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Putting a face to the historical name

Genealogy is about much more than creating impressive charts of names dating back generations, it’s about personalising history, according to the Secretary of the Genealogical Society of Victoria (GSV), Claire Johnson.

Ron is showing his grandson Matthew old photos of their ancestors. Matthew is interested in the photos of Ron's grandfather on the farm in Woodend, Victoria in 1918.

Genealogy is about much more than creating impressive charts of names dating back generations, it’s about personalising history, according to the Secretary of the Genealogical Society of Victoria (GSV), Claire Johnson.

‘We encourage people to get the background story because while the chart is necessary, it needs the stories to bring it to life,’ Claire says.

‘You need to know why they are where they are? Why did they leave? What sort of hardship did they suffer? Did they lose six kids to typhoid or something like that?’

And if you’re interested in finding out those stories, it definitely helps if your ancestors were naughty.

‘If they were just agricultural labourers, there usually won't be records other than the church records unless they committed a crime or had an illegitimate child; there's things called Bastardy records where the parish forces the father to pay for the upkeep of the child,’ Claire says.

GSV President Stephen Hawke, who can trace his family tree back to the 1500s, hit the jackpot when he discovered his connection to a British man, Henry Slingsby, who was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell.

‘I dug deeper and found Henry’s nephew was actually married to Cromwell's daughter, so she pleaded on his behalf and got the sentence changed from hanged, drawn and quartered to beheading, which was still terrible, but a better way to go.

‘I've been a bit obsessive over the last few months trying to find more and more about this family. So, you start delving into why he was executed. It's just fascinating.’

The pair agree most Australians who begin to research their family tree are keen to find a convict connection, a task that’s made easier by the availability of detailed records.

‘It’s just wonderful to get a really good picture of an ancestor from 200-plus years ago, because usually all you've got is a name, baptism date, marriage date, burial date, baptism dates for children, those sorts of thing. But the Brits were obsessive record keepers, so you get lovely descriptions of convicts’ height, hair colour, eye colour; if they've got a wife and children, where they were and, obviously, what their crimes were. Then you get the record of what their behaviour was like on the voyage out and in prison here,’ Stephen says.

‘And they didn't hold back on the description. If the person was squat and ugly, they're apt to say so,’ Claire laughs.

A member-based society, GSV is run by volunteers with the support of two paid employees, and provides assistance for genealogical research, with live and online discussion circles for people researching different countries or time periods, and a library that is a font of information, including digitised copies of diaries people wrote on their journey to Australia in the 19th Century and the government records written by the ships’ surgeons.

‘So, you'll find out about deaths onboard, people falling overboard, all sorts of things,’ Claire says.

If members hit a brick wall with their research, experienced GSV volunteers are able to help.

‘I had one beautiful story recently where two people found through DNA that they were cousins – they apparently shared a grandparent, and they couldn't work out how. By the time we got to the end of it, one of them (in Tasmania) had her great-grandmother Catherine's photograph, the other one (in Toowoomba) had his grandmother Elvira’s portrait – and she's the same lady. In fact, the portrait was painted from the photograph; she's wearing the same clothing and the same jewellery and everything. She just changed her name because she'd moved in with somebody else and married him under a false name,’ Claire laughs.

Picture of Catherine Simpson next to picture of Elvira (Catherine) Willson (nee Andrews). Side by side, it can be seen that it is the same woman in both pictures.

‘It's a really absorbing hobby. People are communicating with other people, they're thinking laterally, they're learning a whole lot of new skills, be they computer skills or analysis, so as a health thing for seniors, it's a ripper.’

Reviewed 21 May 2023