Guest blog by historian Tanya Evans
Family historians accept that their research is a journey, often enjoyed over the course of many years, sometimes across a lifetime.
My book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales explores why the life stories of some men and women in the past come to our attention, while others do not. It is a work of public history, targeted at family historians, which both celebrates the work of genealogists researching their poor ancestors and argues that academic historians and family historians should consider collaborating more. The book uncovers the life stories of men and women who lived on the margins and asks how, why and in what ways these individuals are remembered in Australia today. Their lives are refracted through a history of The Benevolent Society, Australia’s oldest surviving charity, established in 1813.
It seemed important to me that the major client group of the The Benevolent Society since its establishment – lone mothers and their children – some of the most-disadvantaged members of Australian society since settlement, should contribute, in some way, to the Society’s history. My research was driven by a desire to bring together the work of family historians, recovering the histories of their poor ancestors, with academic research on the history of the organization and the wider historical context of this particular nineteenth-century charity.
The research started with a ‘crowdsourcing’ project using local and national media, seeking expressions of interest from family historians to become involved. Many Australian family historians will know that the Benevolent Society requires written permission to access their archives at the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, and Mitchell Library staff had told me that the largest numbers of users of The Benevolent Society archive were family historians. It became clear that thousands of descendants of women who gave birth at the Benevolent Asylum during the nineteenth century have searched their family trees to learn more about their ‘illegitimate’ ancestors. Before the 1970s, these ancestors would have been buried and forgotten. I wanted to discover more about the fractured family lives of these people and why their histories were being revealed to us now.
Towards the end of July 2011 the The Benevolent Society sent a letter to those people who had requested permission to access their records at the Mitchell Library, inviting them to contact the Society to share their family histories and to talk about the reasons for their research into the Society’s records. We received a number of family histories in response. I also relied on the extremely generous contribution of genealogists Martyn Killion and Heather Garnsey. Over fifteen years ago they became aware of the exceptional richness of The Benevolent Society records for researchers working on the histories of fractured families in colonial Australia. Killion and Garnsey knew how hard it was for genealogists to discover details about families with absent fathers so they could recreate the family trees of ‘illegitimate’ ancestors. From their own practice as family historians they were also well aware of the value of indexes for facilitating genealogical research. So, over the course of thirteen years, Garnsey and Killion created and made publicly available a database of the admissions and discharge registers and an accumulation of detailed case studies of the Benevolent Asylum from 1857 to 1900. They continue to aid thousands of descendants hoping to learn more about their ancestors who used the services of The Benevolent Society.
Following my discovery of this resource and subsequent conversations with Killion and Garnsey, they offered to circulate my request for family histories to people who had accessed their site. Hundreds of family historians were contacted by this means. The book is the product of our collaborative research.
I hope that the book reveals the potential of historical research to understand our present lives better. Family history has become central to the construction of identity. We use the past in different ways to make sense of ourselves and our nation’s past, but most of us start with our family history, imagined and narrated in a variety of forms. What fascinates me most about family history is that it leaves us with more questions than answers. Family historians accept that their research is a journey, often enjoyed over the course of many years, sometimes across a lifetime. Most acknowledge that they can never know all there is to know about their family. There are too many paths to follow, dead ends and gaps that can never be filled. This is especially the case for those researching the lives of the humble.
Historical research and the acquisition of historical knowledge remain an active process, and one that can never be concluded. I hope that this book is a testament to the fact that the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.