Wednesday, September 29, 2010

'Master, master, old news! And such news as you never heard of.' William Shakespeare [The Taming of the Shrew]

Newspapers and family history

Hail! the digitalisation of newspapers. Not only is it fascinating to read 'old' news but for family historians, newspapers are a treasure trove of information about family members. Online newspaper archives have saved me hours of travelling and made searching so much easier. Although (it is fitting to say this immediately following 'follow a library' day), I absolutely adore libraries, I do have to admit that a search of the London Times, online, has made my search for ancestors in the UK so much easier.

[I would never suggest that an online search facility for newspapers could ever replace the good old library. Whether it is the smell of 'cut grass', 'mould', 'history', or whatever else it is that attracts one to libraries or archives.. I just love them. In fact, my children have to physically restrict me when walking walk past any library, just to prevent me from entering.] I digress... back to my topic of newspapers [which, I must add have been digitalised for the most part, by our wonderful libraries.]

The stories of my ancestors have been become more personal and so much more interesting through the chronicles of 'news' I have collected from newspapers. There is a wealth of information that newspapers can provide, about the everyday happenings, adventures, affairs (literally) and escapades in the lives of our ancestors. The photograph above, from the Brisbane Courier Mail in 1954, is the only picture that I have of my parent's marriage. This is much more than just a picture, as it tells me that my parents' wedding reception was held at a place called Whytecliffe. Since both of my parents died quite young, I would never have known this. Thanks to this newspaper photograph , I have since researched Whytecliffe to discover that it was was a beautiful home which was taken over by the military during the second world war for use as barracks for the WAAAF and then used for wedding receptions after the war had ended.

On my paternal side of the family, it is common knowledge that my great grandfather, John McDade, was killed by a falling branch as he walked through a park on his way home from work. He actually died the next day, after a hospital sent him home declaring him fit and well. But as family lore states, 'well', he was not the next morning. His obituary does not tell this story, however I was fortunate to have a reliable first hand account from my grandfather. From my maternal side of the family, I have no oral accounts of anything, so I have been reliant upon documents such as marriage and death certificates for information. Despite having received from New Zealand, a copy of the death certificate for my 2 time great grandfather, James Berry Hoyes, I had no idea that he, also, had been involved in an unfortunate accident until I searched the New Zealand National Library's digitalised newspaper site On entering the name James Berry Hoyes, I discovered a number of headings, including 'Old Man Killed', Casualties', and 'Fatalities'. The Evening Post, on
December, 24, 1910, reported that James had been fatally struck by a bicycle as he alighted from a tram in Queen Street near Fort Street at 3 pm on that afternoon. The Hawera and Normanby Star reported that James was aged 76 years old and was a resident of Devonport.
This news article also explained that he had succumbed to injuries at 5.30 pm and added that the 'cyclist had 'received a nasty tumble.' The Poverty Bay Herald also ran the story and added the further information that named the cyclist as a Mr Bush and with a more personal touch the journalist from this newspaper reported that James Berry Hoyes was on his way to buy his wife a bonnet for Christmas. Thanks to these newspaper reports, I was able to learn so much more about the sad and untimely death of my great great grandfather.

I had always assumed that the same James Berry Hoyes had immigrated to New Zealand for religious reasons given that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were part of the missionary group, the Albertlanders, however, as I mentioned in a previous story, the London Gazette, provided me with a new motive for the family's move. James Berry Hoyes, a miller from Houghton, Lincolnshire, was declared bankrupt in October of 1862, the year before he left England for the new colony of New Zealand. This news makes me appreciate all the more, the impressive way in which he made such a success of his life in new Zealand

It is often quite seemingly insignificant fragments of information that one finds reported in newspapers that fill in some missing gaps or provide us with a more accurate picture of someone from the past. From a search of the national Library of Australia's Trove website, I have discovered that my 2 times great grandfather, John Gottlieb Nargar [Nerger], who lived in Maryborough, was a keen breeder of finches. He entered his birds in a number of agricultural shows, the results of which were printed in The Queenslander and The Brisbane Courier Mail in the early 1900's. I now have a quite different picture in my mind of my tough, strict, German timber-getter, great great grandfather. He was a gentle nurturer of tiny birds. I see that there was a devoted and caring side of him now. Each, small morsel of information we can gather about our ancestors helps to make them become more real to us.

My Morrison great great great grandparents came to Sydney, Australia in 1878. I knew little of their lives except that they, for some reason relocated to Queensland in the 1900's and died in a town called Cooroy in 1927. They are Pioneers of Cooroy. Since the launch of the National Library's Trove site I have slowly built up a truly amazing story of my 3 times great grandfather, John Morrison from Aberdeen, Scotland. From articles in The Sydney Morning Herald I have ascertained that he was a well respected builder in Sydney, having built a number of impressive projects for architects such as Blackett Bros and others. (The Blackett brothers were the sons of colonial architect Edmund Blackett). Chapter House which adjoins St Andrew's Cathedral was built by John Morrison, builder, of Strathfield. John also built the Strathfield Council Chambers, St Enoch's Presbyterian Church at Newtown, Burwood Presbyterian Church and a large number of villas and homes all around Sydney. Advertisements in the SMH show the whereabouts of his construction sites as do advertisements and tenders for for tradesmen for his projects.

The Sydney Morning Herald also led me to discover that in 1890, John Morrison was contracted by the NSW government to build a large number of rail carriages. I discovered through newspaper articles that he had a large tram and rail carriage building works at Strathfield Station, where the Tafe College now stands. By all accounts, the evidence from newspaper reports showed this man to be a most successful and productive citizen of Sydney. Then, according to advertisements in 1895 in the SMH, John Morrison lost everything he had worked hard to achieve. Large advertisements in the SMH, announced that household goods and carriage works equipment would be sold at auction.
The reason for the sale was reported to have been the cancellation of an order of 180 rail carriages which the NSW government had ordered. Because of this, John Morrison was ruined. Reading the list of furniture and personal items in the newspaper almost brought me to tears. How devastated must my 3 times great grandparents have been to lose their beautiful things. They had two grand pianos, top quality furniture and paintings by renowned artists, jewellery designed by well known jewellers and ladies riding equipment. These advertisements for the auction of the Morrison's personal possessions illustrated the lifestyle they had become accustomed to, living with their 10 children, in the beautiful leafy suburb of Strathfield.

Through the Brisbane Courier Mail, I followed John Morrison's journey to Ipswich, Queensland where it was reported that he acquired the position of foreman in the South Eastern Railway Works. The social pages of the same newspaper reported holidays that the Morrison family members went on, especially several of their daughters who became nurses and one a matron of her own hospital in Cooroy. A delicious little tidbit of gossip such as the following report in the Brisbane Courier Mail, November 30, 1925, which announced that ' Nurse Vinna Morrison (Cooroy Hospital) left by this morning's mail for Sydney and Cobar', sent me on a search for the reason that Vinna would have travelled to Cobar. There I found another Morrison daughter, Inez, also a nurse and a whole new line of family.

The Morrison family deserve an entire blog of their own and so I will leave them for now, except to say that when the NSW State Rail Museum at Thirlemere opens after its huge renovation, in March of 2011, I will be there, with bells on to see several of my 3 times great grandfather's rail carriages, beautifully restored. ( His first carriage unrestored pictured right at Thirlemere).

You don't need to have a builder or a finch collector in the family, to find your ancestors in newspapers. In fact, if your forebears engaged in any criminal activities, you can be certain that they will appear somewhere in a newspaper . I might have believed forever that my Irish convict great great grandfather, Michael Frayne had reformed himself and become a model citizen had he not appeared so frequently in so many newspapers engaging in such wicked acts as to entice a man to his home on the pretence of selling a bed, drugging the fellow and stealing his wallet and money. Michael and his first wife Bridget, appeared so many times in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Maitland Mercury and the Brisbane Courier Mail, with detailed accounts of their wicked escapades, that I was left with no illusions as to the unfortunate character of this particular ancestor (who I must proclaim that I do not resemble in the least!).

My great uncle was hit by a car at the age of seven, in Toowoomba in Queensland. Now in his 90's, he does not recall the incident and but for the newspaper report in 1924, the family would never had known. My maternal grandfather rode a motorbike in the 1920's. I know this because of the number of fines he received for speeding, that were published in the Brisbane Courier Mail. My Irish paternal grandparents were well respected members of the Darling Downs farming community and received a hearty and musical farewell by the townsfolk of Kaimkillenbun in 1920. The article in the Dalby Herald details the recitations and songs that were sung at an afternoon reception in their honour.

The adventures of my great uncle Rex Morley Hoyes, with MI5 and the Nizam of Hyderabad, his illegal gun running and trial for bribery and corruption, not to mention his escapades with Australian pilot Sidney Cotton or WW11 double agent, Eddie Chapman, his home, Marwell Hall once owned by King Henry VIII and huge steam yacht 'Warrior 11', his numerous divorces, name changes and a mysterious title, along with a speed boat with the racy name of 'Miss x' would all have been lost to me, but for the fascinating availability of online searches of digitalised newspapers. Thanks to the London Times, I know the very address where great Uncle Rex conducted his affair in 1933, with Lady Waleran, and the details of the two divorces which followed this pubic disclosure.

Newspapers occupy an irreplaceable place in family history research. The information found in news reports can trace and colour the lives of our ancestors in a way that is beyond the imagination.

'Well, all I know is what I read in the newspapers.' Will Rogers 1879-1935: in the new York Times 1923

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "Back to the Homeplace"
    and "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"