy (2012, Sydney, Pergola Press) to remember this family and several generations of their descendants.  In Chapter 1 Anne describes the Goodsirs' time at La Perouse, bringing them to life and fitting them into their part of history.

My favourite story about David and Hannah was found in Baron Carl von Hugel's New Holland Journal in a report he wrote after his visit to the Tower in 1834.

[I was] hospitably received by Goodsir who appeared as the picture of domestic bliss and utter content as I have seldom seen and I was deeply moved. Living here in a dilapidated building with the rain breaking in from all sides, cut off from the world, together with his young wife, he finds his happiness in her and his son - still but a few weeks old. He invited me to dine but I refused.(1)

Thank you Baron von Hugel - I too was deeply moved.

Few are privileged to have a close association with such 
a unique building. Discovering my family's connection to the old Macquarie Tower has been one of the special moments on my path to the past.

Macquarie Tower 2016 (Lyn Hancock)

(1) Hügel, Carl, Freiherr von & Clark, Dymphna, 1916-2000 & Hnatiuk, R. J & State Library of New South Wales 1994,New Holland journal : November 1833-October 1834, Melbourne Melbourne University Press at the Miegunyah Press in association with the State Library of New South Wales

Friday, 16 March 2018

Why blog?

These are my thoughts as I stand on the shore of the Ocean of Blogging and contemplate dipping a toe in.

Discovering my past is an exciting adventure. And it is not just the family discoveries - it's also the journeys and adventures that I'm having along the way that are memorable.

I am privileged to have been involved with helping others to discover their path to the past. Every family is different and the path to finding them is also unique.

This blog will include the things that have astounded me, given me a buzz or amused me as I have travelled numerous and various paths to the past ... not only special family finds but the events, characters, places and adventures I have encountered along the way. Even if no one else reads this blog, I am recording these tales as part of my own story.

Who knows what else will emerge. Let's see where the tide takes me. No hard and fast rules about frequency or subject although I expect family history will be the major theme.

So I wonder: Will I sink or will I swim?  I won't know until I try it so ...