When you are writing up your family history, don’t forget the weather.

Sydney is suffering today from a few days of hot weather. We are always shocked when it gets hot like this, with the north-westerly wind straight from the desert, and we hide inside with our air-conditioners. At least, that’s what I do.

Our reliance on domestic air-conditioning has developed during my life time. Where I grew up, in Dubbo in central western New South Wales, we got days like this quite frequently in summer. It’s a dry heat, with little humidity. We had an evaporative air-cooler, which was an air-conditioner-shaped box on a stand with wheels that you filled up with water and turned it on. It would blow air, cooled by the water, in the direction you pointed it.

In the evenings, when the sun was low but still quite bright, we would go outside and sit in the shade, much cooler than inside the house. Any slight breeze was made the most of out there. But of course the cooking still had to be done inside, on the stove or in the oven, heating the kitchen, at least, even more.

I went to a high school that was growing faster than the buildings to contain it. We had two demountable classrooms, which were spare classrooms that could be trucked in in pieces and put together onsite quickly. They had a metal roof and were like ovens in summer. We hated them. A class in one of those rooms was torture. I believe those classrooms are still there, in the same place on the edge of the oval, with air-conditioning in them, with more recently erected classrooms alongside.

Christmas Day was spent cooking a large hot meal with roast chicken and vegetables and plum pudding. Chickens were expensive in those days, without battery hen houses, and turkeys even more so. We always had a box of cherries that my grandfather would buy on his annual trip to Sydney. As a special treat we might have bottles of soft drink with dinner. After dinner we would go somewhere and sit, or lie, as still as possible.

Imagine, then, what it was like for our ancestors! What a shock this heat must have been, for those new immigrants!

The clothes of the eighteenth century did not leave any skin bare except for the hands and perhaps the forearms, so they would have been hot, even though they were made of natural materials. They didn’t just wear them once and toss them in the laundry basket, either, as we do. Water wasn’t on tap, for washing clothes, or people, or anything else, but brought by bucket from a dam or river. Kids didn’t play under the hose when it was hot, as we did.

Work had to be done whatever the weather, then as now. Offices weren’t air-conditioned, and I imagine the clerks with their beautiful handwriting in their shirtsleeves on days like today, trying not to get sweat on the big registers we look at now in the archives. The paper was thicker, and I guess it could withstand a bit of moisture!

Farming was mostly small holdings, with little money for livestock, let alone air-conditioned trucks and farm machinery. Farmers are tougher than most of us even now, in their shirtsleeves and hats, out in the fields mending fences, ploughing, harvesting, hay-baling… there is always a long list of jobs a farmer has to do.

Admittedly, they did build houses more practically in those days. Houses had high ceilings and many were of double brick. Farm houses had verandahs all around. But the corrugated iron roof was cheaper than tiles, and it’s incredibly hot to live under. Early houses were mud brick and thatch or corrugated iron.

We talk about global warming and so we may assume that the weather was different in  our ancestors’ day than it is now, but look at any newspaper of the period and you can see that generally it was much the same. Perhaps it rained more but that goes in cycles. They had drought, fires, floods, too much rain, not enough rain, and days that were just too hot to bear.

Just like us.

What to do

  • Ask your parents what the weather was like for them when they were young. Did it get hot like this? What did they do to keep cool?
  • Ask your grandparents and their generation the same questions.
  • Look through local newspapers from this time of year. You may see stories about record temperatures, bushfires, dam water levels – similar stories to those we see today.
  • look at climate statistics for your local area at the Bureau of Meteorology. Look at the average monthly temperature and rainfall and imagine what that meant for day-to-day living.
  • Put on a long, high-necked dress and go shopping! (just kidding)

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.

Where will you be for Christmas?

Christmas is a time for getting together with family and eating and drinking and sharing presents. Sometimes I dread the big family Christmas because family members don’t always get on, and perhaps you do too.

It can also be a good time to find out more about your family and getting them interested in the research you are doing. Don’t waste such an opportunity!

Look around

This year we will be gathering in Orange at my mother’s house for a few days. My mother grew up in Blayney, which is not far from Orange, and so we are planning a bit of a family history tour. The teenagers of the family will be able to see where their Gran lived and went to school, and may get their first experience at cemetery searching if they are lucky. The Millthorpe Museum is known to contain portraits of my g-g-grandparents William and Elizabeth Grace Goode, so I hope it’s open!

My cousin Peter has knowledge passed down from our uncles about where our g-g-grandfather Richard Eason’s first mud house was built. Richard arrived in the Colony of New South Wales as a 20-year-old in 1850 and settled in this area after first spending some time with an uncle in Maitalnd. I have found this first 40 acres of land on the NSW Lands Department parish maps and Google Maps and I’m hoping that it agrees with Peter’s information. We can then go on to find the land that he subsequently purchased and passed on to his sons.

Even if we can’t find the exact pieces of land it is important to get a feel for the place where your ancestors live. I live in Sydney and I grew up in Dubbo, so I am not familiar with Blayney, the place where my mother, and two generations before her, were born and grew up. Towns get bigger over time but the countryside doesn’t change much and some of the old buildings are still there.

Share stories

I am hoping to get my mother and her brother talking about their childhoods and what they remember of their grandparents and aunts and uncles. Do they have any stories that their parents or grandparents told them? My mother usually “can’t remember” when I ask her on her own, so I am hoping that with her older brother and sister-in-law there they may spur each other on. My sister and cousin also were told stories by our grandmother which I am hoping they will share with all of us. I may have to take a recorder, since I don’t take shorthand!

Sarah, Margaret and baby Amy, circa 1898, probably in Wagga or Albury, NSW

Sarah, Margaret and baby Amy, circa 1898, probably in Wagga or Albury, NSW

I will also tell them what I know from what I’ve discovered through the records. My direct g-g-grandmother through the female line, Margaret, arrived in Auckland, New Zealand as a four-year-old with her family, including a new step-mother, from Scotland. Auckland was just a village next to the water in 1842 and she grew up with the town. I have a photo taken of her with her daughter Sarah and Sarah’s first daughter Amy, my grandmother. For such a photo to have been possible either Margaret had to travel to Australia or Sarah had to have taken the baby back to New Zealand. What a life she must have had!

Show pictures

I have collected a lot of photos of some of my ancestors over the years. I will take my laptop with me, which contains all my research and the photos and documents that I have scanned over the years. The laptop can be plugged in to a reasonably recent TV to show photos that everyone can see at once. I will also take my scanner with me in case anyone has photos or documents that I don’t have.

I have also started searching for old photos of places where my ancestors lived. Do a search on Picture Australia, the website of the National Library of Australia devoted to images of Australia’s past, which includes photographs, objects, maps, and works of art. Typing “Blayney” into the search screen gives 140 results showing photos past and present from many different sources including the State Library of NSW, National Archives of Australia, Flickr, and others. I’ve found the cafe in Melbourne where my parents lived when I was a baby using this site, and I found it that it burned down. Try it out!

When you get together with your family this year try to make it a more meaningful experience for everyone by including your ancestors!

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