Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Catherine found at last

Our 3xgreat grandmother Catherine has proved to be something of an enigma.

When she died on 3 May 1878, 2xgreat grandfather Thomas Henry Suddaby was just sixteen months old, so he must have had very few personal memories of his mother. Even the possibility of hearing stories about her was cut short when his father Henry died just a few days after Thomas' fifth birthday.

Nevertheless when Thomas had a daughter in 1897, he gave her his mother's name, Catherine Corry Suddaby. With just one exception each of the Suddaby's 8 children had their maternal grandmother's family name as a given name.

It would be more accurate to say that that the children had a name that Thomas believed to be that of his lost mother. It seems that the source of his information was a record of the marriage in 1888 between Henry Suddaby and Catherine Corry. Unfortunately almost all the other evidence is conflicting.

When Henry registered the details of Catherine's death at Quilpie, he stated that she was the daughter of James Currie and Mary O'Donnell of County Armagh, Ireland. There is no record that either of these people were ever in Queensland, so Catherine must have been an immigrant. But there are numerous possibilities including a Catherine Corrie born at sea and even a Catherine Coary.

Henry provided one other piece of information in recording Catherine's untimely death. It was that she had lived in Queensland for approximately 3½ years.

The continuing program to index the migration records held by the Queensland State Archives has now made available (in csv files) lists of all assisted immigrants from 1848 to 1912. That opens up the possibility of some brute-force genealogy. I could download all migrants with names at the beginning of the alphabet and filter that list to extract all females with family name C*, who arrived May 1874 to April 1875 aged 17 to 19 years. After that, all it should take would be a line-by-line examination …

Unfortunately the downloaded file does not have a gender field and there were 284 young adults immigrants in that year. Adding a filter of C* for given name reduced the list to just 9 people including four Catherines - Carty, Connelly, Corrigan and Curry.

So there she was: one of the 89 single female passengers on the Gauntlet that arrived at Maryborough on New Years Day of 1875. They had sailed from London on 4 October 1874 under the supervision of the Matron, Miss Collins, along with 87 single men and just 16 family groups (7 of whom lost a child on the voyage).

Now the speculations can be swept aside and Catherine given her true history. But how should I record the spelling of her name from among the myriad options? That is an easy choice. She is Catherine Corry, just how Thomas wanted his mother to be remembered.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Keeping up to date

The recent availability for on-line purchase of digital images of historical Queensland BDM registration documents has caused a flurry of renewed interest in what is now open but then (predictably) focused our interest on those things that remain inaccessible.

Policies to protect the private information of living individuals mean that there are time limitations on what information is on open access. The site sets out that

You can search for births which occurred more than 100 years ago; marriages which occurred more than 75 years ago and deaths which occurred more than 30 years ago.

So if a death occurred in January of 1984, you can not yet obtain the details without a special application (citing an appropriate relationship and justification). But just when will its status change to become available as an historical record?

Users certainly hope that the next update cycle is shorter than the last when online availability of the index to Death Registrations jumped from 1963 to 1983 in one step. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any statement that indicates when the next batch of records will be transferred from closed to open (that is, historical) status.

If the Attorney-General is looking for an example of world-leading practice in the field to emulate, I commend to him the following

The records available are updated nightly as the embargo period is reached.

Yes, you did read that correctly. BDM records in New Zealand are updated every 24 hours, so that you can access grandfather's birth registration on the day after the 100th anniversary of the event. There is no further waiting period.

I learned this from what I consider an exemplary model of how to present a "how to use the ... records". If you have any interest in the area, devote twenty minutes to a look at the presentation New Zealand Births, Deaths, and Marriages Online from the Family Search Learning Center.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Whose history?

Recently, I was sitting in a group of family historians asked to respond to the question "What names are you researching?". I recognised immediately that neither of my obvious answers was appropriate to the setting. (For the record: (i) All of them or (ii) Ones that look interesting.)

I sat transfixed as my companions reported that they were "working on my X ancestors" or "focusing on a 2xgreat grandmother's maternal line" or even "investigating the parish of Y in the county Z". I could not decide whether I admired their single-minded focus or pitied their lack of imagination.

When my turn came, I said that was in an eclectic phase and mentioned one or two that were "of current interest". There the matter might have rested (with me feeling a little odd) but for the fact that on the following day James Tanner's blog was concerned with what aspects of our genealogy receive attention (and which are ignored).

First and obviously, your own surname plays a major part in determining your genealogical research interest. This is natural and is wrapped up with issues of identity and family traditions. But how we form our predilection to one family or another is a little more complex.

That post on Genealogy's Star prompted me to revisit the uncomfortable thought that perhaps I do not "do genealogy" in the same way as serious family historians.

The scope of my own research is directly related to my motivation for undertaking it. I have no religious purpose; nor do I hold out any hope of establishing a connection to (inheritable) wealth or power. I understand that the achievements of those with whom I share a name reflect no particular credit on me. I don't crave contact with dozens of distant cousins.

I do what I do for the intellectual satisfaction of confronting a mass of obscured and/or tangled information and transforming it into something accessible to others who may have an interest. It is the same reason that I headed off to work each day for 40 years. I enjoy puzzle-solving and explaining.

For my own purposes, any genetic or legal connection that I have with those I study is almost irrelevant. The suggestion that I would study "my" ancestors but not those of my spouse is incomprehensible to me. This blog adopts the perspective of our children and always refers to "our family" because the principal audience for my research is our descendants.

An analysis of the first year of posts on this blog reveals that there are costs associated with my broad (alright, scatter-gun) approach. I do have more dangling story lines awaiting closure than might be desirable, but how could I decide that someone's tale was not worthy of attention?

Insofar as we are the product of our ancestry, it is illogical to laud the sturdy yeoman farmer while trying to hide the dipsomaniac barber. The family tree will have some gnarled branches and a few feeble shoots that also warrant (even demand) investigation.

In my defence, I call James Tanner again.

I guess the challenge we have as genealogists is to attempt to level the playing field, that is, to find information on all of the family members so that the family gets its genealogy recorded and not just certain individuals.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The government giveth ... and taketh away

Family historians love records of death because they provide a jumping-off point to explore the previous generation. From this registration of the death of John Gaskell in Queensland in 1912, I was able to obtain the names of his parents and then begin the search for records of their marriage, then for the birth of siblings, and so on.

So when the website of the authority responsible for BDM in Queensland (Department of Justice and Attorney-General) moved to a new government services portal yesterday, I was anxious to see what (if any) impact this might have on users.

Obviously the very prominent shopping cart was a pointer that the previously-free site had been commercialised. There was a new function enabling me to purchase digital images of selected historical records for (almost) immediate download and to order printed "replica" certificates. That is clearly a worthwhile service enhancement, although we may quibble about the prices.

It is annoying that instead of being able to link directly to the search page for one type of records, I must go through the Terms and Conditions page every time I connect and take three extra clicks to reach the tool I want; but I can understand that is considered necessary in a commercial environment.

I am sure that I will learn to live with these procedural changes, just so long as the information I need is still readily accessible on the redesigned page.

Did you spot the huge difference? No, not the very tasteful Order Product button. The fact that the maiden name of John Gaskell's mother is not displayed. The content of the single most valuable field in the record (for a family historian) has been truncated to the extent that the information provided is useless!

It is clearly not the case that the information is not in the file. In 2011 when I captured the top screenshot, it was displayed in full without charge. In 2013, I can provide my credit card details and be charged $20 for each and every record that I want to use.

I might become a paying customer; or I might just treat this on-line service as a flawed and incomplete index to the microfiche collection held at my local library where I can read all the fields in full.

Because the capability of new technology is irrelevant without some common sense from those who implement it. That would be smart service, Queensland.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Take nothing on faith

In my recent post concerning the life of Gus Seal after the Brisbane Band, I made the following assertions involving his sons.

  • In 1887, Gus stated that his son Charles Henry was a seaman but he did not know his whereabouts. The absence of any official records other than his birth suggests that he had left the colony and never returned.
  • Harriet continued to use the Seal (Siegel) name until her death in 1904 when she was buried in the same grave as Gus in Toowong Cemetery by their son William.

Each statement contains a fact that is soundly based in documented evidence and an inference that it transpires is completely unfounded. My only defence for having made two such blunders in one post is that one followed logically from the other. I have at least been internally consistent.

This morning I took the time to read the full text of the inscription on Grave 67 in Portion 5 of what is now called Toowong Cemetery, but was known as Brisbane General Cemetery at the turn of the twentieth century.

William August Siegel
d 10 June 1901 aged 80
Also his wife Harriet
d 6 August 1904 aged 67
Erected by their son Charles

Here was the evidence showing Charles Henry Siegel in Queensland after 1887 which I originally said that I could not find. To my eternal shame, it was literally carved in stone. My challenge now is to locate further confirmation.

Of course, as soon as you learn that a claim is wrong, the evidence that it was becomes glaringly obvious. I already had identified the fact that William outlived his mother by less than a month. Thus is is implausible that he was the one who arranged for the monument on her grave.

All of this has reinforced an important principle: When publishing a claim, check the evidence once more. Next time, I will try doing that in the other order.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The elder Seal

Although the public record of the Brisbane Band is dominated by the figure of Professor (sic) Andrew Seal (born Andreas Siegel) through the sometimes idiosyncratic recollections of his daughter Pauline; there is quite good documentary evidence of two other players from the 1857 line-up.

We know that August William Seal was admitted to the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum (an antecedent of the Eventide Home, Sandgate) on September 20, 1887. There can be no doubt that this is the same man who arrived in Moreton Bay 20 years earlier with his brother Andreas because the admission register lists both his profession (musician) and migrant ship (Pacific 1855).

The notes on admission refer to Gus being married twice and having two sons. However it appears that he was estranged from his family and had no option other than to enter the Asylum when unable to work for medical reasons. He remained a resident (inmate?) until six days before his death (10 June 1901). During those 14 years of residence, he was "absent on leave" for periods of one to two weeks on 12 occasions.

Gus reported that he was 66 in 1887 which indicates a date of birth in 1821-2. That date is broadly consistent with one derived from the age (31) given on the crew list of the Pacific in 1854. He stated that he had been born in Nassau, Germany; the son of John Seal and Elizabeth, whose maiden name he did not know. Curiously, the registration of his death records his mother's name was Elizabeth Burrison. The only person in Brisbane who might have known this (if Gus himself did not) was his brother Andreas; but at Andreas' death three years later, there is no name listed for his (their) mother.

Gus married Harriet Wiles in Sydney's St James Church of England in 1855. In 1887, he reported that he was 33 years old when he married. Their first son, William Andrew Siegel, was born in Sydney in 1857 before the Band traveled to Moreton Bay. His brother, Charles Henry Siegel, was born in what was then called the Northern Districts of New South Wales in February 1859 (although his mother's name was spelled Wilds in this case).

We know that the marriage was not stable because in July 1861 Gus placed an advertisement in The Sydney Morning Herald warning that he would not be responsible for any debts incurred by Harriet, whom he accused of deserting him and their two boys and returning to Sydney "without any provocation". Harriet continued to use the Seal (Siegel) name until her death in 1904 when she was buried in the same grave as Gus in Toowong Cemetery by their son William.

On his Asylum admission, Gus reported that he had a second marriage to Catherine Mills in Brisbane when he was aged 48 (presumably in 1869-70). There is no official record of that marriage; but a birth was registered in January 1872 of Emily Siegel, the daughter of Augustus William Siegel and Catherine Helms Mills Tuckey. One must wonder why Gus reported a marriage that apparently did not take place but failed to mention a very real daughter.

In 1887, Gus stated that his son Charles Henry was a seaman but he did not know his whereabouts. The absence of any official records other than his birth suggests that he had left the colony and never returned. The elder son, William Andrew, trained as a painter and decorator and in February 1878 married Fanny Parsons. Two months later, Fanny gave birth to Gus's first grandchild, William Augustus. (Although from 1878 to 1881, William apparently spelled his official surname Seigel rather than Siegel, while being commonly known as Seal). By 1887, William and Fanny had two sons and three daughters (aged 0 to 9) in their home in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley; which may explain why they were unable to support Gus as well. They eventually had a total of seven children.

Perhaps we can see an indication that life for many a professional musician has changed little in the last 130 years in this statement on his Asylum history that Gus …

… had supported myself by my profession since my arrival. Employed during the last two years at Brisbane theatres. No property. No cash.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Battling historical ignorance

It seems appropriate to mark my 100th post with some observations on the teaching and learning of history. As a child was enthralled by ancient history but at secondary school (utterly illogical) timetabling restrictions meant that I did not study any history beyond Year 8. As a result, my working life was spent in the fields of science and mathematics. That is how careers were shaped.

Nevertheless, I do consider myself to be reasonably well-informed about many areas of history. At least, until I come to investigate them as background for some aspect of my research into our ancestors.

The looming centenary of the Great War will focus public attention on the 1914-18 period as never before. And if my relative ignorance is any indication, then it will be much needed.

Two members of our family were among the fallen in what we now term World War I. Robert BURTON died at Gallipoli in 1915 and Charles COLEY on the Somme in 1918. I thought that I knew quite a lot about one campaign and a little about the other. I was wrong.

Like most Australian kids, I "did" Gallipoli in school every April. The dawn landing, Simpson and his donkey, the stupidity (or perfidy) of British command, Lone Pine, mateship, and bully beef tins attached to rifles for the evacuation combined to build a comprehensive picture of the ultimate ANZAC conflict.

So why was I surprised to learn that Robert died fighting in an Irish regiment a decade before anyone in that branch of the family ever contemplated moving to Australia?

I freely conceded that I knew less about the Somme — mud and weeks spent in trenches pretty much encompassed my view. The modern fascination with Villers-Bretonneux as an alternative site for Anzac Day commemoration had some association with the general area but I could not explain how.

That the momentous Battle for Mont St Quentin might rival Gallipoli for its significance in shaping Australian military lore and certainly surpasses it in terms of its impact on the course of the war did not cross my mind.

Learning that the battle in which Charles died was almost exactly the opposite of my naive preconceptions of the Western Front — short sharp skirmishes in which small groups operated almost autonomously moving rapidly over open ground — causes me to doubt many of the truths that I have always known(sic) about other historical events.

It is never too late to learn and there is no doubt that today I have a different (if not necessarily, a stronger) motivation. Yet, I cannot help but wonder what I would be missing if I were to regard genealogy as a form of philately and was happy simply to collect names and dates, while remaining blissfully ignorant of the fact that the past in which our ancestors lived and died is far more complicated that we imagine.

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