An Alternate Reality

Who can forget Back to the Future when he manages to totally rewrite history simply because he lets a sports almanac fall into the wrong hands?

Updating my family tree, I fairly regularly discover I have given people extra children, who belong to somebody else or have attached a census to the wrong person and totally rewritten their whole life. Pondering that somewhere in some alternate reality, an ancestor has suddenly found their whole lives in disarray, can be disconcerting.  Perhaps they could avoid continually giving their descendants the same name or at least tack numbers(or better still their jobs) on the end of their names for the sake of some of we more challenged genealogists. (72)


Then of course there is the issue of photographs. Is it to much to hope that somebody somewhere in the future will confuse my photo with that of Cindy Crawford, at least for a day? When I first started on Ancestry, I had  happily added people with abandon from other people’s trees, watching enthralled as my tree had grown exponentially and the family members had climbed into the thousands.

(On occasion overlooking that there might be four people of the same name with the exact same date of birth etc, all  of whom had different mothers or more challenging still the same poor mother).

Well, eventually having had my fun, I  had been forced to go back to relieve these busy people of their additional offspring (among other things). This is reminiscent of some very famous criminal investigations which have found themselves swamped with data. I do think this might perhaps be a necessary stage but eventually somebody, somewhere has to cry,

“Enough!” and begin to methodically to sift through and fact check all the data.

My approach has been.  “Ok I’ve had my fun but now what can I actually prove?”

It can be entertaining to contemplate my ancestors suddenly unburdened of the extra mouths at their table. For example James Panton, the Town Crier had presented me with just such a dilemma. I could only resolve the issue definitively(I hope) by delving into the newspaper archives and  thus being  able to obtain a date of birth for the Town Crier. Of course, there is obviously still room to be mistaken, causing some poor guy who has quietly spent his life working on a farm, to find himself making proclamations in the middle of Lincoln, simply because he shares a name and a year of birth, with a city-dwelling namesake.

By nature I am  drawn to mathematics, where on the whole we can perform a calculation and obtain an exact answer. Logic puzzles have  also given me many happy hours. However people have consistently refused to conform to mathematical formulas for my convenience, so exact conclusions have often remained elusive,

In the meantime. If you are reading this in the future, healthy scepticism of my research is ok. However please feel free to let it go, if you fear you may have confused my profile photo with that of a renowned super model.

profile picture


What Makes a Life?

I love newspaper archives. I have waded enthusiastically in when one of my youngsters had had a project on the Industrial Revolution. When I had studied this turmultuous period at school, I had found it dull, dry and uninteresting. Wading into The British Newspaper Archives had taught me just how wrong I was. Perhaps having children descended from the starving weavers who had marched in an attempt to save their own lives and livelihoods, had helped to bring it to life. I now view the word” weaver”(Links to actual footage of workers leaving the mills in 1901).with excitement.

I never expected to find this amazing footage of millworkers leaving a factory-On a personal note I had a relative who had worked briefly in the Lancashire Woollen mills in the 1920s. She had often told me how she had been the only other woman wearing a hat, coat and shoes(being from the south of England) instead of a shawl and clogs (as see in this film). This had led to her being gently teased.


The trouble with me and newspaper archives, is that I get really caught up, as if I am reading some great novel.  I often skip straight to the end to find out the conclusion, before I can bear to read the painful bits in the middle.

It comforts me when I learn that an individual lived to a reasonable age and did not end up dying destitute in a workhouse. I was shocked to discover at least one family member who had died in the dreaded workhouse in the relatively recent past of the twentieth century. I love it when a story with an unpromising beginning, seems to end in a quiet, relatively comfortable old age-or as in the case of one individual I studied, they turn from a life of crime, to the more sedate pastime of prospecting. I guess I still seek the “Happily Ever After”. I love to read the glowing tributes to individuals who have struggled their whole life but who seem to have inspired love in friends and family. I remember a particularly touching episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Ray decided to write his father’s obituary, while he was still alive. A sentimental story of Frank’s softer side emerges, when it is revealed how he had quietly showed affection to the children’s pet rabbit.


I have come across a few such deeply personal, touching obituaries and to me they are worth more than gold…

Alan Sachs

Death is more universal than life. Everyone dies but not everyone lives.

There is no greater legacy than learning that somebody has inspired genuine love and affection in those they have left behind.

Documentary about the historical films of Mitchell & Kenyon, who produced the film showing the mill workers.


Documentary about voices in Edwardian England.







End of Life Care

I had never thought I would find a hospice a beautiful place. I heard the phrase today, “End of Life Care” and it had reminded me of watching my friend’s final bravely-fought battle. The brightest light in the whole experience for me was the hospice. So much was going on in my life at the time and yet whenever I had walked down to the hospice to visit my friend I had found peace.

It sounds odd to say I miss visiting the hospice but I do. It was a beautiful place. Not a place of sadness and death but a place of peace and even occasionally laughter. My friend was made to feel like the most precious, important person on the planet. I never saw one person treat her with anything other than kindness, dignity and respect.

At the time I had determined I wanted to write biographies for some of the patients. I did contact the authorities but that was as far as it had gone before the general “busy-ness”  of life had taken over. Fortunately I had already put together the  story of my friend’s family over the years- a deeply touching powerful tale. A story of Irish survivors of the terrible famine which had engulfed that country and had taken a million lives. They  fortunately were also  a family who had had the foresight to record at least in part, of the story themselves(written by somebody who had escaped The Irish Potato Famine as a child).

He described children as “mere animated skeletons”looking for food and men and women dying on the roadside and in the fields. He witnessed many harrowing scenes as Irish families were evicted from their homes, which were then burned. He had recounted these stories to his children and grandchildren, here in Australia.


The Famine

This is believed to be the oldest known photo of a survivor of the Potato Famine.Here

Description  of The Famine(from The Colonial Times, Hobart) 23rd October,1849.

An extract from a letter sent to the editor of The Dublin Evening Packet:

Her children got nettles.Showed me a bag about the size of a small pillow-case, full of nettles This took two children all the day to get so full. The poor people left few nettles about, and the children now often had to fight others for these! The way they cooked them was to boil them in an old broken crock ; and Whelan gave a small tinful of his meal,about one half-pint,to shake over the nettles.Her children and herself and her husband had no other food..

 One story of how Irish came to Australia: Irish emigrants come to Australia

Assembling an intimate account of the family’s life in Australia had been relatively simple. Thanks to the wonderful free resource of Trove,(Please note Trove may still be a useful  free resource, even if your ancestry is not Australian.) I had learned of their lives in their  newly-adopted country in great detail. My friend had been able to present to her mother, whilst she, (her mother) had still been alive, those reports, some of which had touchingly named her  mother, grandfather and great grandfather personally. I have had many moments of self-doubt devoting myself to genealogy but one of my rare moments of truly recognising the value of such research, had occured, learning of the memories, which had been jogged and the closeness which had been fostered, at least in part due to the sharing of a few newspaper articles.

Painting classes did not go well for me, I  had actually managed to blow up an overhead projector among other  things (needless to say I do not think I will become the next Rembrandt) but the one thing I did take away from the whole  experience, was the discovery that my instructor, had also worked at a hospice. Up until that point I had had no idea that people might be given artistic opportunities in a hospice. I  had never expected to find myself by visiting a hospice but I think in many ways I did. If anybody is trying to put together the story of somebody who is approaching the “end of their life”please feel free to contact me, I will attempt to help if I possibly can. I also cannot stress enough to record people recounting their story themselves(I found this example on Youtube). You will be leaving a great gift to future generations.

Voice of Fountain Hughes-A Former Slave

Fountain Hughes, the former slave captured my imagination, so I have felt compelled to discover a little more about him.

Voice of Fountain Hughes

Transcript of Recording

Currently I have been trying to discover the father of Fountain Hughes. I note that I have discovered a Fountain Hughes on the Union side in the 48th Pennysylvania Regiment who was captured at Big Shanty and sent to Rock Island. Fountain Hughes mentions that his father had been killed in the Civil War.

Wormley Hughes grandfather of Fountain Hughes, was a slave of Thomas Jefferson. (Fountain Hughes mentions this himself in the recording). Photo of Wormley Hughes available here

Stories from Slavery at Monticello


Drawing a Line in the Sand



There are moments in life when something totally different bursts into the light. One of the first such moments for me was Fawlty Towers. We had almost accidentally changed channels when the scary, outlandish Basil Fawlty  had made his first  magical appearance.  Basil was a real groundbreaker at the time, offensive yet irresistable.    I had the same experience with my first dramatic jolt watching the early Simpsons in a San Francisco movie theatre. Bart and Lisa, who had looked very different to how they do now,  were having a belching competition. This was a view of sibling rivalry to which I  had related. (I  had never stood a chance against my brother). Then there was South Park-The characters  had looked so cute, until one of them got on the bus and  had started swearing at the bus driver. Somehow these moments are timeless. They were never quite acceptable. They will never be quite acceptable and that is probably why they have endured.

I believe the same can be said of principles. They never quite fit in. They often shock when they first appear but in the end they last the distance.

The Challenges of Family History

My stated goal of my blog was to bring family history to life and show its relevance to our daily lives. I believe the wounds of the past do not simply disappear, they  perhaps continue for generation after generation. Edward Ball attempted to bring healing for those who had suffered as a result of his family’s five generations of slave ownership.

Descendent of slave owners apologises to descendents of former slaves on Oprah.

Every family has a closet full of skeletons, which it takes courage to face and unearth. Yet doing so may bring peace and closure to so many.  When I have been faced with some of the more challenging aspects of my research, I have attempted to steal myself and dive right in.  We all want to know about our family’s former glories and aristocratic connections. Facing  possible wrongdoing and tragedy is much harder, however ultimately perhaps more rewarding.