“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.

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Bombs, Clothes Lines and Jeeps

A partially opened door to our bomb shelter.

The entrance to our bomb shelter, note the ventilation hole above the door.

Our apartment in Singapore is like most apartments in Australia but one corner of it is quite different.

We have a bomb shelter.

Yes, our nine-year old apartment has a fair dinkum bomb shelter. This is because all apartments in Singapore are required to have a bomb shelter under Singapore’s Civil Defence Shelter Act 1997.

As you can see from the thick door and walls, this room is designed to withstand a blast.

The bomb shelter is the strongest place in the apartment so when an explosion hits the idea is that the building crumbles but the bomb shelter stands strong. The shelters in a building are placed on top of each other for reinforcement. You might be 23 stories in the sky with a sheer drop outside your bomb shelter door but you are safe, albeit squashed in a small, dark room on top of a lot of other small, dark rooms. Continue reading

Ruminations on a Thing

Long grey plastic box with words "Special Spectroscopic Electrodes" on the lid

It was a container for knitting needles to me.

It is a Thing.

It just is.

You might have a Thing at your place. You have grown up with it. It is always there, part of your everyday life. So seen, so used that is has become invisible to you.

It is difficult to find a Thing if you don’t know you have it. A few months ago I discovered that my family had a Thing. It revealed an interesting aspect of family history. I’ll tell you the story of it because it may help you to find out if you have a Thing.

A few months ago I asked my mother about her life before having children for a post I wrote last year: ‘Glimpses of a Young Women in Laboratories 1959-1963‘. She was telling me about her work as a technical assistant in a laboratory working with spectroscopy.

“Do you remember the containers that I kept the knitting needles in,” she asked. I recalled the long pale grey containers with blue writing on them. “That is what the carbon rods we used for spectroscopy came in,” she said.

I was astonished. I had never really looked at the pale grey boxes containing the knitting needles. I was a keen knitter as a teenager and frequently used the knitting needles in these containers, but I had not once read the writing on the containers. I was surprised at this failing, yet I shouldn’t have been. It is well-known that the ordinary, everyday things or activities are so ubiquitous that they go unnoticed and unremarked. Continue reading

Family History – the Kernel of All History

My mother as a child with her family in a handmade boat -  country Victoria at the end of WWII.

My mother as a child with her family in the boat her father made – country Victoria at the end of WWII.

“The kernel of all history is family history.” I wrote that comment this morning in response to a thought-provoking post by Emeritus Professor David Carment about the importance of historians exploring and writing about their own family histories. The post picks up on a theme from a conference held in honour of highly regarded historian, Alan Atkinson.

Every one of us is part of a family. Hence all history in its essence is family history. Stumbling Through the Past is a history blog. It is also a family history blog. The blog header which I created when I started this blog back in August 2010 includes pictures of members of my family from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It reflects the fact that it was the way my family retold and researched our own history which attracted me to further study of history. Continue reading

New WWI Website from State Library NSW

Screenshot of SLNSW WWI website home pageThe State Library of New South Wales holds the diaries and letters of over five hundred people who served in World War I. Today they launched a new section of their website to make these more accessible to the public and to seek more information about the diarists from family members.

A few months ago I wrote some posts about this collection and added a page on this blog to help people find the transcriptions of the diaries on the State Library website. As I said at the time volunteers are still transcribing diaries. Currently the diaries of 238 people have been transcribed but this will increase until the transcription process is completed in the middle of 2014.

Today I have taken down the page on this site where I listed the diaries that had been transcribed as at the beginning of September. The State Library now has an easily searchable list which will be continually updated. This will be a more reliable source than my page.

I encourage you to explore the Library’s WWI commemoration pages. There is a wealth of material there. Here are some of what I think are the highlights of the website: Continue reading