A treasure trove for ancestors in Australia
Writer Patsy Trench, who has written two books about her Australian migrant ancestors, shares her expert search tips for using the National Library of Australia’s online Trove Newspapers database...
If you are researching your Australian ancestors you’ll be familiar with Trove. It’s an online database containing scanned copies of virtually every newspaper ever published in Australia since the first edition of the Sydney Gazette in 1803 (among other things), and unlike its near counterpart in the UK, it is free!
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Trove over the years. I’ve been researching my great-great-grandfather George Matcham Pitt, aka GM Pitt, aka occasionally as Geo Pitt, or George Pitt, or even Mr Pitt. So what name do I put in the search engines? I could never quite get the hang of using quote marks, or asterisks to fill in the indeterminates. ‘GM Pitt’ threw up a thousand Pitt Streets and Pitt Towns and references to the British Prime Minister; and excluding ‘Pitt-Street’ under ‘without these words’ didn’t seem to work. But persistence is all: sooner or later, with time, patience and infinite determination, I discovered some pure gold nuggets.
The newspapers on Trove have been mechanically transcribed, meaning that much of it is gobbledygook, unless and until some kind human being – myself included I have to say – takes it on her- or himself to painstakingly go through an article and correct it word by word. That same altruistic soul may also take time to tag the article, which certainly helps with search engines. All this means Trove is constantly evolving, so what did not appear in the search engines a month ago may well materialise any day now or in time to come.
To take two examples of those gold nuggets:
1 Find my gg-grandad’s letters
Early on in my research I read in Trove references to letters my g-g-grandfather, a larger than life character with Strong Opinions, had written to the press complaining about all sorts of things, mostly to do with the government of the day. Try as I did I could not find the letters themselves. Then one day, months later, there they were, materialising as it were out of the fog. It was the result of my searching not under his name but under subject matter. I’d been looking for information on the North Shore Ferry Company and came across a letter from a reader objecting to the company’s decision to replace season tickets with single penny fares paid ‘in copper coin’, at great inconvenience to loyal and regular customers such as himself.
The signature on the auto-transcribed (and uncorrected) letter was something like S Pirr, but a close look at the original revealed it to be G Pitt, my g-g-grandad. Hence it’s non-appearance on the search engine. (It’ll be there now, now I’ve corrected it.) Using this same technique I discovered other letters with similarly garbled signatures, most of these to do with the behaviour of parliamentarians, all of which threw valuable light on the character of my great-great-grandfather.
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2 When perseverance pays off
The other nugget emerged as a result of sheer doggedness. I was looking to see what happened to my g-g-g-grandmother, a convict, transported to Australia for theft. She married a fellow convict (my g-g-g-grandfather), ran a shop in Sydney and a few years after the death of her husband married again and completely disappeared from the records. I was looking under her second married name of Aull – otherwise referred to as Awl, or Aule or even Hall. I’d been searching for around an hour with ever diminishing returns to the point where all that was coming up was various versions of ‘all’, when I came upon the report shown here, from The Colonist, dated 6 February 1839.
In all my researches into my family history I have had very few Eureka moments, but this was without doubt the biggest one of all. It threw light not just on what I had sensed was a less than a perfect marriage, but on a man who appeared to regard his wife more as a chattel than a spouse. (This notice, which appeared several times in different newspapers, was very similar to others he had placed over the years threatening anyone found STEALING his CATTLE with PROSECUTION [his capitals].) I have yet to discover what happened to Mary subsequently, but such is the nature of the ever-evolving Trove I have little doubt that one day I will.
Trove is well-named. I have spent more hours in its company in recent years than I have with my friends and family. Some of those hours were happy and productive, many were not. As often as not in searching for one thing I discovered something quite else. One thing I know for sure, I could not have written my books without it. Thank you Trove. Thank you the National Library of Australia. And thank you to all those helpful fellow researchers who spend so many of their precious hours correcting it. As Trove grows from mechanical gobbledygook to comprehensibility so, like the view through a slowly dissolving mist, our understanding of Australian colonial and family history comes slowly but surely into clearer focus.
• Patsy Trench is the author of The Worst Country in the World: The True Story of an Australian Pioneer Family and its sequel, the newly published A Country to be Reckoned With: The True Story of Australia's Pioneer Stock Agent and can be found blogging here.
Main photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash; The Colonist 6 February 1839 image http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/31722499