by Robert J King

June 2020

In the preface of my family history – ‘WHEN ARE WE THERE YET?’ – published in 2017, I wrote ‘A penchant for family history seems to be a disease of the mind affecting the aged and retired. Aged, as we are confronted by our own mortality perhaps, but in practical terms expressed in the box of old photographs of ancestors (who are they? why aren’t the photographs labelled?) and the questions we didn’t ask our grandparents or even our parents. Retired, because it can be a time for reflection, and importantly because there is time to ponder and explore new (if old) aspects of life’.

The  current COVID-19 lockdown has given us time and a cause to reflect on mortality. And it has resulted in a surge in sourdough bread baking, jigsaw puzzle solving, and an interest in family history. The genuine fear for many is that the COVID-19 shutdown will be over before any task is completed. In terms of family history there is endless advice on the internet – Ten Steps to Writing an Engaging Family History; Six Tips for Writing your Family History (if 10 is a step too far); Writing your Family History; The Secret to Writing your Family History; How to Write a Family History ; Life Story Writing – Editing, Mentoring, Writing, and so on. All of these suggest that your memories will make a gorgeous gift, a legacy to keep memories alive, and ultimately that you will produce a gorgeous book. 

The following advice is based on my experiences, on stories from friends, and idle observations, supplemented by gratuitous advice.  There are all sorts of stumbling blocks and I draw your attention to but a few. In quoting that famous opening line from ‘Dragnet’, I advise: Ladies and Gentlemen – the stories you’re about to hear [read] are true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.


Beware. This is by no means a definitive list.

Beware of absolute faith in documented sources of genealogical data.

Everybody has their own views on which genealogical websites are best and there is a wide range from which to choose. Ancestry.com is widely used and does have very good information, but as with all family history websites it is only as accurate as the data input on which it is based. A comment from a cousin: ‘I have not used Ancestry.com regularly because it is a monthly (expensive) subscription and the only time I would do that was if I had my data and I wanted some level of quick verification and then I’d cancel the subscription’. 

For Australian records, ‘Trove’ (National Library of Australia) is a wonderful resource, but it does have limitations, not least transcription errors. Be aware that it covers only a selection of country and suburban newspapers, but where such papers have been digitised, they are a source of great value. Other sources include Government registers of births, marriages and deaths; UK, Ireland and overseas government records online; online cemetery records.

For those of us with antecedents from the UK, the British Census data is especially useful, BUT! The data was to be entered by the head of the household in the census schedule and later collected. Where no-one in the household could read or write the enumerator would fill in the details. Both scenarios gave rise to imaginative spelling as with my Great Uncle Baily/Baillie/Baley /Bailly/Bailey. Birthdates can be one year out depending on the date of the Census in relation to the date of birth. Thus, my maternal Grandfather is recorded in the England and Wales Nonconformist Birth and Baptism Register as having been baptised three months before his birth, as recorded in the Census.

Beware (or at least consider the reliability) of current genetic testing.

This is an evolving technology and there is a plethora of web sites to consult. What do you do when you find that it is highly probable that either your father or your brother had an extramarital child? – and that adopted child is now seeking to make contact with the putative father (true story). What about the rapist convicted of an historic crime on the basis of his DNA test? (Apocryphal maybe, but I read it in a magazine in my dentist’s waiting room!)

Beware of the temptation to climb up all the branches of your family tree. 

Judicious pruning will be necessary if you are to finish your family’s story before your ‘best before’ date. It is the result of a simple mathematical progression that each of us has 16 great-great grandparents and this doubles with each earlier generation, and that’s without considering aunts and uncles, great or otherwise, let alone cousins of distant order, e.g. fourth cousins twice removed. Based on the population and estimates of 35 generations the BBC has shown that Jesus must have been related to King David. If you are determined to be related to someone famous, worthy, distinguished, royal (or in the Australian context of convict origin) you shouldn’t need to climb too high in the family tree. You too can safely state that you are descended from Alexander the Great, and if not Charles Darwin, at least ultimately, King Kong.

My wife’s father’s sister’s husband’s mother’s cousin is a famous Australian and it’s tempting to include him in the family story even if only as a vignette.

Beware of paternity deceit statistics. 

Also referred to as misattributed paternity, paternal discrepancy, extra pair copulation, non-paternal event and in litigious jurisdictions as paternity fraud.

The figure for misattributed paternity varies between 0.8% and 30% with a figure of 10 – 16% commonly quoted. Present day birth control, including the availability of abortion has resulted in fewer unplanned pregnancies and the need to ‘find’ a father. In this case you may only need to step back a few generations before the story of your direct genetic descent from Alexander the Great becomes improbable.

Beware of the use of common family names. 

To my great amusement my father was addressed as William King Junior into his 50s. Where a common name follows through from generation to generation, in my family Mary Ann/ Mary-Ann/ Mary Anne/ Molly, the chance of muddling up generations is high. It becomes exceedingly complicated when a child dies in early infancy and the next is ‘honoured’ with the same name.

Beware of assuming that family relations are simple. 

In our family one Great Grandfather had seven children. He died in 1882, and his wife died later the same year. The two older children lived with the grandparents but the younger five were fostered by four related families and grew up as part of those families. Try sorting out that muddle. Another Great Great Grandfather, and his wife Mary Ann had 14 children, only seven of whom survived infancy. He then remarried, another Mary Ann, and fathered a further seven children, the youngest of whom was an Aunt to my Grandmother, though 16 years younger. I defy anybody to cope with such complications in a standard family tree template.

Beware and sometimes even sceptical of family stories.

Now that full records can be obtained for World War I Veterans, family stories can be clarified but sometimes you may prefer not to know. For example, one son has made the ultimate sacrifice for God, King and Country and his brother, the hero, has returned minus a leg. Here the facts intrude: the first has been charged with desertion and is one of the few executed for this. His brother is understandably traumatised and to avoid being sent to the front shoots himself in the leg, gangrene sets in and he is monopedal for the rest of his life. The family regard his reticence to speak of the war as modesty.

On the positive side the records can provide clarification. In our family there was disagreement over whether Grandpa had served in the Western Desert, or at Gallipoli ,or fought on the Western Front. His war record shows that he fought in all of these arenas.

Beware of overinterpreting family photographs; they can tell lies.

My Grandfather sits in a well-appointed drawing room in the three-piece suit complete with fob watch and chain. In fact, he is a gardener and general handy man dressed up in a photographer’s studio for a portrait to send to his parents, taken to assure them of his well-being. Perhaps you’ve visited a heritage museum and had your portrait taken dressed up in gold rush period clothing. Heaven help the historian 100 years hence inspecting that unlabelled photograph taken c. 1980. 

Beware of interpreting events in terms of present-day situations and social mores.

Just because my maternal Great Grandparents had servants does not mean that they were upper class or lived the life of the idle rich. When my daughter asked, why her Great Grandmother was so proud of her father’s position as a bank manager in the country town, I thought the question odd. In earlier times the key members of society in a country town included the bank manager, the stationmaster, the postmaster and the headmaster of the school. Together they oversaw key aspects of the economy, transportation, communication and education. Sadly, especially in relation to the role of teachers and the status of education, none of these positions would necessarily have any special social cachet today.

Beware of misspellings, even when they occur in official documents.

On one Great Grandmother’s wedding certificate her maiden name is spelt in three different ways. Which is correct? And when you are searching through databases, such as ‘Trove’ the number of searches is immediately expanded by a factor of three. With ‘Trove’ the problem is exacerbated by the fact that early Australian newspapers were often printed poorly or on cheap paper and when machine-read some amazing spellings can occur. Where the copy in ‘Trove’ has been sourced from a tightly bound volume, then the original is not all in the same focal plane. This results in some brilliant outcomes, for example  youngest ‘son of the late’ is  ‘sojn>’0$. The :l&jte’. The problem is that words in your search entry can only be searched for on the machine-read transcription. When misspelt there, any relevant material may never be found. 

In my family story, a lower working-class family migrated to Australia in the early 20th Century. The family ‘made good’ but has little documentation of life in England in the late 1800s. Part of the family clings to the notion that the Great Grandfather was a lawyer. In old script a fancy S has been read as an L and his occupation upgraded to lawyer from sawyer, an obsolete term for timber cutter in a timber pit.

Beware the family line that disappears and maybe even reappears years later.

This may result from many causes, such as a simple transcription error in migration papers, a deliberate attempt to ‘disappear’ the black sheep of the family, to bury a past, to be more easily spelt, or to avoid prejudice (for example German names being anglicised particularly during and after World War I, such as Schmidt to Smith, and Adolf becoming ‘nomen non gratia’ after World War II).

Perhaps difficult to understand is the early 20th Century large family portrait where Linda has a red cross across her face and the footnote reads: ‘Linda divorced’. Another has a face cut out with the explanation that she had ‘married a Catholic’.

Beware of what I call a ‘begat/ory’, unless you are only recording your family tree. 

And Walter lived after he begat Allen for 6 years, and begat a son and a daughter. And all the days of Walter were 49 and he died. And Allen was 29 and he begat Rosemary, and the Philip, Susan, and Christopher.

Apologies to King James, and all mothers, as such begatories fail to mention that women also had a part in the begetting. It is a conspicuous feature of many family memoirs that the male line is explored in more detail. It’s generally reflecting the fact that traditionally the male line has the family name, and the male was more likely to have a public life.

Beware and be aware of family sensitivities.

Who had a child out of wedlock, who was adopted out, or taken in by another family member? Who was pregnant at the time of their marriage and has thereafter never celebrated a wedding anniversary? Certainly not major issues today but buried in the recent past. Time may not have ameliorated feelings of guilt and chagrin. It was only in the mid-1960s that the Reverend Irving Benson, a popular and influential but unyielding Methodist, addressing students at Melbourne University, warned us to ‘beware of brief delight and lasting shame’. If your story extends to the living, something as innocent as the inclusion of a family photograph taken at a wedding, and where the marriage has soured, may be contentious. 

Be brave!

A final piece of gratuitous advice. Balcony fever will not last forever: either there will be no future, or we will return to something like our pre-shutdown life, or ‘going forward’ we will create the ‘new normal’. In any of these scenarios it may be difficult to focus on your family history as you can now. In the words of my Father-in-law ‘Get it Done  –  Do it Now’.