Here’s the text of the funeral notice of James Elliott (my great-great grandfather).  It’s from the Newcastle Morning Herald dated 29 August 1888.  Can you notice what’s missing?

“His funeral to leave Hamilton Commonage for Sandgate Cemetery.  John, David, Abraham, James were his sons.  James Devereux and John Thompson were his sons-in-law.  John Brennan, John Snedden and James Taafe were three friends.  He was a member of L.O.L. Number 28.  T Hetherington  W.M. James Gray”.

For the record, he had a wife whose name was Isabella.  They had four daughters: Marion (deceased), Isabella, Violet and Mary Ellen.  Sons-in-law and friends rated a mention.  Women in the family did not.  Thank goodness times have changed.

Lynn Walsh – workshop and meeting facilitator, Sydney


My genealogy dabbling began a few years ago and has lead me to a fascination with the back stories of my ancestors’  lives.  As time allows I search for records and newspaper stories that give detailed accounts of individual experiences of their time and places.

I am writing a piece of fiction based on the story of my convict ancestor (Mary Ann Hughes) through the eyes of her grand-daughter (another Mary Ann) whose husband became the Mayor of Balmain.  This morning, I grabbed some markers and a large sheet of paper and began to play with a series of  time lines on the same page.  It was a useful exercise up to a point but I was after more flexibility.

So the large piece of paper has now become long strips of paper (6-10 cm wide).  The top strip is time itself.  The visual below uses decades though the scale could be larger or smaller as appropriate to your needs.   Other strips (eg individual life lines, local history events) need to be scaled to match the top template and the level of content required eg births, marriages, immigration, residences.

They will be reasonably easy to store (the paper rolls up nicely) and will enable me to mix and match the relationship timelines for different angles on the story eg siblings together, comparing the story of various grandparents etc.

I’ve mocked up a static visual to give you an idea of how it might look on a large table and/or wall.  The possibilities are, as always, only limited by imagination.  Story timelines based on genealogy are  just one application.  You could have fun with future gazing or comparing the emergence of historical discoveries or inventions. 



My paternal grandfather and maternal great-uncle both served in the First World War.  An increasing amount of source material is now readily available to begin to understand some of the experiences of soldiers at war.  Some links to those sources are provided here to assist new researchers to discover their own family stories.

The National Archives of Australia holds the personal service records of Australians at war.  Many of those records are digitised and available for download.   This mine of information can include movements from country to country, training, periods of leave, wounds suffered, hospitalisation periods, promotions and letters from family members particular to the soldier’s service.

The personal service record of a soldier only includes so much information as to specific whereabouts.  However, knowledge of the Division in which someone served can lead you to the battles and incidents of the war your ancestor may have experienced.

Alfred Buckler’s service record includes details of the Military Cross he was awarded.

Once you’ve got some clues, you can take your research to another level.

Charles Edwin Woodrow (C E W) Bean, compiled the multi-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.   The military sections of old and new book stores provide indexes to scour.  I found the following reference to A J Buckler in Volume VI (The AIF in France: May 1918 to The Armistice) of Bean’s magnum opus.  It relates to the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918.

Engineers of the 4th Field Company with specially trained platoons from the infantry constructed strong points in that alignment. Footnote 77. The 4th Brigade was to have dug three of these points; but the allotted platoon of the 15th Bn apparently became involved in the heavy fighting at Pear Trench, where Lt E S Davidson (Neutral Bay NSW), the engineer officer detailed to direct the digging of the northern post, was killed.  After his NCO had been wounded, a sapper R A Miller (Sydney) helped with the fortification of the front line.  Lts R S Carrick (Sydney) and A J Buckler (Sydney) duly saw to the completion of the other two positions.”

My mother’s uncle George Elliott was 28 years old and serving as a stretcher bearer when he found himself right in the thick of the Battle of Messines.  The long planned assault on the ridge in the early hours of 7 June 1917 saw 19 huge mines detonated within 20 seconds.  The blast was so loud that it was heard across the English Channel and in Ireland.

According to Robert Likeman’s Men of the Ninth – a History of the Ninth Australian Field Ambulance 1916-1994, ambulance bearers encountered heavy shell-fire on the first day.  George  suffered gun shot wounds to his neck and both knees and succumbed to those wounds on 8 June.

The Australian War Memorial now has Red Cross records available on its Biographical Database.  This note in George’s Red Cross file demonstrates the work of the Red Cross in following up details for the grieving families.

Details of his grave in Pont D’Achelle are also available at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site.

Service records provide all sorts of interesting information.  I won’t go into the details here, but this link hints at the reason for other medical treatment George received before his death.  Frankly, if I’d been him …..

If you’re browsing for your own interest, have a look too at The National Library’s Australian Newspapers 1803-1954 - a source of news of battles, awards and, sadly, family notices of loss.

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RHW and MK - post wedding photo  buckler laws wedding










Here are two post-World War I photographs.  One is of a newly married couple (my husband’s paternal grandparents) taken around 1919 in Brisbane after a war bride wedding in Northern Ireland.  The second is of a couple (my paternal grandparents) on their wedding day in Sydney in 1922.  

I’m working on a map to track the paths of family members who served in World War I using the information available in the Australian Archives digital war records.  In so doing, I came across this amazing coincidence. 

According to the records of these gentlemen, both received gunshot wounds in totally separate incidents on 11 August 1918 – one to his hand, the other to his chin.   Both were admitted to the 55th Casualty Clearing Station in Longpre in France on 13 and 14 August respectively.   Could there have been a conversation or connection over those few days ?  

Both moved on to new and different battles.   After the war ended, they returned to different states of Australia and started their respective families.  Does anyone have any similar stories of ancestors crossing paths?


John Baker - death certificate

On information available in this death certificate, you’d assume that a man named John Baker farmed in the Hawkesbury district, having lived a relatively long life (for the times) of 62 years.  He was born in Kent.  He was married to his wife  Mary Ann for 24 years.  They had 6 children, 2 of whom were living when he died of  ‘natural debility from old age’.  According to this certificate, he had been in New South Wales for 38 years.    

There is, of course, more to his story.  Convict records show that he arrived in Australia on 6 November 1822 on board the ship Eliza with 159 other male prisoners.  The ship had left England three months prior.  He apparently behaved himself on the voyage out as, according to the Colonial Secretary Papers,  he was on a list of men who by their good conduct whilst on board the “Eliza” deserved to have religious books given them.

The records describe a fresh and “little freckled” man of 5′ 10″ with brown hair, gray eyes and a ruddy complexion.  He had three tattoos on his right arm -  MGC, an anchor and JB – presumably for his own initials.   

Until recently, I had no details of his crime.  When he arrived in Australia, records indicated he had been transported for life at Kent Assizes.  The recent online release of the England & Wales Criminal Registry 1791-1892  revealed further information that makes it all the more miraculous that he found himself in New South Wales.

The record below (dated 18 March 1822), shows John Baker was convicted of burglary and sentenced, not to transportation, but to death.   For nearly 3 months, he lived with that prospect, until on 13 July of that year the sentence was revoked and changed so that on 5 August he was on a ship heading for Sydney.  It is no wonder he felt inclined to behave himself on the voyage.  His death from old age in Lower Portland in 1862 was the wonder.

John Baker - death R

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Gladstone_BagOn 19 May 1897, the New South Wales Police Gazette reported court proceedings relating to a break and enter on the home of William John Laws and his wife Jane.  William (my great great grandfather) was 22 years old and an iron founder when he arrived in Sydney from London in 1860.  He married Jane Prue in 1861 and established a business as a brass founder in Balmain. 

“Thomas Gibbons was further charged in company with George Williams with breaking and entering the dwelling of William J Laws, Dock Road, Balmain, and stealing a watch, a scarf pin, two Alberts, four brooches,  a Gladstone bag, two coats, two vests and two pairs of trousers, value 20 pounds (part recovered).”

By the sound of what went missing, the business must have done well over the years.  So now, I’m wondering.  “What’s an Albert?”.  I’m guessing it’s got some reference to Queen Victoria’s  husband.  Any suggestions?

Albert fob chain leopardantiquesPost script:    Photo courtesy of, here is an Albert.  It was named after Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria.  You could have a regular Albert or a Double Albert like the one in this picture.  It’s a fob watch chain where the bar fits into the buttonhole of a waistcoat.

Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River is based on the story of her convict great-great-great grandfather Solomon Wiseman.  The town Wisemans Ferry on the Hawkesbury River in NSW was named for him and the ferry service he established.

In 1822, my convict great-great-great grandfather John Baker was assigned to farm work a few miles upstream from Wiseman’s property and commercial interests.  John Baker and Mary Ann Hughes were married early in 1838, the year of Wiseman’s death.  For years I’ve been collecting scraps of stories and records, hoping at some time to bring them to life in a useful way.

I’ve just read Kate Grenville’s account of writing the novel.  Searching for the Secret River is an insight into her process, experiences, thoughts and inspirations that came at seemingly right times.

Searching for the Secret River

In the book, Grenville shares her ‘mantras about writing’.

Never have a blank page

Don’t wait for the mood

Fix it up later

Don’t wait for time to write

Try anything, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.

While writing The Secret River, Grenville found answers everywhere, often when she wasn’t deliberately looking – from other authors such as Michael Ondaatje and E Annie Proulx, from conversations with neighbours and from visits to various people and places.

One of the major insights for me was how much of the material Kate Grenville collected was put aside (in her ‘Good Bits to Use Later’ folder) or let go entirely.

 “I thought of the book that I was circling around, that I’d been trying so hard to control. [..]  How presumptuous I’d been, thinking that this was my story alone, to pummel into shape as I saw fit, a story I understood enough to force into the form I wanted.  [..]  How could I know what kind of book this was going to be?  My job wasn’t to take what I’d learned and squeeze it into the shape I thought it should have.  Before it could be a book this was a story.  That story was somehow part of all this…… I didn’t own that story.  It had to be allowed to speak for itself.  My job was to get out of its way.”

It’s time for me to cull what’s unnecessary material in my collection and get out of the way of the stories.   Thank you Kate Grenville.

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The National Library of Australia is continuing to digitise records of Historic Australian Newspapers 1803-1954.  It’s an excellent genealogy resource.   The search engine saves hours that, until recently, would have been spent winding through metres of microfilm.  You can also play a role in improving the quality of the records and “help fix this text” where the scanning hasn’t quite hit the mark.

Today I discovered the cause of death of a 19 year old in my family tree.  He was playing cricket in 1944 when he received a blow to the chest from a medium paced ball. 

Pericles - source

In the process of searching for information on the arrival of the ship Pericles that brought my great grandparents to Australia in 1883, I also learned a new word.  The Pericles was granted pratique after it arrived in Sydney.  Pratique was the liberty given to vessels free of sickness.  This certification meant that the immigrants and crew on board could disembark without a stay at the Quarantine Station.    It derives from the French – practiquer – meaning practice or habits.

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mary-ann-hughes-convict-transportedGovernment Gazette     WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 1836

Colonial Secretary’s Office,  Sydney, 9th February, 1836

NOTICE is hereby given, that Families who are in want of Female Servants, may be supplied from the Prisoners arrived by the ship Henry Wellesley from England, provided they apply according to the established forms, on or before Twelve o’Clock of Tuesday the 16th instant.   The Assignees will be required to enter into the usual engagement, under a penalty of forty shillings to keep their servants for one month, unless removed by due course of law.   Printed forms of application may be obtained at the Office of the Principal Superintendent of Contracts

By His Excellency’s Command     ALEXANDER McLEAY.

A sixteen year old called Mary Ann Hughes was one of 118 female convicts on this ship. Her sentence was 14 years transportation for the crime of pledging.  In other words, she probably helped a few stolen items fall into the hands of a pawnbroker.  This house maid from Liverpool was apparently quite good at pledging as this was not her first offence. 

From her date of sentencing (13 April 1835) to the date of the ship’s departure from Portsmouth, England on 23 September in the same year, she is likely to have spent some months in a hulk. 

We know from convict records that she was 5 feet 2¾ inches tall, had sandy flaxen hair, hazel grey eyes and a fair, ruddy and freckled complexion.  When she arrived in Sydney, she was sporting two scars over her left eyebrow and a scar on her upper lip.  The bell of her right ear was split. 

Mary Ann was always going to be easy to identify from her tattoos.  She arrived in the colony with a string of indelible marks on both arms.  It’s likely these skin punctures were made on the voyage and stained with lamp soot or ink.  She was recorded as being able to read.  We might also surmise from the nature of the tattoos that she could also write.  Her left arm and hand markings were recorded as follows:

HRTTHJHSPJHWMHBODS nine dots HOAG, fish mermaid, TW on left arm; five dots, star and two rings – left hand

On her right arm:


Convict tattoos often recorded the names of family and loved ones as a way of remembrance.   Some initials on Mary Ann’s arm coincide with the names of other women on the ship. The letter H (for Hughes) is well represented.

Our grandmother’s great grandmother lived in the colony for another 50 years.  There’s more of her story on the record and in future posts on this blog.

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I confess. I enjoy a bit of genealogy on the side. It’s the sort of thing you don’t mention in polite company or at a party unless you want to be parked alone with the other “I prefer anti-social activities too” person.eliza-baker

The addiction (there I’ve said it) all started when I wanted to know some more about my paternal grandparents. At first, it was only a search engine on a births, deaths and marriages database. 

Before I knew it, I found there were people who could supply me with the stuff – photos, certificates, links to parish records, the location of graveyards and headstones!  Then the highs got higher. Padded envelopes began to arrive in the mailbox.  Late at night I’d fall upon some quality hits after hours of wading through non-descript material.  Days were lost in the Mitchell Library.

The sources lead to newspaper reports and obituaries, juicy postings of adultery, shipping voyages and military service records, crimes and convicts, and accounts of lives shortened by misadventure and laborious work in coal mines and cotton mills.

What hooks me is the stories. It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle that help explain why you are who you are today because of the lives they lived.

I’m not interested in rehabilitation. These stories will be written and the prospect of sharing the highs with others in my gene pool is, well, addictive.

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