Pillar of the community or bloodthirsty cutthroat? What lies buried beneath your family tree?
Tracking down a mysterious ancestor once required a degree of detective work. Now you just need a phone and an internet connection.
It means, if you have put off a deep dive into your own heritage because it was previously too labour-intensive or time consuming, it may be time to reconsider.
Genealogist Merron Riddiford devotes her time to uncovering the stories of families in Victoria’s Western Districts.
She said the tools available to the amateur family historian have never been better.
“I started looking into my own family history at the Ballarat library,” Ms Riddiford explained.
“I was using the microfiche there and it was very slow going. Obviously, there were no computers back then to do things at home. The charts you’d put together were all on paper.
“It’s amazing now. There are some incredible websites you can go to now.
Start the search at home
While technology has made the detective work easier, one of the first places to start your investigation is at home, Ms Riddiford said.
“Start with what you know best, and that’s yourself and work back from there,” she explained.
“From there you go to your parents and grandparents, and other family members like aunts and uncles.
“If they can remember details about their own grandparents that can be a real kick start as well. They may have some dates as well.
“I started researching my family history about 30 years ago and it was probably about hearing stories from my nanna about her family.
“Once you start it is very hard to stop. Eventually I moved into not just looking into my own family history, but other families as well in the Western District.”
Family members can provide the first clues. A practical next step is to prove that information using government records.
All Australian states have registers of births, deaths and marriages. All can be accessed online and many have advice on how to search your family history using their extensive online records.
The Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria register can be used to find information on Victorians if they were born before 1922, died before 1991 or married before 1962. Fees for actual certificates start at $60 but you can use the index and get the basic information for free.
More than names and dates
A comprehensive family history is more than a collection of names and dates. There is always more to the story that is not necessarily as easy to uncover.
If you know where someone lived, you can start to dig into the local history. Some of that history is lost but, thanks to the work of volunteers, many communities have salvaged and preserved the stories of their towns and the people who lived there.
The Victorian Genealogy website lists nearly 150 historical societies from the Red Cliffs and District Historical Society in the state’s north-west, to the Mallacoota and District Historical Society — and Bunker Museum — in the far east.
The Colac and District Family History Group is halfway through a project to digitise its entire documentary collection. When the project is finished it will have about 400,000 entries.
Colac and District Family History Group member Merrill O’Donnell said the group’s collection included hospital records that provided a treasure trove of information for the amateur family historian.
“They mightn’t have the medical history, because that was often confidential, but they do have place of birth, and often the age and religion of the person. They sometimes even have the name of the ship they came out on.
“We had a person contact us. They had heard their great-grandmother lived in a small town near Colac. She had found no evidence of it and thought she may have just imagined it.
“We were able to find her name and worked out who she married. We went through our files and found out she was at school in Birregurra.
“We found when she was there, where she came from, her exact date of birth using the Victorian Birth Deaths and Marriages register, the date she left, where she was going to, who her father was, and what his occupation was.
“That is one example. We can do a lot more than that.”
Skeletons in the closet
Of course, once you start digging, who knows what you may find.
Some amateur genealogists are pleased to discover they are descended from an upstanding civic leader. Others are shocked to find a darker tale.
Merron Riddiford has discovered several skeletons in her family closet.
“My great-great-great-grandmother Ellen Gamble, from Colac, died in a house fire in the 1880s,” she said.
“Doing further research through the Trove website and the Public Records Office of Victoria for court records, I found she did several stints in the Geelong prison for drunkenness. She was a regular there.
“She was a feisty Irish woman who came out in the 1840s. She met her husband they came to Colac as one of the first white settlers in 1850s. Her husband was a brickmaker but Ellen was evidently quite the character.
“I tend to celebrate those characters rather than hide them away.”
Where to dig:
- bdm.vic.gov.au — Birth Deaths and Marriages Victoria
- victoriangenealogy.com.au — the Victorian Genealogy website, which also provides a comprehensive list of links to regional historical societies
- trove.nla.gov.au — Trove is the National Library of Australia’s online research portal. In addition to searchable archives, it also has digitised copies of newspapers from 1803 onward.
- westerndistrictfamilies.com — Merron Riddiford’s website, focusing on families in south-western Victoria
- aiatsis.gov.au — The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Studies website. It includes a step-by-step way to research your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage
- colacfamilyhistory.org.au — the Colac and District Family History Group’s website with hospital admissions records from the 1880s
- prov.vic.gov.au — the Public Record Office Victoria website has an extraordinarily broad array of information, including immigration details, prison and legal records