Tag: Archives

Uncommon Lives

Uncommon Lives in the National Archives: Biography, history and the records of government

I presented this paper at the Australian Historical Association Conference at the Australian National University in July 2006 when I was working as Websites Content Developer at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra. It discusses a National Archives website called Uncommon Lives, a project I worked on as researcher, editor and project manager between 2003 and 2007. The latest iteration of the National Archives website, launched in October 2019, has seen the removal of Uncommon Lives from the web – and it probably goes without saying that I think this is a real loss. Uncommon Lives was one of a number of truly innovative web projects the then NAA Web Content Team created in the early 2000s and it is disappointing that the NAA no longer seems to understand the value of these websites as tools of both archival and historical understanding and exploration.

Note: Most of the web links below take you to archived versions of the webpage in the Internet Archive (except the link to The National Archives (UK) Moving Here website, which is archived by The National Archives itself!)

Abstract

In 2003, the National Archives of Australia launched its Uncommon Lives website, a series of biographical and historical profiles of individual Australians. The first profile, on German inventor and World War II internee Wolf Klaphake, has since been joined by features on subjects including activist Jessie Street and Yolgnu elder Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda. Each profile is based on documents held by the National Archives—that is, records created by the Australian government—and online access to digital copies of these records is provided through the Archives’ RecordSearch database. This paper will discuss the development of Uncommon Lives and consider how the records of government can be used to tell the stories of famous and not so famous Australians. Uncommon Lives can be found at uncommonlives.naa.gov.au.

Introduction

The National Archives of Australia’s Uncommon Lives website (uncommonlives.naa.gov.au) presents historical portraits of individuals whose lives have somehow intersected with the activities of the Commonwealth government of Australia—and therefore about whom the National Archives holds records. The website has grown gradually from an initial pilot in 2003 to three fully-developed and one preview feature about five subjects in 2006. Each of these lives has been researched and written by a different author, in conjunction with National Archives staff. The first feature, by Klaus Neumann, concerned interned German inventor, Wolf Klaphake; the second by Lenore Coltheart is about Jessie Street; the third by Peter Read tells the story of Yolgnu elder Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda; and the most recent feature, developed by John Dargavel, will look at the work of forester Charles Lane Poole and his designer wife Ruth.

Uncommon Lives aims to show how Commonwealth government records held in the National Archives collection can be used to tell stories of people’s lives. Family historians, who make up a significant percentage of the users of the National Archives, know that the Archives has records which relate to their ancestors—particularly those ancestors who served in the armed forces or were migrants. But biographers and local, community and professional historians seem less savvy to the fact that there may be records about their subjects in the Archives, usually preferring instead to head towards libraries with their familiar manuscript and newspaper collections. The Uncommon Lives features are designed, therefore, to highlight the ways in which Australians (and non-Australians) have interacted with the Australian government over the past hundred years and the ways that evidence of their lives remains in the records. The project suggests the diversity of people and the range of life stories that inhabit the records of government—from those whose interactions are well known, such as politicians and prominent public servants, to those ‘ordinary’ people who found themselves in particular circumstances which necessitated their dealing with government.

Life histories and the records of government

Documents about individuals and families are the most commonly sought records in the collection of the National Archives of Australia. The impetus behind this is, without a doubt, the current community interest in genealogy and family history—a 2002 study of Archives users found, for instance, that 88% of those making reference enquiries were doing so for the purpose of family history research.1

To cater to these particular interests, the National Archives has two special reference services which provide copies of Australian war service dossiers and post-war migration records, and efforts are made by the Archives to make ‘family history’ records known and accessible.2  In the 2004-05 financial year, nearly 40,000 requests were made for copies of war service records3 and use of the newer Making Australia Home service, launched in February 2005, is also growing.

Migration and war service records can be so widely accessed because of the work the Archives has put in to making these nationally-significant collections open and accessible to anyone and everyone, many of whom know and care little about what the Archives does or how it works. For the majority of people who access archival records through the special reference services, it is their first and probably last interaction with the Archives and with the records in its vast collection.

Their interest in the records comes from the personal and very real human connection these records make between individuals today and those of the past, be they parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

People enjoy finding links between their ancestors and themselves, between the past and present, and most are content once they have copies of a few precious folios and perhaps a photograph or two. But beyond these most obvious and widely-accessed sources, there are many, many more shelf kilometres of records which could be used by biographers and professional historians, as well as family historians, to tell of the lives of individuals in deeper and more nuanced ways.

More often than not, the archives of the Commonwealth government are imagined to be a dry and boring collection focussed on the policies and decision-making of stuffy bureaucrats and politicians tucked away in Canberra, separate from the ‘real’ life of the people of Australia. ‘The government’ who created and kept the records is thought to be a monolithic entity, and therefore the records are seen to present the voice of ‘the government’ only. But within the records there are myriad different voices and opinions—certainly there are those of prime ministers and prominent politicians, but there are also those of the many ‘everyday’ men and women who worked for the government, those who sought the government’s assistance, those who protested against it, and those whose lives were controlled and directed by its policies and actions.

Research undertaken by Alessandro Antonello, who this last summer completed an internship with the Archives, has shown how the presence of these individuals in the Archives’ collection can be overlooked by those who perhaps should know better. Alessandro did some digging into the Archives’ records on Sir Douglas Mawson and looked to see if these records had been used in Philip Ayres’ extensively researched biography of the great explorer, Mawson: A Life.4 Alessandro found that not only did Ayres not use the Archives wide-ranging collection of documents written both by and about Mawson during his dealings with the Commonwealth; he also revealed that a letter from Mawson to Prime Minister John Curtin which Ayres claimed had been destroyed was, in fact, safely held with its original envelope in a file in the Archives’ Canberra repository.5 I suspect that there are other similar examples out there, too—where personal papers held in manuscript collections, newspapers, interviews and published works have been used in biographical works, while the records of government have not.

With its focus on life stories and biography, the Uncommon Lives website aims to demonstrate some of the possibilities to be found within the records of government when it comes to researching and writing about people. The Archives’ records are evidence of the Australian government’s actions on behalf of its people and of its interactions with them, and they are kept by the Archives as a fundamental part of our democracy. One of the mandates of the National Archives is to ‘develop, manage and promote a visible, known and accessible national collection that engages and informs the community’.6 A challenge for those of us who work in Archives education and outreach is how to make connections between the people, the Australian community, and the records. Through Uncommon Lives we hope to bring to light the ways in which everyday Australians, both in the past and present, are connected to the actions of their government and the records which document them.

Uncommon Lives

Uncommon Lives is part narrative, part exhibition and part finding aid, a combination that hopefully works in different ways for different people and allows the exploration of records in both their historical and archival contexts. What I would like to do for the rest of my time, is to go through some of the different aspects of the website, both relating to its content and its functionality. I will then finish with some of the challenges we’ve faced in developing the website and in giving it a future.

But first, a brief tour. The features are generally made up of five sections—an overview of the subject’s life, two sections on particular events or issues prominent in the Archives’ records, a timeline and a listing of records used. The format varies a little between each of the features, as we adapt the general format to fit with the stories revealed in the records. The website also includes a search facility, and other general ‘housekeeping’ pages about credits, copyright and technical information.

Whose lives?

The subjects of the website to date are a varied bunch:

  • Wolf Klaphake, a German inventor interned in Australia in World War II
  • Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, a Yolgnu elder from east Arnhem Land accused of murdering a white policeman, sentenced to death, then released on appeal to the High Court in the early 1930s
  • Jessie Street, an establishment rebel and social campaigner active throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, and
  • a British-born forester, Charles Lane Poole and his artistic Irish wife, Ruth, who designed the interiors of important public buildings in Canberra in the late 1920s.

Features in the pipeline are about a similarly diverse group of Australians:

  • Jiro Muramats, a naturalised Japanese businessman and pearling master who was denied the right to vote in federal elections and died in internment during World War II
  • LF Giblin, an interwar economist with an adventurous streak, and
  • an early Muslim community in Australia.

The connection between them, in all their diversity, is that they interacted with the Commonwealth government in such as way that there remains a significant body of records by or about them in the National Archives.

This is the first criteria we have used in assessing whose lives should be featured—are there enough records within our collection? As I’ve said, the collection is rich in stories about people, but obviously not everyone is included in the files. The people who feature most prominently are those employed by the government, those whose lives were directly impacted by its policies—in both positive and negative ways—and those viewed by the government as problematic.

The feature on interned German inventor Wolf Klaphake is based primarily on files related to his internment by the Commonwealth government during World War II.

The Jessie Street profile makes extensive use of the large ASIO files kept about her and other records of her dealings with the government as a lobbyist or member of official bodies.

The feature on Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda uses the substantial body of records, including many of newspaper clippings, kept by various government departments about his dramatic case, as well as files from the High Court (which are also held by the National Archives).

The life of Charles and Ruth Lane Poole is told through the many documents, letters and papers they wrote in their work for the government as Commonwealth forester and head of the Forestry School and interior designer of The Lodge and Yarralumla.

A second and very important consideration when choosing our subjects has been concerns over privacy and consent. Before the Archives uses records of a personal and individual nature in our publications and exhibitions, we aim to gain permission from the subject or if they are deceased, a family member.

We have been fortunate so far that family members have been involved in the development of each of the Uncommon Lives features. They have provided access to family documents and photographs and, in the case of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, we chose to take the profile further by including Dhakiyarr’s own story as told by his grandsons, based on what they had been told by their grandmother.7 Another success has been tracking down the family of Japanese businessman Jiro Muramats, subject of a forthcoming feature, whose only daughter married a Japanese diplomat and left Australia prior to World War II. Muramats’ descendants were pleased to hear about the work we are doing and interested to know more about the family’s now-distant connections to Australia.

Individual voices

Uncommon Lives reveals the presence of individual voices within the records of government, showing how people have interacted with the government in different ways. The website presents Wolf Klaphake’s numerous letters of protest against his internment during World War II in camps with Nazi sympathisers, particularly poignant as he and his wife had left Germany because of their dislike of the rising National Socialist movement, and it shows Jessie Street’s ongoing struggle for human rights with eight prime ministers and their governments, over more than three decades.

Uncommon Lives also suggests the role of the individual with government itself—how prime ministers and ministers, public servants and other government employees differed in their opinions and approaches to issues and situations. It demonstrates how ‘the government’ is not one great monolithic entity. The tensions between public servants in Canberra and Darwin, for instance, are brought to the fore in the story of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, and the way in which personality influences policy will be raised in the full feature on Charles Lane Poole.

The feature on Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda also shows how individuals have been the subject of great government interest and activity, without ever having a voice to articulate their own thoughts, interests and needs. The records held in the National Archives show Dhakiyarr as a part of a ‘problem’ to be dealt with by administrators, police and the courts, as they do with many other Aboriginal Australians. Dhakiyarr’s story is a particularly compelling one, however, in that in the hundreds and hundreds of pages about him and the events which led to his eventual disappearance, not one word is his. Not even in the various court hearings was Dhakiyarr able to speak—he did not understand English and no interpreter was provided to him who could speak his language. It was for this reason that we chose to include the direct voices of Dhakiyarr’s grandsons to tell his story on his behalf.

In the website, such absences and gaps in the archival record are not overlooked; rather they are brought to light and the reader is invited to question possible interpretations raised by the records themselves.

Records

A primary aim of the Uncommon Lives website is to reveal the possibilities within the records, as well as their limitations. Each of the Uncommon Lives features reveals different types of records of government that can be used in writing about people, highlighting diverse parts of the National Archives collection and providing access to them. In doing so, we hope to raise questions about the records—both about what is in them and the way that they came into being.

The website aims to make readers more familiar with the types of records held in the National Archives collection, as well as providing insights into the way the government created and kept records, and the way that those recordkeeping systems are maintained and augmented by the National Archives. The Archives collection is a large and often unwieldy one, and it is arranged in a way that is unfamiliar to most researchers more familiar with topic or subject-based systems of arrangement as found in libraries. The disjuncture between the familiar idea of subjects and the unfamiliar idea of functions has been described as an ‘intractable problem’ for archives staff whose job it is to make the collection more accessible and to promote its use, even among tertiary students, academic and public historians.8 Archivists have solid and sound reasons for the way they arrange and manage the records in their care, adhering to the principles of provenance and original order—in the case of the National Archives through the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) system based on the relationship between agency, series and item—but the merits of their systems are not immediately evident to most researchers.

Links to digitised records

Archives face the continuing question of how to provide meaningful access to their collections and, as technology changes, the expectations of the public grows. Ten years ago the National Archives website was in its infancy, the organisation had limited public programs and exhibitions, and the main way into our collection was through accession lists, some basic research guides and the knowledge stored in reference officers’ heads.9 Archives reading rooms were for ‘serious’ researchers.

In 2006, the National Archives is a different place, with a prominent online presence of one general and four specialised collection-based websites and two online catalogues, RecordSearch and PhotoSearch. Uncommon Lives, and the National Archives’ other specialised websites Documenting a Democracy, Australia’s Prime Ministers and Vrroom, build on directions the Archives took in the late 1990s to make the collection more open and accessible through the web. In particular, by the digitisation initiatives which mean that an ever-growing number of records are available to read in full through the Archives online catalogue RecordSearch.

In Uncommon Lives, the text is broken up with numerous images. Most of these images are not merely illustrative however, they are documents that relate directly to the surrounding text. Sometimes they are referred to directly in the text, other times they are a source from which surrounding text has been based, sometimes they are a photograph of person referred to. By breaking up the text in this manner, we hope to encourage the reader to pause and possibly view the records. Or for those who are not determined enough to read all, they can gleefully click on the images and be taken to copies of the original documents.

The Archives’ digitisation program and, through it, the ability to access archival records in their entirety online makes the Uncommon Lives project (and other National Archives websites) different from many other digital history projects. Other websites provide online access to digitised documents, but these are generally removed from their original archival context. I mentioned earlier that the merits of archival arrangement was not immediately recognised by researchers, but for those well-versed and interested in archival practice, the value of the fact that these documents can be located in their original order in the file is clear.

A reader of Uncommon Lives can go from a document to the whole file, where they can see it located alongside those documents filed before and after it, and from there into the record series to other files created by the same department about different cases, and so on. In the Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda feature, a reader can click through to see how anthropologist Olive Pink’s September 1933 telegram protesting a government-led punitive expedition in Arnhem Land sits nestled in a large file of the Department of the Interior, alongside similar letters of protest from the Church Missionary Society, Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the Australian Society of Patriots and the Women’s Central Organising Committee of the Victorian Labor Party.

Uncommon Lives provides pathways to the huge number of records that are available to view online RecordSearch—there are now more than nine million pages accessible, an achievement that took around five years to reach—and it provides the potential to make any number of connections that those of us developing the site might never have imagined. No longer are footnotes something that only serious researchers or eager students will make the time to pursue. Each feature includes a full list of the records used and links to other organisations who hold records about the subject.

Challenges

The development of Uncommon Lives has presented certain challenges, and I will finish by briefly mentioning a couple of these.

The first of these challenges comes from the delivery of the biographies as a website. The features are narrative-driven, but delivered in a medium noted for its non-linear nature. People generally read books from front to back, or at least they read each chapter from beginning to end. On the web, though, readers follow links here and there, go back and forwards as they please. They mostly don’t read online either, they scan. So with this in mind, the profiles are relatively short and the text is broken up with headings and illustrations. Within the narrative, we hope the website provides easy-to-follow paths, but also the ability to move around, browse or read in-depth as desires.

The Uncommon Lives features are probably too long to read in detail comfortably on screen, however, so we included a feature where you can also view all on one page, which allows the text to be printed conveniently in one go.

A further challenge—and this may sound a little contradictory considering what I’ve just been saying—has been the fact that we have limited the features primarily to records in the National Archives collection. In most cases, these records don’t cover every aspect of the subjects’ lives and our authors have struggled with wanting to include the fabulous things they have found in our sister institutions, such as the War Memorial, AIATSIS, the National Library and the ANU Archives, and elsewhere.

Where appropriate, we have included material from other collections as illustrations—for example, the Archives only has a couple of not-so-inspiring photos of Jessie Street, while the National Library has many good ones; and the only photographs in our collection of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda are from newspapers, while AIATSIS has the stunning originals taken by newspaper photographer Eric Wilson. We also refer to records in other collections as needed in ‘filling in the gaps’—the diary or journal of Jiro Muramats held in the Battye Library in Western Australia, for example, has provided clues to parts of his personal and business life left blank in government records, as have discussions with family members of other subjects.

It is primarily, though, records held in the National Archives which direct the way the Uncommon Lives are presented. Being based primarily on one set of records, these portraits seem to go against one of the primary rules of good biography and history—to make use of all available source material, and to evaluate and make judicious selections from those sources to support a particular argument or thesis. This imbalance is why we try to focus on the records as being part of what the website is about. As archivists and historians, we can’t retrospectively control the records that were created and kept, we have to work with what’s there, and many of you will probably have experienced the ways that official records kept by public servants can skew situations, give highly-biased versions of events and of people’s characters and actions. In using the records of government alone, the website cannot present full biographies of the subjects, but it opens up the possibilities of different stories that can be told by these records when used with more traditional biographical sources.

Conclusion—keeping it alive

With a small project team—that is, myself plus an occasional research assistant—to coordinate the research and writing by our authors and to oversee the production of the website in between work on the Archives’ other websites, Uncommon Lives has not grown as quickly as I might have wished. It has however, met with positive feedback, particularly regarding the Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda feature. Over the past year, Uncommon Lives has received between 6,500 and 9,500 unique visits per month and we hope that this will expand, as the website itself expands. As I mentioned, there are four more lives currently in development, as well as a folder full of suggestions for other suitable subjects. Some possibilities for its future development include a greater diversity in the format of the lives and of the subjects, to feature families or communities as well as individuals, or to have ‘mini-lives’ that were focused more at the family history genre which were based around more limited groups of records such as those typically held about post-war assisted migrants from Europe.

At the National Archives we often think of ourselves as holding the records of the nation and the memory of the nation, but as Dutch archivist Eric Ketelaar has suggested ‘the “national memory” is not located in the National Archives’, but rather is a tapestry woven from a host of different societal resources.10 People want to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of archivists, historians, biographers and curators to make sense of the past and records of the past—and Uncommon Lives hopefully fulfils that to some degree—but they also want to be able to participate in the creation of the national memory by telling their own stories and the histories of individuals and families that have particular meaning to them.11 One possibility is that Uncommon Lives could open up to enable the public to post their own historical or biographical profiles, complete with links to related records in the Archives, as other online history projects do.12 While this kind of interactive functionality is not planned for the immediate future, Uncommon Lives, together with other Archives initiatives, is hopefully already linking the national memory hidden in the records of government to the people and communities of today’s Australia.

Bibliography

Antonello, Alessandro, ‘On seeing lives through the lenses of officialdom: Biography in the National Archives of Australia’, unpublished Summer Scholar paper, National Archives of Australia, 2006.

Bellamy, Craig, ‘The web, hypertext and history: A critical introduction’, Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, paper from Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges (a joint symposium of the Australian Historical Association and the State Library of New South Wales), July 1999, URL: www.jcu.edu.au/aff/history/conferences/virtual/bellamy, accessed 28 April 2006.

Brown, Joshua, ‘History and the web, from the illustrated newspaper to cyberspace: Visual technologies and interaction in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries’, Rethinking History, vol. 8, no. 2, June 2004.

Cohen, Daniel J, ‘History and the second decade of the web’, Rethinking History, vol. 8, no. 2, June 2004, pp. 293-301.

Davison, Graeme, ‘History and hypertext’, Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, URL: www.jcu.edu.au/aff/history/articles/davison, accessed 28 April 2006.

Gillies, Malcolm, ‘Virtual histories: Facts, contexts and interpretations’, Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History, paper from Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges (a joint symposium of the Australian Historical Association and the State Library of New South Wales), July 1999, URL: www.jcu.edu.au/aff/history/conferences/virtual/gillies, accessed 28 April 2006.

Ketelaar, Eric, ‘Sharing: Collected memories in communities of records’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 33, no. 1, May 2005, pp. 44-61.

Ketelaar, Eric, ‘Being digital in people’s archives’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 31, no. 2, November 2003, pp. 8-22.

Knowles, Harry, ‘Voyeurs or scholars? Biography’s role in labour history’, in Paul Ashton and Bridget Griffen-Foley (eds), From the Frontier: Essays in Honour of Duncan Waterson, joint issue of Journal of Australian Studies, no. 69 and Australian Cultural History, no. 20, 2001, pp. 63-75, 191-93.

Ling, Ted and Anne McLean, ‘Taking it to the people: Why the National Archives of Australia embraced digitisation on demand’, Australian Academic and Research Libraries, vol. 35, no. 1, March 2004, pp. 2-15.

Meredyth, Denise and David Prater (eds), Online Archives and Virtual Communities, special issue of Southern Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2005.

Nosworthy, Helen, ‘Reaching Out’, in Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott (eds), The Records Continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives First Fifty Years, Ancora Press in association with Australian Archives, Clayton Vic., 1994.

Wilson, Tikka, ‘Publishing online: The uncommon life of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda’, Archives and Communities: Conference Proceedings and Photos [proceedings of the 2005 conference of the Australian Society of Archivists, held in Wellington New Zealand, 6-8 October 2005 on CD-rom], Australian Society of Archivists, [no place or date of publication].

Wilson, Tikka and Lenore Coltheart, ‘ “Reaching out” revisited: A case study of the Australia’s Prime Ministers website’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 32, no. 1, May 2004, pp. 88-105.

Notes

  1. Environmetrics, Report on Remote User Study, internal National Archives report, October 2002.
  2. For example, articles are written for family history and community newsletters, personal names are included in catalogue item descriptions, and individual case files are digitised for access through the Archives’ online catalogue RecordSearch. For information about accessing defence service records and the Making Australia Home service, see www.naa.gov.au/the_collection/family_history/armed_services.html and www.naa.gov.au/the_collection/family_history/immigrants.html, accessed 13 June 2006.
  3. National Archives of Australia and National Archives of Australia Advisory Council, Annual Reports 2004-05, p. 28.
  4. Philip Ayres, Mawson: A Life, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 1999.
  5. Alessandro Antonello, ‘On seeing lives through the lenses of officialdom: Biography in the National Archives of Australia’, unpublished Summer Scholar paper, National Archives of Australia, [2006]. See Ayres, Mawson, p. 239 and letter from Douglas Mawson to John Curtin, 23 March 1942, in NAA: A461, F703/1/2.
  6. National Archives of Australia, Service Charter, available online at URL: www.naa.gov.au/about_us/service_charter/service_charter.html, accessed 1 June 2006.
  7. See ‘Olman’s story’, Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda: Appeal for Justice, Uncommon Lives website, http://uncommonlives.naa.gov.au/contents.asp?cID=54&lID=2, accessed 22 June 2006. [Historian Peter Read has written more on this in ‘Murder, revenge and reconciliation on the North Eastern Frontier’, History Australia, vol. 4, no. 1, 2007, pp. 09.1-09.15.]
  8. See Hilary Golder, ‘National Archives of Australia/Australian Historical Association: Reference Group Meeting—14 February 2002’, Australian Historical Association Bulletin, no. 95, Summer 2002/2003, p. 34.
  9. On the development of the National Archives public programs and websites, see Helen Nosworthy, ‘Reaching out’, in Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott (eds), The Records Continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives First Fifty Years, Ancora Press in association with Australian Archives, Clayton Vic., 1994; Gabrielle Hyslop, ‘For many audiences: Developing public programs at the National Archives of Australia’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 30, no. 1, May 2002, pp. 48-59; Tikka Wilson and Lenore Coltheart, ‘Reaching out’ revisited: A case study of the Australia’s Prime Ministers website’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 32, no. 1, May 2004, pp. 88-105.
  10. Erik Ketelaar, ‘Being digital in people’s archives’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 31, no. 2, November 2003, p. 15.
  11. For a discussion of how to connect archives to the people, see Eric Ketelaar, ‘Sharing: Collected memories in communities of records’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 33, no. 1, May 2005, pp. 44-61.
  12. See, for example, the ‘Stories’ section of Moving Here: 200 years of migration to England, at URL: www.movinghere.org.uk/stories, accessed 2 June 2006.

‘A legacy of White Australia’ – Records about the Poon Gooey family in the NAA

Ten years ago, in June 2009, a paper of mine about White Australia records and the Poon Gooey family was published on the National Archives website. I had presented the paper at the Fourth International Conference of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China, on 10 May 2009. I was then working in the web team at the National Archives and so we put my paper up online, with links to images of documents and to the original archival records, which were all digitised in RecordSearch.

Using the story of Poon Gooey and his family as a case study, the paper discussed the National Archives’ early 20th-century records on Chinese Australians, particularly those created in the administration of the White Australia Policy. The records document many aspects of the lives of Chinese Australians, including immigration and travel, business enterprises, political activities and community life. Publications and finding aids, descriptive work and digitisation projects over the years have made the records easier to access and hopefully encourage their use.

The records are a legacy of the discrimination and marginalisation of the White Australia years, but they can be used by researchers today to recover the lives of Chinese Australians in the past, and also to provide a more nuanced understanding of the contradictions and complications of Australia’s response to its Chinese population.

With the NAA website currently being redeveloped (and the online fate of my paper uncertain), I thought I’d revisit the original version of my paper, which can be found in the Wayback Machine at: https://web.archive.org/web/20090627064642/http://naa.gov.au/collection/issues/bagnall-2009/index.aspx

You can also download a full version of the paper, including images (pdf, 15.1mb): A Legacy of White Australia by Kate Bagnall, 2009

Wellington research trip, May 2019

I’m at the end of a two-week stay in Wellington, New Zealand, where I’ve been finishing off my the NZ part of my research on Chinese naturalisation. Last year when I was here I worked my way through the naturalisation files of about 450 Chinese men, and my aim on this visit was to look at the remaining 50 or so, as well as other policy files and correspondence around the subject of naturalisation and Chinese immigration. This is what I’ve mainly been looking at:

  • individual naturalisation files in 8333 (IA1): I now have a copy of most of the 499 successful naturalisation applications by Chinese up to 1908, some incomplete naturalisation applications, and files of some ‘Chinese’ naturalised after it was prohibited in 1908 (Chinese Canadian British subjects, and white widows of Chinese men) – happily about 90 of the files are now digitised in Archway (e.g. the 1905 file of Alexandra storekeeper Sue Hin: 8333, 1905/958)
  • copy letters of naturalisation in 8377 (IA53): I looked through 45 naturalisation registers to locate the copy naturalisation letters for each of 499 naturalised Chinese, and to confirm that I hadn’t missed any!

There are a few naturalisation files that I haven’t been able to see because they are either missing or restricted. The missing ones have been missing since at least the 1950s, and I checked the file registers and a couple were definitely destroyed. The restricted ones are two pre-1908 applications that have been top-numbered into later files, and files of the ‘exceptional’ post-1908 naturalised Chinese (Frank Kow Kee, Kathleen Pih and Anthony Joe). I’ve written again the the Department of Internal Affairs requesting permission to view the two pre-1908 applications, so fingers crossed.

I’ve also done some digging around in other records relating to naturalisation and nationality, the poll tax, immigration permits and petitions by Chinese residents.

What I’ll be doing next is transcribing biographical and administrative data from the files into my naturalisation database – data such as birthplace, length of residence in NZ before naturalisation, age at naturalisation, and length of time between application and grant of naturalisation. When that’s all done, I’ll be ready to do some proper analysis, and data visualisation!

While in Wellington, I’ve also enjoyed catching up with Lynette Shum from the National Library of NZ, Cameron Sang who runs the Wellington Chinese History Wiki, Bronwyn Labrum from Te Papa, and Grace Gassin who is also now at Te Papa.

I’ll be back in Wellington in November 2019 for the Dragon Tails conference, where I plan to present the research I’ve been doing in a paper on ‘Chinese British subjects in the colonial trans-Tasman world’.

Here’s some Twitter highlights from my visit.

New guide to researching Immigration Restriction Act records

I have produced a short guide to researching Chinese Australians in Immigration (Restriction) Act records in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney.

The guide aims to be a practical introduction to the records, their context and content. It covers the administrative background and processes, how-to steps for researching, a description of the main record series with examples, and copies of various certificates and forms.

Although the examples given in the guide relate to Chinese Australians, information about other ‘non-white’ Australians, such as those of Syrian, Afghan, Indian and Japanese backgrounds, can also be found in the records discussed.

Download the PDF (6.8mb): Chinese Australians and the Immigration Restriction Act by Kate Bagnall

 

Form 21 certificates, 1902–1908

Over the first few years of the 20th century, Form 21 (Certificate of Domicile, then Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test) went through various iterations as the procedures for administering the Immigration Restriction Act were bedded down. After 1906, the CEDT form remained basically the same until the Dictation Test was abolished in the late 1940s.

The certificates below are the first example of each iteration of the certificate found in the records of the NSW Collector of Customs in the National Archives in Sydney. Certificates of Domicile and CEDTs issued in Sydney are held in series ST84/1, except for those issued in 1902 which are held in SP11/6.

1902 – First Certificate of Domicile

The first Certificate of Domicile issued in New South Wales is found in a volume of certificates from 1902 in NAA: SP11/6, CERTIFICATE DOMICILE MISCELLANEOUS PASSENGERS 1909-1926. More about SP11/6 in an earlier post.

Certificate of Domicile of Yaw Foon, 3 February 1902 (NAA: SP11/6, CERTIFICATE DOMICILE MISCELLANEOUS PASSENGERS 1909-1926)
1903 – First Form 21 Certificate of Domicile

Certificates of Domicile from 1903 onwards are held in series ST84/1. More about this first certificate in an earlier post.

Front of Certificate of Domicile of Ah Shooey, 31 December 1902 (ST84/1, 1903/1-10)
Back of Certificate of Domicile of Ah Shooey, 31 December 1902 (ST84/1, 1903/1-10)
1903 – First Certificate of Domicile with photographs on reverse
Front of Certificate of Domicile of Ah Chong, 4 August 1903 (ST84/1, 1903/161-170)
Back of Certificate of Domicile of Ah Chong, 4 August 1903 (ST84/1, 1903/161-170)
1904 – First Certificate of Domicile with photographs on front
Front of Certificate of Domicile of Lee Too, 23 March 1904 (ST84/1, 1904/71-80)
Back of Certificate of Domicile of Lee Too, 23 March 1904 (ST84/1, 1904/71-80)
1906 – First Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test (CEDT)
Front of CEDT of Chun Low, 15 February 1906 (ST84/1, 1906/01-10)
Back of CEDT of Chun Low, 15 February 1906 (ST84/1, 1906/01-10)
1908 – First CEDT with new numbering system
Front of CEDT of King Yow, 20 October 1908 (NAA: ST84/1, 1908/11/1-10)

Immigration Restriction Act instructions, 1901 to 1919

I suspect I will never be finished in my quest to understand the workings of the White Australia policy in the early decades of the twentieth century. My most recent work (which I hope will be published in the next year) has focused on the entry and residence of Chinese wives between 1902 and 1920, including the well-known ‘Poon Gooey case’.

While much of what I know about how the Immigration (Restriction) Act was administered comes from individual case files (known as correspondence files), there has been a gap between these files and the legislation itself. Two items in the National Archives (AP214/9 and D3193) help fill this gap. The Collector of Customs in Adelaide – who like Customs officers in the other states administered the Act in accordance with regulations, rules and instructions from the Department of External Affairs – kept a valuable, and seemingly unique, record of this correspondence from External Affairs. I have not come across other similar items for other states (always happy to be corrected though!)

I’ve had D3193 digitised by the National Archives and, while the cost of digitisation of A214/9 was prohibitive because of conservation concerns, I have photographed it and put the images up in Dropbox (link below). There is another series, AP378/37 – ‘Confidential instructions (old system), 1900–45’, listed in RecordSearch as being held in Sydney, but I haven’t looked at this to see if it contains similar material.

AP214/9

AP214/9 is a register containing copies of the Immigration Restriction Act and related correspondence, dating from 1901 to 1913. It was created by the Collector of Customs in Adelaide, South Australia.

The contents of the register includes:

  • copies of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and subsequent amendments, as well as related regulations and statutory rules
  • notes for the guidance of officers administering the IRA
  • copies of forms used in administering the IRA
  • instructions from Department of External Affairs to the local Collector of Customs at Port Adelaide.

Much of the content concerns ‘coloured’ arrivals, including ships’ crews, and arriving passengers with physical diseases or disabilities.

It is a large bound volume, with folios marked with page numbers up to 292. The documents (either printed or typsescript carbon copies) are pasted into the register, rather than being written out by hand. Folios 232 to 267 are blank. There is a separate alphabetical index (which doesn’t seem very complete). The last dated document is from 31 December 1913.

AP214/9, VOLUME 1 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Adelaide and is not digitised in RecordSearch (as of 20 June 2017). My images of AP214/9 are available in Dropbox.

National Archives of Australia: AP214/9

D3193

D3193 is a volume containing confidential instructions relating to the Immigration Act (as the Immigration Restriction Act was known after 1912), dating from 1914 to 1919.

The small printed volume has been annotated with handwritten notes and insertions of further documents by the Collector of Customs, Adelaide. The original volume is titled Immigration Act Instructions together with Immigration Act 1901–1912 and Immigration Regulations 1913 and was produced by the Department of External Affairs in 1914.

The contents of D3193 are similar to those in AP214/9.

D3193 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney and is digitised in RecordSearch.

Finding your Chinese roots

For Australians whose Chinese ancestors arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tracing the family history back to China can be a real puzzle.

Whether you’re simply curious about your Chinese origins or are wanting to visit your ancestral village in China, there are two things you need to know – your Chinese ancestor’s name in Chinese characters and their village and county of origin.

Here you will find some suggestions for using Australian records to find these critical pieces of information.

You can also download a printable pdf of this post.

Chinese origins

Most Chinese who arrived in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from the rural Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, south of the provincial capital of Guangzhou, north of Macau and inland from Hong Kong. A smaller number of Chinese migrants came from other parts of Guangdong province and from Fujian province (through the port of Xiamen, known historically as Amoy), as well as from other places such as Shanghai.

This post concentrates on Cantonese migrants who came from the Pearl River Delta.

Cantonese migrants came from a number of different areas in the Pearl River Delta, including:

  • Sam Yup (Sanyi, meaning the ‘three districts’): Namhoi (Nanhai), Poonyu (Panyu) and Shuntak (Shunde)
  • Heungshan (Xiangshan), later known as Chungshan (Zhongshan)
  • Tongkun (Dongguan)
  • Changshing, Tsengshing (Zengcheng)
  • Koyiu (Gaoyao) and Koming (Gaoming)
  • Sze Yup (Siyi, meaning the ‘four districts’): Sunwui (Xinhui), Sunning (Xinning) or Toishan (Taishan), Hoiping (Kaiping) and Yanping (Enping).

The Cantonese migrants spoke a range of dialects including: standard Cantonese, Cantonese variations such as Shekki dialect, Longdu (Zhongshan Min) dialect, Sze Yup dialects such as Taishanese, and Hakka. The earlier Amoy Chinese spoke Hokkien.

Source: Him Mark Lai Digital Archive, https://himmarklai.org/roots-program-lecture-notes/

The big stumbling block

To successfully track your family back to China you ideally need your ancestor’s name and their village and district of origin in Chinese characters. If your family migrated to Australia more recently and this information is known within the family, you have a tremendous advantage. If you don’t have this information, you will need to try and work it out from records available in Australia. This can be very tricky.

Until the twentieth century there was no standard way of romanising the various Chinese languages and dialects. Because of this, and because Chinese in Australia spoke different sorts of Cantonese, there is a lot of variation in how personal and place names are recorded in Australian English-language sources. Only rarely are Chinese characters to be found. The discrepancies in how Chinese names were written down in colonial Australia are not necessarily an indication of racist or uncaring attitudes toward the Chinese, but more a reflection of the fact that nobody, including the Chinese themselves, knew how to spell the names ‘properly’ in English.

Personal names

Chinese personal names usually comprise three characters, with one being the family name and two being the given name – for example, 鐔梅玲 Tam Moyling. A few Chinese family names comprise two characters (e.g. O’Young, Seeto), and sometimes a given name comprises only one character.

Although the characters remain the same, the pronunciation of a name changes depending of the dialect spoken. For example, the two-character surname 司徒 is pronounced Situ in Mandarin, Seeto in Cantonese and Soohoo in Sze Yup. The common family name 陳 is pronounced Chen in Mandarin, Chan/Chun in Cantonese, Chin in Hakka, and Tan in Hokkien.

Chinese personal names were recorded in many different ways in Australian records and, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at least, rarely was a name written down ‘correctly’. A person’s name might have been recorded with multiple spelling variations – for example, one early Sydney resident was recorded as Man Sue Bach, Mum Shou Pac, John Ah Shue Bach, John A. Sue Bach, John Ah Sue and John a Shue.

Because of the different word order (surname first in Chinese but last in English), many Chinese given names came to be used as surnames in English – for example, Wong Chun Bun might became known as Jimmy Chun Bun and his children registered under the surname Bun.

Many, many Chinese personal names also include ‘Ah’ or ‘A’. This represents the character 阿, which is a prefix added to a given name as a familiar or informal form of address, much like adding ‘ie’ or ‘y’ to the end of a name in English (Ann to Annie, Tom to Tommy).

Petition of Chinese residents of Melbourne, 1857. Source: PROV VPRS 1189/P0, unit 482, http://wiki.prov.vic.gov.au/index.php/Chinese_Language_Records_at_PROV

While sometimes confusing, romanised versions of personal and place names can tell us helpful things. For example, personal names written with a ‘sl’ or ‘shl’ or ‘thl’ sound at the beginning (like Dang Bown Sluey or Slit Schin) suggest that these people were likely to be from Taishan, as this sound is particular to Sze Yup sub-dialects rather than standard Cantonese.

Or, a woman’s name that includes a ‘See’ or ‘Shee’ (氏) usually gives her father’s family name and indicates that the woman was married – a bit like the term née. Ham See, for example, would be a married woman who was born into the Ham (鐔) family – Ham would be her father’s, not her husband’s, surname.

Emma Woo Louie has written on Chinese American names, much of which applies in the Australian context. Her book is Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition (McFarland & Company, 2008). A preview of the book is available from Google Books. She has also published articles on the subject in the Chinese Historical Society of America’s journal Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

For more on overseas Chinese names see:

  • ‘Chinese names’ on the Chinese-Canadian Genealogy website: http://www.vpl.ca/ccg/Chinese_Names.html
  • Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2006 – Section 4: Belonging (starts on
    196): http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/1412/4/04sections3%264.pdf
  • Kate Bagnall, ‘The trouble with spelling Chinese names’, Tiger’s Mouth [blog], 12 February 2013: http://chineseaustralia.org/the-trouble-with-spelling-chinese-names/
  • Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales 1850–1950, New England Regional Art Museum, 2004
  • Jon Kehrer, ‘Who was “John Chinaman”’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 24, no. 4, December 2001, pp. 201–205
  • Jon Kehrer, ‘Honourable ancestors: My search for the Chinese connection’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 27, no. 4 December 2004, pp. 328–333
  • Gary Presland, ‘Some difficulties in researching Chinese ancestry’, in From Gold to Federation: Papers from the Fourth Victoria Family State Conference, ed. Noelle Oke, Penfolk Publishing, Melbourne, 2001.

Place names

The native place of many Chinese is recorded in Australian sources as Canton – which variably refers to the province of Guangdong or the capital city of Guangzhou. However, most migrants came from the rural counties outside the capital, rather than the city itself. Unfortunately if ‘Canton’ is all the information you can find about your ancestor’s origins you will probably not be able to progress your research much further.

More occasionally county, city, town or even village names are recorded: Sunning, Sun Wui, Heung Shan, Amoy, Shekki, Kongmoon, Lee Yuan, Chuk Sau Yuen or Bak Shek, for example. Sometimes it’s easy to identify these places, sometimes it’s not. The smaller the place, the harder it can be to identify, but the more useful it will be if you eventually work out where it is.

The trick is to be able to translate from the old romanised version of a place name to how it is known today. The Cantonese city known in Mandarin today as Jiangmen (江門), for instance, might have been written Quong Moon, Kong Mun, or Kongmoon.

There are several words that often appear as the last syllable in village names that it can be useful to recognise:

  • choon or toon – 村 cun, meaning ‘village’
    g. 南潮村 Nam Chew Toon
  • lee or lay – 里 li, meaning ‘village’
    g. 南勝里 Nam Sing Lay
  • yuen – 園 yuan, meaning ‘garden’
    g. 竹秀園 Chuk Sau Yuen.

You can use clues you find in other records, such as distance from a larger town or physical characteristics of the place, to help narrow down your search for your particular village. If you know your ancestor’s surname you can also cross-check village names with the surname. The following database of village names is useful for this purpose:

The ‘Location, location, location’ section of the Chinese Genealogy forum (http://siyigenealogy.proboards.com/) is an excellent place to read up how others have gone about identifying and locating their ancestral villages.

If your ancestor came from Taishan, Xinhui or Zhongshan counties, you might find relevant information in the material produced by a project undertaken by the Asian Library at the University of British Columbia that identified the village and town of origin of Chinese migrants to Canada. Many migrants to Australia came from the same places as those who went to Canada. See:

Australian sources to consult

The following records are places where you are more likely to find personal names and village origins in Chinese characters.

Gravestones

A headstone in Chinese often provides the person’s name and place of birth in China. See:

Chinese graves in the old Chiltern cemetery, Victoria

Birth, death and marriage records

You should obtain Australian marriage and death certificates for the original Chinese ancestor, as well as birth certificates for their children and death certificates if the children died young. Sometimes a Chinese groom or father will have signed his name in Chinese characters and the birthplace will be more specific than just ‘Canton’ or ‘China’.

Immigration, travel and alien registration records

Immigration and travel records, as well as alien registration records, might contain details of people’s place of origin and their name in Chinese. Twentieth-century travel documents issued to Chinese Australians under the Immigration Restriction Act and related records are held by the National Archives of Australia. ‘Aliens’ (people who were not British subjects) were required to register with the government from World War I. These records are also held by the National Archives and can contain Chinese signatures, information about place of birth and so on.

See:

Naturalisation records

Some Chinese migrants became naturalised British subjects in the colonial period, and their application forms and certificates can include details such as place of origin and their original signature in Chinese. Naturalisation applications, rejected applications and cancelled and confiscated naturalisation certificates are found in state archives and in the National Archives of Australia.

Chinese newspapers

From the 1890s, Australia’s Chinese communities had their own Chinese-language newspapers, including the Chinese Australian Herald and the Tung Wah Times. The Tung Wah Times has been indexed in English, which allows you to search without knowing Chinese. The index can be helpful in identifying articles that might include an ancestor’s name in Chinese.

The major early Australian Chinese-language newspapers are also available through the National Library of Australia’s discovery service, Trove. If you have located names in Chinese characters you can search the newspapers even if you only have basic Chinese language skills. See:

Chinese student records

In the early twentieth century, young Chinese were allowed to come to Australia to study. Most who came were the children or relatives of people already living here. These students were issued with special Chinese student passports that included their name and place of origin in Chinese characters as well as in English. Many of these passports are held in immigration files in the National Archives of Australia. On how you might be able to use these passports to identify your ancestor’s village of origin, see:

Application for a Chinese student passport for Wong Ching Hung, 1923. NAA: A1, 1927/2279, http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/scripts/AutoSearch.asp?O=I&Number=1506455

5 things I liked about the BC Archives

Visiting a new archive, particularly overseas, can be a bit daunting. But I’m pleased to report that my time at the British Columbia Archives over the past two weeks was just lovely. Research discoveries aside, here’s 5 things I liked about the BC Archives.

1. Location and transportation. The BC Archives is centrally located in downtown Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia. It’s housed in the same building as the Royal BC Museum, just across from the BC Parliament and the Inner Harbour. This means it’s easy to get to on foot or by public transport, and it’s easy to find once you’re there. It also has lots of nearby eating places and somewhere nice to stretch your legs at lunch.

2. The staff. The archives staff are some of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met – from Lance on the front desk, to Steve and Raj the security guys, to the archivists themselves (of particular help to me were Claire, Katy and Ann). One little thing I really appreciated was being told the names of the staff I was dealing with; Steve on security would tell me the names of those working on the information and retrievals desks each day when I signed in. The staff also took the time to remember my name, too, which was nice when I was so far from home.

Reading room at the BC Archives
Researchers’ view of the BC Archives reading room

3. Opening hours and locker system. The archives are open 6 days a week, which means you can really make the most of a visit from out of town. They have what they call full service and partial service hours. During full service hours the archivists are on duty and you can request original material. In the partial service hours (4–8pm on weekdays and 1–5pm on Saturdays), you can freely access the mircrofilm collection (a lot of the material I needed was on microfilm) or you can have original material put in a locker for you to access once the archivists have gone home.

The handsome collection of book rests, foam and archival weights in the BC Archives

4. Copying records. There are no problems with taking digital photographs of original materials, and the archives provides a nice collection of book rests, foam and weights so that you don’t have to try to awkwardly hold bound volumes flat while you take photos. Super handy with some of the big registers I was looking at. For microfilm you can save images onto a USB stick.

5. Raccoon! On the first day of my visit a raccoon was fishing in the pond in native plant garden outside the archives. No moose or bears, but definitely my best archival wildlife experience so far.

Archival raccoon in the native plant garden outside the BC Archives

My hunt through SP115/1: day 1

I spent today at the National Archives in Sydney, looking at records for my Paper Trails project. My helpful reference officer, Judith, had warned me that there were 77 boxes in SP115/1, the series I need to look through. On my arrival though she told me she’s miscounted and there were, in fact, about 140. I managed to get through about 28 today. I’ll be there for the rest of the week but I’m not sure I’ll get through the remaining 112 boxes in the next two and a half days!

Series SP115/1 contains documents relating to non-white people – mostly Chinese, but also Syrian, Indian, Japanese and others – arriving into Sydney between 1911 and the 1940s. The series is arranged by ship, with each item relating to a particular voyage. Although I’ve looked at particular items in this series before, this time I’m starting at Box 1 and looking through every file, all 1780 or so of them. You may well ask why.

Although most of the documents in the series are CEDTs, which can also be found in other series (mostly ST84/1), the papers relating to Australian-born Chinese are often unique and unable to be found elsewhere. Details about these individuals might be recorded in the Register of Birth Certificates (SP726/2), but the documents in SP115/1 can include original birth certificates and other statements about identity and family background. One nice find today is the 1902 Hong Kong birth certificate of Harold Hoong, son of Julum Hoong and Rosalie Kinnane, who were living in Yaumatei at that time (NAA: SP115/1, 04/02/1915 – PART 1). Early Hong Kong birth and marriage records were destroyed during World War II, so it’s nice to see one safe and sound. Other records relate to Harold’s Australian-born siblings William, Albert and Frederick.

As well as locating documents about Anglo-Chinese travellers I know about from earlier research, looking through the whole series is yielding people I haven’t encountered in other records. Today I’ve found about half a dozen new subjects – some from families I’d already identified, but others are completely new to me. Exciting.

I’m also making a record of all the Australian-born full Chinese (for my Threads of Kinship project) and any Chinese-born women (for a paper I’m working on about Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia).

‘Birth of a Chinese in the colony’, 1865

In July 1865, the Maitland Mercury carried an article announcing the birth of the second Chinese baby in the colony of New South Wales – a little boy named Henry Sydney Ah Foo – or, as recorded in the NSW BDMs index – Ah Cong, son of Sam Ah Foo and Ah Fie (15489/1865):

Some days ago Mrs. Ah Foo, wife of Mr. Ah Foo, storekeeper, of Nundle, to the delight of her husband and every other celestial on the Peel river, presented the former with an unmistakable pledge of love in the shape of a fine healthy son, no half and half affair, but a thorough Mongolian. We are given to understand that this is the second birth in this colony where both parents were Chinese, and is, consequently, well worth mentioning. The Chinese in the neighbourhood have taken the matter up, and elated with joy, have made a present to the parents of £150. On Sunday last, the Rev Mr. Whitfield of Tamworth performed the interesting ceremony of christening the child, which was witnessed by a large number of Chinamen. The youngster’s name is Henry Sydney. Mrs. Ah Foo is said to be an interesting woman.

The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, 18 July 1865

I’ve recently started working on a project that has its roots back more than ten years. As part of my PhD research, I started compiling a database of marriages between Chinese men and non-Chinese women in 19th-century New South Wales. A version of it ended up as an appendix to my thesis, but since a lot of time went into the original data-gathering (thanks Mum!) I thought that perhaps this data should now take on a new and exciting life.

I’m therefore extending my original database to include any ‘Chinese’ marriage or birth registered in New South Wales up to 1918 – that is, where either husband or wife, father or mother, were Chinese or part-Chinese. I’m initially working from the published NSW BDM indexes (hence the 1918 cut-off), but I’ll then add information from my piles and piles of other research notes and also hopefully crowdsource further data to fill out the scant details provided by the index. So far I’ve worked through maybe a tenth of the material I have, and I’ve already got over 1000 entries in the database.

You can read more about the database project, Threads of Kinship – and there’s a prize for guessing the origins of the project name and why I chose it.