World War I medals for an ordinary soldier

I have previously written about the service file Douglas James Stewart (1899-1918), downloaded from the National Archives of Australia’s website. The file is 61 pages long, and I was unable to do it justice in a single post.

Douglas died on 8th August 1918. In 1920 his father James Simpson Stewart apparently had a question for the Department of Defence:

Memorandum 6 Feb 1920

What medals was Douglas entitled to? A copy of the answer is on the file:

The Victory Medal and the General Service Medal. The Victory Medal, at least was sent a couple of years later, and James signed and returned the acknowledgement of receipt:

James had also been sent the Memorial Plaque six months earlier:

James had a couple of questions after it had arrived:

In the reply he was told that the correct dates of the Great War were 1914-1918, and the plaque’s materials and emblems were described in detail:

The service record shows all of the medals and plaques Douglas was issued:

I wish I knew more about these medals and plaques – what they looked like, what they feel like in the hand. I just can’t imagine how Douglas’ parents felt when they received them in the mail back in Holbrook, NSW. Proud, perhaps.

Of course, four or five years had passed by the time they arrived. The surviving soldiers had returned, and life had gone back to normal, so perhaps each time one of these things arrived the devastation returned.

This post was originally published in December 2010 in my old blog ‘Genealogy in New South Wales’.

When you can’t find the birth, death or marriage in the indexes

 

This post was first published here in March 2008. I think it bears repeating, with some minor updates.

© Phil Date | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The New South Wales Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages has a marvellous online index for searching for these events at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=births. It allows searching by surname, given name, year or range of years, and/or district. For births and deaths it also allows searching by parents’ names, and for marriages by spouses’ name. It allows many fields to be left blank. It contains records from before civil registration began in 1856 because the Registry has transcribed the majority of parish registers to include pre-1856 events as well as post-1856 events that were recorded in parish registers but were not reported to the Registrar.

Many Australian States have their own online indexes, and most of these records are available on Ancestry, with much broader search capabilities.

Sometimes, though, no matter how long you search, you simply cannot find the entry you are looking for. Nick Vine Hall’s Tracing Your Family History in Australia – A National Guide to Sources gives an excellent list of possible reasons for not finding your ancestor in the parish registers that I think bears repeating here, as it applies more generally to all index searches.

  1. The index entry is spelled differently than you expect. Phonetic variations were quite common, such as HAWKINS/ORKINS or ANDERSON/HENDERSON, and your ancestor may not have been able to read well enough to detect a spelling mistake.
  2. The index entry was transcribed incorrectly, or the index is not in strict alphabetic sequence. Many handwritten indexes are by the first letter of surnames only.
  3. Handwriting is misinterpreted through inexperience or illegible handwriting.
  4. The index entry was overlooked by the indexer. Marriages may have been indexed under one party’s surname only.
  5. The event took place in a different parish, colony, state or country than the one you are searching.
  6. The event never took place. Not all children were baptised, not all burials were conducted by clergy, and not all parents were married.
  7. The event took place in a different time period than the one you are searching. People lied about their ages at marriage, so you may be looking too late.
  8. The clergyman forgot to write up the event in the register when he returned from his journey around the parish on horseback. Notes were lost or distorted.
  9. The event was never registered. Early Catholic and Methodist burials were not recorded, and in remote districts the mourners could not wait until the parson happened to pass by.
  10. The event was recorded in the church register but was not sent to the government.
  11. The event was unrecorded. Sometimes the deceased could not be identified.
  12. The event was recorded at the time, but the record was lost through fire, flood or insect attack. There are a few cases of deliberate destruction of parish registers, such as pages being torn out, possibly to obliterate evidence of convict ancestry.
  13. The child was born out of wedlock, in which case the baptism will be recorded, and indexed, under the mother’s name.
  14. The child may have subsequently been adopted, and so the birth name will be different.
  15. The person may have changed their name after birth or baptism.
  16. The family was not religious and didn’t attend church.
  17. The family held a different religion to the one you thought they did.
  18. The names are recorded differently than you expect. The father might answer to Harry but his real name, as given to the registrar, was Thomas Harold. If you search using “Harry” you will get no result.

If you have followed up, as best you can, all of these possibilities and still can’t find the event in any of the likely indexes then it is time to consider other sources, such as newspapers and family bibles.

Source: Nick Vine Hall, Tracing Your Family History in Australia – A National Guide to Sources, 3rd Edition. Mount Eliza, Victoria: Nick Vine Hall, 2002.

Photo: © Phil Date | Dreamstime Stock Photos

14 sources of death information

NSW Death 1873/3798

I was inspired recently by William Dollarhide’s article (reproduced here) giving a checklist of documents to be acquired for the death of every one of your ancestors and their siblings and children. William is American and his list is necessarily American in focus, so I thought I would write one for Australians and New Zealanders.

  1. Death Registration – a death certificate should always be obtained if the death occurred after civil registration was introduced in the colony (see dates below). The information varies from state to state, and may not have been filled in even if requested. Bear in mind that the information has been provided by someone other than the deceased, and that the more distant the relationship the less reliable the information is. In general, though, a death certificate may be the most useful document you can find about your ancestor, containing parents, children, birthplace and time in the colony.
  2. Church burial - if your ancestor died before civil registration was introduced then the church record of burial is all you will be able to find. Even if you have the death certificate it is worthwhile to find the entry in the burial register, as their may be more information listed than was required by civil registration, particularly in small communities where the minister was likely to have known the deceased personally. If you don’t know what religion they were, find out; it will be useful when looking for the grave, particularly in a large cemetery.
  3. Funeral director’s register – these are not always available or easy to find but may pay you for your perseverance, especially if you haven’t found the more obvious records. Some societies have indexed these or copied them on microfilm. It’s worth asking.
  4. Headstone – the grave in the cemetery can tell you so much. Information on a headstone can tell you where they were born, when they arrived in the colony, who was buried with them, who their spouse and children were. Look at the graves around your ancestor’s grave; there may be other family members you didn’t know about buried nearby. If indexed then check for all others with the same surname or that of the spouse or married daughters. Bear in mind, though, that the information on a headstone has been provided by the family to the funeral director who then may have passed it on to the stonemason’s office, who then passed it to the stone mason. There  is a lot of room for errors. The headstone may also have been raised by descendants many years after the death, or only when younger descendants were buried in the same grave. Even so, it’s something to go on that can be corroborated by other sources. The headstone may be indexed and even photographed by a local family history society or volunteer.
  5. Cemetery register – the cemetery register can tell you where in the cemetery the grave is located, which can be enormously helpful for large cemeteries. In cases where no headstone was erected the cemetery register may be your only proof that your ancestor is buried in that cemetery. The family may not have been able to afford a headstone, particularly if the father of the family died relatively young.
  6. Obituary or death notice – a notice of the death may appear in the local paper. An obituary will only appear if the deceased was notable in some way in the town or district, and a death notice will only appear if the family put one in. There may be both. Don’t just rely on Trove to find the notice, as many local newspapers have not yet been digitised. Most local newspapers have been microfilmed but complete runs may not be available. The Ryerson Index is a good place to start.
  7. Funeral notice – the funeral notice is usually separate from the death notice and advises friends and relatives where the funeral is to take place. These are not common in local papers that were only published two or three times a week, as it was impossible to give enough notice of a funeral before publication. The funeral notices may appear on the same page as the death notices so make sure you look for both. Funeral notices can also be given more than once, as family and  organisations your ancestor belonged to, such as unions or clubs, may have paid for separate notices.
  8. Death noticesNewspaper article about death – if your ancestor died in unusual circumstances or was well-known in the district there may be a news article in the local paper about the death. Be prepared for graphic detail that may be upsetting.
  9. Probate or intestate estate – probate (proving the will) or intestate estate files can give much information. If there was a will it should be in the file, along with the date that probate was granted. The executors may have been family members, perhaps even siblings you knew nothing about. Sometimes the death certificate and newspaper death notice will be in the file.
  10. Deceased estate (death duties) if death duties were payable at the time of your ancestor’s death it is worthwhile to find the file and see what assets they had. Sometimes assets are listed in some detail, down to the cost of furniture and pictures on the walls, and references to land and property that can be used to find titles and parish maps. There may also be declarations from relatives about their ability to pay the death duty on behalf of the deceased, so you can find out a lot about the economic circumstances of siblings and children.
  11. Inquest – again, if you ancestor died in unusual circumstances there may have been an inquest. The death certificate will usually indicate whether an inquest was held or dispensed with. The file may not have survived but the entry in the inquest register may. The file may have nothing more than a verdict, or it may contain graphic descriptions and transcriptions of evidence, and large glossy photographs of the scene of the crime or accident, so be prepared. The inquest may also have been reported in the local newspaper, and often much more detail is available in the newspaper article than in the inquest register.
  12. Military service file – if your ancestor died in military service the file may be able to tell you more. The National Archives of Australia holds military service files and are digitising them and making them available online as fast as they can. All Word War I files are available, and they are working their way through World War II. If your ancestor’s file is not yet digitised you can pay to have it done early (currently $16.50, or more if you want them to send you colour copies). Other wars are also represented.
  13. Broken Hill Miners' MemorialMemorials – every town has a war memorial, listing sons and daughters of the town that gave their lives in wars and conflicts. It can be very moving to find your ancestor’s name on a memorial. There are other memorials to look out for, for example, Broken Hill has a Miner’s Memorial (see this panoramic display) listing names and causes of death by year. In addition, some cemeteries now have a Children’s Memorial, when parents can pay tribute to the children they’ve lost.
  14. Hospitals and asylums – not all hospital records have survived, and not all surviving records are on open access, but if you can find them you might find out more about the cause of death and the last days of your ancestor. You may also find information you didn’t expect. In South Australia the admission registers of the Royal Adelaide Hospital recorded age, residence and ship of arrival, which may be just the breakthrough you need to distinguish your ancestor from others of the same name.

Look for records in all of these places. They may not always exist, but you won’t know if you don’t look, and you won’t know what’s in them if you don’t try to find them. I can’t guarantee that you will find something useful in all of these sources, or even that you will find all of these sources. The more information you can find, the more likely you could make that breakthrough you’ve been looking for.

Even if you don’t find anything you didn’t already know, you will have the confidence that comes from finding confirmation in a number of sources that what you have is correct. That’s what family history is all about.

Headstone

Dates for civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Australasian colonies:
ACT – 1 Jan 1930 (see NSW to 1929)

NSW – 1 Mar 1856

NT – 24 Aug 1870 (see NSW to 1863; see SA to 1870)

QLD – 1 Mar 1856 (as part of NSW)

SA – 1 Jun 1842

TAS – 1 Dec 1838

VIC – 1 Jul 1853

WA – 1 Sep 1841

NZ – 1 Jan 1848 (births and deaths); 1 Jan 1854 (marriages)

 

How to search for probate files at State Records NSW

SRNSW Western Sydney Records CentreProbate is the process of proving that a will left by a deceased person is genuine. Probate files are created by the NSW Supreme Court (or equivalent in other States) and transferred gradually to State Records NSW. They are more commonly called ‘probate packets’, since all the documents are folded in three into an envelope.

Probate packets can contain all sorts of goodies, including a copy of the will, an inventory of assets, affidavits from family members, and sometimes a copy of the death certificate and newspaper notices. Intestate Estate files can also be found, where the deceased did not leave a will.

State Records NSW holds probate packets up to the 1980s, but to find the reference involves searching the index on microfiche created by the NSW Supreme Court.  State Records NSW has been gradually adding each packet to it online catalogue, Archives Investigator, so that we can search from home.

Now and Then, the State Records NSW newsletter, describes the packets that have been listed so far and how to find them, and I can do no better than to quote the article here (updated September 2014).

More probate packets listed in Archives Investigator Over 300 000 individual (NRS 13660) Probate Packets are available in Archives Investigator! Listed so far are:

•             Series 1: April 1817 to c. May 1873

•             Series 2: 1873 to 1876

•             Series 3: 1876 to c.1890

•             The years 1928-1976 from Series 4 – Series 4-152150 to Series 4-828673. Part of 1989 has also been listed.

To check if the details of your ancestor’s Probate Packet is now available online just go to Archives Investigator – Simple Search, key in the name of your ancestor followed by the word ‘death’ and click on the ‘Search’ button. If you locate a relevant result you then have the option to order a photocopy of the probate or preorder the probate packet to view in person at the Western Sydney Records Centre (WSRC). A more comprehensive explanation can be found here.

Search for your elusive ancestor today http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/

Do a search for all your New South Wales ancestors, male and female, and plan a trip out to the Western Sydney Records Centre (WSRC) at Kingswood. Take your digital camera, or use the camera setup they have. Be prepared to pay for photocopies if you can’t deal with the folded up pages. You won’t regret it!

Retrieval orders for probate packets are only sent at certain times of the day, so you can save time by pre-ordering up to four packets a day or two before your visit, to be waiting for you when you arrive.

Where did my convict die?

Most convicts lived to finish their sentences or obtain their conditional pardons and continued to live long and productive lives. Some didn’t live productive lives, and some didn’t survive to finish their sentences.

The Register of Convict Deaths lists convicts who were known to have died whilst still serving their sentence.State Records NSW: Chief Superintendent of Convicts; Convict Death Register. NRS 12213, SR Reel 690. It is available on Ancestry.

Many of these deaths do not appear in the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages online indexes. The pre-1856 records held by the Registry were collected from parish registers from around the colony, and so the conclusion has to be made that the convict who died was not given a Christian burial.

Convict Death Register

Perhaps the settler wrote to inform the Superintendent of Convicts that the convict had died and the means of death, and it is worth searching the indexes to the Colonial Secretary’s correspondence to see if such a letter was sent. He may have written to the Chief Superintendent of Convicts, but this correspondence has not survived.

Timothy Baverstock was a blacksmith and carpenter transported in 1832 and arriving in February 1833. According to the Convict Death Register he was assigned to a Mr Cobb at Hunter River and died the same year. You may be able to read his entry in the register above – he is about 3/4 of the way down the left hand page. You may also be able to see that his is the only entry that does not give a full date of death – just the year.

To see if Mr Cobb had written a letter to report the death I searched for correspondence to the Colonial Secretary. There is a name index prepared by Joan Reece over many years on microfiche. With great satisfaction I found the name Timothy Bavenstock for 1833, and I filled out the request form to inspect the letter. I was expecting a short note to explain that the convict had died, and perhaps a request for another one to replace him.

ColSecCorr 33-5055

I was quite surprised when it arrived to see a four-page document quite closely written in the left margin of the first page. The letter was not from Mr Cobb of Hunter River, as I had expected, but the Principal Superintendent of Convicts, complaining to the Colonial Secretary that assignees do not report the deaths of the convicts assigned to them.

ColSecCorr 33-5055 p3 detail

Timothy Baverstock is only mentioned because the Principal Superintendent used him as an example of  a convict whose death he would have remained ignorant except that the assignee, Mr Cobb, applied to be assigned another convict.

The letter reads in full:

I beg leave again to bring under the notice of the Government the fact of my being seldom apprized of the death of Convicts in the interior by Assignees; and to suggest the propriety should His Excellency the Governor approve of directing public attention to this matter thr[ough] the medium of the Official Gazette.

As cases in point, I beg leave to mentionthat it was only yesterday in looking over a file of applications in the Office of the Assignment Branch, I discovered the death of the two Convicts named in the margin hereof.

[in the margin] Timothy Baverstock 33/376 Camden 2, Carpenter & Wheelwright Complete

Job Nobbs 32/461 Isabella 4, Shoemaker Complete

The first named was assigned to Mr Cobb of Hunter River, and according to that Gentleman’s statement died the day after his arrival on the farm. The other was assigned to Mr HC Kurnell[?] of Argyle, who states that he also died soon after reaching his farm. Neither case would have been reported had it not been thought by the assignees it would strengthen their claims for others.

I never receive any reports of deaths from Coroners. I have the honour to be, etc etc

The Colonial Secretary wrote an “executive summary” in the margin of the first page for the Governor:

The Prin’l Sup Convicts represents that he is seldom apprised by assignees of the death of their convict servants, and suggests the propriety of directing public attention to the matter by means of the Gazette – adds also that he never receives reports of deaths from the Coroners.

All the Returns of Burials rec’d in this office are periodically sent to Mr Hely (see note below) for his confirmation. The several Coroners may be required to furnish a Death return, but as the bodies of persons on whom inquests are held are interred, then names doubtless included in a Clerical report of Burials, it would not appear that the non-transmission of the Return by the Coroners is productive of much inconvenience. As respects the notice to Assignees I am fearful that not much attention will be paid to it – but they might nevertheless be req’d to report to the Mag[istrate] the death of the Convict servant.

Timothy Baverstock had died the day after his arrival. As a blacksmith and carpenter Timothy Baverstock would have been valuable to a settler, and Mr Cobb would have wanted a quick replacement.

Without his assignee’s request for a replacement and the Principal Superintendent of Convict’s request to The Colonial Secretary, he would have disappeared from the records and we would never have known what happened to him.

Note Frederick Augustus Hely, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, held the post of Principal Superintendent of Convicts from 1823 until his death in 1836. He applied to retire on a pension but died before it was approved by the Colonial Office.

Sources
State Records NSW: Principal Superintendent of Convicts; NRS12213, Convict Death Register. SR Reel 690. Online version published by Ancestry.com.

State Records NSW: Colonial Secretary’s Office; NRS905, Main series of letters received, 1826-1982. 33/5055, Letter from Principal Superintendent of Convicts dated 1 Aug 1833.

A World War I service file

The National Archives of Australia holds the service records of Australian defence servicemen and women from 1901. Records are closed for thirty years. If your ancestor served in the Boer War, World War I, World War II or in between, the records you need will be in Canberra.

Many of these records have been digitised, and are available to view and download online.

Some of the first to be digitised were the World War I service records.

World War I service records usually contain the following documents:

  • attestation paper – the attestation paper was completed by the person on enlistment and normally gives next-of-kin, employment details, marital status, age, place of birth and physical description
  • service and casualty form – this form, known as ‘Form B103’, shows movements and transfers between units, promotions, when and how the soldier was injured and where treatment was received
  • military correspondence – correspondence between the Department of Defence and the soldier’s next-of-kin may include notification of wounds or death, awards and medals and questions about the whereabouts of the serviceman or woman [NAA]

Here is the first page of the Attestation Paper of my grandmother’s cousin Douglas James Stewart, downloaded from the website. Douglas, a telegraph messenger, had barely turned 18 when he enlisted in Sydney on Sunday, 18th February 1917.

His next of kin was his father, James Simpson Stewart, of Albury Street, Holbrook NSW. The next page is a bit more instructive:

We can see that he was a Presbyterian; 5 foot 9 inches tall, 146 lbs in weight, with a scar on his left knee and a lump on his left thumb. By looking at a copy of the Attestation Paper in the file I can see the headings for the information that has been pasted over: his chest measurement was 31-36 inches, and he had a medium complexion, with brown hair and brown eyes. I presume that the numbers in red next to his eye colour refer to eyesight testing.

He was pronounce fit for service and was appointed to A Company, 1st Infantry D Battalion.

The pages that were taped inside tells what happened to his afterwards:

And on the other side of the paper:

This appears to be much the same thing only typed:

I am not knowledgeable about the codes and abbreviations used, but it looks to me like he embarked on His Majesty’s Australian Transport Marathon at Sydney on 10th May, 1917, for a journey of a little over two months to Devonport, England. After some months of training in England he was shipped to France, arriving in Havre 20th March, 1918.

He survived the fighting in France for nearly five months, and was killed in action on the 8th August 1918.

The big blue stamp on the last page of the Attestation Form says it all:

Other documents in the file include the original Application to Enlist in the Australian Imperial Force and a certified copy. The form was signed by both his parents, since he was under 21 years and needed their permission. How difficult that must have been!

The file is 61 pages, and much of it is made up of correspondence between the Office and Douglas’ father James Simpson Stewart after his death. We will continue to examine this file in the near future.

Births, Deaths and Marriages in Parish Registers

St Paul's Anglican Church Carcoar

Civil registration in NSW

Here in New South Wales we are fortunate in the detail to be found in our birth, marriage and death certificates. and in the indexes available online. Births include parents full names, with the  maiden name of the mother, the date they were married, and previous children born. Marriages usually show the names of both sets of parents. Deaths are best of all, showing parents, spouses and children.

Civil registration began in New South Wales on 1st March 1856, with District Registrars appointed to record all births, marriages and deaths in their districts. The responsibility for notifying the District Registrar fell to a parent, for a birth; the minister, for a marriage; or the owner of the house, for a death when one of these events took place.

In the early years it was often difficult for people to get in to town to register a birth or death. There was also some distrust of the government and unwillingness to provide information.

Parish registers

Before that time the only record of births, deaths and marriages in the Colony was in the parish registers of the churches. Initially only the Anglican Church was recognised, so Catholics and others had to be baptised, married and buried by the Anglicans or not at all.

The Registry has collected information from churches for the pre-registration period on a number of occasions to complete their records but this process is still incomplete, with missing information on many records, especially marriages, and missing records. Most of these early registers have been microfilmed and are available in many libraries – these are the Early Church Records, identifiable by the V in the reference when you search on the NSW BDM website. Photocopies are not allowed, but you can write down the information you find. Make sure you record where you found it!

Of course children were still baptised, couples were married in church, and burials were performed according to the rites of the religious denomination of the deceased, after civil registration began and so the parish registers continued.

Why look at the parish register?

The Registry has attempted to collect information that may be present in a parish register and not in the Registry. After the initial introduction of civil registration in 1856 two further attempts were made, in 1879 and 1912, to collect baptisms and marriage information not recorded in the Registry, but the process of reconciling the two was never finalised.

This means that there are entries in some parish registers, and in rare cases whole registers, that do not appear in the Registry. Marriages in the Registry may lack information that the parish register contains. It’s worth looking at the parish register, then, even if you have the certificate from the Registry.

Even the remote possibility that there is some new information somewhere makes it worthwhile to seek these registers out.

The parish register will also contain the original signatures of the parties concerned, whereas the copy sent to the Registry has been written out by the minister or a clerk and does not contain original signatures. This is especially valuable for marriages, where the bride and groom, and any witnesses, had to sign.

Parish Registers on microfilm

The Joint Copying Project of the Society of Australian Genealogists, the State Library of NSW and the National Library of Australia has been working for more than 25 years to microfilm parish registers. Many Anglican registers have been filmed, with the Diocese of Bathurst added earlier this year. Many Catholic and Presbyterian registers have also been filmed.

Microfilms are available in the Society of Australian Genealogists and the Mitchell Library in Sydney, and the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Check their online catalogues for details of what is available; more are being added all the time. A search by the name of the place and the words “parish register” should give you what you need. You can usually make individual copies of single entries for research purposes.

In the Mitchell Library the card catalogue is available in the Special Collections area – ask the librarian behind the desk. The films are on open access on the shelves.

In the Society of Australian Genealogists the online catalogue includes the filmed parish registers. You may also find books of transcribed entries for specific churches.  There is a also a book that lists all the microfilms in the Society’s collection, but keep in mind that this book will not contain any parish registers that were filmed after 1990.

What if the parish register hasn’t been filmed or transcribed?

Parish registers that have not been filmed will be found either in the central archives of the church concerned, or remain in the parish.  Some parish records have undoubtedly been lost or destroyed, especially small churches where the minister had to travel long distances to administer to his flock.

Most parish priests and ministers are very helpful to family historians and will usually provide what you need for a small donation to cover their time and expenses.

Sources

Nick Vine HallParish Registers in Australia, published by the author, 1989.

Nick Vine Hall, Tracing Your Family History in New South Wales, 5th edition. CD. Adelaide: Archive CD Books, 2006.

NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, History of the Registry’s Records. Website. http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/familyHistory/historyRecords.htm.

Richards, J. A., Garnsey, H.E., and Phippen, A., Index to the Microform Collection of the Society of Australian Genealogists. Sydney: Society of Australian Genealogists, 1990.

Society of Australian Genealogists, Bascis on church records (Australia). Website. http://www.sag.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48.

State Library of New South Wales, Getting started: Church Records. Downloadable PDF document. http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/research_guides/docs/church_records.pdf.

How to start your family tree part 2 – civil registrations of births, deaths and marriages

Collecting evidence

Once you have talked to your parents and other relatives and found out as much as you can from them it’s time for the expensive part of the exercise. There is no getting away from it, you have to start paying for certificates.

What you are trying to do is find documentary evidence for what you have been told. Even your father’s date of birth is just hearsay until you see it in writing on an official document, and the same with the names of your grandparents’ parents. If you don’t do this you may find you are running blindly down the wrong track, and tracing someone elses’ family tree, and there is nothing more frustrating than when you finally discover that you’ve been doing this.

Civil Registration Indexes

We usually begin by collecting birth, death, and marriage certificates for our ancestors. These will usually lead us backwards to the previous generation. In New South Wales you can start with online indexes. The NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages has an excellent online index. The search for births and deaths is here:

http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=births

and the search for marriages is here:

http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=marriages

You can get from one to the other by clicking on the button on the right hand side of the screen.

NSW BDM indexes are more useful than those of England and Wales…. Civil registration began in 1856 in NSW, a year after it was introduced in Scotland. It was modelled on the Scottish system, and even though Scotland backed down and reduced the number of questions asked, New South Wales did not. Civil registrations contain a wealth of information…

The indexes, therefore, are also more helpful than those of England and some other Australian States. The given names of both parents are listed and searchable for births and deaths, so that not only can you see that the John Smith you’ve found is more likely to be yours because the parents names are correct, but you can search for other children born to the same parents and find all the siblings of your John Smith. The location of the registration is also very helpful, although it is not necessarily the location of the birth but rather the district where the birth was registered. You can therefore discount the John Smiths born in Sydney and other parts of the State if you know your Smiths lived in Wollongong.

Certificates

 

When you have found the entry in the index that you think is your ancestor you must order the certificate. This is the most expensive part of the exercise and I’m sorry, there is no avoiding it. The extra information that appears on the certificate that is not available on the index might be the only clue you have to the next part of the puzzle.

The NSW Registry currently charges $26 for a certificate, which is certified by the Registry and can be used as proof of ancestry. Usually the certificate contains the actual handwritten columns of information from the original register. An example is given on the right, with thanks to the NSW rEgistry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

The NSW Registry has accredited Transcription Agents to transcribe birth, death and marriage registrations which are much cheaper than the full certificates. You can order full transcripts or partial transcripts that only contain the details you want. You can see the list at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/familyHistory/howToSearch.htm#TranscriptionAgent

Before 1856

Before civil registration began in 1856 records of births, deaths and marriages were kept by the churches where the christenings, burials and marriages took place. Most of this information was collected by the Registry after civil registration was introduced and hand-written into large bound volumes. Most of these are included in the NSW Registry indexes, where they are called “Early Church Records”, but the information available on the actual certificate is less.

Baptisms show the dates of birth and baptism and parent’s names, sometimes including the mother’s maiden surname but not always. The occupation of the father and the abode is also recorded. Very early records, from 1787 to 1820 or so, have much less information even than this.

Marriages have the names, marital status and parish of both parties. If either was under age or a convict then the consent of parents or the Governor is recorded. Witnesses are recorded, and may include family members. Very early records may just list the marriage date, names of the parties and location.

Deaths show the name, dates of death and burial, age, and occupation. Children may be recorded as “the son of” or “the daughter of”. Parents names are otherwise never recorded, which makes them much less useful than later death registrations. Early records may show even less information than this.

Most of these records have been microfilmed and are available at some libraries and family history societies, where they can be examined and transcribed but not copied. It is important to realise that what you are seeing on the microfilm has been transcribed – it is very rarely the actual record which your ancestors signed (or made their mark). You will notice that all the handwriting is the same, and if you are lucky it will be easy to read. Not all handwriting is readily decipherable without practice.

Sources:

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

New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Family History, website at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/familyHistory/, retrieved 25 Feb 2008.

Beyond the death certificate – probate, deceased estates, and inquests

image_paperworkYou probably already have a copy of your ancestor’s death certificate, which tells you where and how your ancestor died and who was left behind. Probate and deceased estate files can give you much more – what property did he/she have, who was to get what, and who was involved in the distribution process. If there were unusual circumstances surrounding the death an inquest was often held, which will give you details about how they died. This is invaluable information for anyone looking for those details that make up a clearer picture of your ancestor.

Probate is the process of deciding who is authorised to administer a will on behalf of the deceased. In the absence of a will letters of administration are issued for the same purpose. A probate packet is all of the documents submitted to the Supreme Court to enable this decision to be made, and can include the original last will and testament and any codicils; asset inventories; affidavits of death, witnesses, and the executor, and sometimes the death certificate and death notices in the local newspaper.

The reference numbers for probate packets can be found by checking the Probate Index 1800-1985 on microfiche, which is available in the State Records NSW Reading Rooms and many libraries. Probate Packets are progressively being indexed in State Records NSW Archives Investigator, which is their “on-line archives information and access system”, and so it’s worth checking here first, especially for deaths in the 1800s. In Archives Investigator use a Simple Search and enter the first name and surname of the deceased, and the word “death”; eg. “John Smith death”, and change the Using to “All Words”. Once you have the reference number (it will give a Series number and a number up to 6 digits long) you can go out to the Western Sydney Records Centre at Kingswood and order the file to look at. Copies can be made.

The Supreme Court transcribed wills that had been the subject of probate from 1800 to 1977. These books were handwritten until 1924, and then were typed. The books have been microfilmed up to November 1952 by State Records NSW and are available there.

Occasionally the estate was administered by the Public Trustee (previously the Curator of Intestate Estates until 1913). Reasons include missing or non-existent heirs, unwilling executors, delay in administering or applying for probate, or the Curator or Trustee was appointed directly. Case papers after 1913 would be held by the Public Trust Office. Cases prior to 1913 have been transferred to the Western Sydney Records Centre and the index has been microfilmed. An online index is progressively being created by State Records NSW volunteers here.

Deceased estate files were created by the Stamp Duties Office. Death duties were payable from 1880 to 1974. An inventory of all assets of the deceased was compiled for the purposes of calculating the death duty payable on the estate. The file can contain wills; inventories of property, farm equipment or business, household furniture, and clothing; property valuations; statements from relatives, valuers and agents; birth, death and marriage certificates; and other documents – depending on the circumstances of the deceased.

State Records NSW has an index to deceased estate files on microfiche at both Reading Rooms. An online index is progressively being added to, currently covering the period from 1880 to 1923, giving name, locality, date of death and date duty paid. This last date, the date the duty was paid, determined how the records were filed and so is required to access the file at the Western Sydney Records Centre. Deceased estate files are available for inspection up to 1958.

Inquests were held by the Coroner to investigate cause of death. The death certificate should indicate whether an inquest was held. Reasons for conducting an inquest include death by accident, suicide, violence or fire; deaths that took place in public institutions such as hospitals, asylums or police custody; or if the person is unidentified. The inquest may have taken place some time after the death, sometimes years later.

Reports of inquests before 1826 can be found on microfilm at State Records NSW Reading Rooms. The Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence sometimes mentions them, and are indexed here. Inquests from 1826 to 1963 are indexed in the Reading Rooms on microfilm, supplemented by a card index at the Western Sydney Records Centre. The inquest files are also available for inspection at the Western Sydney Records Centre.

All indexes on microfilm and microfiche are available at State Records NSW Reading Rooms. The records themselves can be examined and photocopies made at the Western Sydney Records Centre at Kingswood in Sydney. Probate packets can be pre-ordered in advance of your visit online here and other files here. Please remember that there may not be a file for the person you are researching, and that the file may be dated many years after the date your ancestor died, so that it cannot be found within the date ranges given.

Once you have your copies you will spend many hours examining them and marvelling at the wealth of information they contain, even if your ancestor wasn’t actually wealthy!

Sources:

State Records New South Wales, Archives in Brief Nos. 4, 29, 53, 84. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2004-7.

State Records New South Wales, Archives Investigator. Accessed at http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2007.

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.