Archives for February 2009

New Zealand BDM Search is now online

The New Zealand Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages has released its online index for historical births deaths and marriages. Records are restricted according to their new privacy provisions to births more than 100 years old, still births more than 50 years old, marriages more than 80 years old, and deaths more than 50 years old where the deceased was born more than 80 years ago.

Once you have found a result that you think might be useful you can order a copy online for NZ$26.00 for records before 1874 and NZ$20.00 for records after 1874. This equates to about $21.00 or $16 Australian. If you are given a choice between a certificate and a computer printout make sure you ask for a computer printout – these are like photocopies and contain more information (and are cheaper!).

Birth results give parents’ given names for easier identification. Marriages can be searched by both parties’ names, although if you search by one name you don’t get the other one in the results list. 

The website is here:

It’s slow at the moment but that may be because so many people are trying it out, like me! Sometimes it gives up and asks you to try again. I’m sure these problems will be resolved in time.

The days of poring over microfiche a year or a few years at a time and then sending a form and waiting a few weeks are over.

Reuniting of Wives and Families of Convicts

The separation of convict husbands from their families was usually a traumatic event for the wives and children left behind. Even in cases where the crime of the husband was such as to justify divorce in modern times, the loss of the breadwinner was a calamity that rendered all other considerations irrelevant. Of course, to the many wives who held genuine affection for their husbands the loss was even more traumatic.

Application of Stephen McCabe for Wife and Family to be given free passage 4 Nov 1849

Application of Stephen McCabe for Wife and Family to be given free passage 4 Nov 1849

Over 2000 convicts formally petitioned the colonial government to have their wives and families sent out from Britain. Not all families came, for a variety of reasons. Some of these long-suffering wives had lost patience and made other arrangements for their support; some came on their own; some emigrated elsewhere; some felt too old to travel; some may have died.

In 1817 formal procedures were gazetted for requesting free passage for wives and families to New South Wales. Proof of the marriage was necessary. A magistrate had to give his approval of the application. The request had to come from the husband to the colonial government; petitions by the wife back in Britain were given the “usual answer”.

In 1833 more rules were introduced. The convict had to have served a minimum number of years “with good conduct” before an application could be considered. A convict with a seven year sentence was required to have served four years; fourteen year sentences needed six years, and life sentences needed eight years. These numbers are similar to the years of service required before a ticket of leave could be granted.

Intercession from an influential master was sometimes successful in subverting these rules, but not always.

Stephen McCabe was sentenced to seven years transportation for aggravated assault in Cavan, Ireland and arrived on the Blenheim on the 27th September 1839. He left behind a wife, a son and four daughters. He received his ticket of leave in 1843 and his certificate of freedom in 1846.

In 1845 a petition to the Governor Sir George Gipps was written on his behalf requesting passage for his wife and family. In the letter he mentions that his wife wrote a letter to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland requesting she be sent out. She received the answer “that the Lord Lieutenant had not the power to send them out unless the Governor of the Colony were [sic] the convict was, recommended the indulgence to be granted”.

On the back is written:

“Inform him that I have no longer the means of procuring Passages for the Wives and Families of Convicts to the Colony. GG June 14”

In 1847 he tried again. An application form (pictured above), dated 4th November 1847, was filled out on his behalf, probably by his employer Mrs Lucy Howell whose signature appears at the bottom attesting to his conduct and means of supporting his family. The form gives his occupation, employer and residence; his wife’s maiden name, present residence and county; and the names and ages of his five children – Mary, 26; Catherine, 23; Margaret, 20; James, 17; Bridget, 14. This application was marked “Eligible and recommended” on 29th November 1847. You can see from the photo that there is quite a bit written diagionally across the back.

In the end it was twelve years after Stephen’s transportation before his wife and family joined him in New South Wales. His wife Margaret, by then aged 40, his daughter Margaret, 20, and son James, 15, arrived on the Success on 18th December 1849. These ages appear to have been rounded down. His elder daughter Mary, 24, arrived on the same ship with her husband Peter McEncroe and their five-year-old daughter Mary.


Although there are indexes to applications for convicts to have their families sent to the Colony they only go up to 1842, and I couldn’t findan application for Stephen in these indexes. Most of the documents I found for Stephen McCabe, other than the standard indents, tickets of leave, and certificate of freedom, were indexed in Joan Reese’s excellent indexes to the correspondence of the Colonial Secretary, namely:

Reese, Joan, Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence Letters Sent re Convicts. 8 microfiche. Balgowlah, NSW: W & F Pascoe, 1996.

Reese, Joan, Index to Convicts and Others Extracted from the Colonial Secretary’s In Letters at the Archives Office of New South Wales. 21 microfiche. Balgowlah, NSW: W & F Pascoe, 1994-2005.

If you are looking for more information about your convict than the standard convict records you can find Joan’s indexes in many libraries and family history society collections.

Source documents:

State Records NSW: Principal Superintendent of Convicts; Printed indents, 1830-42, NRS 12188-90; [X642]. Indent for Blenheim (3) arrived 27 Sep 1839, Reel 908.

State Records NSW: Principal Superintendent of Convicts; Warrants of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, relating to convict vessels from Ireland – the ‘Irish Indents’, 1822-40. NRS 1156. 2 microfilm. Reel 749-750.

State Records NSW: Principal Superintendent of Convicts; Ticket of leave butts, 1827-1875, NRS 12202; Ticket of leave butt for Stephen McCabe per Blenheim 43/2834, [4/4183], Reel 951.

State Records NSW: Principal Superintendent of Convicts; Butts of certificates of freedom, 1827-1867, NRS 12210; Butt for Stephen McCabe per Blenheim 46/842, [4/4405], Reel 1022.

State Records New South Wales; Colonial Secretary: Letters Sent re: Convicts. Letter to Colonial Secretary on behalf of Stephen McCabe per ship Blenheim, dated 14 June 1845. [4/2706], Ref. 45/4382. 

State Records New South Wales; Colonial Secretary: Letters Sent re: Convicts. Application for Wife and Family for Stephen McCabe per ship Blenheim, dated 19 Nov 1847. [4/2762-1], Ref. 47/8260.

State Records New South Wales; Immigration Board, Persons on Bounty Ships to Sydney, Newcastle and Moreton Bay 1848-1891 (Board’s Immigrant Lists) [4/4913-15]. “Success” arrived 18th December 1849, SR Reel 2460.

Other sources for this article:

Perry McIntyre, ‘Restoring Family Ties: Convict Family Reunion in New South Wales 1788-1849’. In Jeff Brownrigg, Cheryl Mongan and Richard Reid (editors), Echoes of Irish Australia: Rebellion to Republic, published by the editors, 2007.

State Records New South Wales; Archives in Brief 34 – Convict Families. Web page

State Records New South Wales, Guide to New South Wales State Archives relating to Convicts and Convict Administration. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2006.

Lots of weather out there!

We’ve had a lot of rain in Sydney in the last few days. It has gone from low-40s heat a week ago to pouring rain and low-20s all this last week. And there’s more to come.

bushfireVictoria has had hot days of such intensity that bushfires have raged for days.The last count I heard was 181 people dead. Thousands of  people are homeless and have lost everything they have.

The rain in Queensland has caused major flooding in so many areas. Houses full of water have been evacuated and, again, many people have lost everything they have, although their waterlogged houses are still standing.

We hear a lot about global warming and how the weather is changing for the worst, but I was curious to know about natural disasters in the time of our ancestors. Has the weather only now turned ugly?


The “Federation Drought” in 1895-1902 was the worst drought in the history of European settlement. Fifty million sheep and five million cattle were wiped out, about half the national stock population. Riverboat traffic, the lifeblood of many inland settlements, dried up; much of it never resumed operations. What little vegetation that remained was eaten by starving livestock, and the topsoil blew away.

There have been many other droughts in the 19th century (from Wikipedia):

  • 1835 and 1838 Sydney and NSW receive 25% less rain than usual. Severe drought in Northam and York areas of Western Australia.
  • 1839 Severe drought in the west and north of Spencer Gulf, South Australia.
  • 1846 Severe drought converted the interior and far north of South Australia into an arid desert.
  • 1849 Sydney received about 27 inches less rain than normal.
  • 1850 Severe drought, with big losses of livestock across inland New South Wales (NSW) and around the western rivers region.
  • 1864 – 66 (and 1868). The little data available indicates that this drought period was rather severe in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.
  • 1877 All States affected by severe drought, with disastrous losses in Queensland. In Western Australia many native trees died, swamps dried up and crops failed.
  • 1880 to 1886 Drought in Victoria (northern areas and Gippsland); New South Wales (mainly northern wheat belt, Northern Tablelands and south coast); Queensland (1881-86, in south-east with breaks – otherwise mainly in coastal areas, the central highlands and central interior in 1883-86); and South Australia (1884-86, mainly in agricultural areas).
  • 1888 Extremely dry in Victoria (northern areas and Gippsland); Tasmania (1887-89 in the south); New South Wales had the driest year since records began; Queensland (1888-89) had a very severe drought, with much native scrub dying and native animals perishing; South Australia had one of its most severe droughts; and Western Australia (central agricultural areas) lost many sheep.

Drought is the mostly likely disaster to hit ancestors on the land, or those who supported them in country towns.


flood1Too much rain is a more common problem. My mother remembers when the Macquarie River took over Macquarie Street in Dubbo in the 1950s.

Here is a selection of Australian floods:

  • 1852 – Gundagai was wiped out by the rising Murrumbidgee River leaving 89 people dead, a third of the population, and only three houses left standing. The town was relocated to higher ground as a result.
  • 1893 – Brisbane broke the previous high flood mark by three metres set in 1890. Edward Street was under 2.5 meters of water.
  • 1916 – Claremont, QLD was hit by the effects of a cyclone in the Whitsundays, leaving 65 dead.
  • 1955 – Hunter Valley, NSW was hit by the torrential rain that flooded every river system in NSW. 24 people died, thousands of homes flooded, many destroyed completely, and 40000 people evacuated when the Hunter River reached 11 metres. Roads, railways and bridges were destroyed.
  • 1974 – Brisbane and south east Queensland were swamped with rain from Cyclone Wanda flooding one third of Brisbane and sweeping away 56 houses completely. 13 people drwoned and 3 suffered fatal heart-attacks during evacuation.
  • 1990 – Nyngan, NSW was inundated when the Bogan River broke its banks from torrential rain further upstream. All 2500 people were evacuated to Dubbo.


Here is a selection from Wikipedia of the deadliest fires in Australia, including this last one:

  • 2009 – February 7, “2009 Victorian bushfires“, Victoria (181 confirmed deaths)
  • 1983 – February 16, “Ash Wednesday“, Victoria, South Australia (75 deaths)
  • 1969 – January 8, Victoria (23 deaths)
  • 1968 – January, New South Wales (14 deaths)
  • 1967 – February 7, “Black Tuesday“, Tasmania (62 deaths)
  • 1962 – January 14-16, Victoria (32 deaths)
  • 1944 – January – February, Victoria (51 deaths)
  • 1939 – December – January, “Black Friday“, Victoria (71 deaths)
  • 1926 – February – March, Victoria (60 deaths)
  • 1898 – February 1 “Red Tuesday“, Victoria (12 deaths)
  • 1851 – February 6 “Black Thursday”, Victoria (12 deaths)

This list does not take into account bushfires that destroyed property but not people. A farmer or grazier has little or no defence against a bushfire that has come from a neighbouring property, then or now. Crops that took months to grow could be wiped out in half a minute. Cattle or sheep, restricted by fences, could be destroyed just as quickly.

What about your ancestors?

Settlers arriving in this country from the lush green countryside of England or Ireland had no conception of the conditions that awaited them here. They bought their 40 acres or 100 acres, built their houses, bought a few cattle, planted their crops, and survived from day to day. All could be wiped out in a day, or a night. People were at the mercy of the weather, then as now.

Were there any natural disasters in the part of the country where your ancestors lived? Did they live near a major river? Or near the tropical cyclone regions? Were they farmers or graziers, did they live in a small town, or even a large one such as Brisbane or Newcastle, or in the Hunter Valley?

Do some research into the local history of the area. Read books on local history from your library, read newspapers on microfilm. Look on Picture Australia for photos of your area – if there was a disaster there should be photos.

Even if you can’t find the names of your ancestors, you can see photos of the time, read accounts from the locals, see what your ancestors read in the paper the next day, or the next week. Try to get a feel for how they got on.


Cannon, Michael, Life in the Country. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1988

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Natural Disasters in Australia. Website., retrieved on 16 Feb 2009.

Wikipedia, Bushfires in Australia. Website.

Wikipedia, Drought in Australia. Website.

Wikipedia, Floods in Australia. Website.

Photos courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved from website

You can make a donation to the Red Cross Victorian Bushfire Appeal here.

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