Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Family history pitfalls (part 1)

A belated Happy New Year!

Last year I embarked on a series of posts about places where my ancestors once lived. Over the year we've travelled from rural Essex and industrial Lancashire to the bustling streets of Sydney, Adelaide and Limerick. They were interesting posts to research and write, and I hope you enjoyed reading them.

This year I'm not sure what to post. I've been running this site for eight years now. Although family history is never complete, and there's always something new to discover, I've already covered most of what I know of my own family history. The site also needs some behind-the-scenes work to bring all the links and cross-links up to date, add summary sheets for people where they are missing and so on. 

While I'm updating the site and deciding what to do next, I thought I'd post some extracts from my booklet Family History Pitfalls, which comes free with a subscription to my email Readers List. It discusses, as the title suggests, some of the hazards of researching your family history, including some that may be unexpected.


“Hazardous” is not a term usually associated with family history research. And certainly, the physical hazards of such research are few—perhaps having a heavy parish register fall onto your toes, or developing “computer stoop” from spending too many hours on-line might be examples. 
But family history research involves families, families involve relationships, and relationships are the source of many emotional hazards. Anyone who gets very far in researching their family history is likely to find themselves faced with tricky and complex questions about how they share their findings with others. 
Family history research also involves (obviously) history. Our forebears seldom had us in mind when they went about recording, or hiding, the details of their lives. The joy of discovering new information is often balanced by the frustrations of trying to find, decipher and interpret it. 
I’m not trying to dissuade you, here at the beginning, from researching your family history. What I want to do is to disillusion you from the idea that delving into your family history is a purely personal hobby and what you discover will be fascinating but harmless information. Unlike bird-watching, or stamp collecting, or even local history research, family history research inevitably involves and affects other people in ways that you may not expect

 Memories are fallible and legends may be fables
One of the first pieces of advice you’ll be offered when you begin researching your family history is “Start with what you know”. You know your own name and date of birth. You probably know your parents’ names and their dates of birth. You may even have your grandparents’ names and, if you’re lucky, one or both of your grandmothers’ maiden names.  
Maybe there are also a few interesting stories about an aunt or cousin, or a great grandfather, that have been passed on to you. That gives you quite a bit to work with.
If you are fortunate enough to also have official documents, such as birth, marriage or death certificates, then the information you have is likely to be reliable and detailed, though as we’ll see, don’t count on that. But how reliable is word-of-mouth information? It’s easy to assume that what you’ve been told is true, but is it?  
That leads to the second most important piece of advice you’ll receive from any book or article on researching family history. Whatever information you have should be considered unproven until you’ve found confirmation, no matter where the information came from.  
Human memories are fallible, especially as we grow older, and names and dates can be forgotten or mis-remembered. Stories passed on by word of mouth can get caught up in a multi-generational game of Chinese whispers. Every family has stories that have gradually changed over time, with some elements omitted and lost, and elaborations and embellishments added to others. 
When I began researching my own family tree, I already had the names and dates of birth of all four of my grandparents, provided to me by my parents. It didn’t take long to confirm these birth dates, and to find marriage and death records for each of them.
But when I came to my great grandparents’ generation, I only had stories to guide me. 
On my father’s side, I had the tale of my paternal great grandmother Eliza’s birth in Australia, even though the rest of the family were solidly English. According to my father’s Aunt Mill, her grandfather, David Whybrew, (my great great grandfather) had been stationed in Western Australia with the British Army. Her mother (my great grandmother Eliza) was born while he and his wife were living there. A year or two after Eliza was born the family returned to England. 
I thought it would be easy to trace the birth of a child with the surname Whybrew in Western Australia, especially since that’s where I now live. It’s not a common name. I knew roughly what time period to look at, based on the history of the British army presence in Western Australia. Counting back twenty to thirty years from my grandmother’s date of birth gave me a likely date of birth for her mother. But my search through the microfilm records at the State Library was fruitless.  
The reason for this became apparent when, much later, I found the family on the 1881 UK census. Eliza had been born, not in Western Australia, but in South Australia. So either Aunt Mill’s memory, or my own memory of her story, had proved misleading on that point. 
But there was a bigger surprise to be found on the census. Eliza’s mother Susan had also been born in South Australia. Throughout my search I’d assumed, for no good reason, that Susan had married her soldier husband David Whybrew in England, before he was posted to Australia. I’d wasted hours trying to find their marriage in the English records. Once I knew that they’d married in South Australia, it was easy to trace their marriage.
The fallibility of human memories can cause problems with the reliability of your family history research. Checking your facts carefully before you share them with other researchers is important. But discovering that remembered “facts” are not really accurate can create other, more personal, problems. How do you tell members of your family that, based on your research, what they’ve told you is wrong, without upsetting or insulting them?  

I'll continue this extract in my next post. In the meantime, if you'd like to download and read the whole book, you can, by subscribing to my email  newsletter, The Scribbler. It appears once a month, with interesting articles, useful links and news about what I'm writing. Here's one sample and here's another.

You can unsubscribe at any time, and keep the book. But I hope you'll find the newsletters entertaining and informative enough to stay.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


One of the main characters in my upcoming book, The Edward Street Baby Farm, was born in Limerick in 1855. Harriet Lenihan moved to Australia in the 1880s and eventually came to Perth. Her father, Maurice Lenihan, was owner and editor of the Limerick Reporter, and was Mayor of Limerick for several years. He had connections with many of the leading political figures in Ireland. Harriet was very proud of the fact that her father had written a history of the city, which was widely acclaimed, though it never made its author any money. It had even received a commendation from the Pope.

As far as I know I’m not related to Harriet Lenihan. But I am related to another outcast from Limerick, John Mason, whose story I’ve told in several posts here. So I feel an attachment to Limerick despite never having been there.

John Mason’s convict records describe him as a ‘native’ of Limerick. He was certainly arrested, tried and transported from that city but I’m not entirely sure that he was born there.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the records of the Destitute Board in Adelaide, where he eventually finished up, describe him as English. Possibly he migrated to Ireland, or came from an English family living in Limerick. Whatever the case, at the age of eighteen he was working in Limerick as a boatman.

He must have been one of many boatmen in the water-bound city. Limerick sits some way inland, at the head of estuary of the Shannon river, and is accessible by ocean-going ships. Another waterway, the Grand Canal, makes it possible to navigate from Limerick in the southwest all the way to Dublin on the east coast.

A brief history of Limerick

As the much smaller Abbey River meets a loop of the Shannon, it creates an island, known as Kings Island. The Vikings established a settlement there in the 10th century. They maintained trade links with other settlements in Ireland and Europe and eventually integrated into the Irish population.

In 1195 the Normans from England captured Limerick, and Lord John (later ‘bad’ King John) built a castle on Kings Island and erected walls around the city. Although the city was nominally under English rule, it was fairly independent. In 1413 King Henry V granted it a charter as a city-state.

Henry VIII changed all that. He abolished the Irish monasteries, gave land to his supporters and by 1603 controlled the whole of Ireland. Limerick lost most of its independence.

Limerick in 1587, source unknown
In the seventeenth century the city was besieged four times, in 1642, 1651, 1690 and 1691. The final siege was carried out by the troops of the protestant William of Orange against the supporters of catholic James II, who were holed up in the city. After the Williamites broke through, a treaty was signed.

Under the Treaty of Limerick, James’ supporters were allowed to leave Ireland, in what was referred to as the Flight of the Wild Geese. Alternatively, they could join William’s army. Civilians were allowed to keep their land and property, provided that they pledged loyalty to William.

But the treaty was soon broken. Laws passed by the English and Irish parliaments, known as the Penal Laws, put Irish Catholics at a great disadvantage. Limerick became known by many as the City of the Broken Treaty

The city itself gradually expanded and the walls were dismantled and rebuilt to allow it to grow. The oldest part of the city on Kings Island became known as Englishtown, while the expansion to the south of the Abbey River was known as Irishtown. The two were joined by a bridge, the Baal bridge. In the eighteenth century there was a further expansion to the south, with a planned grid of wide streets, named Newtown Pery after its founder, landowner Edmund Sexton Pery. This area, with its Georgian architecture, became the city’s CBD.

When John Mason was born, in about 1814 or 1815, Limerick was a city undergoing great changes. A port was constructed to serve the growing agriculture and manufacturing industries. New bridges crossed the river. Many churches and schools were being built, along with hospitals, a court house and a gaol. (John Mason would see the inside of both the courthouse and the gaol.) Gas, water and sewerage services became available for the first time.

Limerick in the 1830s
Painted by French artist Alphonse Dousseau.
But in the 1830s, in the poorer Catholic areas, and the rural areas around the city, there was unrest. Not everyone benefited from the growing wealth of the city, and the new bridges tended to divide rather than unite the different economic areas. The wealthy moved to the new suburbs of Newton Pery, while in the old parts of the city many were destitute.

Food prices had been rising across southern Ireland as a result of potato crop failures. In 1830 merchants raised the price of oatmeal in Limerick by 25 percent. For many people, oats provided their only food supply. A riot broke out on 25 June 1830, and the mob raided warehouses, shops and factories. Although the troops were called in, the authorities also set up a relief fund to ensure that food was made available at a fair price to those who needed it and work was provided for the unemployed.

Leaving Limerick

This then, was the city in which John Mason lived in the early 1830s. Without knowing where John was born, it’s difficult to trace his background or his life in Limerick. Mason was not a common name in the county. A family named Mason had a property of 772 acres at Cappanihane in County Limerick in the early 1800s, but I haven’t found anything to suggest that John was related to them. The newspaper reports of John's trial say nothing of where he was from. My guess is that if the son of a local landowner had been arrested and brought to trial for stealing, the newspapers would probably have mentioned his family background.

Someone once told me that boatmen in Ireland were employed by the government as coastguards. They were often recruited from England so that they had no local ties that might lead to corruption. It’s possible that John or his father came from England in this way. The National Archives UK website has PDF images of the coastguard records of service available for download. So far I haven't been able to find any mention of anyone named Mason in these handwritten records from the 1800s, but I have many more files still to search through.

In the 1830s, many people from Limerick chose to migrate to Australia, some with assistance from the government or their landlord. John Mason wasn’t given a choice when he was given a one-way trip to New South Wales. He was transported in 1833 for stealing a length of muslin cloth.

I've described in another post (Muslin by the yard) my reasoning for thinking that the cloth that John stole came from a haberdashery shop in George Street, belonging to Thomas Evans and his family. George Street, now known as O'Connell Street, is the main street in Limerick, running from the bridge at the southern end of Kings Island through the Newtown Pery district, parallel to the Shannon.

According to the Limerick Chronicle, John broke a pane of glass to grab the cloth, while the owner's two sons were behind the counter. It seems a rather brazen thing to do, and he was easily caught. Could he have deliberately committed a crime to get himself transported? If so, he certainly wouldn’t have been the only person to do so.

The story of John Mason's life after he left Limerick, and that of his family, appears in other posts on this blog. It's also told in more detail in my book Susan: convict's daughter, soldier's wife, nobody's fool. It's available on Amazon and other online books stores. To read a preview of the first chapters, click on the cover image.

General references:

Roots Ireland - A brief history of Limerick
Limerick.ie - Our history
Irish walled towns network - Limerick
Wikipedia - history of Limerick
Liam Hogan - The 1830 Limerick Food Riots