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Telling women's stories

Three sisters whose stories have not been told.
Three sisters whose stories have not been told.
Bill Barlow
16 March 2021
Treasure Chest
Writers Circle

By Claire Dunlop


At this month's GSV WRITERS discussion 'grid' on Wed 3 March we shared our thoughts around 'Telling Women's Stories'. About 25 of us fitted in the Zoom grid and our discussion covered many of the challenges in researching and writing women's stories.


The following observations give a useful overview for us as historians as we choose to challenge ourselves in 2021 to tell women's stories. 


Common challenges to finding women's history


Changing name to married name particularly if married a couple of times. 


Women who were not married but changed their name to that of a man with whom they were then living. Often in records and newspapers a woman will have been referred to as, for example, 'Mrs L Adams' when her name was 'Jane'.


No public profile - most history books and historical society websites barely mention women.


Invisible undocumented employment. Women earned money in activities but that information rarely appears on the census or electoral roles, such as some farm activities, agricultural labourers in England or egg money from chickens, also taking in laundry and dressmaking, housekeeping and domestic service.


Some married women continued carrying on the piecework that they had done before marriage. 


Some businesses were really run by women, but their husbands got the credit. Look for clues for this.


Documents and sources that can prove helpful


Birth, baptism, marriage, death, burial certificates and information– not just hers, but those around her because she may well have helped deliver a baby, witnessed a wedding or reported a death. As well as establishing facts, this information shows the people in the woman's life at that time. Look at all the names and interrogate what they were there for and what they were doing. Use your imagination.


Reports relating to community groups and organisations- such as churches, Country Women's Association (CWA), etc. 


Relevant to women in Victoria in 1891- Did she sign the petition to get the vote? https://prov.vic.gov.au/explore-collection/explore-topic/women-archive


Relevant to women in Australia- Trove. It can be easy to track teachers in country towns as the newspapers that covered those towns would have a small article on the new teacher. 


Relevant to women in the UK -'British Newspapers on line'.


Inquestsinto own death, children's deaths, husband's death or death of other near relatives.


Government gazettes- After 1883 women passed an exam to enter the public service in Victoria as clerks, telegraphists and later on as telephonists and their name was published.  Also in the late 1880s women who worked as nurses and warders in asylums had their appointments documented in the Government Gazette.


Lists of licensees of hotels- Very common for women to manage hotels


Family stories- best if person left a diary or letters but also common where the woman lived to be very old and shared her stories with offspring. Can usually be fact checked.


Women's health

Information on voyage to Australia - ref. Health, medicine and the sea - Australian Voyages c.1815-1860, by Katherine Foxhall, Manchester University Press 2012. 

Hospital and asylum registers - see Public Record of Victoria collections

Sometimes women were committed to asylums by male relatives against their will, so asylum records could be misleading.

Sometimes death certificates were unspecific about a woman's cause of death i.e. a 19th century English certificate shows a 44-year-old woman dying of 'decay of nature'. Many times this reflects the toll taken by almost constant pregnancy or lactation.


Information relating to husbands and male relatives

Women usually had to follow her husband to different locations irrespective of whether they wanted to go. Literate women of slightly higher social positions could obtain work via the patronage of powerful male relatives - matrons of charitable institutions, post mistresses, school mistresses.


The group also shared many anecdotes of researching 'our' women, such as ancestors who followed the hereditary role of ladies-in-waiting to the queen and of another's ancestor who had her husband change his name to hers as a requirement of a Marriage Settlement to preserve her assets. 


And how to write our stories of 19th century women in the context of the times? By our standards her 'hard life' makes her a strong woman 'because she survived what would probably kill us'.

We reminded ourselves that as historians we need to 'choose to challenge' truisms to better understand and empathise with our ancestors.


The challenge to get their stories out there

Penny also challenged us to look for places to publish and preserve women’s stories, such as municipal street naming, local historical societies, or contributing entries to the Australian Dictionary of Biographyor the Australian Women’s Register. The RHSV this week launched their 'RHSV Women’s Biographical Dictionary’ recognising the role of many women in that Society. See https://www.historyvictoria.org.au/search-collection/rhsv-womens-biographical-dictionary/



The photo

Three sisters whose stories have not been told: Norma Holland, Stella Wilson and Vida Marguerite Winifred Ebbott.

One remained single; one a mother of one; and the other a 'Soldier Settler' orchardist's wife and mother of five, whose eldest son died in a Lancaster bomber over Germany. One of their brothers was Nellie Melba's piano accompanist.

(Photo: Courtesy W. Barlow)


How can I get rid of old family photos?

Meeting British immigrants, Station Pier, Port Melbourne 1960s (Photo: permission of W.Barlow)
Bill Barlow
2 March 2021
Treasure Chest

I have seen lots of family history advice about how to preserve my family photos, but what I need to do, is to get rid of them! 


Some GSV members had an interesting exchange recently. Viv Martin posed the problem we all face:


'I am about to start scanning my school report books, academic certificates and swimming certificates, etc. When finished, will I just dispose of them as waste paper? I doubt that they would have any significance, except as examples, to the local Historical Society? What do others do with such material?'



Others responded, reflecting many aspects of this dilemma:


'I’d have trouble disposing of them.' VM. 'Shredder, waste paper bin, bonfire? 

'Probably the school could use them. I know someone who gave theirs to the school and they use them for displays.'


'I've got stuff like that. Also Mum's stuff. It includes a receipt for her wedding dress and furniture. Dad's payslips and his driver's licence and receipt for the Chev Roadster. Just don't know what should be done with them.'


Keeping them in a safe place


'My ‘25 yard’ swimming certificate was one of my greatest achievements. If I could find it I wouldn’t throw it away.'


'I’m sure mine is in that safe place where I’ve hidden everything else, if only I could remember where that safe place is!


'I've hidden all Mum's vital docs. Eventually had to pay to get new copies of birth/marriage and life insurance policies. Such a waste 'cos I know they are here somewhere.'


What is the value of keeping the original?


VM. 'When I am gone, the family won't know what to do with it [the swimming certificate]. Once I have a good scanned image, it is just more paper work of no great consequence?'


'Hmmm...I would keep the originals. My grandmother kept some of my Grandfather's and my father's early school and employment papers. The real thing has more meaning than a copy from a computer. Don't sell yourself short. Someone will be interested in who you were one day.'


VM. 'Who has your Grandfather's and father's papers? Who will inherit your originals? If my scans were to be printed out in colour and identical size paper, it would be hard to tell the difference!'


'It isn't just the visual image of documents that can matter. It's the fact that my grandfather may have held this paper. That my father's hand produced that signature. That this photo negative was in a camera held by my mother. That this certificate was handed to me in the presence of three generations of my family.

Things have souls, and they are part of our soul. Otherwise, why not have a PDF of the Declaration of Independence on display in Washington. Why not have a jpeg of Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral?' 


VM. 'I understand [that] there is some satisfaction in viewing the originals of significant documents such as the 'Declaration of Independence' and the 'Magna Carta'. The personal documents have an attraction that will not be the same to subsequent generations. My children would remember three of their four grandparents but my grandchildren can only look at photos, read stories or view some documents of these people. What significance to them of the actual personal letters? 


Throwing things away


'The hardest thing to do is throw the ‘stuff’ away after scanning. I have been scanning photos and documents for the past six months. All I can think is that the family won't have to throw it out once I am gone. The first box full was the hardest!'


'I’m afraid I never throw anything like that out, I’ve got mine, not worth much and also mum’s. Eventually have to extend the house, only joking!'


Re-formatting and technology changes


'I have the originals and the 'tree' all to be passed on to a younger cousin. I also have them on disc and my computer. Technology is moving so fast can we be sure that we will be always able to access our saved items?...So nice to handle the originals.' 


VM. 'From past experience, I can tell you there is always someone out there who will be able to read and transfer old technology to whatever will become the 'modern' medium'. 


'It all seems like hard work. When the originals could be available. And when the originals are not valued and 'tossed', what then? The record is lost forever.'


Adding the stories


VM. 'When I review what I have already done and accumulated, it is fairly extensive... Now I find I need to collate and write up the stories because much of it is now only known by me... I have the stories and even recordings of my parents. So much "stuff", so little time.'


'It is a problem. I scan things and then try and think of a suitable archive. I check Museum Vic, SLV and local or relevant museums online to see if they have examples. I aim to try and extract the history or significance from documents from the viewpoint of future generations, then throw the originals out, as they won't want them. I scanned my first bankbooks recently and added some notes to tell the story of the entries, then threw them out. But it's lots of work. I should work on the most 'significant' docs first.' 


VM. [That's] what I need to do. What I have will be woven into my life story... I can recall many stories attached to the swimming certificate and to school, of course! [The documents] inspire even more memories!


Preserving digital copies


So making digital copies is the first step. But having made a digital copy and decided where to keep that, we have just made more stuff - and we still have the originals! In fact after I donated originals to the Museum they gave me back copies of their professional scans!


To preserve the record a digitised copy can be put on websites, your own or others, or given to an appropriate collecting institution, such as the GSV. The GSV can give guidance for people wishing to donate material in digital format.


But what do you do with the original?


Before you give up and keep everything, try and find a custodian who will value it. This could be a library, an archive or a museum. The GSV does accept donated personal papers, images of identified people, manuscript material and primary source material (e.g. certificates) relating to genealogical research, but does not undertake to retain material once it is digitised.  


It is unlikely that allyour items will match one institution's collecting policy. A local history museum may take school photos, or early photos of places. My family's 'Ten-Pound Pom' documents told a story of British immigration and found a place at Victoria's Immigration Museum. Stonnington Heritage Centre took my father's photos of Gardiners Creek in flood (in 1934) and his early school photos. Recently the life-story of Shelagh Philpott, a British child migrant sent to Australia in 1950, has been acknowledged with the recent acquisition of her photos, letters and papers by Museum Victoria. Shelagh received a payment in recognition of the distress suffered and an apology from the UK Government in 2010. These documents are now held in the Museum and have been digitised at Collections Online https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/17052


When looking for a suitable place for your documents:


  • scan them and make a note about their stories and provenance,
  • assess their significance and wider value to others,
  • identify possible collecting institutions and read their acquisition policies,
  • check if they may digitise the items and put them online, and
  • if their catalogue is shared with NLA Trove Pictures Collection.


In case you despair of having enough time or energy for all this, pick out the rarest or most significant, or most interesting, items first.


If you do decide to keep the photograph, label it well and record that a digital copy has been made and where it is held. This will help others who have to decide in future what to do with it. Keep all the items together in a way that is easy to pass on. They will thank you.


Job done. 




Help get more Victorian newspapers on Trove

Bill Barlow
26 January 2021
GSV News
Treasure Chest


Our lockdown year reminded me how lucky we are to have Trove and digitised newspapers online. For those of us who fiddled with microfilm readers and squinted at black screens over the years, more searchable Trove can't come soon enough.


There are more than 10,000 years worth of out-of-copyright microfilmed Victorian newspapers at State Library Victoria yet to be digitised to Trove. These almost extinct local newspapers regularly reported domestic details that provide gems which enliven our family stories and which may prove to be our only link to past lives. 



In 2017 a campaign was mounted to digitise to Trove 35 years of five microfilmed, out-of-copyright newspapers of the Knox and Dandenong Ranges area. Through the efforts of the Dandenong Ranges Historical Council, an umbrella group of four historical societies, a heritage trust and a local action group, all five local newspapers were successfully digitised on Trove


Following this success, a campaign headed 'More Trove for Vic' (see WEBSITE) has been launched to encourage the Victorian Government to provide more funding so that more Victorian newspapers can be digitised and made searchable on Trove'More Trove for Vic' has put up an e-petition on the Victorian Parliament website and is encouraging historically-minded people to support it.


Based on the State Library Victoria's summary of holdings of microfilmed newspapers there are more than 10,000 years worth of out-of-copyright microfilmed newspapers from 71 Victorian municipalities yet to be digitised to Trove 26 of these municipalities have more than 85% of their microfilmed newspapers yet to be digitised to Trove.


'More Trove for Vic' calculates that at the rate achieved in 2018-19 it would take nearly 180 years to digitise just the microfilmed newspapers of the more than 870 newspapers published in 216 towns and communities in 71 municipalities across Victoria.  But if the Victorian Government commits to funding a dedicated mass-digitisation of Victoria's historical newspapers then this could be completed in 3 years. The microfilmed newspapers could be digitised for as little as 80c per Victorian per year for three years and this would benefit 71 municipalities. 


You can view and sign the petition here: follow the prompts at https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/council/petitions/electronic-petitions/view-e-petitions/details/12/299


You must be a resident of Victoria to sign. You can read more information about how petitions to Parliament work on the Parliament's website.


The CLOSING DATE for this petition is 30 May 2021. After that it may be tabled by a Member of the Legislative Council and will then be referred to the relevant Minister.


Obviously the more signatures the better!




Campaign logo designed by Laura Renfrew, 2020.


A member of the Queen's navy!

Cerberus crew 1878
Cerberus crew 1878
Bill Barlow
21 November 2020
Treasure Chest


As one outcome of my recent family history research I have now enlisted in the Navy - the Victorian Navy.


I am an Engine Room Artificer!


I have discovered that a great grandfather was in the Royal Navy and then finished his sailing career on HMVS Cerberus based at Williamstown at the start of the 1900s. For years I have looked out at that ungainly-looking breakwater just off shore at Black Rock in Port Phillip Bay, without knowing its connection.


Now with the assistance of all the material available on the website created by the Friends of the Cerberus Inc I know a lot more about this ship. 


The website has the uploaded Certificates of Service of the 346 members of the Permanent Victorian Navy Force 1884-1905 as well as Enrolment Sheets (courtesy of the National Archives Australia) and they are searchable. The site has every possible document about Cerberus, photos, articles, newspaper reports and lots. It is a great testament to the labours of its volunteers and received a 2011 Victorian Community History Awards Commendation.


This unassuming piece of our heritage sitting offshore is unique. Cerberus was commissioned by the Colony of Victoria to form its navy prior to Federation along with the sailing ship Nelson, which does not survive. Cerberuswas scuttled in its present location in 1926. After some parts of it a collapsed in 1993 it is now to be filled with concrete to 'preserve it'. In heritage work the Burra Charter requires that priority be given to options that do not destroy original material and which allow future recovery. 


It is hard to understand this treatment of such a rare piece of our Colonial heritage - especially by a Council which otherwise sets a high bar for preserving its built heritage.


Concrete-filling is still intended by Bayside Council though an alternative is available which would not destroy its value for future research. After many technical reports it appears that this decision may have been partly based on some errors and misunderstandings that remain to be checked. It is hoped that the Cerberus is not finally sunk by filling it with concrete - more than doubling its weight. 


Cerberus was the genesis of all battleship designs pre 1905. It was the first British warship to dispense completely with sail power. Launched in 1868 Cerberus is the only remaining warship of its class left in the world. Not only its hull but also its gun turrets and its guns have survived.

Cerberus is the only substantially intact surviving warship of any of Australia's pre-Federation colonial navies as well as the only surviving inaugural warship of the Royal Australian Navy.


This relic does not look as interesting and dynamic as Nelson's ship Victory at Portsmouth, but our HMVS Cerberus deserves better treatment. Even its interpretive signboard facing the other way is deteriorating and the safety markers dotted around it look temporary and betray its significance. 


Hopefully we can afford to preserve parts our physical heritage like Cerberus as reminders of our past rather than reduce everything to digitally-preserved entries on the internet. It is still much more engaging to take our grandchildren there to visit than to just show them a digital image on their phones.


If you are interested to know more about Cerberus and maybe even find your family members in the Victorian Navy visit the website http://www.cerberus.com.au


You can even join up - as I did!


Bill Barlow ERA (Victorian Navy)




Images: Cerberus crew 1878, engraving from The Graphic, April 13, 1878, p.372. Courtesy of Friends of Cerberus Inc. Photo: Cerberus at Black Rock, Vic, 2020 (W. Barlow)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the GSV.


The ex-Convict Marriage Celebrant

Wedding couple c.1860s
Bill Barlow
19 October 2020
Treasure Chest

Churches do not feature so widely in our families today. We tend to forget the powerful part religious institutions and beliefs commonly played in the lives of our ancestors. 

And the recent history in our families is often lost. I recall a few years ago tracking down the resting place of a common grandfather with some English cousins, who exclaimed that this could not possibly be him as it showed he was cremated and his ashes spread in the Anglican section and 'we are Catholic'. We had to break the news that they were only a recent break with a long Protestant line. So I keep an eye out for religious affiliations when researching past family members - after all wars, let alone family disharmonies have turned on this. 

Having written in my book Guilty and Lucky of a marriage in my family in 1870 by the Rev William Bailey, who it was said 'appeared to run a marriage shop' from his house at 41 Burton Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney, I was very interested to come across him again in the following article by one of our GSV Writers, Gayle Nicholas.


The Ex-convict Marriage Celebrant



Marriage certificates are crucial documents in genealogy research.  Every detail on a certificate is scrutinised hoping to find new information or to verify previously discovered details. Names, ages, occupations, locations and celebrants may be confirmed or become doubtful. But I had not expected the study of my great grandparents’ marriage certificate would uncover a nineteenth century Minister of Religion of some notoriety.

    According to their marriage certificate, my great grandparents Richard James Price and Mary Boyce of Surry Hills NSW were married in 1868 'According to the rites of the Free Church of England'. Having never seen the adjective 'Free' on a Church of England certificate my curiosity was aroused. 'Free', Googlequickly revealed, did not refer to ideology but to cost. This Church did not charge fees for marriage services. My focus quickly moved from the Church itself to its intriguing celebrant, the Rev William Bailey. His story reveals a determined and clever man, wronged by authority, or a rogue, or a combination of both.

    Bailey, a well-educated Irish ex-convict, was described by Alan Grocott in Convicts, Clergymen and Churchesas a 'bizarre clergyman'. Born in Ireland in 1806, he became a Church of England minister. In 1838, six years after marrying, he moved with his wife to Westminster in London where he held a position as Rector. In 1841 he was found guilty of forging a promissory note. He was transported from England to Van Diemen’s Land in 1843. Four years after his arrival in the colony he was granted a ticket of leave.

    His wife had followed him from England and they ran schools in Hobart. After he received a Conditional Pardon, Bailey settled in Sydney. There, Bailey and his wife earned income through teaching and writing. In 1864 he established the Free Church of England, in Surry Hills, in inner Sydney. In 1868, Bailey performed 350 marriages. He married many tradespeople like Richard and Mary as well as some ‘less respectable citizens’. He criticised pew rents and charging fees for marriage. His supporters claimed more de facto couples married because of his services. However, he received a poor press in the Sydney Morning Heraldand had several fractious encounters with authorities and courts. These encounters increased after he styled himself as a Bishop in late 1868. In 1871 he was charged with celebrating the marriage of a minor and imprisoned for six months. He was never able to successfully re-establish his church. He died in 1879.

    I ponder my great grandparents’ relationship with this church and with Bailey. Why marry in the Free Church of England?  My first thought, a humorous one, stemmed from memories of family members teasing my grandfather Alfred, Richard and Mary’s youngest son, about the Welsh in him making him tight with money.  More important, Richard, Mary and her extended family were all part of the developing Surry Hills community where Bailey had established his Church. Mary’s parents were Irish Assisted Immigrants, and may well have connected with Bailey through the Irish community.

    After the Price family moved to Melbourne between 1877 and 1881 they attended St Saviours in Collingwood and the Welsh Church in Melbourne. St Saviours, when established in 1875, was also described as a ‘free’ Church. 

    In genealogy research choices need to be made.  So do I pursue research on Rev William Bailey and the Free Church movement, or do I return to my family tree – and see where the next marriage, birth or death certificate leads me?

Gayle Nicholas


We might be left wondering about the legitimacy of such marriages and the attraction of our forebears to the more obscure churches and sects.[Ed.]



Guilty and Lucky, William Barlow, 2020 - in which I of course declare an interest.

'Bailey, William (1806-1879)' by TB McCall, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.1. (MUP), 1966 and ANU online.

Convicts, clergymen and churches: attitudes of convicts and ex-convicts towards the churches and clergy in New South Wales from 1788-1851, by Allan Grocott, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1980.

'William Bailey and the Free Church of England in NSW' by E D Daw, in JRAHS Vol. 58, pt. 4, December 1972.

Image: Wedding couple: Juliane and Christian Schilling c.1860. Fruhling Studios, Moculta Collection, State Library of South Australia Item B41306 (cropped) accessed at https://collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/resource/B+41306.

This month's author belongs to the GSV Writers Discussion Circle and this article was originally published for the GSV in Fifty-Plus News, 2014.