“Genealogists are becoming the new social historians” says professional historian

three women and one man standing in front of a table with flowers and two copies of Fractured Families standing up.

Lisa Murray (City of Sydney Historian), Jo Toohey (CEO of the Benevolent Society), Tanya Evans (author of Fractured Families) and Max Carrick (family historian mentioned in Fractured Families). Photo courtesy of the Benevolent Society.

“Australian history has been transformed by the contributions of family historians”, says Dr Tanya Evans, historian at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Her new book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, is the result of collaboration between Tanya Evans and some of the many family historians who have worked with the archives of Sydney’s oldest non-religious charity, The Benevolent Society.

“… genealogists are becoming the new social historians…”, remarks Evans in the prologue. She points to the painstaking research conducted by family historians which has revealed the lives of those of their forebears who were numbered among the poor and the outcast.  Fractured Families  is about those forgotten people of history and their descendants who cared enough to learn more about the difficult lives of their forebears.

The interest Evans has about the lives of poor people bubbles through the book as does her admiration of the work done by family historians. She sees great value in the work of family historians noting that, “… the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.”

Cover of book

Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, by Tanya Evans (UNSW Press, 2015).

Fractured Families is an easy book to pick up and put down. Each chapter has a new set of stories about the lives of those who sought assistance from The Benevolent Society during the long nineteenth century and the wealthier people who contributed to the care of the impoverished. The narrative meanders around the events of an eclectic group of lives. It is effectively a series of cameos. Sometimes the reader can engage with the people of the past, at other times the information conveyed is too fragmentary for the reader to feel moved by their stories.

The impact of these stories may have been greater if the photos that are bunched onto photo pages in the middle of the book had instead been inserted at the relevant places in the text. When dealing with fragmentary history, photos are a rich historical source which convey the story more powerfully if there are not enough words in the archives. Fractured Families includes two disturbing photos of emaciated babies which would have made the telling of the cold statistics of starvation and infant mortality in Sydney more potent if they had accompanied the relevant text. Unfortunately the high cost of producing books with photos scattered through the text is a serious limit in the effective use of photographs in the telling of histories such as this one.

This book does not have literary pretensions – there are too many “as described in chapter X” or “these are explored in chapter X” for that. The language used is very accessible with the occasional use of words such as ‘gendered’ or ‘power relations’ and a political earnestness which reflect the author’s academic roots. As befitting someone with Tanya Evans experience as a historical consultant for popular television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? Evans has written a book that any general reader will find easy to read.

While Evans focuses on bringing out the lives of the poor she also sensitively depicts the difficulties faced by wealthier women who were so constrained in what they could do during the nineteenth century. The story of siblings, Sarah and William White encapsulates the comparison of privilege and interconnection between the wealthy and the most poor that Evans weaves through the book. Their father was an agricultural labourer in England, but William was a trained baker by the time the family arrived in Sydney in 1874. He and his brother went on to establish thriving businesses and become pillars of the Baptist Church. In contrast, Sarah White was a ‘fallen woman’ who used the services of the Benevolent Asylum to deliver babies as an unmarried mother. It is the ‘black sheep’ story that so often pops up in family history, yet in this case there is some evidence that the family did provide some support for Sarah. However, like so many families, the Whites wove some stories which their determined descendants had to cut through in order to stitch together the past.

Old black and white photo of the buildings and area surrounding the Benevolent Asylum.

Sydney’s Benevolent Asylum was demolished in 1901 to make way for the Central Railway Station. (Photo from State Records NSW)

The complex path the Benevolent Society trod during the nineteenth century is woven through the book. Social mores insisted that the Benevolent Society only give money to the ‘deserving poor’ and that the organisation should not encourage immorality by supporting unmarried mothers giving birth to illegitimate offspring. Evans shows that while the Benevolent Society made statements that conformed to these moral strictures, behind the scenes they continued to support the poor even if the actions of the seekers of charity transgressed social norms.

The strength of this book is the focus on the work of family historians. Not only are they acknowledged but the stories of their research is an important part of the book. Tanya Evans writes about what motivates family historians to do their research, how they do it and the rigorous way they interrogate the historical sources. The story of family historian, Anne Wilmshurst, is particularly insightful. Evans shares Wilmshurst’s reflections on how the issues in her own life led her to question and discover some surprises about the lives of her ancestors. Evans gives us an intimate insight into her work in this section. “I worried that I might offend Anne with my intrusive questions about her life and that she might think I was misinterpreting her research and reflections on her motivations,” says Evans. The author then explains how she “shared several drafts of this chapter with Anne and asked for and then incorporated all her comments and suggestions.”

This section made me wonder about how the personal background of the author has influenced her work. She writes about her political motivations, such as her concern for the rights of women and the need to understand the reasons behind the continuing poverty of too many ‘lone mothers and their children’ in order to fight for changes to help them today. I would have liked Evans to take a risk and expose some of her personal background that led her on the path to researching the poor people of the past.

It was the family history background of professional historian, Anne Coote which particularly resonated with me. Coote was the person who researched the life of Sarah White, mentioned above. Like Coote, my interest in history and first experiences researching in the archives were in the quest to discover more about my family history. This was encouraged by the families of my mother’s parents who exchanged stories of forebears and did further research ever since I can remember. I accompanied my mother on visits to the archives when I was a teenager and learned about useful indexes and catalogues and how to use microfiche and microfilm readers. Later I used the internet to research some unusual family names and was rewarded by finding the son of my grandfather’s sister. Our families had lost contact in World War II. Sadly, the only remaining family member that would have known this relative had passed away just a few years before.

When I went back to university to study history I felt I was at a distinct advantage because I was already comfortable and competent at using archives. I wonder why universities don’t teach these skills to first year history students who haven’t had the benefit of a background in family history?

“Both academic historians and family historians need to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity…” says Evans. “Our knowledge… always remains provisional, conflicted and in a constant state of flux. This is, in my mind, the strength of family history.”

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 logo

This review is a contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

This is the premise underlying this blog and why I call it Stumbling Through the Past. We cannot know everything that happened in the past and why people behaved in the way they did. We can’t even know everything occurring in the present. Additional records can be discovered or someone can contribute a new interpretation that puts the evidence in a new light. Humility in the face of the ever-shifting knowledge and understanding of evidence has to be the badge of the family historian and the professional historian alike.

Fractured Families reflects the supportive and collaborative way that Tanya Evans works. I want to support generous authors like her, so it was for this reason I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend her book launch. I didn’t expect the book to resonate with me, but I found its family history focus compelling. Family historians should appreciate this acknowledgement and respect for their work.

Further Information About the History of the Benevolent Society

  • Benevolent Society, ‘Last 200‘: The Benevolent Society celebrated its bicentenary in 2013. Browse through photos and text surveying their history.
  • Terri McCormack, ‘Benevolent Society and Asylum‘, Dictionary of Sydney. If you are researching anything to do with the history of Sydney it pays to check out the Dictionary of Sydney website. It has a large number of articles about all sorts of facets of life in Sydney in the past.

Other Posts About this Book

Other Reviews

11 thoughts on ““Genealogists are becoming the new social historians” says professional historian

  1. As value as family history work is for social history, I am concerned that (again) the swing of popular historiography just feeds to our unacknowledged prejudices. For each of us, as historical players, our social identity is more than familial ties.

    And, Yvonne, you are being quite mischievous in your journalistic title to this piece ! You well know that what genealogists do and what family historians do are not the same thing, even though some people would like to make out that there is not difference. Genealogists can also be family historians, but genealogy is a particular approach to history, one that emphasizes origins and often fails to appreciated the significance of the changing process along the genealogical trail.

    I get quite alarmed by these fashionable swings in history. People want history as literature, which is fine, what they are looking for in literature are comforting stories about the past which reassures their own self-image. The question is whether the trade in family history is becoming a vehicle for social conservatism, a resistance to just-as-valuable social reform.

    I don’t believe that needs to be case, in spite of prejudices generating market demand. Family historians can also take the scholarly path and face up to hard questions and answers about family life in the past, as much as what now has to be considered as the work of traditional social historians (which I hope will continue; am I the new conservative ?).

    Indeed, Dr Tanya Evans does show the way forward here.


    • The title was not my wording but a direct quote from Tanya Evans which is on page 6 of the book. Sometimes the word is used loosely, but I am not going to quibble about that given the review is already quite long.

      You will be pleased to know that the family historians featured in this book had all looked well beyond the mere desire to find dates of births, marriages and deaths. They had all sought to understand more about how their forebears lived and the broader historical context which affected their lives. People researching the lives of their impoverished ancestors, those who were mentally ill and those guilty of crimes confront difficult issues about their ancestors’ past. It is these troubling issues and how they relate to a researcher’s present life that were particularly highlighted with respect to family historian, Anne Wilmshurst. She and many other family historians go well beyond the mere celebration of a lengthy family tree. They confront the difficult past.


      • I am very pleased about the social history work done by family historians, make no mistake about what I am saying here. However, it is not a quibble; it is not an argument about pronunciation, for example.

        Too few practitioners are aware of the limitations in one approach or another. This is true of social, institutional, genealogical, or cultural approaches, as much as the perspective of family.

        The difficulty is that we can not come at history from all perspectives or approaches at the one time. Nevertheless, we ought to be very aware, whatever framework we choose, is to meet the limitations in our approach with acknowledgement of other contributions. I suppose I am arguing that the traditional approach of social history ought not be written-off just yet. Does this make me a conservative ?


      • I haven’t come across anyone writing off traditional approaches to social history. Tanya Evans does not do that in her book. The fact that a new group (or rather, a newly discovered group) of people are doing social history from a new approach does not mean that the work of others is being replaced. Rather, it enriches a shared historical concern.


  2. “Both academic historians and family historians need to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity” says Evans. True of course, but even more so family historians need to be prepared for horrible details to be revealed. Details that the family managed to hush up for generations.

    eg1 Grandpa was a bigamist. He left his wife and children in Britain, jumped on board a ship and started family life again with a second wife and new children in the USA. Alas he didn’t bother getting a divorce nor did he send any money to support his first lot of children.

    eg2 Great Uncle Fred was gun-running for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War. I am
    sympathetic with his politics, but his methods were illegal and dangerous.


    • I agree. It can be a shock to be confronted with difficult information about your family. As much as you think you are prepared it still takes some time to digest it. That is what separates family history that is superficial from the kind of family history done by the people in Tanya Evans’ book. The turmoil of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries means that most families have unpleasant issues in their past. It is important that family historians have the honesty and humility to acknowledge these troubling issues to their families – no more secrets. Having said that though, this requires sensitivity on the part of the family historian. Some of these issues have had a significant effect on the lives of people living today. There can be issues of privacy and the psychological well-being concerning those alive today.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Humility in the face of the ever-shifting knowledge and understanding of evidence has to be the badge of the family historian and the professional historian alike”. This is so true, Yvonne. I’m no professional historian but what bothers me about the whole amateur family history thing is that DNA research and the Kinsey Report tell us that a significant percentage of people don’t have the parents and ancestors that they think they have (presumably because people have reason to lie about extramarital events), and yet amateur historians cling to what’s written about parentage on birth certificates as incontrovertible proof of a pedigree. Statistically speaking, many of them must be wrong.


    • Yes we need to quiz what we think is evidence in history. The family historians in Evans’ book had identified some cases where birth certificates were clearly wrong about parents. Death certificates are well known to be shaky evidence many times. The family historians that I know and who are featured in this book have a good degree of scepticism and test the evidence as much as possible. Just as with every aspect of knowledge (eg health, science) there are people who don’t think and believe anything before them if it is simply and attractively displayed. Family history is no different to this.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Published by Stumblingpast Blog: “Genealogists are becoming the new social historians” says professional historian | GraveSeeker's Diary

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