Beyond the Internet Week 2 (belatedly): Ancestral homes and their history

My good intentions to publish this in week 2 were derailed by house-hunting interstate so, with my thoughts locked on real estate, it seemed appropriate to talk about ancestral houses and what we can find out about them beyond the internet.

My ancestor's inn in Dorfprozelten stood where the bank is on the left of the image. Sad as it is that it was demolished only about 40 years ago, the street remains much as it was so I could get a good sense of where my family lived.

For most of us a high point on our ancestral wish-list, is to actually see our ancestors’ homes. Sometimes that’s possible because they’re close by and still standing. Sheryl’s transcriptions and comments on her grandmother’s diary illustrate how personal documents can highlight the day-to-day usage of the family farm or house, but even just seeing the building can give us great excitement.

It was 19th century land enclosure records from the Hertfordshire Archives in England that gave me the necessary clues to identify the precise location of my ancestor’s pub in Sandon. I told this story here.

This stone wall is actually the remains of the old O'Brien house in Ballykelly townland, Parish Kilseily. How would I have known that without the knowledge of the inheritor of the property? You see the land they lived on in the header images for my blog - the red roofed shed.

Don’t forget, too, that there may be LDS microfilms for your ancestor’s original parish which may tell you about their house or land eg parish vestry minutes can be a wonderful source of information. In the online world, Heritage-listed property information gave me more details about the structure of the building and google rounded it out with some clues into its more recent life.

An underutilised resource, both offline and online, are the cultural heritage studies undertaken by many Shire Councils in Australia.

A view of the back of the old kitchen on the Kunkel property framed by the old fig tree.

These may make mention of your family’s home or property and it may be worth asking if there are unpublished reports on individual properties even where they are not mentioned in the final report. I was very fortunate when the current owner gave me a copy of the Cultural Heritage Study by Gatton Shire Council which referred to my Kunkel family’s farm at the Fifteen Mile. It makes mention of the kitchen outbuilding as a “slab building…of local significance”. Similarly the huge old fig tree that overlooks the cottage and kitchen, is a “significant fig tree” and is tied to the wedding photo of my grandfather’s sister where the whole family gathers underneath it.

The stone steps at the Kunkel property at the Fifteen Mile, Murphys Creek.

The study found that the stone steps to the cottage were a later addition, and yet they so exactly mirror the ones found in George Kunkel’s home village that I wonder. I confess that further investigation of cultural heritage studies is still on my to-do list though many references can be found on the internet. Time and being able to visit the local records office can be stumbling blocks but a phone call may reveal whether such reports exist.

Of course many of us can’t get to see our ancestors’ homes for one of two reasons (1) they’re too far away or (2) they’ve been demolished. In these cases we’re dependent on old records (some available online) to tell us more about them: newspaper articles, old photos or local histories. When the digital British Newspaper Archives was opened up recently I found a news article about my great-grandmother talking a little about troublemakers on their farm…because I’d seen the property I could envisage what was happening. Back on the internet, old online maps, Google earth or street view enable us to see houses, streets and places far away from where we live.

Similar stone steps in Dorfprozelten worn down by decades, if not centuries, of use.

Local archives host a vast array of records, some of which are likely to help with the history of your family’s homes. Queensland family historians are very fortunate that they have access to wonderful records of their ancestor’s land selections outside the urban area. As part of their selection, our ancestors were required to improve the property and the records that arose from this process are invaluable. You will find when and where on the block your ancestors built the land (especially useful if it no longer exists), a description of the house, what fencing they’d done, what crops and animals they had on the land and the like. On George Kunkel’s land selection it makes mention that there was a “four roomed cottage” with the “selector’s wife and family residing during the last five years” in compliance with the residence requirements. Does this mean that George was elsewhere or simply that the family’s residence was continuous while he may have been off working on the railway or pork butchering? As always each discovery seems to lead to more questions. It’s worth remembering that even if that house no longer exists, the paper records in the archives retain the story of its earliest life. You may never see a photograph but you will have a mental image of your ancestor’s home and how they lived their lives.

These records are held at the Queensland State Archives and no doubt similar records may be available from other archives. Local heritage centres and libraries may also provide further clues. It would be interesting to hear from other regions and countries about the resources they’ve found to fill out the story of the ancestral homes.

Week 3’s topic, coming up in a day or two, will also be house-related.