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.

Friday, 24 August 2012

A Bronx ancestor? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Sometimes a definitive negative finding concerning a possible ancestral connection can be as useful as a confirmation.

Our great grandfather Robert Joseph McALLISTER (b 1902) boarded the SS Regina at Belfast on 13 November 1926 and set sail for Canada. He arrived in Quebec on 21 November with the stated intention of joining his uncle (Mr J McAllister) in Mimico, Ontario. And there the trail goes cold.

But a (vanity) search run on the 1930 US Federal Census turned up an interesting possibility. Could the 27 year old Irish-born protestant railway welder living in a NY boarding house be our missing great grandfather?

Our ancestor's trade in Belfast had been as a fitter and his destination in Canada was a significant railway town near the border with New York state. The other resident with the same surname did need to be explained but it was easy to imagine that he could be Robert's cousin (son of Uncle J).

Unlike many idle speculations on possible links, this one could be tested. There would be a record of our two young McAllisters crossing the border from Canada and Family Search would have it. Unfortunately the immigration cards had been digitised but not indexed, so the test would require the visual inspection of up to 5964 images in the Soundex group. It was on the to-do list—but very close to the bottom.

Then the 1940 US Federal Census became available for searching. Would it provide any more information?

Our possible target Robert Joseph was still living in roughly the same neighbourhood, had married and started a family. He was now the "head of a household" so other residents were defined by their relationship to him and we learn that James was his younger brother. That ends the possibility of a connection.

At the 1911 Census of Ireland, our great grandfather had just one younger brother, William Henry, aged 6. James would then have been 4, so there was no possibility of a match to the NY family.

This is disappointing news for those descendants who were imagining a Green Card but for the dedicated family historian, it has enabled a major task to be crossed off the list.

And it opens up renewed areas of investigation in Canada. Now, where is that to-do list?

Footnote: For those puzzled by the title, see

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Who are all these people?

I was not surprised to find that I have confirmed the identity of only 9% of my ancestors over ten generations. I knew that this was a big job and that I had a long way to go.

But I was stunned by the actual number. If there are only 94 direct ancestors in my database, who are all the others?

The answer is obvious when you think about it. You were always outnumbered by brothers and sisters when you were young and now they dominate the family tree.

4Great grandparents836
52xgreat grandparents1551
63xgreat grandparents2455
74xgreat grandparents2919
85xgreat grandparents40
96xgreat grandparents47
107xgreat grandparents46

There is a mathematical way of determining how many more 11xgreat grandmothers you need to find. So there is a strong incentive to keep searching.

When looking for our ancestor's siblings, we don't know what we don't know. Was great grandfather John really an only child, or is there a tribe of brothers and sisters just waiting to be discovered?

The only conclusion to draw is that there is more than enough to keep me busy for the foreseeable future. So enough contemplation of "progress", let's get back to the records.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

What will you do when you finish?

If you read a few genealogy blogs, then you must have noticed that there is a current meme around determining what proportion of your ancestors you have identified.

In her blog, Crista Cowan called it What's your number?. She based her calculations on the 1022 ancestors that are out there waiting to be found in just ten generations (if you count the target person as Generation 1).

On the Olive Tree Genealogy Blog, Lorine McGinnis Schulze reported the number of experienced family historians who were shocked at how low their calculated result was — including her own 29%.

I need very little encouragement to dive into data manipulation, so here is my table.

2 Parents 2 2 100%
3 Grandparents 4 4 100%
4 Great Grandparents 8 8 100%
5 2xGreat Grandparents 16 15 97%
6 3xGreat Grandparents 32 24 85%
7 4xGreat Grandparents 64 29 65%
8 5xGreat Grandparents 128 4 34%
9 6xGreat Grandparents 256 4 18%
10 7xGreat Grandparents 512 2 9%
1022 92

The calculation tells me that I have quite a way to go before I can be "shocked" at having confirmed only 29% of ten generations. On the other hand, I believe that I have made respectable progress at the level of 7 generations.

Of course, the effect of each missing ancestor is magnified the further back you look. If I could confirm that 2xgreat grandmother Eliza Jane is who I think she is, then that would boost my overall numbers significantly.

Perhaps I could get some dispensation for our two ex nuptial births in generation 6. If our 7xgreat grandmothers were not prepared to identify the father, it seems a bit tough to expect me to be able to do so.

Perhaps the greatest value in this exercise has been to highlight the 21 individuals (spread over generations 5 to 7) for whom I have data that falls short of convincing me that they are truly our ancestors. These are obvious targets for renewed effort.

It also demonstrates that I have some time before I need to worry about finding an answer to THAT question "What will you do after you have found them all?"

Friday, 17 August 2012

Time with grandchildren

Here, two snappily-dressed gents set out for a day on the town in the mid-1950s. The taller one is Sydney Thomas CRAMER, our great grandfather.

This photograph came to the front of my mind because the shorter gentleman in that photograph has spent the last few days with his own grandchildren. Apart from reflecting on the unseemly rush of time and wondering if I will ever be regarded with the same awe as I felt for S T Cramer, I could not help but recall my recent finding about his grandparents.

Caroline Louise KUHN (his grandmother and our 3xgreat grandmother) was in the Moreton Bay District before it became a separate colony in 1859. In 1903 when Sydney was just a year old, she was recorded on the Electoral Roll as living in King Street, Gympie in Queensland. Her sons Ernest William Henry CRAMER and Fredrick William CRAMER and their families lived in the same street.

It is uncertain with which family she was living in 1903, but in 1905 when Fredrick had moved to nearby Berrie Street, Caroline remained at King Street with Sydney's parents. There can be no doubt that during his first few years, Sydney's grandmother must have been a significant presence.

So two little Australians in 2012 have a direct connection through two grandfathers to a grandmother who grew up in Uckermark, Prussia before the country that we know as Germany even existed and travelled to Australia long before our nation was formed.

As family historians, we work with the abstract notion of a generation all the time. It acquires new meaning when you recognise that although seven distinct generations of our family have been born in the last 177 years, that entire period can be spanned by the lives of just three people.

And two of those three looked pretty good in suits!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Not just ANZACs

Today marks the 97th anniversary of the death at Suvla Bay of Lance Corporal Robert Burton of the 5th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Robert was the older brother of our great grandmother Christina BURTON, born in Lanarkshire Scotland in 1893. The family returned to his father's home of Ulster in the early 1900s.

The Fifth (Service) Battalion of the Fusiliers was formed at Omagh in August 1914 as part of K1 (Kitchener's First Army of volunteers created to replace the professional army that had begun the War). The 5th and 6th Inniskillings made up part of the 10th Division, the first ever all-Irish Division, that moved to Dublin then by early 1915 was at Kildare. In April the Division moved to Basingstoke in England before leaving for the front.

The Inniskillings (known as the Skins) landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on 7 August 1915. They were in the second wave of an attack that began the night before to support a planned breakout from the Anzac sector, five miles (8 km) to the south.

Like most plans at Gallipoli, it foundered and the troops were trapped on yet another beach.

On 15 August, British units advanced against the Turks dug in on Kiretch Tepe Ridge. Little progress was made and the attackers suffered more than 2,000 casualties.

That same day, the British commander at Suvla, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford was dismissed. The change came too late to save Robert BURTON. His last resting place is unknown but he is remembered on the Hellas Memorial that sits on the end of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Where was Bill?

Locating a new authoritative data source, such as a Census record, gives you the opportunity to cross-check what you already know (or assert) about your ancestors' approximate age, residence, occupation, religion and education. If you are lucky the new information confirms what you have been claiming.

If you are very lucky, the Census record contains an anomaly that challenges what you believe and opens up a new line of investigation.

That was the case with the 1911 Census of Ireland for the Burton household at 64 St Leonards Street, Victoria in Belfast.

It confirmed that Agnes was then a widow after the death of 2xgreat grandfather, Andrew and that her oldest daughter Sarah had left home. Those of working age were employed in flax-related industries and the five youngest children were in school — Andrew, Isa, Chrissie, baby Daisy (Susan), and … Bill was missing. William BURTON, aged 5, was not at home on census night 1911.

The records of the Belfast General Cemetery reveal that there was an horrific number of infant deaths between 1890 and 1910; but we have photographic evidence that William BURTON was not among them.

A number of suggestions were put forward as to where Bill might have been — in hospital, staying with his older sister, even the very modern possibility of a school camp. The challenge then was to use the census to find him.

Thanks to Agnes' practice of going "home" for each birth, he should be easy to track down. How many 5 year old boys called William born in Scotland and adherents to the Salvation Army could there be in County Down? In fact there were none recorded. Sometimes elegant searching needs to give way to brute force.

How many males aged 5±5 years named Burton were there? Just 15, of whom seven were 3 years old or younger and two were 8 years or older. Of six boys aged 4 to 7, three came from Presbyterian families and two were Church of Ireland.

Which left Willie aged 5 recorded as having been adopted into the Salvationist family of James and Mary Burton of 6 Gawn Street, Victoria.

Why do I think it is plausible that this is William the son of Andrew and Agnes Burton? The match of his name and age are not compelling evidence alone but, when you add the religion and the fact that the two houses are located just a few minutes apart, the case builds. Most significant is the fact that James' occupation "labourer" has been annotated "ship yard". I believe that Andrew was also working in the ship yards at the time of his death.

When Agnes was widowed, she was pregnant and had toddlers of 6, 4 and 2. If the family of her husband's workmate from the same Temple offered to look after one of the young boys, would she have accepted?

The case would be almost complete if I could demonstrate a family connection as well as occupational and religious links. Andrew Burton did have a brother James but he was born in 1870 and so would have been 41 years old in 1911 not 49.

However the damage to my argument is lessened somewhat by the observation that at the previous census (in 1901), James had claimed to be 45 years old. In the same ten year period, his wife Mary aged only 2 years and daughter Lizzie 7 years. The ages of the Irish on official documents need to be interpreted flexibly!

On balance, I am comfortable claiming that in 1911 Bill was living with his Uncle James and family just a few streets away. He was certainly reunited with his siblings in Queensland where they followed the same practice of village-like life — living with walking distance of each other's homes and being very flexible about whose children stayed where at any given time.

And that is where this story will stand, until I am lucky enough to find a piece of evidence that makes me search in a completely new direction.

Friday, 10 August 2012

We need to merge!

The Family Search organisation is strong on the principle that each individual should occupy a unique node in their aggregated tree. Unfortunately past practice has not always followed that principle. Members of the LDS Church have uploaded personal trees without regard for what information might already be included in the mega-database.

It seems that if you have one Mormon descendent, then you probably have more than one. And each one of them felt an obligation to ensure that the genealogy was comprehensive.

As a result, the Family Tree is full of situations like that of our 6xgreat grandmother Christian BALGARNIE. She exists as at least six distinct entities, each with a unique identifier.

  • MXQ2-LX3 … Christian BALGARNIE … christening
  • 992R-C1H … Christian BEGARNEY … marriage
  • M5D4-FRY … Christian BALGONIE … birth of first child
  • K8NF-TBJ … Christian McGARNIE … birth of third and sixth children
  • MXQ1-CH3 … Christian MACGARNIE … birth of seventh child
  • MKSH-R41 … Christian BALGARNIE … birth of last (eighth) child

In part these differences can be attributed to variant spelling in the original records, but there are also instances of duplication by users.

The capability of Family Tree is being gradually expanded with new functions. Publicly available documentation states that the ability to "merge" multiple instances of the same individual, supported by evidence and with the capacity to undo errors, is coming soon.

Until that function is activated, using Family Tree will be an enormously frustrating exercise.

I can easily correct the mistaken identification of one ancestor as the son of his mother's husband (an understandable error), but am powerless to do anything about the very obvious blunder that she appears to have married the same man three times!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

But he is MY 3xgreat grandfather

Family historians take a proprietary interest in their ancestors. We tend to cling to them like we do our children. (Perhaps even more than to our children, since ancestors show little inclination to move out!)

While there can be no doubt that it is MY family tree that I am constructing, it is not reasonable to claim "ownership" over every person in it.

The following model shows five generations in which each descendent of the patriarch has between zero and three children. Even with these conservative assumptions, the highlighted family historian has 18 others in her generation with equal claim on the ancestor in question. Allow larger families or extend back more generations and the number of claimants grows rapidly.

Fortunately not all of these people will be interested in genealogy, but it is very likely that there is someone else whose research will overlap yours — with the potential for cooperation or conflict.

In recent years, the philosophy underpinning on-line tree building (such as the Ancestry model) has been to let a thousand flowers bloom. We each constructed our own project and the host provided "hints" where it seemed that the same individual was also in another tree. Each user was free to "borrow" information from others, but the products of their work remained separate.

The Family Search organisation (owned by the Church of the Latter-day Saints) has recognised that there are not multiple instances of Great Uncle George sitting in dozens of different trees — just one person with connections to many others through different parts of a single large tree.

Forest or family tree?

Their new Family Tree facility allows (even requires) all researchers to share their common ancestors and to contribute their individual pieces of information to a shared understanding.

The logic behind this is impeccable. Family history ought to be a collaborative activity. I understand the need for this position and support the principle whole-heartedly. Now let's wait to see how I react the first time that someone changes something with respect to one of MY ancestors.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Time before the mast

My list of migrant ships spanning 80 years caused me to wonder how the length of the voyage had changed in that time. The journeys undertaken differ slightly in their ports of departure (Plymouth, Hamburg, London) and landfall (Rockhampton, Maryborough, Moreton Bay, Sydney) but against the length of a Europe-Australia voyage, these are minor.

The chart shows clearly the group of voyages under sail that lasted more than 100 days and those driven by steam that were completed in less than 70 days.

The Dorunda that carried 3xgreat grandmother Mary CREASE in 1882 was our family's first experience of travel in a motor-driven ship. Two years later, 2xgreat grandmother Jane and 3xgreat grandfather John DAVIES were aboard the Corona when it made the long journey under sail as it had done when carrying convicts 20 years earlier. Their trip (116 days) was more than twice as long as Mary's (52 days)

Two trips stand out by falling between these two extremes.

The Indus was originally built with steam-driven paddle wheels but her engines had been removed before she began service to the Southern Hemisphere. Nevertheless, her 1870 voyage carrying 3xgreat grandfather Henry SUDDABY and his brother John in 92 days was very fast for that period.

The 1919 sailing of the Beltana carrying great grandmother Eva Elsie and 2xgreat grandfather Frederick THORPE was the first after the owners received the ship back from military use in World War I. Uncertainty about the availability of coal would have meant very conservative use and some long refuelling stops that combined to make a very long voyage of 94 days.

If we wanted to recreate these voyages today on a passenger-carrying freighter, we would need to allow between 32 and 40 days for the trip. While that may seem no improvement on the late 1920s, it is important to note that the current cost is quoted as £3200-4000 rather than £33 in 1926.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

A better life (Part 2)

On 5 April 1899, Philemon Lewis COLEY accepted appointment as a Lengthsman in the Southern Division Maintenance Branch of the Railway at the wage rate of 6 shillings and 6 pence per day.

In the 1903 Electoral Roll for the Division of Maranoa (Polling Place of Muckadilla) he was showing as living with his wife Lucy COLEY at 345 Mile Camp. There were apparently no other adult residents.

It is more than 500 kilometres from the Fassifern Valley (B) to Muckadilla on the Maranoa (A).

What had become of the good life of a decade earlier?

There had been personal tragedy when Margaret died on 26 March 1892, leaving PL with two small daughters. It seems that her younger sister Lucy HARLEY came to assist with the care of her nieces; then on 26 May 1893 married Philemon Lewis.

At the same time, the economy of the Colony was taking a battering. The maritime strike of 1890 and the shearers strike of 1891 had significant impact on agriculture. Then, between January and June of 1893, Brisbane (the capital city) was battered by four floods. Both cross-river bridges (road and rail) were swept away and a major coal mine at Ipswich was destroyed.

The direct effect of the flooding was barely detected in the Fassifern Valley but the economic effects could not be avoided.

By 1899, P L and Lucy had added three more children (Walter Lewis, Sylvia Mabel and Charles Cephas) to the family and the property at Thorn could not support them. So our 2xgreat grandfather turned to the same employment his father had followed four decades earlier — maintaining a section of transport infra-structure.

The Electoral Roll for 1905, showed that the Coley family had moved back closer to "home" and were living at Railway Station, Stapylton as electors in Oxley (voting at Beenleigh). They would have been based there when great grandfather Alexander Clarence COLEY was born on 25 August 1905 and his sister Laura May almost three years later.

In 1912, the family were living in Blenheim. Their eldest son, Charles Cephas, was admitted to the teaching profession as a pupil-teacher at Blenheim State School in October of that year. The Electoral Roll for the Laidley Subdivision of the Moreton Electorate of 1913 shows P L (misspelled as Philimon) listing his occupation as "farmer" once more. Their last child, Berenice Alicen, was born there on 25 June 1914.

It was at Blenheim that P L died on 10 July 1915. In 55 years, the son of a canal labourer and a nail-maker had seen both sides of working life in his new land but could look forward to his son following a respected profession that would assure his future.

How the war in Europe would cut short that dream is a tale for another day.

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