Monday, 3 December 2012

Serving the Empire

When he disembarked from the Regina in Quebec, our great grandfather apparently travelled to Mimico, Ontario to meet his uncle. What else can we learn about T J McALLISTER?

The information that he may have served in the first World War was an important starting point. Library and Archives Canada provides a search engine for details of soldiers of the CEF in that war. It showed 146 men with the surname McAllister served Canada.

Seven were called Thomas McAllister; but only two are indexed as having the names Thomas James. When their attestation papers are examined, one of those two (born in Belfast in 1888) does not use the second James in any of the six places his name is written in full.

That leaves just one Thomas James McALLISTER born July 7, 1879 in Cookstown, Co Tyrone (not Corkstown as previously suggested).

Could this be the brother of our 2xgreat grandfather?

Friday, 30 November 2012

Is that you, Uncle?

I began the search for our great grandfather with the last document we can connect to him, the passenger manifest of the SS Regina on its voyage to Canada. Information from that source confirmed that this was the father of Robert Joseph (b 1924) and suggested a likely birth year for further research. That line of investigation has led us to assert that his parents were Robert and Eliza Jane.

There was one further piece of information in the manifest. In addition to listing anyone who they expected to follow them to Canada, immigrants were asked to specify the person in Canada with whom they proposed to live.

In response, great grandfather Robert provided the following:

Uncle Mr J McAlister 67 [Ib?]ay Avenue Mimico Ont.

If we could identify this person and if he was a "real" uncle, then we would have a further insight into the identity of the previous generation of McAllisters.

The town of Mimico now lies within the boundaries of the city of Toronto but it has a proud history reflected in the blog Town of Mimico - Soldiers of the First World War which in February 2002 included information about

T. J. McAllister
According to his attestation papers dated September 25, 1915 at Toronto, Thomas James McAllister was born on July 7, 1879 at Corkstown, Tyrone, Ireland. ... In the 1921 Toronto City directory he is listed as a fruit dealer living on the south side of Hay Avenue, Mimico.

A copy of that 1921 City Directory is still available and it does indeed list Thomas McAllister on Hay Avenue on page 89.

It also lists some thirty other McAllisters living in different parts of Toronto, but this does appear worthy of further investigation.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Loss unacknowledged

At the 1911 Census, Robert McALLISTER listed his status as married but did not include his wife Eliza Jane on the return. Were they living apart, or was Robert a widower refusing to acknowledge the fact?

In 1901, there had been five people named Eliza Jane McALLISTER.

By 1911, there were just four.

Three of them match precisely to the 1901 data. For some inexplicable reason, a 19 year old serving girl has become a 51 year old publican but neither of them could possibly be the mother of Albert, Robert and William (and according to the census return of Robert Snr, two other children).

It is possible that our Eliza Jane has crossed over the water; but no-one matching her details was recorded in the United Kingdom Census of that year.

The evidence is growing that Eliza Jane McALLISTER (possibly our 2xgreat grandmother) died between 1906 (when William was born) and 1911.

But there is no record of her death in the Belfast area (or anywhere else in Co Antrim or Co Down).

At the 1901 Census, Robert reported that both he and Eliza Jane had been born in Co Tyrone. Perhaps the family had returned to their roots. The 1910 edition of the Belfast and Ulster Directory does show that the house in which they would be living at the following year's census (in Chambers Street) was vacant.

A search of the Civil Registration Index for Omagh District (in Tyrone) showed that Eliza Jane McALLISTER died in the first quarter of 1909. Her estimated birth year was given as 1868 while the 1901 Census data would suggest 1873 for our Eliza Jane, but due allowance must be made for Irish ages.

If this is our 2xgreat grandmother, what should we now make of Robert's reference to 5 live births with 4 children still living? Did Eliza Jane have more children after William? Did she die in child-birth? If so, where is the missing child?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

An interesting neighbourhood

It is common to characterise a residential area by the type of people commonly found there. We refer to the stockbroker belt or a battlers' suburb conveniently ignoring the fact that there may be a wide diversity of people in those communities.

In the course of confirming the residence of Robert and Eliza Jane McALLISTER on Howard Street South, I examined the 1901 edition of the The Belfast and Province of Ulster Directory. This listed their near neighbours as follows:

  • 79. Holmes, Alex., plumber
  • 81. Walker, Wm., linen lapper
  • 83. Standhaft, P., professor of music
  • 85. Ferguson, G., carpenter
  • 87. Greer, A., brass founder
  • 89. King, Mrs.
  • 91. McKee, Mrs.
  • 93. Welch, David, seaman
  • 95. Stockman, S., linen lapper
  • 97. McAllister, R., linen lapper
  • 99. Lindsay, J., phrenologist
  • 101. Davidson, W., hackle maker
  • 80. Hutchinson, J., sail maker
  • 82. Lightbody, W., boot maker
  • 84. Russell, Wm., hide broker
  • 86. McCloy, D., caulker
  • 88. Clark, D., car driver
  • 90. Maginnis, Ed., labourer
  • 92. Thompson, Mrs.
  • 94. Henderson, A., labourer
  • 96. Welch, Chas., carpenter
  • 98. Bell, Jas., winding master
  • 100. Vacant

Some features of the list were not surprising. Two other men in the street also worked as linen lappers. The mill was probably within walking distance of their homes. James Bell from number 98 almost certainly worked at the same place. A winding master was responsible for securing the thread on the spindles before they were fitted to the loom.

Mr Davidson (at number 101) was not engaged in the manufacture of feather decorations for the bonnets of Highland warriors. The hackles that he made were combs used for separating the threads of flax at the beginning of processing.

Most of the rest of those on the list were employed in recognisable trades or as labourers; with the notable exception of Messrs Standhaft and Lindsay.

I have found no other reference to the Professor of Music at number 83. Although he is listed in the Directory, by the night of the Census there was someone else living in that house. Where did he go? Was he actually working as a musician or a teacher of music?

John Linday, the phrenologist, was aged 74 and living alone at the time of the Census although he described himself as "married". It is fascinating to speculate on what conversations he may have held with his neighbours, and on how they might have regarded him.

Taken together, they certainly made this neighbourhood hard to stereotype.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Desperately seeking Eliza Jane

I had identified a candidate for our great grandfather, Robert Joseph McALLISTER, in the 1911 Census in a household made up of a father Robert and three sons. Curiously, Robert Snr (possibly our 2xgreat grandfather) listed himself as "married" with 4 living children but the return includes no reference to his wife.

My search for the wife of Robert (born about 1870 in Co Tyrone) took me back to the 1901 Census.

At that time he and Albert were living with Eliza Jane in house 97 in Howard Street South (Windsor Ward, Antrim). This area of Belfast has undergone many changes over the past century and Howard Street is no longer residential, but it can be located not very far from the site of the 1911 home (Chambers Street once ran from Donegall Pass to Posnett Street.)

There were four other people named Eliza Jane McAllister in that census. Three were Roman Catholic, including a mother and daughter. The fourth (a Presbyterian aged 24) was recorded as the head of a family of four younger siblings.

Can I use this information to learn more about the fate of the mother of Albert, Robert and William?

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A soldier's Will

Until yesterday, all that I knew about Robert BURTON (the eldest brother of our great grandmother Christina) was contained in my post Not just ANZACs describing his death at Suvla Bay.

Now I have on my screen an image of his informal will made on a page of his official notebook left blank for that purpose. In truth it tells me nothing more than I already knew, but it is written in his own hand and carries his signature.

The National Archives of Ireland has made available for searching 9,000 wills of enlisted and non-commissioned soldiers from the thirty-two counties of Ireland who fought in the British Army in the World War I and in the South African war of 1899-1902. There were more than 35,000 Irish deaths in that period, so there will be many disappointed searchers.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A strange census entry

At the 1911 Census, the form carried the following instruction under the heading Particulars as to Marriage:

State for each Married Woman entered on this Schedule the number of:-
Completed years the present marriage has lasted
Total children born alive to the present marriage
Children still living

The section of the form completed by our (possible) 2xgreat grandfather is shown here.

It indicates that a 20 year marriage had produced 5 children, 4 of whom are still living.

But there is NO married woman listed on the form; just Robert Snr and three sons.

He has placed the information about the length of the marriage and children against his own name.

How should we interpret this information?

Friday, 9 November 2012

A missing great-grandfather

When Robert Joseph McALLISTER (our great grandfather) sailed from Ireland in November 1926, his age was recorded as 24 years. At the time of the Census in April 1911, he would have been 8 or 9 years old.

There are 12 boys named Robert McAllister aged between 4 and 13 recorded in that Census. Eleven of those 12 were living in County Antrim. Of the three who were 8 years old, two were called Robert Joseph.

The family of Robert Joseph from Altmore Street was Roman Catholic. The McAllisters of Chambers Street, Cromac were Presbyterian and the head, Robert (of course), worked as a Linen Lapper.

The third eight-year-old Robert lived in County Westmeath west of Dublin. His father was a saddler and a member of the Church of Ireland.

The circumstantial evidence for the Robert McALLISTER aged 51 of Cromac being our 2xgreat grandfather includes that we know this was the general area in which Robert lived until he left Belfast, his future wife's family lived in the same district, were protestant and also worked in the linen industry.

If that is the case, where was Robert's mother in 1911 and more importantly, who was she?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

A broken family

Our great grandfather, Robert Joseph McALLISTER was born in Belfast in 1902. He married Christina BURTON on New Year's Eve 1923. They had two sons, Robert (b 1924) and Andrew (b 1925).

On 13 November 1926, Robert Joseph McALLISTER set sail for Canada on the SS Regina. The family would never be together again.

Christina's version of events is contained in a statutory declaration made in March 1928 to support her application to enter Australia with the children.

My husband the said Robert Joseph McAllister deserted me and emigrated to Canada in the month of November 1926 ...

Robert's view of the separation can be seen in the passenger list of the Regina where he responded to following instruction

by entering
Mrs C McAllister (wife 24 yrs),
Robert J. 27/12 Andrew B. 11/12,
32 Toronto Street Belfast

Which version is true? In the Queensland Immigration files there is an copy of a letter dated 14th March 1927 noting that "... nomination of Christina McAllister and family has been cancelled, as they are proceeding to Canada".

None of this was ever the subject of conversation within the family. The ramifications of the breach were such that Robert (the son) never spoke a word to his own children about either of his parents or his brother. A line had been drawn under an unhappy past that was not to be revisited.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Maritime negotiation

Industrial relations involving seamen in Australia have a reputation for being robust. The tale of the Persia indicates that this situation has a long history.

The story begins with an incident during the voyage when two sailors broke into the single women's quarters. Apparently the Captain decided that the offenders would be dealt with at the end of the voyage.

True to his word, Captain Smith contacted the authorities in Gladstone on the day the ship anchored to have the two men taken into custody. When the local police came on board, they were surrounded by more than a dozen crewmates of the accused, who challenged that if the locals were to arrest any of them it would mean taking them all.

The matter was settled without violence and 15 men, all from the same watch on the Persia, were taken off the ship, tried for insubordination and sentenced to three months imprisonment. They were duly transferred to Brisbane under guard on another vessel.

It was claimed that the arrest of the first two offenders had been used by their mates as a convenient excuse and the threats to the Police were simply a ruse to get themselves arrested as well. The men were reportedly unhappy with the Mate who oversaw their watch and decided that a spell in Brisbane's new Green Hills Gaol (on the site of the Petrie Terrace Barracks entertainment complex) would be preferable to continuing the voyage to China and then on to South America.

This cynical view was reinforced when after serving a little under a month of their sentence, the men were released into the custody of Captain Smith and returned to the Persia. The Courier of 28 December carried a report of the almost inevitable outcome.

It is amazing that this trouble did not boil over at sea between Plymouth and Gladstone with terrible consequences for the immigrants (and for our family history!)

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A full life at sea

The voyage of the Persia from Plymouth to Brisbane in 1861 was considered a good one in that "only" 20 of the 454 emigrants who embarked died en route. The Moreton Bay Courier reported that "on the whole they had been well treated and well cared for on the passage—every one of them speaking in the highest commendation alike of captain (Smyth), doctor, and chief officer."

The doctor in question was Surgeon-Superintendent Clarence Chapman. The Surgeon-Superintendent was to responsible for the welfare of the immigrants as the agent of the ship's hirer (in this case, the Queensland Goverment). In theory at least, Dr Chapman had the authority to over-rule Captain Smyth in circumstances where the business interests of the ship's owners conflicted with the needs of the people on board.

In some cases, the Surgeon-Superintendent was supported by a Matron who took principal responsibility for "women's issues" with a particular focus on the moral well-being of the single women.

To ensure the Surgeon-Superintendent carried out his duties with due care and attention, his fee was based upon the number of "statute adults" disembarked alive at the end of the journey. For delivering 438 persons including 4 born at sea, Chapman would probably have earned £387.10.0 (since children were paid as fractions).

It would not have been easy to secure the services of a suitably qualified and experienced medical practitioner prepared to be on call for more than 400 patients 24 hours a day for up to 100 days in very challenging conditions. In an ordinary voyage, he might need to deal with difficult births, various infectious "fevers", the consequences of poor nutrition and questionable hygiene, and have to perform surgery for accidental injuries. Hiring the "wrong" man as Surgeon-Superintendent could have literally fatal consequences.

Unless a young doctor undertook the role as a means of moving to the colonies to begin a new life, he faced another 100 day journey home before he could resume his usual practice. Little wonder then that migration agents needed to devise ever more elaborate schemes to make it attractive for a proven man to undertake more than one trip.

In this respect, the immigrants of the Persia were very well served. In 1861, Dr Chapman was making his sixth voyage from England to Australia in just eight years.

  • July 1854 Plantagenet 247 adults and 72 children (1 death) to Sydney
  • April 1855 Speedy 302 adults and 114 children (2 deaths) to Sydney
  • July 1856 Ben Nevis 269 adults and 65 children (no deaths) to NSW
  • September 1857 Admiral Lyons 371 adults and 77 children (12 deaths) to NSW
  • December 1858 John and Lucy 334 adults and 59 children (no deaths) to Melbourne

From The Sydney Morning Herald 16 Sept 1857

Dr Chapman had not lazed away 1859-60 at home. He sailed aboard the Euxine carrying the wives and families of soldiers to India. In a 101 day journey, only one of 224 adults was lost, but 74 of the 238 children who boarded the vessel on 14 October 1859 did not complete the journey to be reunited with their fathers.

When the Persia sailed from Brisbane for China in December 1861, Dr Chapman remained on board. He served as Surgeon-Superintendent when she transported a large group of indentured labourers to Georgetown (Guyana) to work as cane cutters.

After his eventual return to England, Clarence Chapman undertook at least three four more voyages to Australia. He arrived in Port Adelaide aboard the Mary Shepherd in April 1863, then in Sydney on the Castle Eden in November 1864, and sailed into Sydney once again on 14 October 1865 aboard the Venilia.

In July of 1870, Clarence Chapman was commended in the Melbourne press for his work in bring more than 400 new settlers to Victoria aboard the Corona

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

New insight into an early arrival

Until a few days ago, I believed that our 3xgreat grandmother Margaret HEATHWOOD arrived in Queensland on December 3 1861. That is the date written at the top of the passenger list of the Persia, and so it is the one included in the index created by the Queensland State Archives.

The recent availability on-line of the images of many passenger lists for voyages to Moreton Bay provides an ideal opportunity to revisit some things that we thought we knew. And it is proving a very interesting exercise.

The second last line of the list for the Persia includes a surprising reference to "Arrived Port Curtis".

It is extremely unlikely that the whole complement of more than 400 immigrants would have sailed on to Central Queensland after berthing in Brisbane. Was the Persia one of the first vessels to enter Queensland through Torres Strait so that its first landfall was not Moreton Bay as I had assumed?

A search through The Moreton Bay Courier for December (and then November) 1861 revealed that the answer was "no" and "yes". After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Persia had followed the conventional route south of Australia but then by-passed Port Phillip, Port Jackson and Moreton Bay and sailed directly on to Port Curtis. She dropped anchor off the township of Gladstone in the morning of Saturday 16 November 1861.

Approximately half of the immigrants disembarked there and secured employment in the surrounding districts. It was reported that agents for employers in Rockhampton were offering a £10 premium on annual wages to induce servant girls to move on from Gladstone where the going rate was only £25 per annum plus board and lodgings.

Margaret HEATHWOOD was apparently unmoved by these offers and she was among those (mainly Irish) immigrants who remained on board for the trip south to Moreton Bay arriving to begin her new life, as I had always known, on 3 December.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

What will you do when you grow up?

Many trees show evidence of a link across generations in the activities they carried out. Aristocratic families passed rich lands to their descendents. Newly-emerged captains of industries and commerce bequeathed factories and emporia to the next generation. Artisans passed the skills of the family trade from parents to children.

In one branch of our family, the connection is not so obvious. Across four generations, our COLEY ancestors worked in different aspects of a single industry—transport— as new technologies transformed the ways in which people and goods were moved.

Philemon (our 3xgreat grandfather) was employed on the great canals that carried industrial goods throughout the midlands. Although Philemon's father is unknown, his step-father (Richard Holloway) is listed in the 1841 census as a "Boatman".

When Philemon and Sylvia brought the family to Australia, they probably believed that they had left that life behind them as they set themselves up in agriculture. Their son Philemon Lewis (our 2xgreat grandfather) followed his father on the land but when economic conditions changed, he sought employment with the railways.

Great grandfather Alexander Clarence took a job as a conductor with the Brisbane Tramways that lasted throughout his working life.

Our grandfather, Ronald Alexander, pursued a number of careers in a full life, but for a significant period worked as a booking clerk with Australian National Airways.

Very few of us fully understand the images and impressions that we absorb as children and the impact they may have on our later lives. The experiences of the COLEY family in transport suggests they can be stronger than we might think.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Tragedy closer to home

In an earlier post, Born on the high seas, I described a little of the privations suffered by immigrants and, as an example, referred to the terrible death toll on the SS Corona in November and December of 1883. No fewer than twelve children less than 1 year old died on that voyage.

Today the Queensland State Archives released significant enhancements to their Index to Registers of Immigrant Ships' Arrivals 1848-1912. This prompted me to revisit some of what I thought to be settled parts of our tree, in case there was something new.

A high priority was to look for an image of the passenger list for the Corona. My previous study of the arrival of our 2xgreat grandmother Jane DAVIES had been limited to transcripts.

What I found was the explanation for why we had never been able to locate details of Jane's half-sister, Mary living in Queensland. Little Mary DAVIES was one of the dozen infants who did not reach Moreton Bay.

Just as our ancestors' stories are never finished, neither are our searches.

A solitary vice?

I have spent quite some time over the past week contributing to the new site being established at Stack Exchange. Genealogy and Family History is described as "Q&A for expert genealogists and people interested in genealogy or family history". The site is now in public beta which means procedures are not yet fixed but all are welcome to give it a try.

profile for Fortiter at Genealogy and Family History, Q&A for expert genealogists and people interested in genealogy or family history

The early discussions have caused me to reflect on a number of fundamentals about what I do and how I go about it. Among the issues kicked around have been:

  • What are the differences between genealogy and family history?
  • Why do genealogists use the same terminology as historians, but with different meanings?
  • If you consider yourself a family historian, which discipline do you adopt?
  • When does information become evidence?
  • What is the significance or the value of an unsuccessful search?

But the big question that has been exercising my mind is "How collaborative can family history be?".

I know we all enjoy participation in meetings of our local societies, attending conferences and engaging in on-line conversation. But isn't the real work of a family historian done when inhaling paper dust in a reading room or bathed in the late-night glow of your computer screen.

There can be a real challenge in puzzle-solving to break a chink in someone else's brickwall, but the feeling is just not the same as with one of your own. Tales of my great aunt Ermentrude are a source of endless fascination, but your relatives are really not all that interesting.

On the other hand, there are occasions when another family historian mentions a way he or she approached a particular problem, a new resource or a novel technique that immediately sparks thoughts of how you can do the same to move your own research forward. Then it does not matter that you have no real interest in birth registration in nineteenth century Patagonia because that person is discussing something of value in a context that you are passionate about.

Perhaps that is why there are so many Family History blogs that no one person can possibly read them all on a regular basis. And why Stack Exchange: Genealogy and Family History has attracted 350 members in two weeks; all eager to build their own expertise by helping others find answers to their problems.

Many questions posted to date (and there have been more than 150) have been through a series of edits to get them into a form that maximises value for both the person who asked and future readers. They are not perfect yet, but the purpose of beta is to learn.

Has participation in this new site convinced me of the value of collaborative genealogy? Well, I am still happiest at my desk poring, jotting and typing in blissful solitude, but there can be no doubt that working the right "others" can certainly enhance my efforts. Especially if they bring the type of expertise and relevant experience that this group is assembling.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Not my reality

I freely confess that I enjoy watching the Who do you think you are television series. I like the British original, I loved the local SBS version, and I even watch the American episodes.

But I was concerned to read a piece that referred to the series as forming part of the continuing passion for reality television.

Reality? The shows are entertaining and, at times, quite informative but they have nothing to do with the real world of how I do family history.

How many of the celebrity hosts who began by chatting to a close family member encountered anyone who said any of the following?

  • Why on earth would you be interested in all that?
  • They will still be dead when you finish, you know.
  • There were a lot of photos, but who knows where they are now.
  • Mum and Dad didn't talk about that much.
  • But what if you find someone awful in our past?

Then they fire up the website of and search on-line resources. Have you noticed that each ancestor's details appear in exactly the order they are needed? No-one ever has a cousin of the same name to confound the issue. There is no such thing as a variant spelling after the sixteenth century.

Next it is off to the archives to view the few(?) sources that have not yet been captured for viewing over the interwebs. The microfilm or packet of fiche that is needed is always available and there is never a wait to use the good reader. When the document is found (amazingly always near the beginning of the roll) there is not a single frame that is skewed, out of focus, too dark or shows a torn page.

And then we have the segment that really irks me. In the field, at a site significant to the history, we meet a local expert who offers some general background before opening the envelope to reveal a "document we found". Most of us can only dream of that.

Somewhere in the vaults of the producers there must be a whole lot of preliminary research on the family history of actors, sportsmen and other celebrities whose tale did not make it to air. I wonder would it be worse to be told that the program would not proceed because the evidence needed cannot be whipped up in the required timeframe, or that there are plenty of documents to show that your family was really ordinary and boring?

Which gives me an idea for the next big hit. Watch our for the 2013 series of Why do you think we care?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Once in a generation?

Dick Eastman posted a response to the current fascination with finding family relationships between feuding american politicians. I cannot imagine too many Australians being all that interested to learn that Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot were sixth cousins, but you never know.

The aspect of Dick's article that did interest me was that in order to do some back of the envelope calculations, he wrote Let's assume that there is a new generation born every twenty-five years.

I have no dispute with any of the arithmetic and have used the same approximation myself in the past. It is almost certainly valid when dealing with whole populations, but how well does it apply to a single family (namely, ours)?

The mean value for the birthdates of our direct ancestors (and of a descendent) are set out below.

Generation of    Mean birth yearDuration
3xgreat grandparents1837 28 years
2xgreat grandparents187530 years
Great grandparents190525 years
Grandparents193025 years
Our parents195526 years
Ourselves198127 years
Our children2008 

Which might appear to be a very long way of saying "Guess what, Dick Eastman was exactly right in his working assumption and you just wasted an hour." But as always the important learning lies in the working out rather than the answer.

Mean values are a very limited property of a set of numbers. They do not reveal that the range of ages within a generation can be as much as the duration of the generation. Should we speak of a group of ancestors as "a generation" when the range of their births and deaths is so great that there life experiences must have been very different?

In particular, what does it mean that two of our 3xgreat grandparents were born after one of our 2xgreat grandparents. That is a tale for another time.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Making a date

According to the top of this page, today is the 16th of October. We have no doubt that tomorrow will be the 17th and that yesterday was the 15th. But yesterday was also the 430th anniversary of October 5 1582 — the day that never was.

In 1582, people (who owned a calendar and could read it) went to bed on the evening of October 4 and woke on October 15. Pope Gregory had decreed that the way dates were recorded needed to change to bring the human calendar back into line with the seasons. If nothing was done, eventually Christmas would be celebrated in the middle of summer, which would surely mark the end of civilisation as he knew it.

If your iPhone has trouble coping with the beginning and end of daylight saving time each year, imagine the difficulty of rolling out an update for every calendar in the whole world.

Not the whole world, as it turned out, because this was the time of the Reformation and in most protestant nations a new calendar promoted by the pope was rejected out of hand. If you have ancestors from Ulster, you will understand exactly how people reacted.

Nevertheless this was not just another papist conspiracy. There was sound astronomy underlying the decision and eventually the rest of the western world fell into line by selecting a day on which dates marked on the old style (Julian) calendar would be skipped. This occurred in 1752 in Britain but not until 1917 in Russia.

If that change had not been made, today would have been October 3 so the 430th anniversary of the 5th would be the day after tomorrow instead of yesterday. This highlights both the arbitrary nature of any calendar and the difficulties of getting it slightly wrong.

There is nothing inherently superior in our way of recording dates. Many other cultures maintain perfectly serviceable calendars that are not based on the Julian or Gregorian models. But any system needs to be internally consistent. Pope Gregory wanted to celebrate feast days for saints on fixed days in sequence with Easter observations held at times determined by the equinox. With the old style calendar, he could not get both right at the same time.

Apart from occasional arguments about the need to add a leap second for astronomers and physicists, there appears no need to make any further change to the system devised by Gregory's advisers. Which is just as well, because I need more time to come to terms with pre-1752 dates.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Wurst or Windsor Sausage? Erasing the Hun

When our KUHN and CRAMER ancestors came to Queensland, they were part of a wave of germanic immigration actively encouraged by the colonial authorities. Although it was made plain that they were not "British", the continental Europeans were well received. After all, the Queen had taken a German husband.

Rich detail can be seen in the on-line presentation Immigration Stories: The Germans by the Queensland State Archives.

Relationships between the communities changed at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 and deteriorated further as the Great War progressed. Individuals with obviously germanic names or strong accents fell under (usually groundless) suspicion of aiding the enemy and 2,940 German and Austrian men were interned in ten different camps under the provisions of The War Precautions Act 1914.

It is a widely-held belief that "all the German place names" or at least very many of them were altered to more appropriate British titles. Certainly there were examples known to our family that make this claim plausible.

The township of Engelsburg where our COLEY ancestors would have shopped for supplies and obtained their news between trips to the major centre of Ipswich was renamed Kalbar in 1916. Gramzow, originally named for the ancestral village in Uckermark, became Carbrook at approximately the same time.

So how many other places must have had their names altered in this wave of patriotic fervour? The Australian Bureau of Statistics provides a full list extracted from Year Book Australia 1926 and the detail is surprising.

In Queensland there are only twelve locations to be added to the two with which our family has an association.

Original name From 1916Postcode (2012)
BergenMurra Murra4353
GehrkevaleMount Mort4340

The changes occurred between July and October 1916 and comparison with modern maps indicates that a number of the old names have come back into local use.

Perhaps the earliest change in Australia took place in May 1915 on the Richmond River, northern New South Wales where the township of German Creek became Empire Vale. There were only two more changes (at Germanton and German's Hill) in the whole of NSW for the rest of the war.

There were more than 60 placename changes listed for South Australia, the other major centre of germanic settlement in Australia. Does this discrepancy reflect the fact that the immigrants were able to name fewer places in Queensland (and so there were not so many to change) or a greater acceptance among northerners that the name of the mountain nearby was not a slur on your honour as a citizen of the Empire?

Evidence suggests that any public demand for these changes was selective. Teutoberg (north of Brisbane) was altered but the township south of Brisbane from which that community had moved remained Bethania. Perhaps the latter sounded "less German" or more biblical to English ears.

While there was certainly anti-german sentiment during the war years, the extent of the changes to placenames was not so great as is commonly believed. On the other hand, no patriotic Australian could possibly buy and eat wurst.

So in Queensland, sausage followed the lead of the British Royal Family and changed its name to Windsor. Its cousins in other states adopted other names including devon, belgium, polony and fritz (those rebel South Australians!). What is it they say about the first casualty of war?

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Lost in translation

Like many Australians of my generation, I have an uneasy relationship with what were called "foreign languages" (but are now LOTE, Languages other than English). Fifty years ago, the inclusion of the study of German in my schooling was explained by the fact that "you like chemistry, so a knowledge of German will help there". (Latin was assumed not to need justification.)

I recall two occasions during my time at university when I extracted information from a German chemistry journal — not because I needed the content, but to demonstrate that I could do so. At the time, I did not believe that this justified five years of anguish at school.

Today, with my Deutsch-Englisch dictionary (purchased for 27 shillings in 1965) beside me, I actually regret not making more effort to master the language that can help me to uncover a significant part of our heritage. As in all learning, motivation is crucial.

Fortunately, the modern mono-lingual family historian can call upon the services of Google Translate when an intractable problem arises.

In running general searches for Gramzow, I came across a passage that seemed to be about a town in Australia that was named after the home of the KÜHNs in Prussia. Der Name ist eine √úbertragung von Gramzow in der Uckermark.

I thought that I had made a reasonable translation but turned to the machine for confirmation. I was shocked when the output did not mention Gramzow at all. Then came the realisation that the software tries to translate every word; including the placenames. A quick reference to the instructions showed how to mark proper nouns and the tool could be run again with much happier results.

The text confirmed that, until 1916, the locality south east of Brisbane city now known as Carbrook was named Gramzow. This is yet more evidence of the impact on the Fassifern, Logan and Lockyer Valleys of the people who left Uckermark in the middle of the nineteenth century for a new life in Queensland.

It has not escaped my notice that, once again, I was almost tripped up by the intricacies of a language (albeit a programming language in this case). However, I am learning to love translation from German.

What is the significance of 1916 in the change of name from Gramzow to Carbrook? That is a topic for another day.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Late wedding date

Every family tree contains individuals and events that might be considered scandalous or amusing according to the bias of the observer. One of these snippets can form the starting point for a conversation that might engage family members who find the more scholarly aspects of genealogical research uninteresting.

I believed the tale of a several times great grandmother whose first task after giving birth was to get married fell into that category, but was deflated when my listener insisted that I had misinterpreted the calendar. I needed to learn about Lady Day.

The Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin (25 March) was known as [Our] Lady['s] Day. Along with Midsummer Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas (25 December), it formed the Quarter Days that divided the year. Although our immediate assumption is that these days mark the end of each quarter year, until 1752 they were treated as beginnings.

In particular, Lady Day was regarded as the first day of the New Year. This meant that January and February fell at the end of the old year (except in Scotland, where the heathens insisted on celebrating January 1).

So in this chronological list of marriages in Doncaster, 11 February 1579 comes after 21 December 1579 but just a few weeks before 17 April 1580.

When this (pre-Gregorian) calendar was in use, it was not unusual for a wedding to be celebrated in May and the christening in February of the same year. Indeed, it would have been quite common.

With this new-found knowledge I have resolved to exercise great care in interpreting dates on any pre-1760 English records.

But does it alter my story?

The marriage I had identified took place late in the nineteenth century when the western calendar was in its modern form, so the facts are clear. Interpretation is, of course, another matter entirely.

Was the wedding delayed until after the birth by the young couple, their families, or the celebrant? One possibility is that the father/groom was employed elsewhere and unable to return in time for the ceremonies to occur in the customary sequence. Which suggests another line of investigation…

Footnote: While this has enabled me to learn more about a fascinating aspect of our history, I will probably continue to associate Lady Day with God Bless the Child rather than the calendar.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Grandfather was a wharfie.

What value should the family historian place on snippets of information passed along by relatives who preface their contribution with "I have always been told ..." or "Everybody knew that ..."?

From a very early age, I "knew" that our 2xgreat grandfather, Thomas Henry SUDDABY (who died a few years before my birth) had worked on the wharves. There were also vague references to his having been a "grammar school boy" with the unspoken suggestion that there must have been some financial catastrophe (or even a scandal) to explain such a fall in social standing.

In this case, there was more than a kernel of truth in each of the tales. However the implied connections that everyone was far too polite to make explicit could not have been further from the truth.

Reporting on T H Suddaby's time at Maryborough Grammar School and the loss of the family fortune must wait for another time. But this photograph shows him with a few of his wharfie mates at the Waterside Workers Federation National Conference circa 1912.

I suspect that Tom (dapper with his panama hat, front row) did not feel that he was slumming it in this company.

At the time Andrew Fisher (immediately behind Tom) had already served as Prime Minister of Australia and would do so again.

William Morris (Billy) Hughes (to Fisher's left in the paler suit) was also a member of Parliament but yet to attain the highest office.

In Australian English, a stevedore who manually handled cargo onto or off ships was known as a wharf-labourer, a wharf-lumper, or simply a wharfie.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Make a quick copy of this.

Who would have imagined that reading a few lines of text could prove so difficult?

Family Search has images from the Germany, Brandenburg and Posen Church Book Duplicates in which I have been able to find records of significant events in the lives of our Prussian ancestors at the turn of the eighteenth century. I was prepared for the fact that these documents would be in German (I studied that to Year 12), probably in old script (I had seen examples of that before), and perhaps not calligraphically immaculate (I have marked student essays). So how tough could it be?

Well, the record of the death of our 5xgreat grandmother Sophie GRÜNHAGEN on 7 July 1824 is proving to be a challenge.

I know this is "just the duplicate"; but the old monks from the scriptorium must be turning in their graves.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Lost streets

Despite its name, much of family history is actually concerned with geography. Knowing when your ancestors did something is much richer when you know also where the event took place.

Many of the documentary records that we use provide very detailed spatial information. Upon finding an address with house number and street name, the first thing that a modern family historian will do is to enter that information into Google Maps.

If we are fortunate, Street View will allow us to look for the ancestral home without ever setting foot outside our own front door.

Of course, there will be times when no match can be found in the Google Map database. Perhaps through wartime damage or more recent urban renewal, the old street has gone forever.

When confronted with this situation, I was about to close the file and move on when I decided to run the address through Google Search. Perhaps there might be a link to an old document that mentions it and other streets in the same neighbourhood that would allow me to identify a general area even if the precise location is unknown.

What I found was a magnificent service offered by the Glasgow Guide. On their website they have a table that cross-references "lost" or changed street names and their modern replacement or equivalent.

Armed with the knowledge that Ure Street has been renamed to Uist, I could easily go back to Google Maps and view the area. Even after more than a century of changes (and some obvious gentrification), it is possible to get a sense of what life might have been like tucked between the docks, the industrial estates and the main road.

How wonderful it would be if all local authorities were to make public a list of street changes. Thank you Glasgow Guide .

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Things you don't know you don't know

Long ago, I had a teacher who decried (then) modern schooling as simply "giving student's names for things they do not understand". In my own teaching I emphasised personal concept formation but always acknowledged the importance of having a label that allowed you to describe what you thought you knew. Today I have found a new name that will help me to sound far more learned.

The daily activities of a family historian are mainly about confronting his or her own ignorance. Each step backward in time or each new document type reveals as much about our own (mis)understanding of the world as it does about our ancestors.

Every day I learn something new. On most days it is something that I had not even imagined. In the now notorious terms used by Donald Rumsfeld, they are "unknown unknowns – [...] things we do not know we don't know."

Now, by courtesy of Deutsche Welle Word of the Week, I know that I am confronting my Bildungslücke, literally "education gap."

Bildungslücke are not obscure or arcane pieces of knowledge. They are those things that "everybody else" knows but you do not.

Have a conversation about popular culture with your children and you will quickly see that there are significant gaps in the assumed knowledge on both sides.

Each day you engage with genealogy, you are in a conversation across many generations. There are many things that your ancestors would have taken for granted as being common knowledge, but for you they are … well, they are Bildungslücke.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Parish Locator

For a family historian in Australia, the concepts of County and Parish can be puzzling. My primary schooling (half a century ago) left me with the vague notion that "England has Counties instead of States".

So the fact that our first land purchase was located in the County of Stanley was vaguely interesting but not a high priority for further investigation. I knew that a parish was a church organisational unit, so the fact that our home was within the Parish of Warner was (at the time) of no concern to me.

The need to engage with Parish Registers to track UK ancestors before 1837 demands a slightly more sophisticated understanding of a Parish as a civil administrative unit as well as its ecclesiastical role. But until recently, I have been operating on a seriously flawed understanding of the small size of each parish (at least when viewed from a Queensland perspective) and hence the vast number of them.

Enter Parloc3, a piece of software for locating parishes. This amazing tool not only lists all parishes "in existence at some [time] during the period from the mid 1500s to about 1837" but provides survey map references to enable you to locate them on a map.

If you know part of a name, ParLoc3 will generate a list of potential matches.

Enter a three letter abbreviation for a county (such as ERY) instead of a parish name and the software will display a list of all 265 Parishes within the East Riding of Yorkshire.

If you have indications that your ancestors may have been in two parishes and wonder whether this is possible, then Parloc will calculate their separation and allow you to decide that a man christened at Halesowen might easily have been married at Old Swinford.

In recent days I have been using ParLoc heavily to check (and correct) many of my English location references, but the problem that originally drove me to it was confusion over the origins in Barmby of our 4xgreat grandmother, Jane PASHLEY.

I now know that these two locations are approximately 22 kilometres (probably 8 hours walk) apart and that Jane's family came from the marshlands rather than the moors. While I am now very glad to have resolved this, I wonder if such fine details would have been interesting in Grade Six Social Studies in 1962?

Friday, 28 September 2012

Signing the Ulster Covenant

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. Around the world on September 28th 1912, half a million people recorded their opposition to the prospect of a Dublin-based Home Rule parliament for all of Ireland. (Strictly speaking a quarter of a million signed the Covenant, and the rest (the females) signed a Declaration framed in similar terms.)

The centenary reminds us of the irony that a country with the least full-population data has two extensive sets collected just 18 months apart. Much can be learned by comparing the returns of the Census taken on Sunday 2 April 1911 (one of only two surviving) with the information provided by signatories to the Covenant or Declaration.

Take as an example our 2xgreat grandmother, Agnes BURTON. In 1911, she was one of seven people of that name recorded on the Census.

In the following year, just four Agnes Burtons signed the Declaration. Can they be matched to individuals in the Census?

The first address (in Tennent Street) seems to be in both data sets but the house numbers are different. Had Agnes moved from number 11 to number 235 in the intervening year? In fact, she did. Her daughters (Isabella and Mary Ann) included on the Census return also signed the Declaration and gave the same new address.

Lindsay Street is even more straight forward. The house number matches and apparently the family was still in residence. But Agnes was the only signatory from that household. Had Mary (aged 24 at Census time) married or left home for another reason? Of course, it is possible that Mary was still at home but declined to sign (which would have created some fascinating dinner conversations!).

The other address in Belfast South (Tassagh Cranmore Park) does not appear in the Census list but there was an Agnes living in the Windsor Ward at 109 Marlborough Park. She had three adult daughters—Winifred, Alicia and Mary. Each of them signed the Declaration and gave addresses in Cranmore Park, but only the youngest Mary was more specific listing the house name(?) Tassagh when she signed immediately under Agnes. Winifred and Alice appear to have signed at a different Meeting Hall.

All of which leaves just one signature to be reconciled; that of the resident of Finmore Street, Pottinger. Was she the other Agnes from Co Antrim, from Co Down, or Co Monaghan?

Agnes from Ballynure Street, Clifton in Antrim was the only one of the seven to list her religion on the census as Church of Ireland (the established Church) and so might be thought less likely to be a supporter of the Covenant than the non-conformists.

Lurganmore in Co Monaghan is a considerable distance (more than 90 minutes drive) from Belfast. If this Agnes was now resident in Pottinger, then it required a major relocation. When you consider that her son James (recorded on the same Census form in 1911) signed the Covenant at Drumgart Hall (in Monaghan), this seems unlikely.

You will note immediately that the two Agnes in Co Down lived at the same address, St Leonard's Street, in 1911. 19-year-old Agnes is our 2xgreat aunt, the daughter of 42-year-old Agnes.

The PRONI database shows that 3371 people signed one or other of the documents at Westbourne Presbyterian Church. Of those just six lived in Finmore Street. Agnes Burton resided with Sarah Nelson at number 6. If there were other adult residents in that household, they apparently were not signatories.

Although the area near the Belfast shipyards has been redeveloped after World War II bomb damage, there is a Finmore Court just two minutes walk from St Leonard's Crescent. Are these the addresses referred to in the century old records? Did Agnes (presumably the younger) move out of home (but not too far) soon after the Census?

It would be useful to be able to explain why Agnes (a member of the Salvation Army) chose to sign the Declaration at a Presbyterian Church. Was Sarah Nelson a member of that church? In 1911, there were four Presbyterians by that name aged between 18 and 28. One was a flax spinner and another a linen weaver, working in the same industry as "our" Agnes.

So the circumstantial evidence that our ancestor signed the Declaration is strong. Will the signatures provide the definitive evidence?

Clearly the person who 'signed' the 1911 Census is not the one who signed the Declaration.

But what about the person who 'completed' the Census?

In the absence of further evidence, I will assert that the younger Agnes filled in the form that was signed by our great great grandmother in 1911 and then signed the Declaration in her own right the following year.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Ancestors beyond number

There are two crucial points in the development of a family historian. At the first, you decide that it would be much neater and more efficient if each individual in your database had an unique identifier that shows his or her relationship to each other person and so you set out to develop such a system.

The second crucial point comes when you realise that if this was an easy task, someone would have done it already and you begin to explore the history of genealogical numbering systems.

Can you tell that I have recently reached point two? The saving grace is that I now know that what appeared to be an enormous pile of waste paper on my desk is actually an array of reinvented wheels. They may not all be fully functional, but I can say that I have examined the major variants of both ascending and descending numbering systems.

It has been an interesting by-way to explore and has jogged my memory on some half-forgotten mathematics and data organisation principles. I have enjoyed the learning (which is a "good thing" in itself).

Is my database (and its parallel universe of documents) any easier to navigate as a result? Unfortunately not, but if I could find a way to link an atree (ascending) to a Henry (descending) perhaps…

Monday, 17 September 2012

Three degrees of separation

In his regular Saturday Night Genealogy Fun posting, Randy Seaver set the following challenge:

Using your ancestral lines, how far back in time can you go with three degrees of separation? That means "you knew an ancestor, who knew another ancestor, who knew another ancestor." When was that third ancestor born?

This struck me because of its similarity to my recent post on children and their grandparents. That three-step chain could not stretch back too far when it begins with my grandchildren, but if I were to add a step on the other end … ?

Our 3xgreat grandmother, Caroline KUHN, grew up in the region of Uckermark (currently in north-eastern Germany) in the mid-nineteenth century.

Her paternal grandmother, Sophie GRUENHAGEN, was born in 1763 but died in 1824 so she never knew Caroline. On the other hand, Anna BERT, her maternal grandmother lived in Gramzow well into Caroline's teen years.

This makes my three degree chain:

  1. I enjoyed almost 12 years of the life of Sydney Thomas CRAMER (1902-1963).
  2. He lived in the same home as Caroline KUHN (1835-1906).
  3. She grew up within a short distance of the home of Anna BERT (abt 1760-1850).

I imagined that I could do better by following the line of S T CRAMER's wife, Isabel Corry SUDDABY. Her mother, Jane DAVIES was born in 1877 and I visited her regularly (with my mother) during the 1950s. But Jane was born after her parents left Rhyl, so it is unlikely that she knew her grandmother Susannah (b 1815). Making either of her parents the mid-point of the chain limits the next (evidence-supported) step to post-1800, despite the individual longevity of 2xgreat grandmother, Jane.

Family historians need a ready supply of answers to the inevitable question "So, why do you do this?". Without the opportunity to analyse our tree, how else could I comprehend that the Seven Years' War was not merely a footnote of "ancient" history, but the lived reality of someone just three lifetimes removed from me!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

An early death?

When a relationship breaks down, harsh words may be spoken and statements made that are not entirely true. Many people suffer in those circumstances; particularly the children. There is another group whose pain is often overlooked—the family historians.

I have been seeking the date of death of a person a few generations back. He was recorded in the 1911 Census so that defines one end of a search window. His widow left the UK in 1925 which sets the other end of the window.

So why was I unable to locate any record of this person's death between 1910 and 1926? The name could have a few variants but they also turned up nothing.

Eventually, I extended the search. Aha, my target had died in the first quarter of 1948 (in the same town as he was living in 1911).

Apparently the entry on the application to migrate concerning marital status was a slight exaggeration.

One can only wonder if the addition of (widow) was made when it was explained that a married woman would need the approval of the husband from whom she had been estranged since (around) 1910.

I can understand, from a 21st century perspective, that this unreasonable imposition might lead to some harmless deception of a faceless bureaucrat. But did no-one think of its impact on me!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

A whip, lost or stolen

While I am not a believer in the theory that all history is cyclic, it is surprising how often you find that an apparently "unique" modern event has a parallel in the family records.

Last week, veteran Queensland jockey Shane Scriven announced the end to his 33-year career in racing. Inevitably, news reports recalled his involvement in what was usually described as the "infamous whip stealing incident at Ipswich last year".

In April 2011, Scriven was handed a five month suspension for overcoming the loss of his own whip during a race by snatching that of a young apprentice rider. His "victim" was suspended for two weeks for failing to report the incident to stewards after the race. The original penalty was reduced to three months on appeal, but it is unclear whether Scriven's representative used the precedent set more than 50 years before in arguing for that relief.

Henry John Corry SUDDABY (older brother of our great grandmother Isabel Corry SUDDABY) was involved in an almost identical set of circumstances during the running of the Windsor Handicap at Eagle Farm on 2 December 1922.

On the following Thursday (7 Dec 1922), The Brisbane Courier carried a short report that referred to the strange events.

When the case was reported in detail on the following day, it became clear that Uncle Henry (commonly known as Squib) had not been a very convincing witness with a number of different versions of what had happened. Nevertheless, the stewards panel apparently accepted the most damning version and fined the premier rider Billy Hill £20 for his improper practice. The size of that fine can be judged from advertisements in the same newspaper offering "quality" suits for £8.

Henry SUDDABY escaped with a severe reprimand for failing to report the matter. It probably had the desired effect on a nineteen-year-old who had been concerned that the trainer would "rouse on him" for being careless.

There must have been no lasting ill-feeling over the case. A 1935 report on the status of the QTC Distressed Jockeys' Fund showed that W Hill was elected as vice-president and H Suddaby (by then retired from riding) was Secretary.

That 1935 report makes clear that race-riding was not an easy way to make a living. Among the payments Squib had authorised in the previous year were £43/3/6 for hospital fees and £25/13/- for funeral expenses. This week, Shane Scriven was quoted as saying “… the body has had enough and the time is right to give it away.” Some things never change.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Leviticus, Iolanthe and sisters-in-law

When a family historian launches into the day's planned project, it is unwise to predict where it might lead. Who would have expected that a quick check on the details of Philemon Lewis COLEY's two wives would find me juggling biblical commentary and Victorian light opera as sources?

The facts are straight forward. On 6 February 1887, P L COLEY married Margaret HARLEY. They had two daughters (Margaret Lucy and Beatrice Olive) before Margaret's untimely death on 26 March 1892. As was common at the time, Margaret's younger sister Lucy HARLEY came to help care for her young nieces. On 26 May 1893, P L and Lucy married and went on to become our 2xgreat grandparents. Which prompted someone to ask "Wasn't it illegal for him to marry his wife's sister?".

A preliminary search offered Leviticus xviii 18 as the ultimate authority on that question…

from which derived A Table Of Kindred And Affinity: Wherein Whosoever Are Related Are Forbidden In Scripture And Our Laws To Marry Together. The inevitable conclusion is that under Canon Law and in the Ecclesiastical Courts such a marriage would be considered "irregular" at best. But was it "illegal" in 19th century Queensland?

The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act removing the bar to such marriages eventually passed the Imperial Parliament in 1907 after more than half a century of trying. Gilbert and Sullivan's 1882 operetta Iolanthe mocked the inactivity (or intransigence) of the House of Lords on a range of important issues and had included the line "We will prick that annual blister, marriage to deceased wife's sister".

So on the face of it, the marriage of P L and Lucy (and the legitimacy of five of their eight children) was open to question until 1907. But Queensland was an independent Colony with its own Parliament.

In 1877, the Queensland Parliament has considered and passed The Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act (41 Vic. No. 25.). On 10 April 1878, Queen Victoria had given her Royal Assent and hence "no marriage between any man and the sister of his deceased wife shall within Queensland be voidable or in any wise impeachable upon the ground only of such affinity between the parties thereto any law usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding".

So had the COLEY family remained in England, such a union in 1893 would have been able to be challenged on the (completely unscientific) grounds of consanguinity. But in their new home, logic prevailed and the marriage was entirely legal.

That 1877 Act stood until the Acts Repeal Act of 1991 tidied away a number of older statutes including the Lady Bowen Lying-in Hospital Land Sale Act 1887, the Sandgate Racecourse Act 1896, the Enemy Contracts Annulment Act 1915 and the Deceased Husband’s Brother Marriage Act 1931. What could Gilbert and Sullivan have made of that?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Wild Cards and Transcription Errors

Trying to solve a puzzle in which you have no emotional involvement can provide an opportunity to reflect on how you work and to learn some important lessons.

I had taken an afternoon away from tracking our own ancestors to respond to a request from a friend. Family legend had it that a young woman travelled to Queensland in the late 19th; century, had a baby, married the next year, and then returned to her interstate home where her death was recorded some years later. Could I corroborate any details of this tale?

It sounded straight forward because the family name of the young woman was unusual (at least in Queensland). That proved to be the case—just a single entry and that was for the marriage I was seeking. I now had the year of the marriage and so (if the legend was accurate) the year of the birth.

The first blockage came when I found that there was no birth registered with the surname of the (soon-to-be) husband. I had already established that no-one had been given the mother's surname at birth in Queensland. So I was looking for a child born in a (probably) known year to a mother who might or might not have used her real name.

Fortunately the on-line tool for Queensland Births Deaths and Marriages historical index searching allows the use of wild cards prefixed by an initial letter in the mandated family name field. Could I try a brute force search?

The initial result was pleasing. Not because I found the missing birth, but because the test query generated a very manageable five results. (With hind-sight, this should not have been a surprise. The total population of the Colony was less than 175,000 at that time.)

So it was worthwhile continuing the wild card strategy through the alphabet. Within a few minutes, I had found my target. I could be fairly certain that I was correct because the family name of mother and daughter differed from my original information by only one letter— had been written as

Which is where the learning takes place. It made no sense to leap to the worst-case conclusion (that I had no idea of the child's name) before considering the possibility that there had been a variant spelling. With German ancestors whose names are recorded with and without umlauts (Kühn, Kuehn, Kuhn), I should have known that, but charged blindly on.

It is a very useful strategy to pause to consider how a name under study might look when poorly written, or sound when spoken with an accent. A few moments reflection might open up a line of enquiry that saves hours.

And my puzzle … Further confirmation came when a search on the tl-variant of the name turned up the registration of the death of the little girl at just a few weeks of age. Emma married and returned to Victoria as the tale claimed. Was her husband the father of the little girl? That remains a mystery.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Weaving a tale

Our family has a long association with the fabric industry. In 1861 4xgreat grandfather, Tom GALBRAITH listed his occupation in Paisley (Scotland) as "plane weaver" and most of his children entered the family trade.

In Belfast in 1911, Tom's grand-daughter (our 2xgreat grandmother) Agnes CAMERON worked as a "Linen Weaver" while her daughter Agnes BURTON (aged 19) was a "netter" and son Andrew BURTON (17) was a "machine boy".

At that time, the flax and linen industries were responsible for a significant part of the prosperity of Ulster (and Belfast in particular). The handy tourist guide McCormick's Historical and Descriptive Guide to Belfast and Neighbourhood 1907 (available at the Family History Books site) provides the following information.

"The fame of Belfast linen, like that of Belfast ships, is world-wide. Nowhere else can it be turned out with the same snowy whiteness or such fine texture, and the skill of our manufacturers is considerably aided in producing the finished article from the raw fibre by our humid climate, which assists the bleaching process. The manufacture of linen is our staple industry, and but for the linen business, Belfast would today in all probability be a town of minor importance."
"YORK STREET SPINNING MILL. — This mill, which is said to be the largest in the world, is a sight no visitor should miss. It is situated near the foot of York Street, convenient to the Midland Railway terminus, and extends from York Street to North Queen Street. ... Over 5,000 persons are employed in the vast factory, which is 786 feet by 221 feet, and covers an area of four acres."

As with any highly-developed technology, the linen industry in Belfast created some specialised occupations. When applying to migrate in 1929, Susan BURTON wrote that she was employed as a handkerchief "Box Folder and Ornamenter" but was prepared to seek employment as "Anything" in Queensland.

Like many others demobbed from war service, grandfather Robert Joseph McALLISTER drifted through a number of jobs; but his entry in the 1949 Electoral Roll shows that he had returned to his roots as a "clothing machinist". Just how he moved from that to "economist" is a tale for another day.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Who does the research matters

This post is prompted by a detailed examination of the Royal Australian Navy service record of our grandfather Robert Joseph MCALLISTER RAN B3035. But it is not really about his service or even about him. This is about some very uncomfortable questions raised by, and about, the way we do family history.

We have very little personal knowledge of grandfather's war service (1941-46). He did not want to talk about it, and his son was not really interested (at that time). For different reasons, they shared the view that those events happened in another life—so close the door and move on.

Now, with a very different mindset, the next generation struggles to reconstruct a narrative that they did not want to hear when they could have.

What we do have is a digital image of a yellowed index card. On one side it records name, date of birth (a lie), place of birth, next-of-kin (not a lie but disguising a fractured relationship), home port, religion (the customary official fiction), physical description and date of enlistment. If we had such documentary proof concerning someone from the fifth or sixth generation, it would be regarded as pure gold but would its contents be any more accurate.

Is the researcher obliged to preserve the document intact or to annotate this evidence to try to align it with what we regard as the truth? Does it matter if a future descendant interprets the different "address on discharge" to mean that the next-of-kin moved during the war years, rather than the fact that our grandfather would not enter his mother's house?

The reverse of the record card nominally lists in columns: Name of Ship or Depot, Rank or Rating, From, and To. In fact, as the war progressed the structure of the data decays into a jumble of names and dates.

Nevertheless it is possible to piece together the date of transfer from one posting to another and then to use the official RAN history of the ships to determine their location at the time. The resulting chronology can then be laid on a map but does that graphic represent the war experienced by our grandfather?

From the official record; names, places and acronyms that the researcher has no reason to "know" stir long-forgotten memories of fragments of conversation. A more dutiful son might have a rich fund of stories to provide personal context to the bald list of ships, places and dates. A professional researcher might have access to broader official archives giving additional background. This writer finds himself hovering uncomfortably between two stools; wondering whether this might be a more comfortable pastime if the focus was kept on ancestors you had never met.

And that big blank in the middle of the service record? The information that is obscured (or dare one suggest, removed) is consistent with a half-remembered story of secret involvement in a very significant aspect of the war. That tale, or a rumination on why I will not tell that tale, is a task for another day.

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