Personalising electoral roll searches: surprises found and caution needed

Shelley over at Twigs of Yore blog has recently posted about Ancestry’s expanded Australian electoral rolls. Her points made me sit up and think, because frankly I’ve not bothered to look for the people for whom I “know” the details (including myself). This has been a bit silly given I’ve posted about the great uses of electoral rolls in relation to the street where I grew up here and here, though for those posts I was using Findmypast and World Vital Records.

We do tend to think that our ancestors’ electoral details are correct…even if we know we might not be so attentive ourselves. Why do we expect something different from our ancestors? The joy of looking at the microfilms of the original Queensland rolls, for example, is that they are annotated when someone’s residence is challenged, or they move to another electorate or die.

Personalising my search revealed some interesting anomalies likely to cause future descendants and family historians to scratch their hands in puzzlement.

Example 1:

My parents-in-law appear in rural Victoria in 1949, rural NSW in 1954 then reappear in 1980 in Rockhampton Queensland. In another 50 or 100 years will anyone know where those missing years were spent?

Even if they know the family were in Papua New Guinea, they won’t find them in the Genealogical index to Australians and other expatriates in Papua New Guinea 1888-1975 because I’ve been unable to find any reference there, even though I know there were BDM notices in the papers. Which reminds me: I want to suggest to the Trove people that the Post Courier newspaper be digitised given just how many Australians had links there.

Nor will they know that my mother-in-law was a teacher almost all her life, because on the early rolls her occupation is shown as “home duties” and in the 1980 roll she was a teacher’s aide (being then largely in retirement).

Example 2:

My father lived on the same block of land all his life, but soon after I was born the land was sub-divided and another house built. The electoral rolls continue to show my parents at my grandparents’ address more than five years after they’d moved into their own home.

My father’s occupation throughout his entire presence on the electoral rolls remains the same. While he remained with the Railways all his life, his actual job changed. Descendants in years to come will have no idea what he really did, or that his occupation (numbertaker, not undertaker) was actually quite hazardous.

Have you ever thought to change your occupation if your address remains unchanged? Would the Electoral Office even modify it if you asked?

Example 3:

My own presence on the roll, like that of my husband and in-laws is delayed by living in Papua New Guinea for a number of years. If descendants don’t get my birth or marriage certificate they are likely to think I’m much younger than I am…perhaps not a bad thing J

My husband’s bland “admin officer” occupation camouflages his real skills and work experience: much depends on what mind-set we’re in when we fill out the form. Do you descendants a favour, and give a precise title.

As with my mother-in-law, my occupation reflects a particular point of my life and disguises entirely that I was in paid employment most of my adult life. However, that might be remedied on later rolls because we’ve moved around a bit. I wonder what I put down when we’d just moved to Darwin? I just might have to visit the Darwin Electoral Office to look at the online rolls.

Perhaps these findings will give you food for thought too, and make you, and me, be a little less confident about some of the details we find on the electoral rolls, especially if they contradict other sources. This is one case where we should be looking to the future as well as the past… and yet another good reason for writing our family stories. Thanks Shelley for triggering off this train of thought!