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Treasure Chest

Tales of research from beyond the web

Bill Barlow
11 August 2017
Treasure Chest

Kath McKay

Much as I love my computer and the internet, some of my most precious family history knowledge has come from being able to seek out original documents.

In spite of searching for decades, previous family historians had not been able to find the marriage certificate of our great grandparents: an Irish coach maker and a young maidservant from Wiltshire. We knew they had about ten children in the 1860s and 1870s in Ballarat, but didn’t have a clear record of the children’s names, births or even number. Online indexes didn’t help a lot.

Then I had a little brain-wave. I knew that branch of the family were all Catholic so I contacted St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat to enquire about records. They eventually replied saying they had all their original records but none were digitised or indexed. However, I was most welcome to come and look for myself.

So one freezing July day I took the train from Melbourne to Ballarat. In the cheery Parish office, warmed by a fire in the hearth, I pored over the huge leather bound tomes brought out of the archives by the Parish Secretary. These are daunting books indeed, nearly a metre by half a metre and several inches thick. They record the births, marriages and deaths of the parishioners, documented in careful copperplate with pen and ink on parchment. I had a fair knowledge that the first child was born about 1860 and the last, my long-dead grandmother, in 1877. So I started with 1860 but it revealed nothing, nor 1861, 1862 and on through the whole decade. The Secretary cheerily brought volume after volume and the piles grew around me. She also kindly made me several cups of tea.

By the time I got to the 1870s with nothing, I was beginning to doubt all I had believed about this branch of our extended family.

Then I found them! In the late summer of 1875, two little girls were baptised, one aged two, the other six. At last! I had found something! Then I turned the page and found the death record for the little six-year-old who had just been baptised days before. Most of the rest of the page and many after that, were taken up with deaths of little children – all from measles in an epidemic that must have swept Ballarat in those early days before immunisation.

Another few turns of the giant pages and there were the rest of them! Five children baptised together, boys and girls aged from 1 to 14 in one job lot! Another page turn and there was the death of the first baptised little girl, the two-year-old. This was followed quite quickly by the baptism of a new baby. Our poor great-grandmother was pregnant when she was nursing, then burying, two of her little daughters. Sad times indeed.

But I still had not found the object of my original search, the marriage of my great-grandparents. More volumes, more page turning. And, finally, in January 1877, after they have had ten children and lost three, this pioneer couple marry. We had been looking in the wrong decade!

A few months later, in April 1877, their new, and last, baby was baptised: a daughter, my grandmother.

Just another family story that was not handed down.


At the Genealogical Society of Victoria we help members plan their family history search. This post's author Kath McKay is a member of the GSV Writer's Discussion Circle. See www.gsv.org.au for more information, or email gsv@gsv.org.au or phone (03) 9662 4455 for information about the Society.



GSV publishes database of 87,000 historical hospital patient records from 1855

Bill Barlow
16 July 2017
Treasure Chest

Since 2000 a team of GSV volunteers has been compiling a searchable database of the names and details of patients who were in the Melbourne Hospital (now The Royal Melbourne Hospital) from 1855 to 1909.

These patient 'case histories' were recorded in Ward Books, which have been held in the archives of the hospital. There are estimated to be over 2,000 Ward Books held in the archives but, sadly, many more have disappeared.

The Ward Books are leather-bound books measuring 32 cm by 15 cm, with the name of the doctor for that ward, the ward number and the gender of the patients embossed in gold on the cover. Each book contains about 100 numbered pages, interleaved with pages of pink blotting paper. By arrangement with the Royal Melbourne hospital, the GSV team has so far indexed 824 Ward Books from the period 1855–1909 and extracted the faded, water-stained and often badly written details of 87,298 patients. These books have then been transferred to Public Record Office Victoria (PROV). Not all the books from this period have been indexed yet, but the GSV intends to continue indexing the remainder of those 2,000 books.

The results of this work have now been published by the GSV in a database searchable by name, as Patients in Melbourne Hospital 18551909 (GSV, 2016). This edition includes books indexed in the earlier edition.

Every indexed name is hyperlinked to a set of details extracted from that patient’s medical record in the Ward Book. These details contain the patient’s name, age, and admission date together with some or all of the following: the patient’s biography; birth place; the ship on which the person travelled to Australia and its arrival date; whether married, widowed or single; occupation; religion; residence and the result of treatment. The patient’s disease or complaint has been omitted by agreement with The Royal Melbourne Hospital but this can be ascertained by personally viewing the Ward Book at PROV, or by using a Search Agent—See PROV Guide 15 at https://prov.vic.gov.au/private-search-agents. Each set of details includes the full reference to the relevant Ward Book’s location at PROV.

The patient discharge date is given with often interesting descriptors, which, apart from 'Cured' or sadly, 'Died', may include 'Went out on a Pass and did not return' or 'Absconded' or 'Bolted'. Some returned late from a Pass but were 'Refused Admission" and left to their own devices - judged too well to get back in!

This extensive searchable database is now available, only from GSV, on a memory stick that can be ordered online on the GSV bookshop website http://www.familyhistorybookshop.org.au/ or by going to the GSV at 6/85 Queen Street, Melbourne.


Just go right along. You'll start happening too.

Bill Barlow
4 July 2017
Treasure Chest

Louise Wilson continues her musing on the journey of discovering family history. ***

The true essence of family history research is the journey – your own journey of self-discovery.

Let’s start with the genes you inherited. Most of us know less about our own genes than your average grazier knows about the genes of his cattle. You only have to watch one episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ for that fact to be obvious. How many of us know the backgrounds of our two sets of grandparents – just four people? By the time we get to our parents’ grandparents, we are lucky to know anything at all. We might know only one story about our family background, and that story then tends to dominate our thinking, as if it formed our entire identity. We forget all the other forebears who’ve contributed to who we are.

The ‘ah hah’ moments are therefore quite thrilling if we set out to discover the full mix of ingredients in our personal cake. It’s no surprise to find the usual collection of general labourers, agricultural labourers, Cornish miners and female servants lurking in your background. In my case, some were convicts on the First, Second and Third Fleets. But I was very surprised that my genes also came from gentlemen farmers, innkeepers, artists, musicians, teachers, doctors, soldiers, clergymen, merchants, slave-owning sugar planters, bankers, mail coach entrepreneurs and turpentine factory owners, plus a solitary butcher, printer, chemist, engineer and circus proprietor. No wonder I found it difficult to choose a career. I wish I’d known this, when young. Such knowledge is powerful, perhaps giving permission to break away from family expectations. That eclectic mix of genes might explain why I eventually turned into the first writer in my line of the family.

Each generation that we step back permits us to make broader-brush discoveries. I was amazed to realise just how Anglo-Celtic I am. Three hundred years of an almost fully-completed pedigree chart, detailing eight generations of my ancestors, revealed only one forbear who did not originate in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. He came from close by – northern France. As I flinch from the skin specialist’s spray can of liquid nitrogen, I readily understand and accept that my fair skin was never meant for Australia, although my forbears here date back to 1788.

What other health record do we inherit? My grandmother, an unlikely feminist, loved to tell her granddaughters that we descend from a long line of strong, independent women. Fanciful? No, my research proved her right. In her father’s family, from 1790, successive fathers and sons died of illness aged 52, 45, 62, 37 and 43. Their widows, left to raise the children, all lived into their eighties.

Health issues of a different kind were the focus of the powerfully-told and very moving episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ where Susie Porter discovered recurring patterns of serious mental illness in her hitherto-unknown female forebears. Susie gained sudden insight into her own black moods and was never going to be the same person again.

Your family history research can change you and add great meaning to your life.  

At the Genealogical Society of Victoria (GSV) we help members explore and write about their family history. This month’s author, Louise Wilson (www.louisewilson.com.au), belongs to the GSV Writers’ Discussion Circle. For more information about the GSV, see www.gsv.org.au, or email gsv@gsv.org.au, or phone (03) 9662 4455.

Last day coming to order 'Familysearch' microfilms

Bill Barlow
30 June 2017
Treasure Chest

In case you missed it …

On September 1, 2017, FamilySearch will discontinue its microfilm distribution services.  (The last day to order microfilm will be on August 31, 2017.)

The change is the result of significant progress made in FamilySearch’s microfilm digitization efforts and the obsolescence of microfilm technology.

  • Over 1.5 million microfilms (ca. 1.5 billion images) have been digitized by FamilySearch, including the most requested collections based on microfilm loan records worldwide.
  • The remaining microfilms should be digitized by the end of 2020, and all new records from its ongoing global efforts are already using digital camera equipment.

Digital images of historical records can be accessed today in 3 places on FamilySearch.org under Search.

  • Records include historical records indexed by name or organized with an image browse.
  • Books include digital copies of books from the Family History Library and other libraries.
  • Catalog includes a description of genealogical materials (including books, online materials, microfilm, microfiche, etc.) in the FamilySearch collection.

From: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/callings/temple-and-family-history/f...

Oh! The Places You'll Go!

Bill Barlow
26 May 2017
Treasure Chest

Louise Wilson

One of my favourite Dr Seuss books, Oh! The Places You'll Go!, captures that exciting moment when you embark upon your family history journey:

Congratulations! Today is your day.

You're off to Great Places! You're off and away!

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes

You can steer yourself any direction you choose …

And when things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew.

Just go right along. You'll start happening too.

Let’s start with the first two lines. That day you go online, looking for a forebear’s name, or walk into a library to ask for help in finding someone, is the day that will change your life.

Once you’ve experienced the exhilaration of finding something, someone, you’ll want more. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to control the urge to keep looking for the next clue. Counsellors take note, people being treated for gambling addictions should be introduced to family history research – that way, they’d have more to show for their money and their time.

You have brains in your head.

Family history research is a fantastic way of exercising your brain cells. You have to think, morph into a detective. Additional thinking is stimulated, a different kind of thinking, if you try to integrate your information into a coherent ‘whole’ and write it up as a story.

You have feet in your shoes

You might appear to be sedentary, as you huddle for hours over computer screens at home and peer at microfiche and microfilm readers in libraries. But eventually you’ll want to go places and see for yourself, walk in the shoes of your ancestors. Suddenly you’re picking your way around cemeteries you never knew existed, trying to align old maps with modern streetscapes to work out where your gr-gr-grandparents lived, and knocking on a stranger’s door asking permission to take photos.

You can steer yourself any direction you choose …

Woo hoo! You’re the boss. At last. No-one tells you what to do next. You can decide whether to do any more research. You can decide which branch of the family to research. You can drop one line of enquiry when you tire of it or reach a dead end, and head off down another enticing avenue.

And when things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew.

(I’ve just skipped a few lines of Dr Seuss.) It’s important to accept what you find. We’ve all discovered an unpalatable truth. A researcher sitting near me in the library one day slammed her microfiche reader slide shut and shouted – ‘Ugh, another lie exposed. If he was alive, I’d kill him.’ In my case, it was my convict ancestors. It distressed my mother - if she’d been the researcher, she might have tried to hide it. Luckily I felt proud that my forebear Robert Forrester stood on the shores of Sydney Cove back in January 1788 as one of the founders of modern Australia, so I wrote a book about it.

Just go right along. You'll start happening too.

It’s true. Family history research can be a great personal development tool. You gain insights into yourself as you discover hitherto unknown aspects of your background. More on that next time.


Author, Louise Wilson (www.louisewilson.com.au), belongs to the GSV Writers Circle. Her latest book Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory (Wakefield Press, 2016) is the biography of Australia's first and most celebrated professional botanical artist. This article was first published in Fifty-Plus News. [Ed.]

Are you chasing DNA?

Bill Barlow
11 April 2017
DNA and family history
Treasure Chest

Those who are chasing DNA and exploring genetic inheritances might be interested in the latest blog entry by renowned Irish genealogist, John Grenham. John's unique style, great curiosity and fascinating insights always make for interesting reading, whether or not your heritage is Irish. This blog is no exception.


REMEMBER to check out the GSV's DNA Discussion Circle - for Members. See the website here http://gsv.org.au/activities/groups/dna-discussion-circle.html