Beyond the Internet: Week 18 Benevolent Asylums

This is Week 18 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week the topic is Benevolent Asylums. I’m going to talk primarily about the situation in Queensland as this is where my research has taken me. If you have used these records in other locations, please do share your story with a link to this page. In the case of Queensland the benevolent asylum was situated on Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay (off Brisbane), in some ways an idyllic location.

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum c1890s State Library Qld Image picqld-2003-01-28-16-43 Copyright expired.

So what was the benevolent asylum? To quote from Queensland State Archives (QSA), “the function of Dunwich Benevolent Asylum as defined by the “Benevolent Asylum Wards Act of 1861” was to provide for poor people who because of age, accident, infirmity or otherwise, were unable to care for themselves”.[i] This particular asylum was open from 1865 to 1946 when the inmates were transferred to Eventide at Sandgate.

While this definition applies to Queensland’s benevolent asylum, circumstances were probably similar in other states. On the face of it, this makes the asylum sound very much like a UK workhouse. My own feeling is that it was less oppressive than the British equivalent with a more tolerant approach to its inmates. Perhaps there was an acceptance that having come half way round the world, the elderly and infirm may not have had anyone to fall back on for support. Nevertheless the bureaucratic process generated lots of information as they decided whether someone was truly eligible or was perhaps malingering, or more pertinently, if they had any family member who could take them in. For this reason it’s not surprising to find that family members may be “forgotten” when it came time to apply for admission. If you visit QSA, you will have the opportunity to check the card indexes and review admission books, letters, registers of discharges or deaths: in short lots of biographical information to round out your family history.

Trove once again enlightens us with photos, and other sources, regarding Dunwich Benevolent Asylum. I was also pleased to find a thesis on the asylum which is available online here.

My experience with the records have been limited as none of my direct family entered the asylum. However I have followed up another Gavin family which had several members admitted over the years. What I’ve found is that the information contained in the admission papers can be incredibly useful in rounding out what I know about the person, confirming hunches, and revealing marital and family separations. I’ll give you some examples of what I’ve learned from the records.

  1. Stephen Gavin #1, with his wife Honora, applied to be admitted to Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on 2 February 1889 when he became too frail to work and Honora was suffering from blindness. They had been living in western Queensland with a daughter and son-in-law who were no longer able to look after them. The couple died on Dunwich and were buried in an unmarked grave. Some 100 years laters a descendant and friend of mine, Carmel, erected gravestones in their memory. Stephen and Honora had survived the Great Potato Famine in Ireland and the drowning of their son early in their Queensland life.
  2. Carmel had also found that Honora had regular absences from Dunwich, presumably to visit with family.
  3. The Dunwich records helped me to confirm that an illegitimate child, registered as Stephen Telford, was indeed the son of Stephen Gavin junior (#2 and son of Mark Gavin) . The admission record also confirmed the children of Stephen Gavin and his wife/de facto Johanna even though their marriage is not registered in the civil indexes and provided information on their residences. This had been a “brick wall” ambiguity.
  4. It helped to confirm that Stephen’s (#2) father, Mark, was known as both Mark and Matthew -presumably to disguise Mark’s convict past. This too had been a “brick wall” ambiguity.

Stephen and Honora Gavin are the only migrants who I’ve found returning to Ireland then re-emigrating. For all that they were in an asylum, I’m pleased that their environment was so pleasant and they were well cared for. They would have been amazed by the successes of their descendants.

If your research interests are in other states, can I suggest that you google the relevant state and the term “benevolent asylum”. Meanwhile Cora Web provides a convenient gateway to asylums and hospitals here.

Beyond the Internet: Week 3: Houses wrapped in red tape.

Don’t you find life is full of red tape? Someone always wants paperwork from you in relation to some part of your life. How do people survive who are uneducated I wonder.

The very same red tape that we often find so exasperating in day-to-day life, is heaven-sent when we’re doing family history. Much of it is found wrapped in brown paper tied with a pink ribbon, in an archive near you. Relatively speaking little of it is available on the internet. The Beyond the Internet series is intended to highlight some of the sources you may not have thought about and which will flesh out your family stories.

I’ve put a graphic on this page to represent our exploration Beyond the Internet. The unedited version was a free clipart from Microsoft Office so I think there are no copyright issues. Feel free to put it on your blog page if you want to join in and post to any of these topics…the more the merrier. It would be great too if there was representation from different regions and countries.

In Week 2 I talked a little about the sources available off-line about the history of your ancestral homes: personal records (papers, diaries, letters); cultural heritage studies; English land enclosure maps; LDS microfilms of parish records other than registers; photos and local and oral histories; as well as land selection records for early settlers. This week my focus is slightly different though the two topics interlink. I’ll focus on four sources and illustrate how they’ve helped my family history:

1. Land titles and title certificates

2. Council rates

3. Sewerage records

4. Survey maps

Land Titles

Land titles documents are available from the State lands department (its name will vary depending on place and government but in Queensland is currently the Department of Environment and Resource Management). Yes, they are not free but they can also be very useful and the money well spent.

My grandparents' house c1930

On a recent trip interstate I purchased two certificates of title for my grandparents’ property.[i] No one really knew when Grandad bought the land and built the house but these documents solved part of that mystery. The first certificate, dated 5 September 1917, showed my grandfather’s purchase of plot 31 from a David McMullen who’d bought it only a few months earlier from a James Taylor Searle. These transfers were around the time the subdivision took place. This purchase date was only a month before Grandad enlisted to serve in WWI, which tells me he was setting something aside either for his betrothed (if they were actually engaged) or his younger siblings in case he was killed. My grandfather was a steady, considered man so I have little doubt this was a planned strategy…it would be so interesting to see his military will. He’d been the eldest child when both his parents died so no doubt that impacted on his life attitudes. A few months later the title on the adjoining plots 30 and 31 were transferred to Susan Ann Easey on 23 January 1918.

But it doesn’t end there. On his return from the war my grandfather purchased plots 30 and 31 from Susan Ann Easey, stated to be the wife of Arthur Edwin Easey on 21 January 1921. Oral history also tells us that Mrs Easey is the woman with whom Grandad boarded his youngest brother after their parents’ died. Mrs Easey appears on the electoral rolls but interestingly not at this address.

My grandparents married in 1922 so my best guess at present is that the house was built between 1921 and his marriage. The house currently sits close-ish to the boundary between plots 30 and 31 but my mother told me recently that my grandparents’ house was moved a couple of metres when my parents’ house was built after their marriage. Hence my hypothesis is that Grandad built the house after he had purchased all three blocks and between January 1921 and April 1922.

Another snippet on the Certificate of Title has given me a further clue to explore when next at the Archives. His will, through the Public Curator of Queensland, was dated 15 January 1948 and as they acted as “devisee in trust”, I’m assuming the house had been left to my father but for my grandmother to have residence until her death.

I do find land records quite confusing and for New South Wales records some years ago I used a record agent to dig out the many land files for one of my ancestors. I figured it was probably worth my while and would be more efficient than me trying to get to the bottom of it all during brief interstate trips.

Council rates

Even though Council rates are local government records many historic records are held at the Queensland State Archives (other states may be different and I can’t speak for that). There may also be copies held in the relevant town.   After the establishment of Ipswich as a municipality, many of my ancestors appear in the records for that town’s rate payments. So what does this tell us? The value of the property relative to those nearby will give you an idea of the standard of their house. There may be maps which correlate to the land allotments allowing you to be absolutely certain where their house or business was located. This will enable you to compare that with current maps or to pinpoint the location during a site visit.

As rates are paid on all properties owned you may discover that your ancestors owned more than one property – something which doesn’t become clear from Post Office directories or electoral rolls, which are most likely to focus only on their residential property. I also made an interesting discovery that one of my ancestors changed his first name when he moved towns, probably because of a problem with the law. It makes you wonder how he came to revert to his original name and what people’s responses to that were in a small town…or was it only on the rate books that his name was different. Rate books will also give you an insight into the area –the type of housing, the area’s expansion etc.

It’s important to investigate where these sources are located. I’ve found them in the Queensland State Archives (my main haunt), local history libraries and Sydney City Archives (thanks to a tip-off from a genie-colleague). You may even find clues to assist your search you on the local real estate pages (yes, online I know!).

Sewerage Records

I’d never heard of these records until alerted to them by Susie Zada at a talk in 2011. She’s also published a helpful little booklet through Unlock the Past, called Sewerage Records: an untapped magnificent resource. I can recommend it highly.

I followed Susie’s tip and obtained the sewerage maps for my grandparents’ and parents’ street. The map shows all the buildings at the time, their location on the block and you will see where there were outhouses (dunnies/toilets) before the sewerage was installed.

Survey maps

One of the early houses in the area 1878. State Library of Queensland Negative 153648. Image out of copyright.

Early survey maps are so useful for learning more about the area where your ancestors lived. I look at them at the archives and the most important ones I purchase. Another source might be your Lands Department, especially if they have an historical library or such. Recently I obtained early maps of my grandparents’ and parents’ suburb (not urgent before because I was familiar with it from growing up there – or so I thought).

The maps show where the early landed “estates” were: properties with grander houses some featured on Picture Queensland. It shows a water reserve in a dip in the hilly street which my father called Frog’s Hollow (apt I think) and where there’s currently a house on the market for about $800,000.  Reserves are set aside for schools and public recreation. Comparing these maps with stories published in the local newspaper (available online at Trove), brings the area to life. Each map reveals slightly different features including one showing the hilliness of the area. The names of some previously unknown homes will let me link them to the owners I researched through the electoral rolls.

These Beyond the Internet resources are, as so often, just the tip of the iceberg. I’d love to hear of other sources people have used to learn more about their ancestral homes.


[i] Certificates of title number 2228334 volume S 1319 folio 74 and 243499 Volume S 1387 and folio 239.

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.

25 years of Family History: reflection and celebration: Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1, research in the “bad old/good old” days was very different. We’d probably all riot now if we were deprived of internet access to digitised records, Scotlandspeople, Findmypast, Ancestry, World Vital Records etc etc. We’ve all got used to the ready access to such a wide array of resources, many of which we would “never” have had a chance to look at: imagine, for example, trying to find someone in the Passenger Lists leaving the UK: 1890-1960 without actually knowing when they travelled.

Despite this, much was possible by visiting four different repositories of wonderful family history information. They were invaluable then but are equally relevant now: the “virtual world” of the internet means we can accomplish part of our research lists online and use these “real world” resources for documents etc which may never be digitised.

So my top four research venues then (and now) were:

  1.             Churches and church archives

I have to put this first because the information I obtained directly from the church or denominational archives, was pivotal to taking my families back through time. The marriage record for St Mary’s Catholic Church, Ipswich was the only place where my German ancestor’s place of birth was correctly documented – numerous birth certificates for his children had been unproductive. Similarly the Anglican Archives in Brisbane provided equivalent information on another early marriage. In both cases the information provided was significantly more comprehensive than that on the official marriage certificate. Church archives can be challenging places but I’ve had wonderful support from some. Read the story of how pivotal they were to my family here.

2.                 State Library of Queensland (SLQ)

SLQ was based in William Street in an old building and if my memory serves me, Shauna Hicks was one of the librarians on duty in those days. Historic newspapers were held on microfilm and so you would search for specific known events for your family eg obituaries, weddings, births, deaths, funerals and perhaps war service. No such joys as Trove with the ability to turn up completely random information about your family.

SLQ also had/has books of general historical relevance, especially for Qld families, as well as the indexes for births, deaths and marriages in Queensland. However, and this is a big one, the indexes had a very restricted time range making it a challenge to take your family back, or indeed forward. You had to become adept at using all possible resources to suss out further information – funeral directors’ records were especially helpful. At this stage you thanked heavens you were searching for uncommon names or had some clues about family background. I’d been lucky that my family is somewhat obsessive about keeping documentation and there were birth certificates held for both my paternal grandparents –invaluable clues

3.                 Queensland State Archives (QSA)

QSA was still housed in an old building next to Boggo Road Gaol when I first visited and signed up. There was limited support for researchers, certainly nothing like exists today, and there were no research guides. It took me quite a while to figure out how to find what I wanted and as I was working full-time my visits had to be limited to occasional flexitime days, but slowly the information built up.

The first time I visited QSA after they’d moved venues to Runcorn, around 1992, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. We had just returned from an overseas trip where I’d done quite a lot of family research in various British archives and repositories. QSA’s facility was cutting edge and far more user-friendly and modern. It continues to be a wonderful resource which well merits learning the ropes: this is where you can add more flesh to your family stories. Like most archives it now has an increasing array of digitised indexes making it so much easier to navigate than previously. But like anything worth having, some of its secrets require “mining” and persistence and repay your efforts, or at least eliminate possibilities.

4.                 Family History Centres of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints (LDS/Mormons)

I think I was a bit uncertain about my early visits to the family history centres, quite unnecessarily. I used the IGI here and also at GSQ but I mainly used the centres to order in and read parish registers, cemetery records, and census films (the only way they came in those days). I still regard these microfilms as a cornerstone of my research and will often order all available films for a particular parish overseas. But don’t forget to see what’s available for Australia as well.

If you haven’t visited them, or their local equivalent wherever you live, do give them a try: they will reward your efforts with new jigsaw pieces for your family history puzzle, and I”m convinced we all  love a good trail to follow!