Convict women defied authority

Australia’s female convicts are often depicted as sluts and thieves. They stole, certainly, but usually from desperation. Their privileged contemporaries deplored sexual behaviour that did conform to middle class codes. But what were convict women really like?

Babette Smith’s new book, Defiant Voices, celebrates the defiance and resilience of the 25,000 women transported to Australia. It took courage to stand up to the power of the courts, which could rip prisoners away from family, children and homeland, and send them to the far side of the globe. Smith finds many stories of women who swore, shouted, mocked and sang in the face of judges, prison guards, naval officers and employers.

The prisoners saw no shame in their crimes when the alternative would have been starvation. Their refusal to show repentance in court angered and bewildered authorities:

When the judge pronounced a sentence of transportation,the two women were…extremely insolent to him and … ‘in vulgar language.. told him, “We have plenty of law but little justice.” Two other women joined in. …As they were about to leave the dock, they ‘jumped and capered about and laughing at the judge said, “Thank you my lord.”‘

page 29, Defiant Voices

The average age of female convicts was 25, but many were teenagers and a few were as young as 12. They banded together on board ships, at Female Factories and in workplaces, always ready to call out anything they considered unfair. In later life they often proved to be valuable employees, and many escaped their convict status through marriage. Noisy rebels often grew into respectable workers, wives and mothers. Some lived much longer, healthier lives that they could have hoped for in England or Ireland. Mary Reibey (page 111) became a successful trader who helped found the Bank of New South Wales. Catherine Mangan (page 146) , who left four children in Ireland, was often in trouble for drunkenness, but had another six children with her ex-convict husband and died at the age of 87. Sarah Leadbetter, (page 79), a pretty 19-year-old thief, met William Lawson of the New South Wales Corps on Norfolk Island. In 1812 they married and by the 1820s Sarah was the mistress of Veteran Hall at Prospect, arranging piano lessons for her daughters. Susannah Watson (page 233), Babette Smith’s forebear, left four children in England that she never saw again. The baby who came to Sydney with her died at the age of three. Susannah had a further two children in Australia, and in a letter to her daughter in England, described her new home as a “plentiful, extravagant” country. Except for the loss of her English children, she regarded transportation as the best thing that happened to her.

Defiant Voices has illustrations on nearly every page, many drawn from the National Library’s convict era material.

Young and defiant convict lass

Babette Smith dedicates the book to “the thousands of family and academic historians whose research into women convicts has produced such riches.” A few decades ago, in deference to widespread shame about our convict ancestors, archives and libraries made it difficult to access information about them. Now convict ancestors are celebrated rather than obscured, and many archivists, librarians and university lecturers owe their jobs to the widespread thirst for information about our past.

Defiant Voices brings a vast array of material on the convict system together with dozens of lively vignettes of individual convict women. This compelling book combines scholarship with original insights.


July 2021

Babette Smith, Defiant Voices, How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority, National Library of Australia Publishing, 288 pages, $49.99 – available from the NLA bookstore online, and other online outlets

My Grandmother

She was my grandmother but I never knew her. Born in Russia, she never spoke Russian, only Yiddish. Jews were second-class citizens in Russia. In those days my grandmother was not entitled to speak the national language. She and her family were persecuted and despised for no reason except that they were Jewish.

My grandmother was forced to marry my grandfather, who had fled Russia with his first wife during the Pogroms, a time when Jews were robbed of their property, tortured and evan killed. My grandfather settled in the East End of London in England, where my father was born. When my grandfather’s first wife died having their fourth child, he sent for his wife’s younger sister. She was duly dispatched at the age of eighteen to marry my grandfather and her dead sister’s four children. That was the tradition among Orthodox Jews at the time.

She had another eight children with my grandfather, who died just before my father’s Bar Mitzvah, leaving my grandmother with twelve children to bring up alone. I can only imagine how terrible it must have been for my poor grandmother, a stranger in a strange land, far away from her family.

(copyright) Dina Davis

Families out of their trees

I suppose all families are interesting if one writes their details down. My recent reading has featured fictional families who show off the best and worst extremes of family relationships; but authors have the advantage of being able to press their characters into extremes of raw emotion, misunderstanding, rage, bliss and tension, aspects that I can’t say have been a feature of my life within my two immediate families.

I envy writers who have sheafs (sheaves?) of letters found in old suitcases in dusty attics but I have no such resources to help me, apart from a family history my father wrote for his grandchildren 35 years ago. There have also been a couple of letters from remote family members, most of whom I was unaware of, asking me to fill in gaps in their records. They told me much more than I was able to tell them.

On my paternal side, we are said to be related to Robert Bruce, one of whose daughters, perhaps, married an ancestor. My father had an aged family tree handwritten on what looked like vellum, that started with Robert Bruce – probably a bit of a brag. It reflected the desire to hold family lands together and featured entries such as “He was an idiot and bereft of lands and title from birth” or, more commonly “Died at birth”. The second probably reflected a degree of gender control as well as preservation of clan lands. A pharmacist with the same surname, who my father met during WWII, expressed an interest in the tree and my father, who was of a generation that saw no use in things like old family trees, posted it to him and we haven’t seen it since.

The first ancestor to come to Australia was a captain in Governor Macquarie’s regiment, the 17th Regiment of Foot. His career was undistinguished. According to my father, he received a land grant at the mouth of the Hunter River but spent his time whoring and gambling in Sydney and never visited his property. How different my life might have been if he had settled down and profited from the massive resources he had been given. But how unlikely that I should have even existed, let alone been his descendant.

My father’s mother was a Morris, a great niece of William of arts and crafts fame (we’re told.) Her father was an Anglican clergyman in Bundaberg who spent a lot of time helping Chinese workers on the Gympie goldfields. A group of them came to his door and asked for a photograph which they took to China, returning some months later with a large painting of him. He looks thin and quite stern, probably part of the job description for a clergyman in the middle of the nineteenth century.

My maternal grandmother’s family came from Latvia as Jewish refugees. My grandfather was a saddler in Boonah on the Darling Downs whose interests extended to playing the violin well enough to be a member of a Brisbane orchestra. He was the son of Brisbane’s third rabbi who also appears to have worked in the Bundaberg – Maryborough areas. There is no record of those two men of God ever meeting.

The descendants of one’s ancestors are an intriguing. mystery. My parents sometimes talked of cousins aunts and uncles who were parts of their lives but never of mine. I think of my grandchildren who may listen with equal incomprehension to stories of my relatives or even those of their own parents. Being unaware of one’s history may condemn one to repeat it. Perhaps one of the most important parental roles is to ensure for future generations that their history is worthy of repetition.



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. 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 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’.



by Babette Smith

Recently, Professor Anne Twomey took a swipe at family historians, telling ABC broadcaster James Valentine,”Yeah, they’ll give you the file of great uncle Bert and His war record and all that sort of stuff, so they do the genealogy or whatever, where there’s no controversy.”

Obviously, she has not shared my expereince of seeing hundreds of family historians digest the most startling, even upsetting information about their ancestors.

My forthcoming book, Defiant Voices, on Australia’s women convicts, has led me to pull together the research of hundreds of historians who have investigated female convicts over the last 30 years. It’s made me reflect deeply on the work we have done since A Cargo of Women was published in 1988.

That book started as family history, but transcended the genre when I decided to research all 100 women who were on board the ship Princess Royal with my ancestor.

The received wisdom then was that you couldn’t reconstruct convict lives. So no one tried. Tasmanian records were thought to be more complete, but any attempt to personalise them had been strongly resisted. Demands from family historians forced change. For Cargo I was opening files that hadn’t been touched since the 19th century, particularly in the Colonial Secretary correspondence. I had to think like the 19th century bureaucrats to find what I was looking for. That’s why the primary sources bibliography in Cargo is so extensive. It was designed as a trail for others to follow. And they did.

Situating my ancestor Susannah Watson among 99of her peers, I aimed to be scholarly but readable.

Susannah’s story by itself could not sustain a book. Too many gaps in what I could find out about her, even with the discovery of her letters. These came to light because a descendant from her daughter in England wrote to to an Australian newspaper, The Shoalhaven News, which she mentioned in a letter was founded by her Australian son (my great-grandfather). Like me, the English descendant had no idea that Susannah was a convict. To him, at that stage, she was just someone who ‘dropped off’ his family tree. He nearly fell over when I rang him at home in Nottingham. Subsequently he told me he remembered photos of his mother with diggers in slouch hats which were taken during WWI.

As soon as I broadened my search to all 100 women, it became plain that I had something fresh and significant to say about them. I approached Doug Howie, Managing Director of UNSW Press in late 1986 and he confirmed that it would make a book that would interest him. I threw up my job as National Marketing Manager for the Hoyts Corporation and spent all of 1987 writing it.

Essentially the structure of Cargo is cross-hatched – a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, which was Susannah’s story, intersected by the issues important to female convicts which were revealed by my research.

The search for individuals caused a significant methodological shift from statistical sampling that once dominated convict research. Cargo of Women proved a methodolgical pivot in terms of sampling the convict archive by the boatload, as did combining archives with family history. This sampling method has been replicated over and over by family historians and academics alike, here and overseas.

I approached the material with the feminist historians of the Seventies ringing in my ears – and as a committed feminist myself. I expected to find case studies that confirmed feminist arguments. Instead, I found that tracking individuals usually contradicted them. Discovering letters writtien by my previoulsy unknown convict ancestor impost a valuable discipline on my interpretation. In feminist theory, she was a classic female victim. However, her letters revealed that she didn’t see it that way: she told her daughter that transportation to New South Wales was the best thing that happened to her. Ever since, I’ve asked myself over and over as I write, what would the convict think of this, how would they have experienced it?

Focus on the personal and the ordinary has changed interpretaiton and perspective, probably more so in Australia than any other country.

Family interpretation is based on knowledge, often imperfect, of the generations of a family their locations. As many family historians have discovered, the errors and omissions can be as significant as what is recalled.

Family interpretation is influenced by family documents, pictures, artefacts, and family anecdotes. Sometimes actual memory plays a part. Family history has “illustrated” Australian history in a way those people who scorned family history in the 1970s and 1980s never anticipated. It has provided the “colour” that for many decades Australians claimed their history lacked.

Family historians discovered new sources – and brought mass pressure for their digitisation. Not just new archives but new persoanl sources with wider signiicance. The letters from my convict ancestor are one example – convict opinion, particularly women’s opinion, is rare. Thanks to family historians, photos of convict women have emerged, as well as photos of adminstrators who ran the female factories, and magistrates who judged the prisoners.

Family histories can contribute to wider issues too. To me, there is a great public role awaiting family historians of all kinds. We all know there can be no true Reconciliation without a vast shift in historical consciousness. My research indicate that will only succeed if it is fair to both sides. As historians, we need to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart while advocating a balanced view that respects European and multicultural history too.

Some of you may know that I earn my living as a mediator. No doubt this shapes my conviction that historians should not ‘navigate’ conflicting versions but mediate between the two sides in this issue. Use public talks in halls and via the media, as well as written papers and books. Grace Karskens has made a great start with her book The Colony. Paul Irish’s work, In Plain View, is a significant further step. Family hisotrian Lyn Stewart’s book Blood Revenge is an outstanding contribution. Further publications by Aboriginal family hisotrians wil also be very significant to this important public issue.

copyright 2020 BABETTE SMITH

The full version of this paper can be found at

Who do I think I am?

When my cousin’s wife, a family historian, sent me a lineage chart to certify that my brother and sister and I are 30th-great-grandchildren of William the Conqueror I was astonished and I must admit at first rather pleased, even though he was a known bastard. Once you have been told you are a descendant of William the Conqueror there are plenty of family trees and other stories that allow you to trace back even further to yet more illustrious ancestors – from the Vikings, Normans and Franks to Charlemagne and Clovis and, using the Old Testament, even to Adam and Eve. If you go down another line you find that you are descended from Woden. It’s big business. 

My cousin and his wife had traced my ancestry from kings to the commoner that I am. But I subsequently had a sobering conversation with a molecular geneticist who told me that it was very unlikely that I could confidently trace my ancestors back that far, because very often the paternity of a child was not what it seemed to be. She told me that in modern times about 25% of people don’t have the father they think they have! Documents do lie and, from a molecular point of view, it is only the mother’s mitochondrial DNA that can really be traced. This highlights the difference between history and science. It is a shame that humans, following usual patterns, traced only the male line and the wife and mother were more rarely documented – if at all. They were too unimportant to be mentioned even in records of childbirth, and were frequently forgotten. An exception was when a king or peer’s daughter was bartered for family advantage: in that case her parentage was of great interest, though again not necessarily correct. It is for such reasons of parentage that I am a commoner, as most of us are. In England after William, heritage laws ensured that property and title passed from father to eldest son and to the next son only if the firstborn died. Rarely did daughters get a look in: it usually only happened if all the eligible men had died. It was so rare for women to own property or make a will that it was often remarked upon as something special. So, in general, the younger sons or daughters in the English system of heredity were the last to inherit the earth – the land and its titles in a feudal system. I am supposedly a descendant of King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s youngest son, but Henry slept around and my next ancestor was not a legitimate son but Henry’s bastard – Robert, Earl of Gloucester. So what could I possibly have expected!

Perhaps I cannot be as sure of my ancestry as I might have liked. But then perhaps that doesn’t matter as we are all more interconnected than we realise or care to admit; our genes are re-shuffled and shared around with every generation. So I am a relative of both rich and the poor, successful and unsuccessful, depending on how you look at it. And, if you follow Richard Dawkins you will be amused and perhaps amazed that your 185-millionth-greats-grandfather was not “An old man with wispy hair and white sidewhiskers”, but a fish. “So was your 185-million-greats-grandmother, which is just as well or they couldn’t have mated with each other and you wouldn’t be here.” What has come out of all this is much more valuable. It has given me an insight into the study of civilisations from a personal point of view, imagining my ancestors living in their times and having a much better idea of my place in the long arm of the history. The past comes alive when you think an ancestor was living in it and as you start to delve into their life your study takes on a life of its own. Exciting, actually riveting, it is every bit as good as the best of fiction.

Reference: Dawkins, Richard. The Magic of Reality, Bantam Books, 2011

–AEA 2020



Robin Sen shares some experience from his researches:

I have just tracked down a second cousin once removed who is a chef in Vancouver, Canada. I have sent him some details of a shared ancestry going back to the banks of the Ganges over three hundred years ago.

For almost fifty years I have been the self-appointed historian of my extended family and that of my wife. This has taught me some important lessons.

First and foremost, the family historian needs to recognize that not all relatives share the enthusiasm for climbing back up the family tree. In my experience in any generation, there are usually at best only one or two who are interested. Most people are too engaged with their current lives to be bothered with their ancestry. Make the most of the reactions of those of your few relatives who show genuine interest as distinct from scarcely concealed indifference.

Best way to stimulate interest is to come up with some anecdotes about forbears who have done something different, especially if bizarre or disreputable.

Be prepared to find that people with no connection to your family are very unlikely to share your enthusiasm for recounting the details of great uncle Boris’s marriage to great aunt Lobadelia, unless she subsequently murdered him. As a practitioner of the art of genealogy I am always fascinated to discuss methodology or sources and will do so till the cows come home. However, I am propelled into acute boredom by other people’s ancestors (unless they were complete weirdos). I have lost count of the pairs of eyes I have forced to glaze over as a result of my rabbiting on about my family until I learned the error of my ways.

Timing is important. Family history can hurt the living. Some years back an elderly aunt in a NSW country town was mortified to see the local rag print a story of her family’s convict ancestry. She was convinced she would be blackballed by the ladies with whom she played mahjong each week. To the same town came an enthusiastic “distant relative” from Tasmania who was researching the family connection. A putative relative brusquely sent him away with no help whatever as he feared the visitor was after sharing in the elderly aunt’s will. Had the Tasmanian turned up some years later, he may have got a different welcome.

Beware elderly relatives spruiking family myths that they are descended from noble or even royal blood. I had an aunt who was convinced we were related to/descended from a famous peer of the realm who shared the family name (a very common one). Quite apart from the absence of one shred of evidence of a connection, there was the added problem that this man had invented concentration camps in the Boer War, leading to the deaths of thousands of women and children – not someone for one to be proud to share kinship.

Sometimes family tree research can be turned to personal advantage and I recommend this tip, based on personal experience, to anyone when it is possible to travel once more to the UK. It is based on the widespread belief among the Poms that they have a distant relative who made a fortune in Australia. This can be done anywhere in the UK, but probably best to avoid the canny Scots. Say it is close to teatime and you are in a picturesque village called Midsommer. Look up the phone directory and search for people who share your surname. Ring them up and tell them you are from Australia (stretch the Ocker) and doing family tree research and think you may be related. This will whet their interest/greed and they will invite you to tea. With a bit of luck this will be accompanied at best by scones and jam and at the least by caramel wafer biscuits.

Well, what of family history? After nearly half a century, why am I still at it? Partly it is because, through the internet, there is so much more material available and now easily accessible. In the early days there were hours of intense monotony, going through parish records, censuses and microfilm, with the rare moment of excitement when you found something relevant. Now that is virtually done for you, through various websites. In the past much family research did not get far past names, dates of birth, marriage and death, leaving no real sense of the ancestor as a person.

Now there are so many sources available to fill in the picture. Just as important is the ability to build up a historic context around the life of the ancestor through Dr Wikipedia et al. That way I was able to discover that my granny’s brother was not the only one to desert from HMS Lord Nelson in Sydney in the 1890s. There were 169 others.


LIFE WRITING No. 1: Photos need a story

Covid isolation has inspired many people to write their family history or memoir. This is the first of a series on life writing.

Some days the pen flows. Other times, you hit a brick wall and wonder why. There are ways of vaulting over that wall, or just taking a different direction. Don’t be a slave to chronology. Don’t fret over the gaps in the family tree–you don’t have to write in a straight line. Like a patchwork quilt, you can write pieces of memoir, then stitch it all up later.

What could be more frustrating than a picture of someone, possibly a family member, with no name, date or place to give it a lasting meaning?

Photographs need a story, or at least a caption.

Will McNicoll, photographer, of
Stevenson & McNicoll, Melbourne, remembered as an exasperating tease

Here’s my great-grandfather Will, professional photographer, posing in front of some moulded frames. He has dark eyes, a striking beard and a sprig of jonquils on his lapel. His eyes demand attention. What kind of man was he?

Thanks to our family historian, my late Uncle Ron, I have a very good idea. Ron began with the standard dates and places of birth and death, and any recorded occupation. He then turned to newspaper clippings, letters, photographs and interviews to provide a fuller picture. Sometimes he added a rumour or family legend. Will struck some of his in-laws as full of conceit. One described him as “just a strutter”.

Ellen McNicoll, photographic technician, mother of three and Temperance campaigner

Ellen Ramsay, a keen member of a temperance (anti-drinking) league called the Good Templars, was a teacher when she married Will. They were both 24. Several years later, with two small children, she joined Will on tours in western Victoria with their horse-drawn photographic van. For some days the van would be a mobile studio, where townspeople posed against velvet drapes. Then Will would be off to drum up business in the next town, while Ellen developed photos in the van, now serving as a darkroom and dense with chemical fumes. Ellen suffered from headaches, rashes and eye problems.

In late 1883 Ellen wrote a long diary, describing the grubby inns where the family stayed and the local schools that welcomed the children. She, Walter and Amy spent a rare day of leisure hiking in Werribee Gorge, where they collected ferns. She admired many trees, including wattles “covered with their sweet yellow blossom, from which delicious perfume was wafted across to us occasionally.”

Back in Melbourne, Ellen advanced to the rank of Grand Vice-Templar, and had a third child. She was often the butt of Will’s teasing. Her niece Mary Corteen remembered that “she would get very angry and go off somewhere.” Will is also remembered as a flirt who once made an “improper proposal” to a woman who decided not to upset Ellen by telling her about it.

Ellen died of a heart attack at the age of 48, while Will remarried and lived to a grand old age. My cousin Deborah (another family historian) and I both believe that exposure to chemicals shortened our great-grandmother’s life.

There are no black-haired, dark-eyed descendants, so it seems that Ellen’s genes dominated. As for temperament, it is fascinating to ponder to what extent personality is hereditary, and whether I take after the strutter or the temperance campaigner–or both?

And let’s salute Ron McNicoll, family historian, who researched and wrote in the 1970s, long before the internet or His sources included photographs, family documents, letters, newspaper files, government records and interviews, and he was not afraid to include unflattering details.


  • Place
  • Memoir/autobiography/family history
  • Mythology and identification
  • Shh!! family secrets
  • Letters, diaries and other documents