When I started this blog, it was to supplement our family tree on Ancestry, to turn basic facts into a little bit of a story and share some ideas of what I thought my ancestors were like in order to bring us closer to them. I wanted to make them not just a name and a set of dates but people who have made us what we are today
There are so many places to go to find out more about our ancestors’ lives within a historical context. My favourite place is old newspapers. Trove an online site of the National Library of Australia (https://www.nla.gov.au/) is just that, a treasure trove. In the section on digitised newspapers, I have found everything from memorial notices that summarise their lives and how they were regarded by the community, articles that had been written by my ancestors that shed light on their opinions and tales of the hardships they faced whether it be accidents, drought, or bankruptcy.
Sometimes an ancestor has led me to research an occupation I knew little about. My 4 x great grandfather was a miner in Northern England. Historical research abounds in this area, and it filled in so many details of what life was like for him, his family and the community where he lived and worked. The research also led me to historical fiction which has brought it to life for me. The Durham Trilogy by Janet MacLeod Trotter which follows the lives of families in the mining village of Durham is one example. I had never heard of a “clippy mat” where the women would cut up pieces of old cloth and thread the pieces through hessian until I read these books. The mats were made as floor coverings to keep feet warm in the cold northern England winters, and I can imagine my female ancestors sitting around the fire in candlelight working on the mats.
World War 1 and 11 records held by the National Archives of Australia are extraordinary resources that have helped me discover so much about my family’s war history. Where they are gaps in the written records the Australian War Museum provides incredible information on the regiments they belonged to, where they fought and the conditions they experienced (https://www.awm.gov.au/). A visit to the museum even provided an experience of flying in a Bomber over Europe in WW2. It gave me just an inkling of what my Uncle Roy experienced before he was shot down over Germany in 1943.
The more I research the more I can put my ancestors lives in context. I am no longer satisfied with the basic facts, these are just an introduction to their story and I hope through some of my stories that I have managed to bring them to life for others in my family.
One of the family heirlooms that I treasure is a pair of plates that I think of as Harvest plates. They are majolica glazed bread platters with a moulded corn pattern and “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” in relief around the edges. My mother treasured these plates and they were only used on very special occasions. I especially remember them being brought out on Christmas day for our family feast. She told me they were from the Chisholm side of the family and were probably given to my great grandfather and great grandmother, Alfred Wilson Chisholm and Sarah Ann (nee Wood) as wedding presents.
The plates were made at Lithgow Pottery around 1890. The business closed in 1896 as a result of the 1890s depression. As the pottery was only in operation for 20 years the quantity of pottery coming onto the market from this source is limited. Similar examples of this type of pottery are held in the Power House Museum in Sydney.
Bread platter, ‘Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread’, earthenware with majolica glaze, Lithgow Pottery, Lithgow, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1890. From the Biggs family collection.
My favourite maps that I used to help work out the lives of my Shepherd ancestors is an old Southern Highlands map. The first map was created in 1830 when a plan of eight allotments were created at Bong Bong for Veterans from the battle of Waterloo. Pinpointing where they lived provided me with a major clue about their lives and the historical events that surrounded them.
Veterans’ allotments at Bong Bong in 1830. State Library of NSW.
The veterans were offered an engagement in Australia for two years to help rid the countryside of bushrangers. The rates of pay were relatively generous and on discharge that received a free grant of land. The eight allotments at Bong Bong were granted to William Chater, John Gilzan, Samuel Holmes, Enos McGarr, Christopher Rhall, Lynn Shepherd (my 3x great grandfather) and brothers Thomas and William Wood (my 4 x great grandfather).
Both my ancestors arrived with the Royal Veterans Corp within a year of each other. My 4x great grandfather, William Wood, arrived in 1825 on the ship the Catherine Stewart Forbes. He took up possession of his grant in 1839. My 3 x great grandfather, Lynn Shepherd, arrived on board the Orpheus in 1826 and took possession of his grant in 1830.
Each allotment was of 80 acres between Eridge Park Road (then known as Old Bong Bong Road) and the Wingecarribee River. They were given rations for 12 months, and they had to remain on and cultivate the land for seven years before being granted ownership.
The next map I came across provides names on each allotment. It looks as if not all the Veteran grantees did not take up their land or found life too difficult on the harsh swampy land but both my ancestors continue to be listed as landholders.
When I look at it against a map of today I can see why I feel so at home in this part of the world. Their allotments on what is now called Eridge Park Road are less than ten minutes walk from our back gate!
Once you start researching family history, cousins seem to show up in all sorts of places. One that has been interesting me lately is my 1st cousin (3 times removed) who has shown up in America and thanks to one of the Dowse descendants I am able to provide some of his history.
In 1826 my 3 x great aunt Mary Biggs (older sister to my 2 x great grandfather James Biggs) married George Dowse. Both the Biggs and Dowse family came from Potterne in Wiltshire. Their second child was a boy, Jabez Biggs Dowse, born on 20 February 1829. He was baptised in St Mary’s Wesleyan Methodist Church at Devises, Wiltshire on 16 May 1830. As devout non-conformists, they chose a biblical name for their son. The name Jabez means “he causes pain”. Possibly his birth was exceptionally painful or there may have health problems early in infancy. Whatever the reason it seems they must have had some concerns about this new addition to the family.
His mother died when he was eight years old and at the age of 12 years, he was living with his father, who was a dealer in grain (a mealman) and his younger siblings in Potterne in Wiltshire. By the 1851 census, he is no longer recorded with his family and he disappears from records. His older brother, Stephen had immigrated to America and it is likely that he had followed in his footsteps.
The next record for Jabez is in the 1860 United States Census. He is 30 years old, single and his occupation is described as a miller. In 1861 he applied for and became an American citizen. In 1864 he is shown in the US City Directory for Lockport Illinois as a grocer.
The reason for my interest in Jabez is for something entirely different. Jabez was an inventor and in 1867 he took out a patent for the “Dowse Fuze” for use in submarine mines
His invention was taken up by the US Corp of Engineers and detailed in “Professional Papers of the Corps of Engineers of the United States Army”. So maybe our family can take a little bit of credit for some of the engineering skills and the pathway my nephew is following!
Jabez never married and died in 1878 at the age of 49. He is buried in Lockport, Illinois.
It is so easy to make mistakes when doing family history. It might be another person’s family tree that looks fine on the surface but when you dig a little deeper is sending you down the wrong track. It might be from oral history where formal documents prove otherwise. There are so many family tales that are made up to hide the “unforgivable” truth, so many skeletons that needed to be hidden in the cupboard. Formal documentation may not be always correct with information unknown, based on what it sounded like, made up or just an honest mistake. Often even professional transcribers will make mistakes. Mistakes that does happen most frequently to me are interpreting those handwritten records that look like chicken scratches just like this will that belonged to my 4 x great grandmother Margaret Deane (nee Chalklen).
I guess researching family history would not prove to be so interesting and challenging if it was all straightforward so bring on the mistakes and give me the chance to put them right!
We all have those school photos where we are lined up in rows with our classmates for our annual school photo. It is nice to look back on them and wonder what happened to all of our fellow students.
For my Mum, her early years of school in Brisbane were not happy ones. With her coffee-coloured skin, that turned a few shades darker from playing in the sun, and black hair she drew the attention of the school bullies who decided that she was an “Abo” and not worthy of their friendship. I can imagine her tears as the word’s and behaviour that were cruel and thoughtless made her feel ashamed and humiliated. Such overt racism was prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries and, it is not difficult to imagine the psychological damage that such loathing towards her caused making her feel less than her classmates.
Her parents did all they could to make her feel proud, telling her she was really an Indian princess (think of the sari’s I could wear if that were the truth!) and finally removing her from the State school and placing her in the local Catholic school where thankfully she was accepted for the beautiful young girl she was. By the time they had moved to Sydney, she had a large group of friends and recognised that the comments from her childhood were meaningless.
My research and DNA results confirm that my mother was not Aboriginal, nor any other dark-skinned race. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed at this as it would be wonderful to have such ancestry. The dark colouring comes from her Scottish Chisholm heritage with many of the NZ Chisholms sharing the same colouring.
My Mum was probably around eight years old in this school photo, attending Dutton Park Primary School in 1923. She is the fifth child from the left marked with an X (Mum did this so that we knew which one was her).
Has anything changed much? I had to laugh when my daughter came home from High School one day (yep, she has the olive skin and dark hair) to say that the “Greek” girls thought she was one of them and wanted to know which part of Greece her family came from!
Mulled over this trigger word a bit as there were so many choices. I decided that I would share one of my favourite photos of my Mum, Hazel Edith Biggs (nee Chisholm). Before she married she worked in a cakeshop and it is here that my memory lets me down so I hope my siblings can remind me. I think the shop was in Beverly Hills and she managed the shop front and sales assistants. Mum is the one in the middle marked with a small x. She remained a life long friend with the owner who I think was called Sid Ward. Anyway here is the photo … I can almost smell the cream buns!