Guest post: Kate Cole on Local and Family History

Today’s guest post is by my friend, Kate Cole, in England who I met doing an online course several years ago. Kate’s just published her first local history book on the town of Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire. We had a virtual conversation about how she came to research and publish her book. I posed some questions, and these are Kate’s replies. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I have.

The correlation between local history and family history

Firstly, I would like to give my thanks to Pauleen Cass for inviting me to talk about my local history research on her blog.  This is Day 4 of my week-long tour of blogs around the internet where I’m talking about various aspects of writing history to celebrate the publication of my first local history book Bishop’s Stortford Through Time.

 How did you start on local history?

I originally started as a very traditional genealogist in the days long before the internet.  By a “traditional” genealogist, I mean that I started by trying to find names and vital dates of my ancestors, and then painstakingly tracing each line back using births/deaths/marriages certificates, along with census returns and parish records.  But the more genealogical research I undertook, the more I became interested in the history of the areas each ancestor lived in.  Through my genealogical research into my paternal family, I very quickly discovered that I’d come from an extremely long line of Londoners from the east-end.  Thus my first “local history” research projects were based around London – particularly east London history.  Yes, “local history” can include London’s history!

The marriage certificate of my great-grandparents – uncovering this certificate was one of my first purely genealogical pieces of research. However, the name and address of the bride has led me to 30 years historical research which has combined my own family history with local history in Wales, London and Suffolk, along with international history (the Crimean War) and even tales of Jack the Ripper’s London.

How did you build up your knowledge and skills?

In the early days of my research, I built up my skills and knowledge through pure leg-work of traipsing around and researching in the main London record offices and genealogical research repositories.  Always reading and researching, and always trying to learn from my (many!) mistakes.  Even now, after 30 years of research, I always find my first few visits to a new (to me) record office very daunting – navigating “their” systems, working out what they hold, viewing many (wrong) documents.  But I also get a tremendous thrill when I’ve got the “right” primary source and I start reading a document which I know will add to my research.

More recently, my chief way of building up my skills and knowledge as a historian was doing history undergraduate and then postgraduate degrees as a mature student.  I signed up with the Open University just before I became pregnant with my 3rd child and there followed about 4 or 5 years of studying for my BA in history.  I remember one of my second year assignments was due when my last child was about 6 weeks old.  Looking after a small baby whilst writing history undergraduate essays taught me very quickly how to skim read vast quantities of historical information, whilst writing the resulting undergraduate essays in double-quick time!

Whilst I don’t advocate that everyone interested in historical research (be it family or local history) should undertake a degree, for me, it was exactly the right thing to do.  My degree taught me how to undertake rigorous and professional historical research, along with turning research into good-quality written output by way of essays and dissertations.

Some of the 16th century primary sources I used for my masters’ degree in local history.  It was extremely thrilling to work with these documents: handling them, analysing them and understanding what they could be telling me about an English 16th century rural town.

In all, I studied for about 10 years as a mature student, finishing up with a master’s in local history at Cambridge University.  I was working full-time in the City of London and bringing up my 3 children.  Therefore, outside of my studies, I had little time for independent research projects or continuing my family history research.  But, to support my studies, I read avidly all the history books I could lay my hands on for the various history modules I studied.  From this, I quickly came to the conclusion that medieval and Tudor England, along with the social (home-front) and military history of the First World War, were “my” periods of interest and expertise.

 What’s the benefit of doing a course?

One of the biggest benefits of doing my degrees was to give me self-confidence and belief in my own academic abilities.  I am severely dyslexic – one of the very first children to have been diagnosed in England back in the ‘70s.  But, although diagnosed, I was unsupported at school so had underachieved and left with crippling self-doubt and zero confidence.  Doing my degrees in my 40s made me realise that even such an intensive academic/research based discipline as history was achievable for a severe dyslexic such as me.

The confidence I gained whilst doing my academic courses was incredible.  I also came to realise that, despite my dyslexia, I actually really enjoyed writing.  Writing for me is often absolute agony and a very slow painful process (thank goodness for computers and spell check…) but I do find it intensely rewarding.  I have love/hate relationship with writing – I’d much rather be washing the dishes then writing.  But the sense of achievement when I’ve finally got my thoughts down onto paper (and corrected all the mistakes) is remarkable.

Of course, the other benefits of doing courses was learning from wonderful tutors how to conduct professional rigorous historical research.  The Open University is extremely rigorous in its approach to teaching mature students the discipline of history, and I learnt more about the craft of being a historian on their courses then any of the other courses I have undertaken.

Although my academic days are now over (no, I’m not going to be doing a PhD!), I still greatly enjoy courses.  But now I take shorter courses and am currently working my way through some of the Guardian newspaper’s Master Classes in Writing held in London.  Although very short courses (normally an intensive weekend), I find that these master-classes immensely useful and they help keep my writing on track.  To carry on honing my research abilities, I use various family/local history courses – particularly the Pharos family history courses.  All these non-academic courses are intensely valuable to a family or local historian as they teach new techniques and approaches, along with putting students in touch with excellent tutors – who are often absolute experts and masters of their crafts.

 What’s the relevance to family history? Are you interested in Family History?

I am very interested in family history.  During my time studying, my interest in family history had to stop.  But then when I started writing my blog, Essex Voices Past, and was asked to write posts on other blogs, I’ve found myself writing a great many posts about family history.  I am a great believer in the “Great Men of history” theory – that it is men (and, of course, women) who shape history.  Therefore, to me, family history is a very important part within the entire discipline of “history”.  People and their families are the absolute building blocks leading to our understanding of the near-past.  After all, it has been feuding “families” (admittedly, dynastic families) who have caused some of the biggest battles, wars, and upsets for all our nations’ histories.

Family history is a great way for people to connect with history.  Very often, people who found history difficult at school (“all those dates and battles? Nah – not for me!”) don’t think that history is for them.  But then they start their research into their own families and, all of a sudden, history comes to life for them.  Their family’s history is their connection with the past.

Also, with the centenary of the First World War, now, more than ever, has become a time to look into a family’s past.  With just about every single family of all the combatant nations involved one way or another in the events of 1914-1919 (yes, I do mean 1919), “family history” has even more resonance with today’s people.

Robert Andrew Cole – my great-great grandfather – in the 1860s.  One of my oldest photographs in my family’s collection.  Born in 1819, he was a grocer and tea-dealer in the east end of London for over 40 years, at Spitalfields Market

What benefits are there to combining family history and local history?

Whatever happened to our ancestors in the past, didn’t happen in isolation.  They were a product of their time, their environment and their culture – just as today, we are products of our times.  Understanding the locality where our ancestors lived and worked can help with our understanding of their past. Moreover, researching “local history” adds new dimensions, or layers of interest and understanding into “family history”.   Indeed, I would argue that for anyone researching a family who lived in an industrialised/industrialising country, local history MUST be looked at to help understand a family in the context of their times.

For example, in my recent book on the east Hertfordshire town of Bishop’s Stortford, I explored the town’s river, and the pioneers who made it navigable to industrial barges in the eighteenth century.  This played an important part in the occupations of most of the town’s people during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With a navigable river, barges were able to have access to the very heart of the town and thus move great quantities of raw goods and finished products to and from the town.  Not surprisingly, nineteenth century census returns show many of the town’s population were somehow effected by the navigable river: they were maltsters, millers, brewers, publicans or working in related trades.

I would also argue that “family history” research should not just include “local history” but also (inter)national history.  For example, one of my main family research lines, the Parnalls of Wales/London/Suffolk, became fantastically wealthy during the Victorian age.  They were merchant haberdashers and clothes-makers who had a relatively successful business from the 1830s onwards.  However, their business went to new levels of success during the Crimean War (1853-1856) when they supplied uniforms to most of the British army.  On another line, the Gurney’s of east and south London: my great-great grandparents went to Australia in the 1850s – where they had three children, after which they returned back to south London and went on to have another dozen or so children.  Again, the Crimean War paid its part in the Gurney family history because (allegedly – I haven’t found anything concrete to substantiate it, yet!) they went to Australia to be the bricklayers on the building of Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour – a fortification built with the aim of stopping the Russian navy attacking Sydney.

Understanding the times in which our ancestors lived in – in the context of local and national history – turns the raw data of our ancestors (i.e. their births, marriages, and deaths) into something much more interesting.  I could recite you the bare dates of all my Cole ancestors with their vital dates all the way back to the 1760s.  But far more interestingly, I could tell you that all my Cole ancestors lived, worked, married, died and were buried in east London.  With the furthest Cole generation I have discovered thus far – John Cole and his wife Catherine – I can tell you he was a master cooper working in one of the earliest industrialising docks of east London, where he, his wife and children worshipped at the same parish church as Captain James Cook.  I would not be able to tell you any of that information, if I hadn’t done some “local history” research in collaboration with “family history” research.

The War Memorial in my home town.  The First World War is one event in history when international, national, local and family history all merge together to give a multi-faceted insight into the past.

 How does local history help with a One Place Study?

One Place Studies and Local History go hand in hand with each other.  I personally find one-place studies fascinating and can give a real insight into the past.

The exquisite leather-bound book containing Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts. Made in the early 1500s and regularly written in until the 18th century, the book is the financial “reckonings” of an English parish church. But it can be used to answer questions about the town’s experience of Henry VIII’s English Reformation.

During my Cambridge University masters’ research, my major primary source was the churchwardens’ (financial) accounts of a tiny Essex town of Great Dunmow.  Within these churchwardens’ accounts are the meticulous details of when the pre-Reformation parish church had raised at least 7 separate forms of “tax” on all the people in the town during the 1520s-1540s.  Being ever cautious of recriminations, our Tudor ancestors had precisely itemised every single household in the town together with the amount of their compulsory “donations” to their parish church.  Some of these lists of “taxes” were documented in socio-hierarchy order – so the names of the great and the good at the top, with the paupers at the bottom.  Some taxes also listed street names of each house-holder.  It is primary sources like this that absolutely thrill me because using them in connection with other primary sources (i.e. church records, or Henry VIII’s tax surveys), you can reconstruct a community from 500 years ago. Maybe not technically a true One Place Study – but fascinating nevertheless.

I also find it fascinating that when studying just one tiny area, the same families and their names get repeated over and over again.  Eventually, with good quality data, all sorts of historical questions can be asked of individual communities and societies from the past.  With my Cambridge University masters’ and Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts, I was able to ask very precise questions about one East Anglian town’s experience of Henry VIII’s English Reformation and the impact his religious policies had on this tiny local community.  Whilst what happened in one community can never be the entire representation of all communities, it can give great us insight into the past.

Thank you, Pauleen, for asking me these questions.

I’ve read Kate’s book in e-book format and I find it so interesting to hear the stories of long-distant times past, but also to see traces of the history in its current buildings and geography. It’s frustrating to think how much we destroy our heritage here in Australia, even down to the lie of the land. I also agree with Kate on the joys of churchwarden’s accounts – they can be gold mines!

Thanks for sharing your story with us Kate!

Kate Cole’s blog tour
You can catch Kate on the following dates and blogs discussing “all things history”, along with explaining about her recent book, Bishop’s Stortford Through Time, on the following dates and sites

About Kate Cole
Kate has a MSt in Local and Regional History (Cantab); a BA History (Open University) and an Advanced Diploma in Local History (Oxon) – all gained as a mature student. Having been a business technologist in the City of London for the last 30 years, she is currently taking time away from her City career to write. Her first history book, Bishop’s Stortford Through Time, was published by Amberley Publishing in September 2014. She has been commissioned to write a further three history books for them:-

  • Sudbury, Lavenham and Long Melford Through Time (due to be published summer 2015);
  • Saffron Walden Through Time (due to be published summer 2015); and
  • Postcards from the Front: Britain 1914-1919(due to be published summer 2016).

She lives in Essex, England, and regularly write about the local history of Essex and East Anglia on her blog, Essex Voices Past.

Please do click on the image below to buy her book.

Bishop's Stortford Through Time

© Essex Voices Past 2014.

 

Ten from Ten: favourite books

Last week my friend Sharn from Family History 4 U, issued a challenge on Facebook to list ten books which have affected my life. Others seemed to list their 10 easily while I was first presented with a blank mind, followed by puzzlement over which to choose.

In the end my solution was to think of books which take me back to the time or place where I read them, or which played an important role in a phase of my life. I’ve highlighted those that I think have played a truly critical role in my life or my understanding of it. Judy Webster talked about not over-thinking her list, something I surely haven’t managed. I could blame it on having time during a long flight but that wouldn’t really be true…I just hate being pinned down to a limited choice. I could equally well nominate dozens of others.

So here is my ten from ten list:

1: Childhood

The Heidi series (i) (Johanna Spyri). I loved being able to imagine life on the hills with grandfather, the simplicity and his gruffness.

The Girls’ Own annuals and similar that I got each Christmas, if I was lucky. Actually I was recently given two early-edition annuals by one of my mother’s friends.

Pestering Mum and Dad for the Reader’s Digest book on Animals which of course I got as a birthday gift, but for which I can’t find the title right now.

2: The teen years

The beautiful book I bought with my shell cataloguing prize money.

The beautiful book I bought with my shell cataloguing prize money.

Michel Quoist’s  Prayers of LifeThe Ugly American (Burdick & Lederer); The Last Blue Sea (ii) (David Forrest aka David Denholm); Animal Farm (George Orwell); For the Term of his Natural Life (Marcus Clarke).

Shells of the Western Pacific (iii) (Testuaki Kira) which I purchased with the prize I won in the Queensland Science Competition for my catalogued shell collection.

The summer of Dickens when I read all of Charles Dickens’ books. What do I remember? Not a lot.

3: Personal interests

My God, it’s a woman (Nancy Bird), a gift from a colleague who knew about my enthusiasm for, and interest in, flying.

The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe): the story of the test pilots and astronauts.

Landscape Photography (Gene Thornton), Mountain Light (Galen Rowell) and anything by Ken Duncan (iv), an inspirational photographer.

ken duncan

4: Humour

Bill Bryson’s Neither here nor there. I vividly remember reading this book one Australia Day long weekend at Rainbow Beach and driving DD#3 crazy with my laughter as she tried to nap. His Down Under book is equally funny, especially on the topic of the Northern Territory and Darwin.

Dragged Screaming to Paradise (Suzanne Spunner) which I read soon after I arrived in Darwin and which echoed so many of my own experiences. I laughed and laughed.

5: Papua New Guinea

Territory Kids (Genevieve Rogers) about what it was like to grow up in the Territory of Papua New Guinea, giving me a better understanding of my husband’s early years.

A suite of photo books on PNG (v) which were gifts from my future husband as an introduction to my new life, and any of James Sinclair’s books on PNG.

6: Travel

many people comeMr Cassmob and I shared an obsession with Mount Everest for many years despite being totally unfit and also in my case, having a fear of heights. We had an extensive collection of books of which I’ve chosen Many people come looking, looking (Galen Rowell) for the story of the people, and an expedition. Everest the Hard Way (vi) and other books by Chris Bonnington.

84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff) remains a favourite book, and movie, for the sheer pleasure of reading it and for the implicit warning to prioritise our bucket lists. I have re-read this book many times and enjoy it each and every time, and always want to shout at her “just go!!”

7: Writing: letters and books

Searching for The Secret River (vii) (Kate Grenville). I loved how she described hunting down her ancestor’s biographical information while denying she was a family historian of the stereotypical type. It also taught me just how much work goes into writing a book and the varied sources of inspiration.searching_for_the_secret_river

8: Social Issues

Jack London’s People of the Abyss (viii) pulled me up short when I read it in Denpasar airport one year. The effect of one group’s “wants” on the abilities of other’s survival. The perilousness of life for working-class people, a group to which many of our ancestors belonged.

9: Work/Life

Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits which made a huge impact on me.

Gifts Differing (ix) (Isabel Briggs Myers) which provides a framework for understanding different personality types and traits.

10: Family History

book cover scanAustralian Pioneer Women (Eve Pownall) and Nick Vine Hall’s Tracing your Family History in Australia, the first books I was given as I started my family history in 1986. Who would have known the journey that was ahead of me.

The Voyage of their Life (Diane Armstrong) because it confirmed for me that there was merit in tracing emigrants.

My book Grassroots Queenslanders: the Kunkel Family (x) for which I won a couple of prizes. Cheeky to include it here, but publishing this family history was a personal high and the feedback from family was precious.

You might be interested in a blog post I wrote some time ago about my lifelong addiction to books or my response to Geniaus’s Reader Geneame. My Bewitched by Books blog which has been languishing for some time but there are a few reviews on it. Not that I haven’t been reading plenty of books but unfortunately I’ve spread myself a bit thin on the ground with other activities.

What books have had a formative effect on your life? Or which books stand out in your memory for the time when you read them?

 

Sepia Saturday 210: Award-winning relatives

This week’s Sepia Saturday focuses on old books and the treasures (photographic or otherwise) found in them.Sepia Saturday 210

I don’t think I’ve ever found photos tucked away in old books but we did find a group photo behind another picture from my Grandparents’ house and I talked about that in my Moustaches and Mystery post recently.

Instead I thought I’d share a few book inscriptions with you. Over the past year I’ve acquired some of the family’s old books, including my childhood books, thanks to Mum’s move to an independent retirement unit.

Book inscriptions can be interesting I think as they reveal otherwise hidden parts of an ancestor’s or relative’s life. Back in the days when books were expensive and only rarely bought by families who weren’t affluent, they were often gifts or even school prizes.

Two of the books I have included prizes awarded to family members. One was for Mr Cassmob’s grandmother, Katie McKenna, for writing in 1901.

Katie McKenna

Another was for my grandmother’s brother, Duncan McCorkindale, who was awarded the prize for passing second stage physiology and physical geography in his Glasgow school.

Duncan McCorkindale

In fact it was something about Duncan that was one of the few things I found tucked away in a bible: the notice of his rather gruesome death in Sydney. Which makes me realise that I’ve never written about that story, or his role in the building of the nation’s capital, Canberra. I need to put that on my blog post list.Irish book

I’m curious who this book belonged to as there’s no inscription, and no publication date. My best guess is that it belonged to my Irish grandfather or one of his children.

A while ago I wrote about a prize that my grandfather’s young brother had won, but I’ve no idea what his prize was. I wonder if it too was a book.

Have you found prize inscriptions in books you’ve inherited, either from your family or a used-book store?

To read the stories other Sepians have submitted this week you can click here.

Running Writing Heirlooms

We all know the thrill of seeing an ancestor’s signature for the first time. Somehow it makes them seem that much closer to us.

P1190433In her Heirlooms podcast Maria (from Genies Down Under) suggests leaving a sample of your handwriting for descendants, perhaps even some of your family history. Quite honestly this would be a challenge beyond palaeography with some of my notes <smile>. In fact future readers may wonder if it was encrypted.

There’s increasing discussion that we are losing our familiarity with “running writing”, both reading and writing it, that we always type and never write. Is that true for you? Yes I certainly prefer to type stories or family history, not just for legibility but also so it can be stored digitally. Also because these days I think through my fingers, if that makes sense, and my writing can’t keep up. Perhaps we should also be storing a digital copy of something we’ve handwritten. And while we’re at it, why not save a voice recording?

Maybe it’s my career in administration but I have no problem recognising who wrote what annotation on a file (provided I’ve seen their writing before). I can almost always tell who a letter or card comes from without cheating and looking at the back, or opening it first.

How about you? Do you still send snail mail letters, cards or notes? Do you recognise your friends’ or family’s writing? If the answers are a resounding “no” perhaps it’s a resolution for 2013 to occasionally revert to the old ways and use non-digital social media. After all one day someone may think that card is an heirloom. What do you think?

By the way I’ve started another blog (yes, mad I know!) called Bewitched by Books. It’s not rocket science to figure out its content so if you’re interested why not pop over and have a look. Today’s post is a bit of 1950s fun which will be of interest to those with an interest in the more recent “olden days”, and life in our youth, well mine anyway.

Genre Favourites Blogfest

The other day I read about the Genre Favourites (and Guilty Pleasures) Blogfest on the L’Aussie Writer Blog. It sounded like a bit of fun so I thought, why not join in? So here are my responses.

MOVIES

One of my favourite movies ever is Out of Africa: the costuming, the scenery, the interaction with the Africans. The landscape is so theatrical and a character in the story. I would love to soar above the landscape in a hot air balloon, perhaps the closest to what they saw in the old bi-plane. A dream for 2013.

Hot air balloons over the Masai Mara, Kenya. Image Wikipedia commons.

For me it’s not the love interest that is the tear-jerker element in Out of Africa. In the Ladies’ Room afterwards, all the women were crying over Robert Redford’s death and talking about it. I was crying for the servant, who loyally and futilely waited for her to send for him. It’s always seemed to me like a betrayal of sorts.

My guilty pleasure is rom-coms among which You’ve Got Mail stands out. At the time I harboured a secret ambition to own a bookstore: the movie convinced me that wasn’t such a great idea, and given the virtual world of bookshops these days that was probably no bad thing. Dream bombed!

BOOKS

Setting aside my devotion to historical books (not fiction), I’m a big crime novel reader, a habit that goes way back into childhood with the Trixie Belden books.

I suffer from author-addiction: devouring each book my favourite authors publish and  waiting anxiously for their next story. Don’t you hate it when a favourite author is inconsiderate enough to die on you leaving you with no hope of further entertainment….inconvenient for them too of course!

Perhaps my favourite crime author is Michael Connelly and his Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch character. Bosch, the LA homicide detective, has such commitment and grittiness which make the stories realistic as do his human weaknesses.

My weakness for crime pours over into TV as well where there’s nothing better than a good crime series on a Friday night, especially in those weeks when work’s been a bit of a pain. Again the grittier the better and so Taggart has to be a favourite with its Glaswegian accents and attitudes.

MUSIC

Bagpipes in my blood. Celtic music (Scottish or Irish) is my fave.

It’s a toss up this one but since I have to choose I’ll go with Celtic music, and I’m a big fan of Mary Black. If you’re interested in more of my music habits you can check out the Merry Month of May Music Meme we had earlier this year.

Guilty pleasure in music is probably country music which we mostly listen to while driving long distances –it seems to fit with the locale.

Thanks to Ninja Captain Alex for inventing this blogfest.

 

Library Loot: Migration experiences and learning Gaelic

Once again I’m following in the footsteps of Julie from Angler’s Rest and reporting in on my recent Library Loot.

When I pick books up from the library I’m less selective than when I’m splashing my own cash: I figure that I can try something new and even if I’m not rapt in it, then it doesn’t really matter. On the other hand sometimes I get lucky and discover something that really appeals to me.

Two books from the Palmerston Library which I’ve read recently  might be of some interest to my readers and fellow family history junkies.

Titanic Lives

Titanic Lives may seem like it will be yet another beat-up about the well-known sinking of the Titanic, but it actually offers a much deeper perspective.  The author, Richard Davenport-Hines, is an historian and biographer and his skills shine through as he writes about how the passengers on Titanic, and their lives, were a microcosm of, and reflection of, life in the era. He also documents the sources behind his story. What I most liked about the book is that it personalises the saved and the lost: they become real people not just “steerage” or “rich”. I wasn’t especially interested in the wealthy Astors, Wideners or Guggenheims but there were riches indeed in the stories of those in 2nd class or steerage/3rd class passengers.

If your ancestors emigrated in this time frame (early 20th century) there is much in this book to illuminate your ancestor’s travel and migration experience as well as the challenges of gaining entry to the USA through Ellis Island. The author also devotes a chapter to the crew of the Titanic, providing great insights into the working lives, and safety hazards, of the merchant seaman. As I have several of these in my family this chapter was very interesting on the responsibilities of stewards and firemen. Admittedly my ancestors were working on rather less glamorous ships than the Titanic but nonetheless there’s useful information there.  I found this book very interesting and learnt a good deal from it. This is not just another reiteration of the story of a major tragedy.

Home with Alice: A Journey in Gaelic Ireland

This book might be of interest to my readers who are keen Irish researchers with its exploration of Gaelic-speaking Ireland and the role, and threats to long-term survival, of the language.

When I picked the book up at the library I thought it might be another version of Brigid by Australian author, Jill Blee, which I had enjoyed for its focus on Co Clare. In fact this story had little in common with Brigid, despite the nominal role of the author’s aunt Alice in his journeying to Ireland’s Gaeltacht districts. I personally found Alice’s interventions contrived and unnecessary other than to explain the author’s initial decision to learn Irish.

Author Steve Fallon is a journalist and, inter alia, a travel writer for Lonely Planet, and at times the book takes on the tenor of a guide book. However I enjoyed learning more about the challenges of Irish as a language, especially as at one point I’d thought of learning it myself.  If anything the book convinced me this was a delusional aspiration due to the language’s complexity. I learnt that there were differences between the various dialects within the Gaeltacht regions, the new acceptance of Irish as a fashionable language with the rise of the Celtic Tiger, and the invasiveness of English into the Gaelic expressions.

It’s always a pleasure, too, reading a book which describes places you may have visited so that you can visualise where he’s talking about, whether Connemara, Kerry or Donegal. The impact of Gaelic television and radio also reminded me of the significance of Australia’s own ethnic broadcaster, SBS.

I do find the Irish-American tendency to identify as “Irish” a bit strange. While I too have an Irish passport like the author, and have many branches of Irish ancestry as well as a love of Ireland, my mongrel Australian ancestry means I feel it would be inaccurate and presumptuous to call myself Irish. Apart from the significance of the Catholic church to Irish emigrants in both countries, the experience of being a descendant of Irish emigrants in Australia seems to me to be quite different from that in “America”.

Paris in July 2012 and French-themed novels

It’s ironic that July is a Francophile’s delight with the Paris in July 2012 series hosted by Karen from BookBath and Tamara from Thyme for Tea. Entirely coincidentally I’ve been reading books with French themes this month. It all started with in-flight reading on the 3 ½ hour flight from Brisbane to Darwin in early July.  I’d downloaded the new book by Joanne Harris, Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé as it caught my eye in a bookshop. I hadn’t read Chocolat (or seen the movie) which perhaps would have added to the back story in some of the book but nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the challenges of life as a small French village comes to term with its immigrant Muslim neighbours.

Taken with the writing style I looked in the local library for Chocolat but it was already out on loan so I settled for two other Joanne Harris books: Five Quarters of the Orange and Coastliners.  After devouring these I borrowed Holy Fools which hasn’t engaged me as yet.

The three books I’ve read had some commonalities:

  • Life in small communities and the tensions and long-standing personal histories and feuds (intriguing but it did make me glad I hadn’t lived in a small community).
  • A central heroine whose central role has a significant impact on the community.
  • Hidden stories and inter-linkages that became clearer throughout the books or in the dénouement.
  • The impact of parenting, good or poor.

While some of the story lines might stretch credibility the books were very readable and I enjoyed them a lot, though I was aghast at how Framboise, an elderly widow when we first meet her in Five Quarters, determinedly abused her mother’s illness and headaches for her own interests as a young girl in the same village.

Perhaps not the most profound books I’ve read, but enjoyable reading just the same, and nicely fitting this month’s emphasis on any/all things French.

Beyond the Internet: Week 30 Books

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 30 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is BOOKS. Please do join in and write comments or posts on special discoveries you’ve made with books.

After talking about specialised libraries like the government or university special collections, perhaps it seems self-evident to talk about books.

Books are not only an absolute joy to me, but a total necessity to my family history. Like most of us I started out with the “How to” books about family history. The first Xmas after I started my research my gifts included Nick Vine Hall’s then-benchmark book Tracing your family history in Australia and Australian Pioneer Women by Eve Pownall. Perhaps the most crucial how-to book I acquired, in 1992, was a little volume entitled the Irish Roots Guideby Tony McCarthy, with its tip-off regarding Griffith Valuation revisions/cancellations.

The (mostly) Irish migration corner of my library.

As our research progresses though, we need to learn more about the community, national or international contexts within which our ancestors lived. Where better to turn than the diverse collections in libraries? The rarer books may be tucked away in the special collections and increasingly the older books may be available online through Google Booksbut there’s a wealth of resources on the shelves as well, though you may need to read them in the library rather than borrow them. If you’re as addicted as I am, your own collection may keep growing invasively until your normal reading books have to give way to provide space.

Not to forget the Scots!

At this point of your learning you’re not really looking for your family names (though finding them is always fun!). What you’re doing is building up your understanding of what was happening when and where they lived.

Your local reference library (or even just your local borrowing library) may have some great resources for this but don’t forget that within Australia you can order a book (or indeed a microfilm) into your local library on an inter-library loan from another library or the National Library of Australia.  This really is a great opportunity and well worth taking advantage of …if only we could have a coffee while we read J You can also sign up for a library card with the National Library of Australia and gain access to the electronic collections –but more on that next week.

There are a number of ways to find books that might be useful to your research:

  • Search the online catalogue by keyword (pubs, mariners, Germans, Irish migration, emigration, specific places) to see what comes up.
  • As you read, keep an eye out for the references other researchers use: these will give you further clues to follow up.
  • Check out the bibliographies in relevant books for new reading material or even reference to  primary records previously unknown to you.
  • Buddy up with other geneamates via LibraryThing and see what their reading lists include.
  • Have a look at their blogs to see if they have a books reference tab (mine’s there but the list is the tip of the iceberg.
  • Keep an eye out on blogs for genealogy book reviews.
  • Don’t forget that historical fiction might also give you a feel for the life and times of your ancestors.

Books really are golden treasure for our research and family stories. Have you struck gold in your reading?

Insights into Australia: a book list

An American genea-mate asked me for recommendations of fictional books set in Australia as a way of getting to know a bit more about Australia, and I guess her people. This is my list of possible options though of course one could go on adding books indefinitely. Also a lot depends on whether the focus is to be modern life, or a story in an historical setting, as well as personal style preferences.

Mary Durack: Kings in Grass Castles (An older story, largely fact, though not entirely accurate in places due to family bias. A good yarn telling the story of an Irish family in the 1850s+. They became a family dynasty in Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia.)

Bill Bryson: Down Under (may be called In a Sunburned Country , or possibly Walkabout, in the US). Hilarious essays on Australia. I could really relate to some of his comments on Darwin.

Alex Miller: Journey to the Stone Country or Landscape of Farewell (I particularly liked the latter of these two books.)

Kate Grenville: The Secret River (a fictional story, based on some historical fact, about life north of Sydney in the early days). Issues of convicts, colonisation, and relationships with Indigenous people.

Ruth Park: A Poor Man’s Orange and Harp in the South (oldies but goodies)

Sally Morgan: My Place  (an indigenous life story)

Sally Dingo: Dingo, the Story of our Mob (a biography of Ernie Dingo, a well-known Indigenous actor.

Tom (Thomas) Keneally: A River Town (long time since I’ve read this one but I enjoyed it enough to keep on my shelves. Set in New South Wales.)

Henry Lawson:  various short stories and poetry, about the old days in Australia

Hilary Lindsay: The Washerwoman’s Dream (set in Queensland late 1880s+)

Tim Winton: Dirt Music (a modern story set in Western Australia). Not one of my favourite books, didn’t like the ending, but I admired the fact that he started again from scratch with hundreds of pages written.

Neville Shute: A Town like Alice (includes WW2 theme and Northern Territory).

Addendum: David Forrest’s The Last Blue Sea (about the Australians’ war in Papua New Guinea, WWII)

David Malouf, Peter Carey, Thea Astley, Janette Turner Hospital (short stories) are all other authors who would provide a more modern insight into Australia today.

I have used LibraryThing to link these book titles to reviews which may help find out more about each book, and see which appeals. Everyone’s taste is quite different in books. I’m not sure how difficult these books will be to access from bookshops or libraries in the States, but at a quick glance many are available as Kindle e-books.

What recommendations would other Australian geneabloggers want to add to this list? Please do add suggestions in the comments. I’m looking forward to seeing some different perspectives and reminders of ones I’m bound to have forgotten.