Newspapers for family history research

Sydney Gazette nla.news-issn18336310-s1-gOne of the best ways to fill in some detail of the lives of our ancestors is to find a mention of them in a newspaper, or, better still, a whole article or obituary. In small country towns such as those in which many of my ancestors lived the death of a prominent local citizen was a newsworthy event for small local newspapers. No-so-prominent citizens may have been included in birth, death and marriage announcements, gossip columns, and legal notices such as for the granting of probate. Even if we can’t find our ancestor or other relatives by name, we can still get a very good idea of what their lives were like.

Current newspapers

For current newspapers try the Guide to Australian Newspapers which has a town search in the top right corner. Entering “Blayney” gave a list of three newspapers that all include Blayney in their coverage, with links to the individual newspapers. Even if your family no longer lives in the area these newspapers can give you an idea of what life is like for the locals and how it may be different from yours. For example, the website of the Blayney Guide has news from the Blayney Chronicle and a link to Sydney for Kids. It is easy to forget that for kids that grow up in the country a trip to Sydney is a big deal, as it was for me when I was growing up in Dubbo. A newspaper story discusses locks being put on another of Blayney Shire Council’s bores to stop people from stealing the water, and another gives the finding that residents of western NSW are more likely “to be overweight, binge drink, and smoke” than in the rest of the State (Blayney Chronicle, 31st May 2007, 11:10am).

Old newspapers

For historical newspapers that may no longer be published you can search in the catalogue of the State Library of NSW (or the National Library of Australia or your State library in other states). The National Plan for Australian Newspapers is a joint project between the National and State Libraries to locate, collect and preserve every newspaper published in Australia. Searching in the catalogue of the SLNSW shows me what is actually immediately available to me (with a delay of 20-30 mins) in the library itself. A keyword search for Periodicals Only for “Blayney” gives a list of 18 results which are either newspapers or council reports and publications. The dates for available issues are given and whether they have been microfilmed or kept in offsite storage. Once you have found the paper and the date that you want you request the microfilm at the Library, wait a short while for it to be retrieved, stick it on one of the microfilm readers with the larger screen, find the page you want, and print it off. Couldn’t be simpler.

Australian Periodical Publications 1840-1845 is an Australian Co-operative Digitisation Project that has digitised and made available online periodicals that began publication in 1840-1845 relevant to Australia. They may have been published beyond these dates. Pages have been scanned and made available as multi-page PDF files. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) does not appear to have been used to enable indexing and searching of names and other words. The free software Adobe Reader is required to read them. Even if you can’t find mention of your ancestors’ names in these publications there is a wealth of more general material that can give you an idea of what life was like for them.

An example, chosen at random, is the first issue of the South Australian Colonist, which began publication in London in 1840, which gives a copy of the commission of, and detailed instructions to, the first Land and Emigration Commissioners to enable them to sell “waste Crown land” and use the proceeds to bring emigrants out of England to settle in the British Colonies; first-hand accounts of immigrants and settlers and instructions for new or prospective settlers; and a report of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, all in the first six pages! The last page contains advertisements for ships about to sail to Australia, land available for purchase, and other necessary equipment such as iron bedsteads that folded up and attached to the chest for travel (presumably it attached to one’s luggage, not to one’s person!).

Early Sydney newspapers

Of course, the early papers of New South Wales were begun before these dates. The first Australian newspaper was the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. The first issue has been digitised by the State Library of NSW and can be seen here. Further issues up to 1842 are available in Mitchell Library on microfilm. The Sydney Morning Herald, which followed after 1842, is available on microfilm at the State Reference Library of the State Library of NSW from the first issue in August 1842 up to three months ago, with more recent paper issues available on request.

A brief history of newspapers in Australia can be seen at the Australian Government’s Culture and Recreation Portal here, and another one, from the National Library of Australia, here.

Yellowed cuttings from newspapers are often found in scrapbooks or loose among the old photographs with no note of which paper they came from or on what date. It is very satisfying, to me anyway, to have a photocopy of the relevant page in a newspaper that shows the name and date of the newspaper as well as the small portion that was cut out in which my ancester was mentioned.

Further information, including available indexes, can be found in Cora Num’s excellent Websites for Genealogists.

Further reading

Vine Hall, N. Tracing Your Family in New South Wales, 5th Edition, Adelaide: Gould Genealogy, 2006.

As well as the chapter in this book on newspapers I suggest following the many links to websites inserted through the text.

Five essential websites for NSW genealogy

Today I want to discuss websites that I find to be essential for researching family history in New South Wales. Genealogy has come a very long way in the last few years, with so many government repositories and others putting indexes, and even images of the actual records, online. Here are the websites that I use most often.

1. NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages Historical Index Search is a necessary first step for anyone starting on their family history. Starting with the people you know – your parents and their parents, you can then start putting the meat on the bones – the hard evidence of birth, death, and marriage registrations. The index allows searching for births from 1788 to 1906 by name and/or parents’ names; deaths from 1788 to 1976 by name or parents’ names; and marriages from 1788 to 1956 by either or both parties’ names. The upper search limit increases each year by one year. Once an entry is found the certificate can be ordered and paid for online. Current cost for a certificate is $25.00.

2. NSW State Records was previously names the Archives Office of NSW. Their indexes online has many useful indexes including some censuses; Colonial Secretary Correspondence; Convicts; Court, Police and Prison records such as civil and criminal cases, divorces, gaol photographs, police service records, and some early probate records; Deceased Estate files of the Stamp Duties Office; Education and Child Welfare; Immigration and Shipping; Indigenous Australians; Insolvencies; Land records and Naturalization. Additional records and series are added to as indexing progresses. The Convict and Immigration indexes are essential resources for finding out how your ancestor arrived in Australia. Some indexes are held on the websites of other organisations.

3. Society of Australian Genealogists is based in Sydney and is a marvelous resource for Australian research and NSW research in particular. Their research guides are enormously helpful – factual and very informative. Online databases include Convicts’ Tickets of Leave, Electoral districts for Sydney Streets, Soldiers and Marines from 1787 to 1830, and NSW Ships Musters 1816-1825. The catalogue shows what resources are available when you visit the library and is being added to all the time.

4. State Library of NSW has many resources that are also available in other repositories such as State Records NSW. I always check their catalogue to see if it is worthwhile to visit for records on microfilm or microfiche, both Australian and from the UK. They also have some records for other states. Mitchell Library and the William Dixson Library in particular specialise in Australian and New Zealand books and manuscripts. The State Library also has a vast collection of maps and plans, pictures, photographs and newspapers.

5. NSW Department of Lands is not an immediately obvious source for family history, and it does allow some limited property searches here. What I use it for most often is its Historical Parish Maps, which can be viewed in small sections from here. It may be useful before doing a map search to find the correct parish using the search at the Geographical Names Board. All the existing parish maps that have been superceded by more recent versions have been digitised and put online. Towns are included to the street level, and portions of land have the names of the original purchaser. Hours can be spent looking at these maps. CDs of the maps are also available from the Department.

6. I know I said there would be five websites, but I think the State Records NSW website must be mentioned again apart from its online indexes. This is the place to find out whether the records you want actually exist and have been archived. As the progressive indexing of their holding continues more and more records can be found by searching in Archives Investigator, their catalogue search facility. For example, probate files can be found by searching for the name and the word “death” as keywords (and using “All Words” not “Exact Phrase”). Their Archives in Brief series are very useful guides to the records they hold and are available online or in hardcopy in State Records Reading Rooms.

These are the NSW sites that I use most often in my research for myself and others. I would be very interested to hear from others if they disagree with anything on my list, or have others they would like to share.