Sunday, July 29, 2012

Local History and Genealogy

Local History and Genealogy

An old map of Sydney showing the original Commons, including my own area which was once part of The Field of Mars Common.

Local history is the story of a neighbourhood or a  community and the people who lived there. It is also the evidence which links people to the larger world. Local history is a reminder that history begins at home. Understanding the places in which our ancestors lived provides us with extraordinary insight into the way in which they lived and enriches our understanding of the many and varied folk who make up our ancestry.  Most places we research have local history or family history societies or centres which have accumulated a wealth of local information to draw upon, from oral anecdotes and personal stories to photographs, cemetery transcriptions, parish registers, land records including valuations, maps and many more valuable local records. Knowledge of local history can place our forebears into a geographical, economic, religious and social context. Local history plays an valuable role in family history research.  It provides evidence of the type of geographical countryside  which our ancestors inhabited. It informs us as to whether they lived in rural or agricultural regions, ports, in country towns or in cities. From local history we can discover how our ancestors worked, where they married, what type of home they lived in, as well as topographical evidence of surname origins. Through the study of local history, we can understand our ancestors and their environment. It is this type of broader understanding which provides us with a much closer perspective of our ancestors' lives  and which puts the meat on the bare bones of our family history research. Local history makes family history more than just a family tree.

The study of local history has its origins in the antiquarian writings of the past, which were for the most part, topographical descriptions, largely affiliated with the study of heraldry and genealogy. The works of early 'local historians' are of significant value today to historians and especially to family historians, for without local history... the larger pattern could never be completed. [V.Hicken "The Continuing Significance of Local History] In my own family history research in Northumberland, England, I have drawn upon the writings of Bede, in his well known Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People which he completed in around 731. and which is a most excellent source of reference regarding the topography and the people of ancient Northumbria. 

Bede, the father of English History and local historian. Image Wikipedia Creative Commons

Maps, and especially old maps, afford us clues as to where our ancestors lived and significantly, where  to search for records. Old local maps, may be helpful in finding the place where an ancestor lived if the place name has changed. Studying maps of the locality in which our ancestors lived can tell us much about how they lived. Details such as the locale of a river or bridge or a dense wood, could indicate whether an ancestor travelled by foot or perhaps by water from place to place, or might suggest something about the recreational activities of an ancestor, for example,  hunting or fishing.  Old maps sometimes note precise details about the locality in which forebears lived, and if you are especially fortunate, as I have been, may detail the outline of the actual home your ancestor lived in. Local history centres and libraries hold old gazetteers, maps and other topographical records which may be of assistance in your research.

An old map showing the location of my great grandparents' flax farm and house in Brookend, Co. Tyrone, Courtesy Pat Quin

Many Libraries today have a Local History Collection. which may be accessed by members of the public. Usually this collection of local resources is for reference, however, some books may be available for borrowing. Most libraries have a Local Studies Officer to help you with your research. Below is an example of the local resources offered by my own Shire Library:
  • Books covering a range of local topics.
  • Newspapers, periodicals and newspapers published locally.
  • Pamphlet files on a number of subjects, containing clippings from local newspapers, brochures, and other material.

  • Maps and plans on a miscellaneous range of subjects, including local subdivisions, early parish maps, and local projects.
  • Council reports on environmental, planning and administration issues from all sections of [the] Library Council.
  • Archives, including annual reports, newsletters, minutes,and letters donated by local organisations such as schools, sporting clubs, and community associations.
  • Microfilm resources including local newspapers, Council Rate Books, phone books, and the Sands Street Directory going back a century.
  • Street and Place Name Database which gives historical origins of local streets and localities in the Shire.
  • Photographs and prints of locations around the Shire,..... which show how the area has changed over time.
  • The Library also provides a Family History Reference Collection which is adjacent to the Local Studies Reading Room. This Collection includes handbooks, reference works, and historical records on CD-ROM, microfiche, and microfilm. 

Council Rate Book on Microfilm, Image Sharn White

There are numerous Local History resources available to assist in the search for family history. The following CoraWeb website provides many valuable links to Australian Local History resources.

Queensland Post Office Guide. Image Sharn White

For UK Local History resources, there are more than 150 links to helpful websites at Local History Online.

Websites such as and offer subscriptions to collections of local records including, gazetteers, probate and land records, parish records, electoral rolls, directories, almanacs and maps. 

Researching Local History, in the places where my own ancestors came from or migrated to, has not only allowed me  to understand the social and cultural context of their lives but more significantly it has enabled me to build  picture of them as 'real' people/ Local History has opened a window to the past. from a visit  the Toowoomba Local History Library, in South east Queensland, I learned that my great great grandfather, Gottlieb Nerger donated 1 Pound in 1961, towards the building of the first Lutheran Church in Toowoomba. By comparing this amount to other local donations, I could ascertain that he was faring quite well as a farmer in Drayton after arriving from Prussia in 1852 on board the Caesar Godeffroy. 

Toowoomba Local History Library. 

On a trip to Cooroy, I visited the local history centre in the new Cooroy Library. There I discovered a  photograph of not only the private hospital which my Morrison family had owned and operated, which no longer exists, but I was thrilled to find that two of my great aunts were pictured standing on the verandah of the old hospital. No current family member had ever seen this photograph. Another picture showed the exact location of the hospital in the town amongst the neighbouring buildings. 

My great Aunts on the verandah of their private hospital in Cooroy.

Although I had visited the Cooroy Butter Factory, which my great great grandfather John Morrison was a part owner of,  (the brick building pictured bottom below) it was at a local history museum in Pomona, a neighbouring town of Cooroy in Queensland, that I discovered a photograph of the original Butter Factory which would have been the actual building at the time he lived in Cooroy. I was unaware that this building had burned to the ground and been rebuilt. 

The original Cooroy Butter Factory 

The Cooroy Butter Factory today, now an Arts centre.

With the assistance of the Centenary Historical Society in Brisbane, I learned that the first ever attempt to fly a light aircraft took place on the land which became my great grandfather's farm at Seventeen Mile Rocks. A plaque in honour of this flight has been placed on the land which belonged to my family recently. But for this independently collected and conserved local history, I would not have known that my great grandfather, Hugh Eston White from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland had owned this particular piece of land. Further to this information, I learned that he had purchased a significant number of  parcels of farming land at what is now known as the suburb of Jindalee in Brisbane, (the suburb in which I grew up) and this knowledge has allowed me to understand that he was not merely a farmer, but he was a considerably a well to do Gentleman farmer. I have been able to place my ancestor into a realistic social context.  

Hugh Eston White and his wife Sarah (Thompson) at Carrig-Na-Gule Seventeen Mile Rocks
The individual and personal histories of our ancestors are inherently local histories, however, collectively, their historical  impact is of national and world significance. For family historians, local history adds immeasurable depth to the stories of our forebears. 


  1. Gotta love local history and libraries. Thanks, Sharn, for presenting such a well illustrated post.

  2. Here Here...thanks for a great post Sharn.

  3. Oh dear too much Olympics is making me tired - of course it should be Hear Hear!

  4. Great post Sharn. I love local history societies. Have you done the local and community histories unit? You would love it. I'm doing it this session and loving it.

  5. Local history is such an important part of placing our families in their social context. Thanks for a great post.

  6. Thanks for sharing information on FamilyHistory4u, i have visited your blog great post............

    detailing toowoomba

  7. Hey !!! Thanks for sharing very important information on this blog, i have visited your blog really you give us great information....!!!!

    truck detailing toowoomba