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Friday, December 18, 2009

My vision for genealogy data entry

If I had written a Genea-Santa letter, I would have asked for perfect genealogy software. One of the features of my utopian software (and there's a long list) is source-based data entry.

Here's my thinking... 
Sources are important. I don't enter information into my genealogy software unless I have a source. That source may be something as simple as a note I write to myself (eg noting a conversation with a relative) but it will be something I can use to identify where a particular piece of information came from, and how reliable that information is likely to be.

A lot of the source documentation we use come in forms of one sort or another. Births, deaths, marriages, census information - all entered into forms.

When it comes time to do data entry, there I am sitting in front of my computer with a source document in my hand or on my screen. It's quite likely that the information will be recorded in a form that I have seen before, and I will see again. Typically, I will set up a source record and lock it on while I am entering the data. Then it's a matter of going through the source document in a systematic way, navigating to the appropriate person in my database, and adding or editing events in the person's life.

The way I described it, it sounds pretty efficient. It's not really. There's an awful lot of moving from person to person, editing a bit, moving around again, finding your place on the form, not to mention re-entering the same information over and again (eg an address on a census form). Every time you move around you are distracted from where you are on the form. Every time you have to enter a piece of information again, you may enter it differently. If you want to check over your data entry you have to navigate around all over again.

What if you enter the information only to realise you had the wrong person? Who would have thought there could be more than one John Smith?! Then you have to track down and undo all those little changes you made.

It's slow. It's prone to error. It's hard to check. It's hard to undo.

A feature of my imaginary ideal genealogy software is the ability to enter data, where possible, in the template of the source document. The act of entering the data should generate all the citation details (maybe add a field or two for anything relevant not on the form itself, eg repository) and should handle the data entry. You would enter the data once.  Perhaps I'm fundamentally lazy, but if I have typed something in once, I don't want to have to type it in again.

Data entry would be quick and easy because you would not have to constantly find your place in the database and in the source document again. It would be very clear if any fact had been missed, because you would see an empty field in your template. It would be easy to check the data for errors because it's all there in one place looking much like the source document.

My ideal software would have an easy way to identify individuals in the document as individuals who are already in the database, or as new people to add. You wouldn't have to come up with some elaborate identification scheme. If you later decided that the source didn't refer to that person, you should just be able to unlink that identification without having to change anything else.

The software should make some sensible assumptions about how the information in the source document fits together and build the lineage links for you on that basis - but you should be able to review and override those assumptions if you wish. It should also be easy to add in any information from the source that is not standard for the template. You should also be able to add information from other sources that don't come neatly presented in a form.

It seems like a big ask, which makes this post seem like a rant... but guess what? Just under two weeks ago I stumbled across a genealogy package I hadn't heard of before. It promised source-based data entry along the lines I describe. I've been having a ball playing with the trial version for nearly two weeks now. While it's not perfect, I think it's interesting enough to write about in my next post...

That's one element of my ideal for genealogy software. Is there a genealogy software feature that seems so obvious and sensible to you that you just can't understand why anyone hasn't done it (to your satisfaction) before?!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent Calender - December 6 - Santa Claus

Growing up, we received gifts from Father Christmas. It was never Santa Claus until we made the move from Melbourne to Canberra. I don't know if the change in terminology is a Victoria/New South Wales thing, or if the name more commonly used just changed over time. Either way, it was a visit from Father Christmas that I looked forward to.

Most years I looked forward to the presents entirely too much. Not only my own presents, everyone's presents! I just loved that we were all getting something. I still love seeing nicely wrapped gifts under a tree, even if I know that none of them are for me.

One of my earliest Christmas memories is tip-toeing out from my room in the night, to the living room where Father Christmas left his gifts. I remember standing there and looking at the shapes, trying to imagine what could be hidden under the wrapping paper, but not touching anything. Going back to sleep seemed impossible. It was a long night!

When morning finally came the excitement was too much to bear... my stomach was churning... I unwrapped my toys with a bucket by my side, and I used it. From that point on the entire family would get up at whatever time I awoke (typically 2-4am) on Christmas day and we would all unwrap our gifts, then go back to bed. I insisted that everyone had to get up, it was no fun if we weren't all opening presents together!

I don't remember if this was before or after I found out "the truth". Finding out wasn't a big deal for me. I had my suspicions and one year asked my father about it. His response... "Do you really think I would spend that much money on toys for you?". Faced with the competing concepts of a large red-suited man who flew around the entire world in a night, somehow getting in and out of houses and depositing presents without being seen OR my Dad buying lots of toys, what was I to believe? That kept me believing in Father Christmas for at least another year.

Speaking of Father Christmas, here he is.

I recently posted one of my efforts at fixing up my family photos. I wasn't entirely happy with the result. Inspired by a comment from John Patten, I tried again. I'm almost happy with it now. Almost! As I look at it now, I can see half a dozen things that I could have done better, but I think I'm on the right track.

Joining in the Geneabloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories fun

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Advent Calendar - December 2 - Holiday foods

In Australia, Christmas is in summer. It's hot. So, most years we have a summer version of traditional Christmas foods. The turkey is just one of several cold sliced meats on offer, and instead of roasted vegetables we have a salad. Sometimes we may have had a barbeque.

Those are not the Christmas foods I most strongly remember.

Some years, we wanted Christmas to be extra special. Perhaps because we had relatives staying, or perhaps just because. Whatever the reason, what could be more special than a traditional Christmas lunch with your family?

Picture this... temperatures in the high 30s (that would be the 90s in Fahrenheit) and there we are eating a big roast turkey lunch complete with stuffing, roast vegetables and gravy (don't forget the cranberry sauce!) then finishing off with plum pudding with custard, served hot. All very filling and warming, and completely inappropriate to the climate! The Christmas carols playing are full of sleighs and snow. I'm sure we even had some snowflake decorations on our Christmas tree.

Eating a big, hot meal in the middle of the day in summer is absurd. Ridiculous even! I'm sure that newcomers to Australia would sigh and say that Christmas just doesn't feel the same. To me, though, the absurdity of a hot meal on a hot day isn't ridiculous - it's part of the magic of Christmas!

Joining in the Geneabloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories fun

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Baby steps

I survived my first week back at work, and my daughter's first birthday party! My time for genealogy  is more limited now, but I think I have made some progress (however small) in the past week. I have written out a list of questions I would like to answer about my great-grandmother, Elizabeth TREGONNING and I have a loose plan in mind for how I will answer them.

I have also made progress in gathering information about her (in line with my plan!). I have confirmed that neither of her two children born before she married my great-grandfather had any children themselves. Both these children died of tuberculosis during her lifetime, although many years apart. Her daughter, Violet Adeline TREGONNING, passed away a month short of her 12th birthday in 1898 while her son, Albert William TREGONNING, died at age 54 in 1939. They both died in hospital - I wonder if there are any hospital records?

This leaves the five children she had with my great-grandfather James Henry FRENCH. I know that three of these had children, and I am reasonably sure that one didn't have children. The other, I don't know. There are potentially quite a few cousins out there who may have information or photos that I couldn't get from anywhere else. If you are one of them, please get in touch!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why choose Elizabeth?

I said in my last post that I was going to concentrate my research on Elizabeth TREGONNING. Out of the 97 ancestors currently entered in my database, why choose her?

  • She was born in Australia, and I want to concentrate on Australian research before doing too much overseas.
  • Finding her death certificate was a challenge. Thinking about her through the years that I looked for it made me curious to know more about her.
  • I know enough about her to think her life may be interesting.
  • I know enough about the parent-child connections from her to me to be sure she is my ancestor.
  • I have not yet found any other researchers with a direct interest in her. If I don't research her, who else will?
  • I know she has other descendants (aside from my first cousins), but I've never contacted them. Who knows what letters, photos or other treasure they may have?!
  • She lived to 94 years of age, dying in 1952. There is a chance that some of her other descendents may have met her and could tell me some of the personal things that you can't find in documents.
I'm excited about this. I feel like I'm doing proper research again, and I haven't even begun!

Friday, November 20, 2009

This is not a farewell post!

I have to go to work on Monday, for the first time in over a year. I've been on unpaid maternity leave. Although my return to work helps our household income, it will cut the already limited time I have for genealogy.

I've been thinking about how I spend my time, and what I would like to achieve. There's a mismatch between the two. I know I spend too much time flitting from thing to thing. I've blogged about that before, but not actually done anything about it. Yes, I've kept occupied, and it's been interesting, but it has not moved me towards a family history on even a branch of my tree.

Knowing how much more limited my time will be has helped me to make a decision... I am going to concentrate on Elizabeth TREGONNING (1858-1952).

What's more, I am going to plan both my research, and how I spend my time. When I get - no, make - time for genealogy, I will follow my plan. I'll allow myself a little 'unstructured' genealogy time as well. After all, I do this for fun! But I will not change my mind about where my main focus is, or how most of my time should be spent.

Next time - Why I picked Elizabeth TREGONNING.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grandma's strange phone call

It was school holidays. I was in my mid-late teens, and I was at my paternal grandmother's house. The phone rang. My grandmother answered...

"Oh really?! What a pity. I'm sorry to hear that. Well, thank you for telling me. Goodbye."

She turned back from the phone.

"That was odd."

"What was it Grandma?"

"That was someone calling to tell me that my sister had died!"

This stunned me. I didn't realise my grandmother had a sister.

"Oh... I'm very sorry to hear that Grandma!"

Her reaction was not quite what I expected.

"I thought she died years ago!"

Needless to say, Grandma had not been close with her sister. They'd had some sort of quarrel many years earlier, or perhaps they just didn't get on. You could say that explains why I didn't know about the sister... but what about her seven other siblings?!

Grandma was the youngest of nine, seven of whom lived past childhood. Her other siblings had passed away by the time I was old enough to pay much attention to family connections. Grandma was never one to talk much about the past. I'm glad I persuaded her to talk me through her family photos, just the once, before she passed away.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Trying out a new look

I'm trying to find a look that suits both me, and the content of this blog.

I've tried to choose a look that's clean and simple. A fussy frilly look is just not me. I don't dislike frilly looks, but they've never really worked for me. Those pink spots that I had until now didn't sit right with me, and I think they slowed up the page loading.

I think this look is more comfortable for me, at least for now.

If you want to overanalyse it, you might say that green and brown represent the muted colours of gumtrees, which in turn represent both (family) trees and Australia. The purple headings are just because I like purple.

I'd like some feedback, if you don't mind. Does the new look work for you? I'm not aiming to set anyone's world on fire, just to have something that's comfortable to read and doesn't jar given the content of the blog.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Going on a research trip

My research trip happened a little sooner than expected...

National Library of Australia
My apologies for the poor quality of the photo. I only had my mobile phone with me. The roadworks didn't help much either!

There had been a few changes since I was last there. The most surprising change was the appearance of a little sandwich kiosk in the space outside the newspaper and microform, and maps rooms. The most welcome change was the ability to scan directly from the microform readers and email the image to yourself, all at no cost. This could save me a fortune in photocopy charges!

Actually I didn't email the images to myself, I uploaded them directly to my Dropbox account so they would be waiting for me on my desktop computer when I got home, sitting in the correct folder, with no further effort on my part. Nice. Very, very nice.

So what did I find? Well, my main aim was to see the passenger list for Richard ROBOTHAM. I recently wrote about how I found him in the passenger list index. The ship was the "Red Jacket", travelling from Liverpool to Melbourne from January to April 1860. Onboard were 338 adult passengers and 49 children. From a quick scan of the list, Richard ROBOTHAM was one of the oldest passengers, at the advanced age of 41. Most were in their 20s.

I was hoping for some detail that would let me know if this Richard ROBOTHAM was "mine". Sadly for me, there was no additional telling detail beyond the basic demographics they recorded for unassisted passengers (ie those who were paying their own way).

On the other hand, there were some minor inconsistencies with what I know of "my" Richard ROBOTHAM. The Richard in the passenger list was listed as single but my Richard was married. However, as he was travelling on his own I don't expect that they took down that information very carefully. He was also listed as travelling to Auckland, but it seems feasible to me that he could have changed his mind during the 3 month voyage, and decided to stay in Melboune.

What a pity there's just nothing to tell me for sure that I've got the right man. I'll just have to put it down as a maybe for now.

I did a few more quick searches before I went home, where I found an unexpected visitor waiting for me...

He listened patiently while I told him about my research trip, then wandered off again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Preparing for a research trip

I'm planning a research trip next week. Sounds exciting? For me it is, but maybe not so much for anyone else. Unfortunately I won't be travelling to some far flung (or even nearby location) to see the original records myself, learn about the local history, walk on the ground where my ancestors trod and generally soak up the atmosphere. I'll just be visiting the library.

I recently wrote that I had found Richard ROBOTHAM on a passenger list to Australia. The microfiche is available at the National Library of Australia (NLA). Although the library is only 20 minutes away, I haven't had a chance to do this sort of thing in the last few years. It's hard to get out of the house without at least one very small person along for the ride. So, for me it's exciting.

Am I ready for it? Well, I have printed out my NLA 'to do' list. It has many more items on it than I will have time for. My plan is to look at Richard's passenger list first. Anything else I find will be a bonus! I have a small laptop with my database (nicely synced with my desktop version via Dropbox) to check up on details... I found my NLA readers card... Yes, I think I am!

Monday, November 2, 2009

On the beach

Q: What does this beach have to do with my genealogy?

A: Nothing that I'm aware of.

It's Broulee Beach, New South Wales. I was there last week, on holiday.

During the day we did all the coastal holiday-type things you do with a 3 year old and a (nearly) 1 year old. We played on the beach, visited the zoo, found some playgrounds, wandered around the shops, and waited for hours in the ER because the baby had broken out in spots from head to toe...

In the evening, when the children were asleep, we quickly gave up on television and settled into other quiet activities.

I had my laptop, but only a very expensive pre-paid mobile internet connection. The internet famine turned out to be a good thing for my genealogy. Before I left home I installed Dropbox on both my desktop and laptop. I had been meaning to try Dropbox, and this was the perfect oppurtunity. Dropbox synchronises files between your computers and acts as an offsite backup. It has a few other claims, but the effortless file synchronisation was the feature of interest to me.

I was very pleased with how it worked. I made sure that I turned Dropbox file checking and synch off while I was away, so I wouldn't waste my limited internet connection. I turned the file sync back on again at home and my changes appeared on my desktop computer with no more effort by me. Easy.

The files I worked on were pages from the Australian Electoral Rolls, which I had downloaded from Ancestry two years ago. I had 107 pages, each with 1-5 people of interest. For each person the rolls give the name, address and occupation. As Australia had (and has) compulsory voting, they are very nice for following people's movements and career changes over time.

I made a start on the data entry back in 2007, but couldn't face doing the rest. While I was away, I managed to enter 3-4 pages each night. I still have 61 pages left to go, but the task doesn't seem quite so daunting. I just have to make sure I keep chipping away at it.

I'll talk more about how I'm using the Electoral Roll information another time.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Playing with photos - Part 2 (update)

A quick update on my previous post where I grumbled about how long postage of some photo restoration books was expected to take. Much to my surprise the books arrived this morning!

That's all I have for today... now off to do some reading and playing...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Playing with photos - part 2

I'm still having a lot of fun messing around with my family photos in Photoshop Elements. I'm concentrating on our more recent photos at the moment, dating from the 70s. I have some books on digital photo restoration on order but the estimated delivery date is still a month away. A month! Ridiculous, but even including the outrageous postage it's at least 25% cheaper to order them from the USA than to buy here in Australia.

So, while I wait, I'm reading internet tutorials and experimenting. I do have one or two photoshop books, but they're pretty basic.

Here's a before and after. It's a crop of the original image, reduced to 50%. The original image had a paper texture problem and a colour cast, but only very minor marks to clear up and no tears or coloured splotches of any sort.

I'm quite happy with how I've cleared the paper texture (which isn't nearly as visible here as it is full size). I'm not as pleased with the colour correction. As with the texture, I don't think the colour problems are as obvious here as in the original. There was a disinct magenta cast over everything, but especially the shadows on the faces.

I think I've improved the colour in the "after" shot... but I'm not entirely happy with it. More experimentation needed, I think!

Comments welcome, as always!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Getting more from my newspaper archive searches

I've been experimenting with Google's News Archive Search, which we were recently reminded of by Randy Seaver. I had this post in mind before I read his article, I swear!

Although I'll be talking about the application of the Google News Archive Search to the National Library of Australia's (NLA's) newspaper archive site, I imagine my comments would be applicable many of the newspaper archives indexed by Google.

I noticed that the NLA newspaper archive is picked up by the Google search. I was interested to see how the site's own search, and the Google search, would compare. It's possible to make a comparison by adding an appropriate site restriction to the Google search term. eg,

I compared the search results I got from:

  1. the NLA site's own search ( , and
  2. the Google news archive search (, limited to the NLA archive.

The first search I tried was the surname STANNUS. It's the surname I usually use for experimenting with new databases. It's common enough that I get hits, but rare enough that the number of hits doesn't overwhelm me. Also I have some idea of how most of the people returned (outside of the USA) connect to my tree, which is nice.

Running the search on the NLA site, I got 259 hits. The Google News Archive Search, limited to, gave me 61 hits.

This was about what I expected. The NLA seems to have added a lot of newspapers lately and it looked as though the Google indexing had not yet picked up the additional newspapers or changes to the archives (the NLA OCR results are user editable). I could see that Google had picked up older edits to the NLA archives, because a few I had made several months ago came up in the Google search.

Then I noticed something interesting in the Google results. This:

You see how the OCR of newspaper text split the word STANNUS into STAN and NUS? Google picked it up as a hit, the NLA site didn't. (The Stannus referred to turns out to be my GG Uncle).

Further experimentation with a search on "Couper, Oakleigh, butcher" gave 151 results on the NLA site, the first of those being the story about the death of Leslie Couper Miller. There were more hits - 453 - on Google. That was a surprise. I could see that Google had also included hits for "Coupe" and "Coupar". It's a pity that there's no easy way (correct me if I'm wrong!) to find out what set of words Google searched on. I didn't see any Coopers or Cowpers in the Google results. When I tried a search on Couper|Coupar|Coupe I still got 453 results (the "|' works as OR in the search term). I don't think those other common name variations were included.

If I forced Google to look for exactly the search terms given (adding a + in front of each or putting quotation marks around each word works here) I found only 31 results. They did not include the article about young Leslie's death.

All this will change my NLA newspapers search strategy, if only slightly. I think that I will definately still use the NLA (or other archive site) first, thanks to the better coverage and finer options available. I will then follow up with a search via Google as it might pick up some name variations, or OCR errors, that I hadn't thought of.

If you find this interesting or (especially) if it helps you with your searches, please leave a comment!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I have no brick walls!

I have no brick walls! It's a bold statement, I know. Does it mean I'm such a fantastic researcher that I am not stuck on anything, anywhere in my tree? Certainly not!

The 'brick wall'
Take the case of my GGG grandfather, Richard ROBOTHAM. He was born in Derby (or so I believe) in around 1819. He married Isabella SMITH in 1839. In the 1851 census they were to be found living together with their four children, and a servant. By 1860 the couple had three more children. However, in the 1861 census I found Isabella and the couple's seven children, but no Richard. Where was he? Had he died? Or was he just away that day?

In 1864 Isabella and her seven children, aged from 4 to 17, made the long journey to Australia where they settled. Richard was not onboard the ship with them.

What happened to Richard?

I found a few possible death entries at around the right time and place, but never had enough confidence it was the right person to justify sending off the money for the certificate. As far as I was concerned, Richard was missing, presumed dead. I would think about it more later... whenever later was.

The breakthrough!
The breakthrough came unexpectedly last night when I was playing with the Australian National Library's online newspaper site again. I found this marriage notice in The Argus newspaper for 20 April 1882:

STANNUS-ROBOTHAM.-On the 1st inst., at Prahran by the Rev. John J. Mackenzie, Wm. Stannus only son of the late Captain Wm.Stannus, Belfast, Ireland, to Kate, the fourth daughter of Mr. Richard Robotham, Heathcote.
It was that final word that made me sit up and take notice. Heathcote. A place of residence, implying that he was alive and residing there. That, and the absence of the words "the late". Quick googling confirmed that Heathcote was in Victoria, as I suspected. Another possibility was suddenly clear to me... what if Richard was missing from the 1861 census, and not to be found with his wife or children on the ship, because he had gone on ahead!

Victorian death certificates can be searched and bought online. I found his death certificate (he died 1902, aged 84) first try and downloaded it right away. Australian certificates give a lot of detail, and there was more than enough information to confirm that it was the right person.

Indexes for passenger lists to Victoria, Australia are also online. While I waited for my credit card to process for the death certificate I found a 41 year old Richard Robotham travelling on the 'Red Jacket' to Australia in 1860. I took down the details of the microfiche and added it to my 'to do' list for next time I visit the library. It really was that quick and easy once I knew where to look.

This experience just confirmed for me that I have no brick walls! While I do have quite a few ancestors who are still a mystery to me, I don't consider any of them to be 'brick walls'. There is not one for whom I could honestly say that I had exhausted all possible avenues of research.

(By the way... yes, I do feel rather silly that it didn't occur to me Richard may have already have been in Australia. At least I didn't waste my money buying those wrong UK death certificates!)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Playing with photos - part 1

I have a growing collection of old family photos and have made the time to scan most of them. Having only an average sort of scanner and no particular expertise, I've done what I could to get good scans and then made sure that the originals photos were put away safely. I now have quite a few digital copies of photos but they suffer from the usual problems of fading and (mostly minor) dust and scratch marks.

My latest obsession has been learning to make better use of Photoshop Elements before attempting to do a "good" clean up of the old family pictures. I have a few books, and a growing list of helpful URLs, to get me started.

I've nearly finished a practice run on a collection of photos from a trip to New Zealand with my sister in 2001. Neither my sister nor I had a digital camera in 2001. We both had our negatives scanned when they were developed. Unfortunately, many of the scans were pretty bad and my negatives were all but ruined in the process. Fortunately, the prints were done before the scans and they were fine. I've been fixing the colour and scratches on the existing scans, where I can, and rescanning the prints if they look too bad. My plan is to have them printed in a photobook, which I have been setting up as I go along. I think I'm getting pretty good at the dust and scratch repairs, including editing off the distracting yellow date stamps, if I do say so myself. I still have a way to go on colour correction.

Once the New Zealand pictures are done I plan on moving on to my family pictures. Stage 2 of the photos project will be to work on family photos from as early as I have them, up to the 1970s and 1980s (if the images of 80s fashion doesn't scare me off them!).

I'd like to make a photobook of the older family shots, especially, and give copies to my extended family. I'd also like to reproduce my grandparents' photo album as a photobook.

I have lots and lots of photo work to do. Expect to see more photo posts in the future!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tombstone Tuesday - Leslie Miller COUPER

I wrote a few days ago about the tragic death of young Leslie Miller COUPER. Here is his final resting place in Oakleigh Pioneer Memorial Park, Victoria, Australia.

And here is the headstone which I assume once stood at the head of the grave (as headstones do!) but at the time of the photo (April 1998) it lay across the plot.

The headstone reads:
to the memory of
our dearly beloved son
accidentally killed 2nd March 1897
aged 9 years
Loved husband of
Mary Couper
died 12 March 1935
aged 85 years
also MARY
His beloved wife
died 31st Aug 1938
aged 82 years
Our loved mother

Oakleigh is now a suburb of Melbourne, about 15 km from the CBD. The "Oakleigh Pioneer Memorial Park" operated as a cemetery from 1859 to 1959. The cemetery was opened as a park in 1988. I was most fortunate that this headstone was still present when I took the photo in 1998 as I understand many were removed when the area was made into a park. So far as I know it's still there, but I haven't been back to check.

Under the white structure on the right of the top photo are bricks inscribed with the names of those known to be buried there. That information is also in the cemetery database. A search on COUPER yields 14 entries, some of whom don't bear the name COUPER. They were people, mostly people connected to the family, whose burial Daniel COUPER authorised.

I must remember to write a post sometime about the diagram I created (using Genbox) that shows Daniel's relationship to each of those people.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The old newspaper article that made me cry

The first time I went horseriding with school, my mother warned me not to wrap the reins around my wrist or hand. The warning came with a story about her uncle, who had been killed as a child when a horse he was leading had bolted, dragging him behind.

Years later I found this uncle easily enough. He was my mother's great-uncle. His name was Leslie Miller COUPER, born 8 June 1887 and died 2 March 1897 aged just nine years old. He shares a grave in Oakleigh Pioneer Cemetery (Victoria, Australia) with his parents who died many years later. His headstone says that he was accidentally killed.

I have known what happened to Leslie (in general terms) for a long time. I always thought, theoretically, "how terrible" but it has never affected me that much. I did take my mother's advice about holding the reins though...

A few weeks ago I was playing with the National Library of Australia's Historic Australian Newspapers site. The site is very well done, and worth a look even if you don't have relatives in Australia. I found a newspaper article relating to the death of Leslie Miller COUPER, but it was still undergoing quality checks so I couldn't see it right away.

I was thrilled when I searched again and could read the short article. I wasn't prepared for how I would react to reading it though.

Perhaps it was the graphic description of the injuries. Perhaps it was the fact that the dying boy was taken back to his family home, prompted me to think of him as part of a loving family. Whatever the reason, suddenly I found myself in tears for someone who had died over 100 years ago.

Here's a link to the article.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Who's missing from this picture?

This is the COUPER family of Oakleigh, Victoria, Australia. Someone is missing, but who?

In the middle is Mary COUPER (nee ALLSOP), wife of Daniel Miller COUPER. Obviously he's not in the photo, that's not the answer I'm looking for!

Mary and Daniel had nine children, all of whom survived infancy. However, there are only eight children in the photo.

The children were:
  1. Jessie Isabella COUPER (F) b.1880
  2. Robert John COUPER (M) b.1882
  3. Lucy Ellen COUPER (F) b.1883
  4. Alfred Edward COUPER (M) b.1885
  5. Ethel Mary COUPER (F) b.1886
  6. Leslie Miller COUPER (M) b.1887
  7. Charles Henry COUPER (M) b.1890
  8. Ruby Maude COUPER (F) b.c1892
  9. Albert Donald COUPER (M) b.1894
The more I look at it, the more convinced I feel that the picture was taken c1893, before the birth of Albert Donald COUPER. That would give an age range for the children pictured of about 1 or 2 to about 13. Four girls and four boys with the youngest, Ruby, on her mother's lap.

That may seem the obvious conclusion, but another possibility is that the photo was taken after the death of Leslie Miller COUPER, who was accidentally killed by a horse at age 9 in 1897. This would make the age range of the children about 3 to about 17. Still four girls, four boys but now it's little Albert in Mary's lap. I'd also have to reverse my assumption about the gender of one of the other children.

So, is the youngest child a girl aged one or two, or a boy of age three or more? I think the former. What do you think? Any other clues or observations?

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Pace of Genealogy Research

Randy Seaver posed the question: What effects have you noticed from the increased "pace of genealogy research" in your own research? in Genea-Musings: The Pace of Genealogy Research - Post 3.

I've been on-again, off-again with my genealogy. It has been interesting to see the massive increases in resources available online each time I've come "on-again". While I wouldn't want to relinquish the resources that are now available, I sometimes think they diminish the magic of a new discovery.

Once upon a time, to find a birth, death or marriage entry in Victoria, Australia I would:
  • find a spare morning or afternoon to go to the library
  • hunt through countless microfiche for a birth, death or marriage index entry
  • send a form (and my money) away requesting a copy
  • wait by the mailbox for weeks until the certificate arrived
  • pore over every detail, feeling excited about each and every new piece of information whether it was a birth date, father's occupation or even a previously unknown middle name, and enjoy entering the information into whatever method of record keeping I was using at the time.
  • I may go to the library and search the indexes on CD, or if short on time, I will sit at my computer and look at the Victorian registry of Births Deaths and Marriages Historical Indexes.
  • Having found the entry I want, I will then order the certificate online, feeling frustrated at the short delay while my credit card is processed before I can download it! You can certainly spend a lot of money very quickly that way!
As a result, I think I probably take less time but spend more money on genealogy now. I feel like a much greater proportion of my genealogy time is spent processing information or making sure my source citations are correct, rather than on the fun part where I get to feel like a detective, solving a puzzle that's just for me.

Then again, I've also made leaps and bounds in my research that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. While it's very nice to visit your ancestor's birthplaces, I'm sure, it's not really viable for me to take a research trip to another State right now, let alone to the other side of the world! I'd love to do it someday, though.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Still staying focused - a good result!

I would have skipped World Vital Records' recent offer of a few days of free access, had it not been for the Victorian Government and Police Gazettes. I've been meaning to have a look at them some time. They were tempting... so very tempting... I signed up.

After some playing around to get a feel for the site I decided to focus on a few individuals from my COUPER branch. This family came from Scotland and settled in Oakleigh, Victoria in the mid 1850s. I've got good basic information on them, and a bit more.

I found Robert COUPER in several directories as a cooper, which fits with what I know. Only... one year there was a Robert COUPER in Oakleigh with the word "beerhouse" instead. How odd, I thought, and wondered if it was the same person. It took me a few days before the (now obvious) thought came to me that beer would have been stored in barrels. Coopers make barrels. "Beerhouse" might not be so inconsistent after all. That little revelation was enough to make me think that my time was not totally wasted.

There was another possible lead for the family. I found a reference to a Robert COUPER in the Victorian Goverment Gazette (1858). He had been awarded a government contract for the supply of timber for the maintenance of the plank road from Geelong to Ballarat. Could this be my Robert COUPER? A cooper must have a source of timber, mustn't he? I will have to see if the Public Record Office of Victoria has the tender documents and contract in their archives. Some day. I've put it on my to-do list.

I came away feeling glad I'd taken up the offer. I was able to focus on the families I was interested in and now have some leads to follow when I am ready to do some real work on them.

As for the site itself, I probably will take a paid subscription with them some day, when I'm ready. I found the search interface so-so but the databases on offer had potential. I was going to write a post about the search interface but I think it would be more constructive to send my remarks to the website's feedback form. Unless I run short of blog topics, or there is overwhelming reader interest (=any) on the subject, that is!

Staying focused... or not

How do you stay focused on your research?

I struggle with it. It's all the genealogy related stuff available on the internet that gets me. I'm constantly trying out demo versions of this, or checking out new databases of that, or following interesting discussions about the other. I tell myself it will ultimately help me because I'll know exactly the source and tool to use for anything. I'll have the most beautiful and useful charts, maps and timelines. My research will be comprehensively researched and carefully documented. The time I spend playing with these things is time well spent!

I'm kidding myself, and I know it.

My latest distraction (aside from Twitter and blogging, which I still say is to help me focus) is the current offer from World Vital Records for a few days of free access. I always intended to have a look at the site... sometime. It has all those Victorian government and police gazettes. There could be some really interesting, juicy stuff in there that I never knew about before.

The trouble is, I'm not really ready to look at it just yet. All I'll be doing is picking out names from my tree and typing them in to see if anything comes up. Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily. It's just that I keep on telling myself that I want to focus on some aspect of my tree and research it properly. That may include getting onto the site, or it may not.

I could just ignore the offer and pretend I never saw it... No, I couldn't... I already signed up a few days ago. Curse you World Vital Records, with your interesting free offer!!

So right now I'm about to start typing names into the website and see what pops out. I'll let you know how it works out in a few days!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Filling in the blanks - Elizabeth TREGONNING's death

I feel a little unsettled if I don't have a death record for each of my ancestors - my deceased ancestors, that is! Who knows what the might have got up to?

One death record that took me quite some time to track down was that for Elizabeth TREGONNING. This story starts in pre-digitisation days... Yes, I have been tracing my tree for that long... No, I am not that old!

Elizabeth was born in Avoca, Victoria, Australia in 1858. The Victorian birth, death and marriage records are pretty good. Even before they were available on CD and online you could look at the well-organised microfiche yourself, and there was enough detail in the index to be confident of having the right person before you sent your money off for a copy of the certificate. Not that I don't have one or two certificates for entirely unrelated people with similar names to my ancestors... But with hours of careful searching, I couldn't find a record for her death.

When CD indexes became available, the search possibilities expanded. I tried again. I tried spelling variations. I tried wildcards. What if she went by Liz, or Beth, or Bessie? I tried both her maiden and married (FRENCH) surnames. I tried leaving off her surname and putting her maiden name in the father's name field, in case she had married again. I tried every search I could think of. Still no luck!

Time went by, this thing called the Internet appeared, and I made connections with other researchers. There seemed to be a consensus that Elizabeth had died in Queensland, Australia in 1930, having moved there with her daughter Bessie and her husband. "Great! Could you point me to your sources?", I asked... Apparently not. The information had been compiled by an individual I never managed to contact (seemed to have a defunct email address) and then picked up by others without verification. The information going around also had one of Elizabeth's sons dying in Queensland in the same year - which I knew to be false - and had my grandfather married to the wrong woman, albeit a woman with a similar name to my grandmother.

With doubt in my mind, I tried the Queensland records. I only had access to the index on microfiche, so I pulled out fiche after fiche, trying all the surname variations. Still no luck. I left it again. Where had Elizabeth gone?

At some point, I determined yet again to find her. Still following the Queensland theory, I asked for help from one of the mailing lists. Someone directed me to a searchable cemetery database for Brisbane, Queensland where I found an Elizabeth FRENCH who had died in 1952 at the age of 95. That fitted nicely with my Elizabeth's birth year, but wait, 95! For a minute there I felt silly. Had I left off looking through those Queensland microfiche too soon, assuming she wouldn't be THAT old? I didn't think I would have... but I had been very tired of hunting fruitlessly through the fiche... it was possible.

My self respect as a researcher was restored when I went back to the fiche to get the index details and saw that when I was looking, the fiche for the year of her death had not yet been released! I couldn't have found it myself! I got the details, ordered the certificate and confirmed that this was indeed the Elizabeth I had been seeking for so long.

S0, that is the story of the long search for Elizabeth's death, which ended in a different State and 20 years later than I expected. Her very long life is an even longer story that has left me with more puzzles, but I will save that for another time.

Monday, August 10, 2009

My 16 Great-Great-Great Grands

I'm taking the easy way out with this post and doing the exercise Randy Seaver suggested last Saturday.

The instructions were:
1) List your 16 great-great-grandparents in pedigree chart order. List their birth and death years and places.
2) Figure out the dominant ethnicity or nationality of each of them.
3) Calculate your ancestral ethnicity or nationality by adding them up for the 16 - 6.25% for each (obviously, this is approximate).
4) If you don't know all 16 of your great-great-grandparents, then do it for the last full generation you have.
5) Write your own blog post, or make a comment on Facebook or in this post.

As others have pointed out, if there are 16 they must be GGG Grands, so that's what I'm looking at. If I had to pick a favourite generation of ancestors, it would be my GGG grands. They were the generation (except one) who left their birthplaces and made the long journey to Australia, either as adults or children.

Before I did this exercise, I would have said that I had about the same Scottish ancestry as I have Irish. In fact I have allocated nine to England (56%), five to Ireland (31%) and just one to Scotland (6%)!

I think it’s probably because the Scottish records are so rich, and they are readily available online. It has been very easy to “grow” that part of my tree with little real effort on my part. As a result, I have much more information on my Scottish ancestry than I do for my sadly neglected Irish lines, despite having fewer of them.

To add in a little more mythbusting, there is not one proven convict among them. Yes, Australia had convicts, but we also had many, many free settlers over many waves of immigration. That said, I have no squeamishness about finding a convict ancestor. I'll be a little disappointed if my one current "maybe" is a "no"!

So, without further ado, here they are:
  1. James William FRENCH was born in 1824 in England and died at age 72 in 1896 in Victoria, Australia.
  2. Ann SPENCE was born perhaps in 1825, at Gibraltar and died at age 76 in 1901 in Victoria, Australia.
    I will count this as England as she was there due to her father’s military movements.
  3. William TREGONNING was born between 1824 and 1826 in Cornwall, England and died at age 63 in 1887 in Victoria, Australia.
  4. Elizabeth MARTIN was born about 1827 in Cornwall, England and died at age 33 in 1860 in Victoria, Australia.
  5. James BENNETT was born in 1831 in England and probably died in Victoria, Australia.
    I still have to pin down a death certificate for this one to make a complete set for this generation!
  6. Catherine Lucy DARCY was born in 1830 in England or Ireland and died at age 70 in 1896 in Victoria, Australia.
    Hmmm, obviously need to follow up on pinning down her birth. We'll call her English for now.
  7. Francis MCMAHON was born in 1842 in Ireland and died at age 83 in 1918 in Victoria, Australia.
  8. Ellen KEOGH was born in 1835 in Ireland and died at age 75 in 1908 in Victoria, Australia.
  9. John LEE was born in 1822 in London, England and died at age 82 in 1905 in Victoria, Australia.
    One of my fellow researchers has him as a convict. I'm not convinced, the name is too common and the years don't quite fit.
  10. Susanna BAKER was born in 1840 in Surrey, England and died at age 58 in 1899 in Victoria, Australia.
  11. Daniel Miller COUPER was born in 1850 in Caithness, Scotland and died at age 84 in 1935 in Victoria, Australia.
    Came to Australia as a child and went on to become quite the wealthy gentleman!
  12. Mary ALLSOP was born in 1856 in Victoria, Australia and died at age 82 in 1938 in Victoria, Australia.
    She was the first of my ancestors to be born in Australia. Her parents were born in England, so I will count her as English for this exercise.
  13. William STANNUS was born in 1849 in Antrim, Ireland and died at age 75 in 1925 in Victoria, Australia.
  14. Isabella Kate ROBOTHAM was born in 1858 in Derby, England and died at age 78 in 1937 in Victoria, Australia.
  15. James BLACK was born between 1835 and 1837 in Ireland and died at age 59 in 1895 in Victoria, Australia.
  16. Frances Gertrude LEWIS was born in 1846 in Ireland and died at age 63 in 1899 in Victoria, Australia.
Disclaimer: I haven't double checked any of the facts above before posting. If you are relying on this information, well, that's up to you I guess... but wouldn't you rather get in touch and find out what else I might know?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chasing a BLACK sheep

Family legend has it that James BLACK (c1836 to 1895) was a cad. The story goes that he met Frances (Fanny) Gertude LEWIS en route from their birthplace, Ireland, to Australia, and persuaded her to stay with him rather than go on to America, as she had intended. They married, condemning her to a life of bearing child after child. This took a terrible toll on her physically and sent her to an early grave. Her daughter, May, would later speak of "my poor little mother". They were not his only children. Family legend says that he had many more offspring out of wedlock around the goldfields of Victoria. I've often wondered how many people out there who run into a dead end "illegitimate" on a birth certificate are actually my long lost cousins!

Nice story, but... The couple did have a very large family, and Fanny did die suddenly aged about 55, but I have little evidence to support the rest of the story. Although I think I have found Fanny on a passenger list to Australia, I haven't found James and the years don't quite tie up. The pair did not marry until a few years after I believe Fanny arrived in Australia, and by then Fanny had an illegitimate child. Whether by James or someone else I could only speculate, and would like to find out more before trying to do so. I suppose that genetic studies might yield information on whether James was quite the cad he is supposed to have been, but it's a long shot and it takes my research in a direction that I am not yet ready to go.

Part of the story of this family is ready to be told, however. When I obtained James' death certificate I found that the circumstances of his death was a tragic story in itself, whatever his character. It could explain some of the bitterness about him that the family legend attributes to his daughter, May, who was just 14 when her father died.

Not such a merry Christmas
On 19 December 1895 James was in his usual health. He ate a good lunch, and at around 2pm set out to go fishing. He was in a jocular mood and said to his wife, Fanny, "you won't laugh if I don't bring any fish home".

By 7:30 that night he hadn't returned so Fanny, feeling uneasy, sent out 20 year old Alexander to get his father. Alexander headed to one of his father's favourite fishing spots on Birches Creek only to find the terrible sight of his father dead in the water. Alexander ran to a neighbour, John KENNEDY, for help. John set about trying to get James from the water with Alexander's help - but Alexander said "he is my father and I am not able to do it" (or words to that effect).

Instead, John sent Alexander to fetch the police, while he sought further assistance in removing the body from the water. At this point it appears that there was quite some confusion. There were people running about, calling for help and debating if the body should be moved from among the reeds or left for the police. Finally someone waded into the creek and retrieved the body, and shortly after that the police arrived. John KENNEDY, Thomas KERSHAW, Mr DAWSON and Mr PURCELL, at least, were on the scene at some point.

The police found no signs of injury on the body, or any indication that a struggle had taken place and so arranged for an autopsy by medical practitioner Arthur Henry GORDON to determine the cause of death. Although the body had been found in water, the signs of drowning were "not strongly marked". The doctor concluded that James had been unconscious before entering the water. With no signs of injury or a struggle, and healthy internal organs (aside from some frothy mucous in the throat), there was no physically obvious cause for his death.

By this stage, the police had learned of another relevant fact. A week previously, James BLACK had complained to Thomas COCKING that a lot of people had left North Clunes, leaving their cats behind. These cats, he said, were a nuisance to him and he was having trouble sleeping due to the noise they made. He was going to visit the chemist for some strychnine to destroy the cats and asked Thomas to be a witness for the purchase. Just before entering the chemist James excused himself to speak to Tom HAWKES instead, who he saw across the street. James did go to the chemist a little over a week later, on the morning of the 19th December, and repeated his complaint about the cats. The chemist, having known James for 20 years, agreed to sell him some strychnine and witnessed James signing the register himself. James paid ninepence for 40 grains of strychnine in total.

With strychnine poisoning suspected, James' stomach was sent to Melbourne for analysis. Only half of his stomach was analysed, and it was found to contain 2.9 grains of strychnine, "much more than a poisonous dose". The inquiry concluded that his death was due to strychnine poisoning, by his own hand.

There was no obvious reason for the suicide. The family claimed not to be in any financial difficulty, with a sum of 130 pound due to mature on a life policy in the following year. James had planned to use the funds to take his two sons to Western Australia. Fanny was able to claim 130 pounds through the administration process (James died intestate), presumably the proceeds of the insurance policy.

Inquiry and Probate Sources
Public Records Office of Victoria, VPRS 28/P2
Probate and Administration Files, Unit 423, 59/794
, letters of administration (digital copy available here)
Public Records Office of Victoria, VPRS 28/P Probate and Administration Files, Unit 653, 1895/1566, inquiry proceedings (I obtained the file through an agent who told me that the published index for this item is incorrect. The reference given here is where the file can be found.)

I must add to my todo list to find out who Tom HAWKES was. I wonder what James had to discuss with him that was so important it possibly delayed his suicide attempt?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I've toyed with the idea of starting a genealogy blog before, but always come back to the question of "why?". What would I say? Who would read it? What would be the point? Sure, I might make connections with other people researching my family - but I have plenty of other ways of doing that which are working just fine. Do I really need more contacts to feel bad about not keeping up with?! With no satisfactory answers to these questions, I remained blogless.

Until now.

A few weeks ago I came across an article with reasons that were more compelling to me. I wish I could find it again to give credit where it's due, but I didn't realise at the time that what I was reading would stick in my head. Anyway.... among the suggested reasons was that it would get bits of my research, even if only bit size pieces, written up and even if I decided not to use them later it would give me practice in writing to make the task easier and the final product better. You see how long and clumsy that last sentence was? That's why I need a genealogy blog!

About my research
I've been researching my family tree, on and off, since my teens. It's a hobby that takes both time and money, and I rarely have supplies of both at the same time! Most of my family came from various places in the United Kingdom to Victoria, Australia in the mid to late 1800's and I have most of the bare bones of their time in Australia assembled. Almost a full skeleton, in fact, that I would like to flesh out some more when time and money again permits. My overseas research is more patchy.

Family names and places that I may eventually cover include:
FRENCH, TREGONNING and BENNETT - particularly around Avoca, Victoria, Australia
LEE, BAKER, COUPER and ALLSOP - particularly around Oakleigh, Victoria, Australia
STANNUS, ROBOTHAM and BLACK - various locations in Victoria, Australia

If anything I write is of interest to you, either from research purposes or just because you enjoyed reading it, please drop me a line!

There, my first blog post all done.