Family History or Time Travel?

When I was younger, and getting to know people (generally boys or girls I was attracted to and wanted to woo), I would give them a list of 20 questions and ask them to answer them all. It would either be done in person, on the phone, via a letter or more recently, via email/chat. These questions would be all about getting to know the other person better, find commonality and hopefully present myself as somewhat mysterious, enigmatic and far more intellectual than I am.



Which time period would you most like to live in and why?

Very important question I would ask people I fancy

My answer to that question would often depend on their answer (because, remember, I was trying to get them to fancy me, so I had to be as similar to them as possible. Yay, psychology!) and I’d say anything from “Ancient Egypt” to “200 years in the future”. I wasn’t really thinking about it. Sure, I was interested, but my answer was generally not genuine.

Being a genealogist, I get to look into the lives of so many different people, from different backgrounds, places and times. Whilst most of the research I do is in the British Isles, one county to the next can provide completely different customs, events and names. Add time to this and these lands present an immeasurable amount of genealogical and historical variety.

Looking at the rest of my family and where they’re from, we need to add Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Eastern Europe into the mix.



Gold miner’s cottage at Hill End, NSW, Australia. Photograph: Bernard Holtermann

To pose that question to myself today means I need to really sit back and think. Sure, I could answer something glib like “Oooh, the roaring twenties” or “the middle ages” – but what does that really mean? When we think of those two eras, in particular, we probably think of Flappers and Knights/Damsels, respectively. But we know that to think of an era in such a simplistic manner is to completely gloss over what was really going on then and what life would be like were I to time travel and spend the rest of my days there.


Would I be able to ignore my modern way of thinking and take on board the beliefs and desires of people in the 19th century?


Would I want to live in Shetland in the 1800s, when my ancestor, Robert Scollay, was forced to leave and travel to New Zealand due to poor economic opportunity, land clearances, and agricultural failures? What would it be like experiencing poverty, uncertainty and fear? Would I want to get on a ship to travel to the other side of the world – not knowing what I would encounter, and knowing I would never see my family again?

Would I be a strong pioneer in New Zealand? Would I be able to build a life from nothing. Find land, build a home, scrounge together a living from whatever I could do or find?

Would I want to do the same with my ancestors in Australia? Could I force first peoples from their land in order to build colonies of New South Wales, Victoria or Van Diemen’s Land? Would I keep my head down and ignore what was going on around me? Would I be able to ignore my modern way of thinking and take on board the beliefs and desires of people in the 19th century?

Or perhaps I’d like to travel to Sweden in the 16th century? Live and learn about life and the seasons with my family in Västra Götaland and Skåne. Spend my days on the farm with the cows and sheep and work from dawn to dusk helping to maintain the household?


Robert the Bruce facial reconstruction

I could go to another time, the 13th century, back to Scotland, and the Bruce clan, with my ancestor Matilda and her brother, Robert, who would become known as Robert the Bruce. What would my life be like as the daughter of a Baron and Countess? Living in a land in turmoil, with in-fighting and threats from England? Knowing that my position and life could be used to determine the course of political and personal life for so many in the land?

These are questions I now often ask myself when I am doing research (for myself or clients) and it is why I find it so terribly important to put as much context into my research as possible. Looking at my tree while I write this article, I see so many names, so many dates with lifespans, marriages, and other events. They are all part of who I am and have created a legacy that will last, but who were they? Really?

Family history is time travel. We don’t need a magic spell or a set of standing stones to be able to go back through the years and discover what life was like. We can find so much information from our ancestors and incredible research done by so many genealogists and historians. Adding to this body of research is so important and will be invaluable to future generations. I am proud to be a part of it, and vow to do more.

From this point, when I go over previous research or do further research into my ancestors, I will not move on to another generation until I have exhausted all possible avenues and repositories of information for the people in the current generation being researched. I want to create the story of how my family became to be and that starts with the families that went before.

I will be reproducing some of that research here, and in the coming months will be publishing papers on my ancestors from Shetland, along with information about the people over the years who lived in one house in Sussex.

(A huge thank you to Janet Few for inspiring this article.)

DNA – learning to expect the unexpected

This is the first part in a multi-part blog series about DNA testing and genealogy.

After 20+ years of genealogical research, I like to think I know my family history pretty well. As an Aussie, I am a big of a genealogical mongrel, or as my nan used to refer to her dog, Cindy, a “bitsa” as in “bits of this and bits of that”. It’s pretty simple, really:
  • Lots of Scots
  • Lots of Irish
  • Lots of English
  • A smattering of Swedes
  • Four convicts

So I was relatively certain of the results of any genealogical DNA test I would do. I imagined it would look something like this:
Source: Ancestry.com
When I decided to try the Ancestry DNA test, I was a bit put off by the fact that I’d need to gob into a test tube. Someone as classy and sophisticated as me simply does not spit, regardless of the scientific results. But for the sake of science, history, genealogy and my own bloody curiosity I built a bridge and got over this particular wave of discomfort. (This is proof that I am actually on my way to becoming a true professional).

To be quite honest, when the test arrived I was soon quite happily gobbing away into the plastic tube.

The influence of Apple of product packaging and presentation has been clear for a number of years. Clean lines, lots of white. Minimalism is key. I was, however, surprised to see that this influence had extended into the realm of genealogical DNA testing.

Photo: Ancestry.com
It’s quite simply a beautiful product. It’s a shame one has to mar it with saliva, but needs must.

Even the website to register the test is squeaky clean. For my web design friends – is this a matter of clean design, or is it a matter of familiarity (from using Apple products) and therefore an increased sense of trust? Answers on a perfectly and ethically designed website, please.

After spitting in the tube, adding the DNA stabilising solution and giving it all a good shake, I slipped it into a bio-hazard bag and into a lovely little postage-paid box that came with the kit. I then sealed it all up and popped it into the post-box.

The lack of immediate gratification was a wee bit disappointing, and the wait until I got my results felt extremely long.

The website provides tracking information from the moment you register the test. I checked the site every day to see if its status had changed from “Activated” to “Arrived” and more importantly “Processing”.

After around a week, the status changed from “Activated” to “Processing” rather quickly. I was then into the longest wait-phase. 6-8 weeks while the testing is done.

I waited impatiently for the test to confirm all my research and particularly looked forward to seeing if Britain, Ireland or Scandinavia came out on top. I expected it to kind of the way Eurovision does, with Scandinavia winning and Britain and Ireland getting a few points somewhere down the line.

I also joked that I hoped something completely obscure would turn up my results and hit us from out of left field. “OMG I HOPE IT SHOWS I’M JEWISH” I thought, knowing my step-father (who is Jewish) would find it hilarious.

I checked the website daily for an update and was growing more and more disappointed as no results were posted. “Maybe your DNA is so weird they’re having difficulty finding anything human in it,” commented one friend. I started to think he may be right.

No results. No results. No results.

As with the proverbial watched pot, as soon as I stopped thinking about it and obsessively checking I got an email. “Your DNA results are available.”

With a sense of immense excitement (and trepidation, perhaps I *am* alien) I logged into the site to see just who I am.

To say the results surprised me would be an understatement.

I was incredibly surprised to see both Scandinavia and Great Britain so far down the list. I was also overjoyed to actually see European Jewish in the list (my step father merely rolled his eyes when I told him).

Looking into the information on the data further, this is what is noted for the different regions in which my DNA has been.
Location
Primarily Located In
Also Found In
Europe West
Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein
England, Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Czech Republic
Ireland
Ireland, Wales, Scotland
France, England
European Jewish
Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Israel
Germany, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, Bosnia, Serbia, Estona
Iberian Peninsula
Spain, Portugal
France, Morocco, Algeria, Italy
Scandinavia
Sweden, Denmark, Norway
Great Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, the Baltic States, Finland
Great Britain
England, Scotland, Wales
Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Italy
Asia South
India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka
Myanmar (Burma)

France seems to be the main connection point between all the regions except for Asia South meaning (in my 100% scientific opinion) my potentially French ancestors got around a bit.

I’m reading as much as possible about DNA testing for genealogy and the impact it can have on research. I shall write a future blog post about how such testing can influence the research one does and the results of research that people not only find but really want to find.

Concerning Convicts

A much-loved go-to pseudo insult of Australians by the English is “convict” or, if they’re feeling particularly nasty, “crim”. I am here to declare once and for all – calling us “convict” is not insulting. In fact, we love it.

No, really, we absolutely loooooooooove our collective convict heritage and, as a genealogist, there is nothing better than finding a convict in my family tree or the tree of someone for whom I am doing research.

The BBC series Banished has rekindled an interest in the plight of convicts sent to Australia, a place which is often referred to in the series as a “godforsaken corner of the world”. This is just unfair. Sure, they landed at Botany Bay (original name Stingray Harbour, but changed out of respect to Steve Irwin[1]) but it’s not the fault of Captain Arthur Phillip that he chose to land in what would become Sydney. Had he simply persevered further south, he would have been able to land in what would become Melbourne, and they all would have had a much nicer time.

If Banished is to be believed, they actually had an alright time of it. Hanging out on the beach, getting married, enjoying good weather every day, being able to ignore the Paleo fad and living on a high-carb diet, hanging out with that bloke from Game of Thrones, and creating what would become one of the most amazing, friendly, inclusive and non-racist societies on the planet.

Really clean and pretty convict people who are probably not 100% historically accurate representations of the convict population in the 1700s.


Researching ones convict ancestry can be tricky. Not only because every second person was called John Smith or Mary Jones, but also because the accuracy of their convictions, sentencing and subsequent duration of transportation can be a bit hard to ascertain.

Take the story of Patrick Glennon, one of my ancestors and the first convict feather in my genealogical cap (I have four, total, which actually makes the the equivalent of a Duke in convictdom). 

Patrick was a native of Clontarf, Dublin, Ireland when, in 1849 he was arrested, tried and convicted of the stealing of one bullock. His sentence – 10 years transportation to Australia.

Well, that’s one version.

Another version has Patrick arrested, tried and convicted of the stealing of one bullock and one heifer (an enterprising young lad, Patrick understood that boy cow + girl cow = baby cows = money). His sentence was 7 years transportation to Australia.

Yet another version has his sentence as life.

Not so pretty convict people.



What we do know is that young Paddy travelled with just 8 other convicts on the transport ship the Hyderabad. They left Dublin on 23 May, 1849 and arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) on 26 August, 1849. Patrick is listed as being the only convict on the ship with a life sentence, the others having an average sentence of 7 years.

Patrick was pardoned in 1854-55 and went on to marry, have lots of babies and start one of the branches that led to me.

So, yeah I’m proud of him. Did he break the law? Probably. But what we need to keep in mind is the high levels of poverty in Ireland at the time. This was smack-bang in the middle of the Great Famine. People were hungry, people were desperate.

I won’t go into a discussion about the merits of transportation vs imprisonment – so many what ifs there it will just make my head hurt.

What I will say is this – men, women and children who broke the law (or broke the law) were transported to Australia. They were ripped from their homes, their families and friends, and taken to the other side of the world with no realistic chance of ever returning. They endured a horrendous journey, hard labour in a quite hostile land and, when they were released, often had to fend for themselves.

Patrick Glennon’s pardon. I guess he finally learned how to behave himself.



They formed the backbone of the country and embody the tough spirit of Australians. Aussies are tough, but we find humour in a lot of things. I believe this need for humour has been passed down the generations by the sheer necessity to see the positive in a situation in order to survive. Should we overlook the soap-opera feel of shows like Banished and take the history of convicts more seriously and should we more closely investigate the hardship and horrors endured by these people? 

Absolutely. 

The story of every single convict is an important part of Australian and British history and sweeping it aside as the go-to joke when talking with Aussies could be considered inconsiderate. But, in true Aussie nature our go-to reaction is to see the humour in it and brush such comments aside as funny.

Because they are funny. While the well-behaved (or badly-behaved but imprisoned) British subjects didn’t have to endure a horrific journey to the other side of the world, never see their families again or do years of hard labour building a colony, they did have to continue enduring the British weather.

So next time you’re calling an Aussie a convict, keep in mind that behind the smile and the laugh there swells an immense pride, a silent nod and a raising of a glass to the men and women who helped shape our country and our culture to be what it is today.


[1] This is lies.