Thursday, December 31, 2009

Births, Deaths and Marriages, but mostly Births.

It’s the last day of the year and I’m killing time, with my wife due to give birth at any tick of the clock. Maybe today, tomorrow, next week, who knows? I can’t wait. It’s a fantastic way to extend the family tree!

Yep, we know what we’re having, but we haven’t spilled the beans, and we’re not going to, until we’re holding a bundle of joy in our arms. My Dad has gone to great pains to find out the sex of the baby, having tried at every instance we’ve spoken. But, given that he’s correctly predicted the sex of some 14-15 babies in a row, both in and out of our family; I would imagine he’s trying to make me slip up for his own amusement rather than for information.

Beyond my Dad and every other joker trying to learn the sex of the baby, we’ve had to work through the issue of trying over the last month to confirm a name for the baby. This had to be done simply as a matter of courtesy, given that my wife and I chose a Koori (Australian Aboriginal) name for our child, and perhaps only one other person in the world has this particular name, a cousin whom I had never crossed paths with, until speaking over the phone two days ago, to confirm that persons comfort with the use of the name.

In the meantime, it’s been a quiet, but very enjoyable Christmas, and my genealogy has turned a corner, thanks to the efforts of the good folk behind the free Australian Newspaper Archive. Their digitised copies of the Sydney Morning Herald have revealed a number of new elements and hints to my tree, and will continue to do so, with each new week providing another decade’s worth of data to trawl through. Currently at 1922, the website’s SMH digitisation will be complete when they hit 1954, after which attention will turn to a multitude of interstate and small town newspapers, as listed here

In other news, the NSW BD&M website should have its index updated in the next few days, as it adds in births for 1909, deaths for 1979, and marriages for 1959, complying with limits as set out by the privacy act. Per usual at this time of year, I expect the site to become very sluggish during peak hours for a few weeks, until everyone has absorbed the new data and sent off for new certificates and transcriptions.

To everyone, I wish you all the very best and a safe and Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Recently I ventured an hour west of Melbourne, to the small and pictureseque town of Healesville. There at the outskirts I visited what once was the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve. Today there is one building remaining, the Aboriginal cemetery and Worawa, the local Aboriginal college. I paid my respects at the cemetery to family buried there, and to William Barak, an Aboriginal leader who as a young boy witnessed the supposed 'treaty', where John Batman robbed the Wirundjuri and neighbouring tribes of their lands.

Coranderrk existed up until the 1920's as a hub of activity, where originally the Aboriginal inhabitants were productive to the extent that they farmed their own land, becoming one of the new nation's major hop producers, and enabling their children to gain an education, have medical care and other facilities not seen by other Aboriginal people during the 1800's.

Among those who called Coranderrk home were my great great grandmother Maggie, her son John (my great grandfather), and Maggie's three other children - Bella, Minnie and Jacob. Both Bella and Minnie are buried at Coranderrk. I have yet to find much of a trace of Jacob, and I believe he died as an infant.

For more on the history of Coranderrk, and its significance in Black Australian history, check out the Victorian Museum website dedicated to the settlement, here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Black Mag

I've had a major break-through in my research recently, concerning one of my great great grandmothers, Maggie SIMMS. I've located information pertaining to where she is buried, when she died, and of her background.

Maggie was the mother of my namesake, my great grandfather John PATTEN, b. 1874 Corryong VIC, d. 1942 NSW. Maggie's partner, or possible husband may have also been named John PATTEN, or as records hint - John or James PATON (a matter which might only be clarified via a DNA test, if I am able to a willing counterpart descended from Corryong PATON's).

Maggie is listed by my great grandfather on his marriage certificate as Maggie SIMMS. This is a name that she is never referred to in other records. She's only ever called "Black Mag", or "Black Maggie".

I have two photographs of Maggie. The first, shows Maggie standing garbed in a possum skin cloak, holding a baby and in the company of "Black Charlotte". They are listed variously as "the last two full-blooded Aborigines" of the Yaithmathang, Jaitmathang and Dhuduroa. Which of those names are tribes, and which are clans within those tribes, I am uncertain. Of Charlotte's relationship to Maggie I am also uncertain, save for the fact that they were related via being members of the same tribe. The second photo shows Maggie climbing a tree, holding an axe, hunting for possums. This is the photograph as mentioned in an earlier blog entry that forms a part of a somewhat derogatory postcard for the Corryong district.

The books and academic journals that I found these details in, range from being linguistic volumes and anthropology journals, to the ignorant and racist ravings of a self-inflated, big noter.

According to Aldo Massola, in his book - Journey to Aboriginal Victoria (1965), Maggie died at Corryong in 1883 of exposure after drinking through the night.

Given that Maggie and her four children were removed to state care less than a decade earlier, and potentially three of those children died not long after, and that Maggie was then removed from her remaining son.. I'm not really surprised at her sad ending.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pecan Summer

Pecan Summer is Australia's first Aboriginal Opera. It tells the story of the 1939 Cummeragunja walk-off and of a pivotal point in black history, when my grandfather Jack PATTEN was arrested for inciting people to leave the Aboriginal Mission Station at Cummeragunja.

Click here for Part 1 in a two part documentary focusing on the development of the opera, and the search for potential Aboriginal opera stars to fill the roles. The documentary was made as part of the Message Stick program on ABC Television.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What to think?

Finding skeletons in the closet of one’s ancestors is one thing, but encountering the nasty skeletons of the general public, thrust upon said ancestors is another matter entirely, and one that has proven to be quite the source of personal anger.

In researching my great great grandmother, an Aboriginal woman by the name of Maggie SIMMS, I have found that she was viewed by the early settler/invaders of her country as a curiosity and a mark for mockery. She appears on an early postcard, as listed by Jim Davidson in a 1996 Sydney Morning Herald column, discussing the history of postcards in Australian history:

“This carried across to vignette cards with several images, even for such a small place as Corryong. One card, with seven cameos, leads off with the state school and the Church of England; in between is an image of "Black Mag", an Aboriginal identity, climbing a tree. Intentionally or otherwise, she is inserted between school and church as a marker of progress, an indication of how far white civilisation has advanced. Other pictures show the main street, a railway bridge (more progress) and two waterfalls, for Corryong is displaying its attractions as well as its attainments. The pioneering past was so recent that the two could be merged effortlessly into each other.”

How would you feel, to know that there exists a postcard, advertising a small town in the back of nowhere, which features your ancestor, one of the reasons for your existence, as nothing more than a joke, and as an example of a supposedly dying race?

Monday, November 9, 2009

National Newspaper archive updated

From an email I received this morning:

1. Sydney Morning Herald
The first digitised issues of the Sydney Morning Herald are now available.  We have started from the first issue 1831 and are making our way forwards to 1954.
The first 20 years (18,000 pages) are now available as follows:
Sydney Herald 1831-1842
Sydney Morning Herald 1842-1852
Issues from 1852 - 1954 will be made available each week from now on through til early 2010. In early 2010 The Sunday Herald 1949-1953 will also become available.
We would like to acknowledge the financial contribution of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation who have given $1 million dollars towards the digitisation of this title.
2. The Argus (Melbourne)
The Argus  (and its previous title the Melbourne Argus) from 1846 - 1945 are now completed and available. The remaining 10 years (1945-1954) of the Argus will be made available in 2010 (mid to end of year).

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Heat is On!

It's warming up rapidly here in typically chilly Melbourne. A long hot summer is ahead of us. I hope however, that it won't include the 47C temperatures that dropped in last summer, when so many people lost their homes and their lives in bush fires, about an hour North of where I live.

Yep, Summer is a great time to grab a few books of genealogical significance, and enjoy them under a tree in the park, or perhaps with the family by the water. Better yet, a family excursion to a place of historical significance! Yep, I'm a genealogy geek. And lovin' it!

Last weekend was a triumph for my research. I ventured north to the Blue Mountains, to visit my folks and my younger brother, along with his 18 month old twins. Not only did I enjoy a chance to catch up for the first time with said family, since late February, but I picked up all of my genealogy documents, that had been kept in storage there, since before moving to Victoria. Now I can get back into some hardcore research, at least if or when my study and work commitments slow down!

Whilst in the Mountains, I managed to get my Dad to sit down for a few hours in front of the camera, and we filmed him going over a great number of stories, relating to his own history and that of my grandparents and tribe. It was a highly enjoyable time, and I managed to pull from him a few stories that I had never heard before, which was a great surprise, given that Dad saves his best stories for me, so I usually hear the same ones quite often, whilst strangers hear those that are new to me.

I intend to continue filming my Dad, and other family members, and preserving the footage for the entire family, for generations to come. Currently I'm shooting with a Sony Minidisc Handycam, and am experimenting with a Flip Camera for portability.

I wonder, should I consider posting such footage online, or should it be a more privately held and controlled effort. What would you do?

Friday, October 23, 2009

From the Archives: Cummeragunja - Part III

From the Melbourne Argus, 18 March 1939. My great Uncle, George Patten, speaking on behalf of black Australia, a few days after the arrest of his brother, Jack (my grandfather), at Cummeragunja.

Moved by an aborigine's description ofconditions among his people, MelbourneUniversity students yesterday decided toapproach the Premier of New South Wales to seek an independent inquiry into the administration of the Aborigines' Protection Board.
Mr. George Patten addressing members of the University Labour Club said that although aborigines were retarded in their education and allowed to rise only to the third grade, they had shown marked aptitude for education at the mission stations. Dr. Donald Thomson was he said, the only anthropologist to plead for them but his suggestions had not been accepted by the Government.   

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

From the Archives: Cummeragunja - Part II

More on the Cummeragunja Walk-Off, from the Melbourne Argus, Saturday, March 11, 1939.

Man Convicted
ECHUCA, Friday. 
Intense interest was shown by a large crowd which assembled at the Moama Court today when John Thomas Patten, compositor, of Redfern, Sydney, was charged with having enticed and persuaded Aborigines to leave the Cummeragunga Mission Station, at Barmah (N.S.W.).
Patten, who pleaded not guilty, wasconvicted and discharged on enteringInto a recognisance to be of good behaviour for three months.
First-constable Arthur McAvoy, ofMoama, said that he visited Cummeragunga on February 3, and told Patten about inquiries being made into the manager's complaints that Aborigines had been pursuaded to leave the station. Patten replied, "They are being starved." Patten produced a letter signed, "Secretary, Aboriginal Protection board," authorising a visit to the reserve to address meetings.
When told that he had no authority to tell Aborigines that the reserve wouldbe made a compound, Patten replied that he had that morning telegraphed to the Premier and others that Aborigines were leaving because of victimisation and starvation.
Constable McAvoy described the arrestof Patten, and said that as the policecar departed Patten shouted, "Go to it,boys! Now Is your chance to leave thereserve. I will get all the publicity I want now!" The crowd was hostile, andtrouble might have occurred.
Arhur James McQuiggin, manager ofthe station, said that he was presentwith Constable McAvoy when Patten said that the Aborigines were being intimidated, victimised, and starved. Two families had left after the meeting.
Patten said that as President of theAborigines' Progressive Association, hehad never tried to induce residents ofCummeragunga to leave the reserve. Hebelieved that the people left because ofintimidation by the manager "who droveround with a rifle on his lorry and lookedat them in a hostile manner."
Mr. Hawkins said that he was satisfiedwith the police evidence, which evidencefor the defence had corroborated. Hebelieved that Patten frightened and incited people with the Inevitable consequences that they left. The Aboriginal problem was certainly very difficult, and he gave Patten credit for honestly trying to do his best for his own people although he had adopted a hopelessly wrong method.

Monday, October 19, 2009

From the Archives: Cummeragunja - Part I

Over the next few weeks I’ll be presenting a series of articles. Each will be among those that I’ve found relating to various ancestors whose lives have been recorded in some small way, in the online newspaper archives of the National Library of Australia.

Due to the poor quality of some of the article scans, I’ll be reproducing the transcripts that I’ve placed onto the archive site.

In chronological order, I'll begin by posting the articles relating to the struggles at Cummeragunja (various spelling variants), and the eventual walk-off by a majority of the residents following my grandfather's arrest.

The following article is from the Melbourne Argus,  Saturday - 4 March, 1939.

Natives Leave Station
SYDNEY, Friday. 
Reference to unrest at the Cummerogunga Aboriginal station which had resulted in the departure of several Aborigines, was made in the Legislative Assembly today.    
The Chief Secretary (Mr Gollan) was asked by Mr Davidson (Industrial Labour, Cobar) whether he had called for a report and if not whether he would have an independent inquiry regarding Aborigines who had left the Cummeragunga aboriginal station and crossed the  Murray River into Victoria and whether they had migrated to Victoria because of  mental hardship imposed upon them by the Administration.
Mr Lawson (UCP, Murray) asked Mr  Gollan vvhether he would inquire whether  a good deal of the trouble was due to a person from Sydney visiting the area and causing trouble. If so would he take steps to see that there was no repetition of it.
Mr Gollan replied that there had been a little unrest at the Aboriginal station but it was not a fact that the Aborigines had moved because of unkind treatment. It was due to a great extent to a certain man who had been given permission to address the Aborigines at the station. He had had that permission cancelled.
He added that every consideration had been shown to the Aborigines and if they returned to the station they would be treated in the same generous manner as the Aborigines at other stations. This particular man named Patten, who was not a full-blooded Aborigine, would be brought before the Court on March 10.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

SNGF - A Family's Increase

As per usual, I’m late with my reply to the ‘Saturday Night Genealogy Fun’, as has been dished up by Randy Seaver over on his blog, but as everyone knows; it’s never too late to have fun!

In his latest offering, Randy asked:

1) Pick one of your four great-grandparents - if possible, the one with the most descendants.

2) Create a descendants list for those great-grandparents either by hand or in your software program.

3) Tell us how many descendants, living or dead, are in each generation from those great-grandparents.

4) How many are still living? Of those, how many have you met and exchanged family information with? Are there any that you should make contact with ASAP? Please don't use last names of living people for this - respect their privacy.

5) Write about it in your own blog post, in comments to this post, or in comments or a Note on Facebook.

1.       I’ve chosen my great grandparent’s on my direct paternal line, John James PATTEN b. 1874 – d. 1942, and Christina Mary MIDDLETON b. 1885 – d. 1954.

2.       I made a descendant chart in Family Tree Maker 2006 (I’ve tried every later version, and still prefer 2006).
3.       Their descendants, as best as I can tell, number in each generation as follows:

1.       Children: 16 (none living, last died in 1983)
2.       Grand Children:  26
3.       Great Grand Children:  39
4.       2 x Great Grand Children: 37
5.       3 x Great Grand Children: 5

4.       With every generation there are gaps yet to be filled. Records have clearly pointed to my great parents having had 16 children, with only 6 of those having reached adulthood, but I can find records naming only 11 of the children.

The grand children are easiest to trace, but I know that there are still gaps in this generation.
I’ve met most of those that are still living, from each generation.

Jack and George

A busy few weeks, I’ve been dividing my time between work, studies and calm birth classes (we’re currently at week 29), so there hasn’t been a lot of time for genealogy. Despite that, I have slipped in a few moments here and there, including some time dedicated to helping a friend with her own research inquiry.

I’ve been digging through New South Wales and Victorian Police and Government Gazettes among other files, hoping to find traces of my great grandfather, and I’ve had some success, although, as expected I didn’t come across his photo anywhere.

Apparently, a photo of my great grandfather at one stage was on the wall of the police station at West Wyalong, in Western NSW, where he served as a tracker, but today there appears to be no trace. Hopefully that photo still exists, somewhere, and hasn’t been thrown out, like many photos are, ever so thoughtlessly.

My favourite site for research at the moment is the Australian newspapers website I’ve been checking it out, on and off since its inception, but until recently it has been of very limited use, containing a limited number of newspapers, focused on a particular swag of years, which are less than helpful.

That however has been changing lately with the introduction of Argus newspapers from Melbourne, and a greater number of files from the Canberra Times. In the last two days I’ve also noticed that the Sydney Morning Herald files for late 1842 to about 1846 (possibly further) are also coming online, once they have been checked for quality.

The Argus files have been a goldmine, with many articles dedicated to both my grandfather, “Jack” John Thomas PATTEN and his younger brother George Middleton PATTEN. Most articles relate to the Cummeragunja Walk-Off of 1939, the Aboriginal Day of Mourning, and both brothers speaking about Aboriginal Australia, pushing for citizen’s rights and for a chance to determine their own futures. In addition, I also found a few mentions of George having been an actor in a play.

I’ve yet to really find much on my mother’s side of the family in the archive, but I’m sure that I’ll be more successful as more editions of the Sydney newspapers and those from Western NSW come online.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Patten = Paton ?

The last week has proven to be a highly productive period, allowing me to knock further walls down in my primary goal which is in determining the genesis of my paternal line’s surname in Australia.

Like with every generation, the first born male in my family is named John. I’m John, my father is, and so on and so forth, to my great grandfather, John James PATTEN (1874 – 1942). My great grandfather’s story is one that I knew from an early age, but only in time ravaged snippets, which do little to maintain and preserve the truth of his tale.

The story went that my great grandfather was a well known ‘black tracker’, and was commonly known to the Anglo-Celtic community as ‘Tracker Patten.’ However, a distortion emerged very early on, warping my great grandfather’s exploits, to the extent that he was thought to have lived at an earlier time, and had been responsible for tracking, and capturing one of the better known bushrangers in Western New South Wales. This however was not the case.

Tracker Patten was born in the Victorian high country of the Upper Murray, and as given on his marriage certificate, his parents were John PATTEN and Maggie SIMMS. Until this week, I was sceptical about there being any records that still exist for this particular union, but luckily there are.

Maggie, as I had suspected, was an Aboriginal woman, born in the Upper Murray. This I believed for the fact that SIMMS is a name that is a well known one in at least two distinct Aboriginal families, and I then, as I do now, believe that there should be a way to connect her to one of those, if I continue to unearth the right records. Also, that PATTEN is not a name found among Aboriginal people, prior to the birth of Maggie’s son. The SIMMS hypothesis of course was an educated guess, but was one also based upon the fact that in official government records my great grandfather had always been labelled with the now increasingly offensive term “halfcaste”, ergo Maggie stood with high probability to be the Aboriginal candidate in the partnership.

So, with great surprise, I checked the Genealogical Society of Victoria’s records, searching for Aboriginals in the Upper Murray, and the first and only 3 records to appear in the vicinity were a perfect match. They were Maggie, and listed with her – two daughters, whose names also happened to be the same as what my great grandfather had named his first two daughters.

Upon further research, I found that Maggie had been allowed to place her two daughters into the local school, in the 1870’s only to then be forced from her tribal homeland, to an Aboriginal reserve on the other side of the state.
Maggie was ordered by government decree to be placed at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station in 1878, along with her four children: Isabella, Minnie, John and Jacob.

I was stunned. Sometimes genealogy drops a million tonnes on top of us, and we just don’t know what to do next, at least until we’ve had time for all the details to sink in.

I’d considered the possibility that my great grandfather had siblings, but now that I know he had at least three, I’m finding it hard to regroup my thoughts, to find them in the tangle of myriad archival documents.

Coranderrk is a story unto itself, which I will visit in a later post. But briefly, it is a place like many other reserves and mission stations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The life expectancy and birth rate of Aboriginal people on such reserves plummeted massively.

I have anecdotal evidence that my great grandfather’s sister Isabella survived her time at Coranderrk, but I don’t hold great hopes for Minnie, or young Jacob, who was 7 months old at the time he was incarcerated there. Even my great grandfather found matters very tough, as he was listed by the age of 10 as an orphan and by 11 was recovering from typhoid.

John petitioned to be able to leave Coranderrk in 1887, at the age of 14, but of course this was refused, because his labour was required. However, appealing to a higher government authority, John was granted leave the following year. Where he went in the next decade I don’t know, as he only resurfaced in 1889, not long before marrying and establishing himself as a tracker of note, with the Wyalong police force, in Western New South Wales.

My question now however is, whilst I’ve determined the truth behind the name Maggie, I now must ask, who was “John Patten”?

So far, I have found no evidence that a man by that name has ever lived in the region in question, nor does there appear to be a family in the region, bearing that particular surname. I have however found numerous people with the surname “PATON” there and with one particular candidate being more likely than the rest.

Keeping in mind, that the area in question (Towong, Corryong, Mitta Mitta etc), during the 1860’s was sparsely populated, it would seem exceedingly unlikely that there is not a correlation between my great grandfather and those with the surname PATON. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

William MORTIMER, Where art thou - Part II

After my visit to the Genealogical Society of Victoria’ library earlier this week, I’ve come a little closer to cracking the mystery that is my William MORTIMER. Whilst he does remain somewhat elusive, I now feel a lot more confident about my abilities to track him down, given that I now have access to a much wider array of resources at the GSV and have partially cracked an associated brick wall.

Originally working within the premise that William MORTIMER and his wife Johannah Hazel MORTIMER (nee BLACK or BLACKALL/BLACKHALL), had been marked somewhat accurately in their shipping records, where stating that they had been born respectively in “North Allerton Devon” and Winchester, I now know that the latter is incorrect.

Via the East Sussex parish records, I’ve now located William and Johannah’s marriage, in 1829, at the parish of Hollington, Sussex, which opens itself up as yet another possible interpretation for William’s possible place of birth (North Hollington?).

Searching through the Sussex marriages index, I also located Johannah’s baptism in 1805, and she was born at Winchelsea, Sussex, rather than Winchester as had been indicated on her shipping record. Johannah’s name on the marriage record however provided the most interesting clue, being “Joanna Haisell BLACKHALL”. Haisell, rather than Hazel. This record not only confirmed that Johannah’s surname was indeed BLACKALL/BLACKHALL, but also that her parents names “William & Elizabeth BLACKALL” as indicated on the shipping record are accurate, with their own marriage having been documented in the parish records at Winchelsea in 1810, being the marriage of William BLACKALL and Elizabeth HAISELL.

William and Johannah’s daughters’ baptism records also came to light, with those being in the parish of St.Mary in the Castle, and were as follows” Matilda 1830, Harriet 1831, Johanna 1834, Mary 1835.

Further to the above, when I arrived home from the library, I did a google search, and found in the UK National Archives the following:

Bastardy examination PAR511/34/1/59 12 Jan 1803
Former reference: PAR511/34/1/59

Elizabeth Haisell, singlewoman, charges William Blackall of Winchelsea, servant, as father of her bastard daughter born at the house of Thomas Hailsell on 18 Oct 1802


Vestry resolution PAR511/34/1/58 13 Jan 1803
Former reference: PAR511/34/1/58

Agreed that William Blackall shall pay 2s 6d and Elizabeth Haisell 6d towards the maintenance of Amy, their bastard child

So now I know from these, along with several other mentions in the records that:

William BLACKALL a servant of Dr. A. SCOTT of Winchelsea, and Elizabeth HAISELL had a child called Amy circa 1801 (baptised in 1802). I also know that Elizabeth at the time was living in the home of a Thomas HAISELL, and that after closer inspection he appears to be her father, with Elizabeth STONEHAM her mother. Thomas and Elizabeth appear also to have had at least four other children, as documented in parish records at

Having also searched using a combination of above surnames, I have also found William MORTIMER in 1840, being paid a handsome sum for stonework done for the church, in the parish of his residence, St. Mary in the Castle, a year prior to going to Sydney NSW to “work on the new Church” there.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

GSV Membership

Following on from a recent post, I’ve finally allowed myself the free time to join my first family history group, the Genealogical Society of Victoria.

So far so good! As previously suggested, my last attempt to join a family history group didn’t go so well. It was akin to the dream where you find yourself at school, naked, and everyone is staring at you. Discounting the fact that I actually streaked naked across a roof-top during my school years, the situation as suggested was one of considerable discomfort.

This time around however I’ve had no such feeling. My visit to the GSV was an absolute joy. Helpful staff and volunteers were welcoming, giving me a quick introduction to the available resources, and assisted me with an initial inquiry.

At first glance I’d have thought that the fees were a little steep. But given that I’d managed to knock down a brick wall within 15 minutes of having been granted access to the appropriate resources, and that I was able to find some great material on another line, my membership has almost already paid for itself.

Great place, good people, and well worth the 10 minutes spent locked in the bloody stairwell, racing up and down frantically before having to set off the fire alarm (yes, this is what happens when you try to be exercise conscious, taking the stairs instead of the elevator).

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I’m impressed.

Working as an ICT technician in an education environment, it’s not often that I find a new piece of technology that impresses me. Almost every piece of software, hardware and other miscellaneous resource tends to be no more than a bland rehash of what we’ve already seen before, just as most ideas are in general. Which is fine. But a few new bells and whistles are a lot less impressive than when an existing idea is completely overhauled, and re-imagined.

Google did it with the search engine, Mac did it with the Ipod and Iphone and I suspect that email and web forums will (kind of) fall by the wayside too, once Google Wave is through it’s testing phase. Big changes are afoot, and right now I’m excited about the potential for presentation software.

I recently had the chance to play with and to road test the site and it’s built-in presentation application for its potential use in a classroom environment, and after only a 30 minute introduction – I’m absolutely wrapped.

Prezi takes the idea of a traditional slide show or powerpoint / keynote presentation and throws it out the window, replacing it with a more logical approach that is more intuitive to how a mind works. Rather than forcing the user to flip through page after page, in a linear, book-like presentation, our data is instead placed onto a digital canvas, akin to how a child might create a project on a large piece of cardboard. With Prezi it really doesn’t matter where you place each paragraph, photo, video or other material, or even if it’s sideways or upside-down, because potentially those create extra interest and will all ultimately be displayed correctly when played back by the user.

For a fantastic example of this brilliant resource and an idea for how it might be applied to a genealogical presentation, click here.

For my own first effort, click below.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wordless Wednesday: Egypt

Photo taken in Egypt during WWII. My grandfather, Jack Patten.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


A place dear to my heart is the small Aboriginal town of Baryulgil. It is where my parents were living when I was conceived and where untold generations of my paternal grandmother’s line have lived, smack dab in the heart of the Bundjalung Nation, in the New England and Northern Rivers regions of the state of New South Wales.

Prior to relocating to Victoria, it had been an annual pilgrimage for my family and I to travel from whichever town we called home (Yamba, Grafton, Newcastle, Blue Mountains, Wagga Wagga), to venture north to Baryulgil, to camp at Christmas time. Each year we would spend about two weeks, camped on a tributary of the Clarence River, near Baryulgil and Washpool State Forest, enjoying nature, the quiet and the company of nearby family.

Dad, Mum, my brother, Uncles, Aunts and cousins, all would spend time in our camp, or share it with us, sitting around the campfire, beneath a stand of ancient Bunya Pines, listening intently to stories of our family history. I would spend time with my older cousins, learning to hunt kangaroo and goanna and dive deep into the river for turtle. It was a great time in my life, and it’s a tradition I intend to continue with my wife and our growing family. Sometimes however, traditions can be threatened by matters of the past, as is the case with Baryulgil.

When my folks were living at Baryulgil, it was for four years in the 70’s when my dad was working at the local mine. It wasn’t great pay, but it allowed the small tight-knit Aboriginal community of Baryulgil to survive and in some sense – to thrive, when others were struggling to exist at all.

Dad’s job was to stand on a cubic slab of stone as wide as a car and to split it in half with his sledge hammer. He, just like the other workers would do this, repeatedly, until their stones were many small, flaking, stones - small enough to be picked up and thrown into a skip. Dad having not long been out of the game as a professional boxer and football (rugby league) player was able to get his quota filled a few hours before most others and perhaps in the long run, this, along with his fitness was what saved him from the stones. Baryulgil mine after all was an asbestos mine.

No shirt, no mask, no protection of any kind. It’s no wonder then that very few men that worked in that mine alongside my dad are alive to tell their own stories.

Linked below is an mp3 recording, made by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in 2001 and dealing with the history of Baryulgil Asbestos Mine, which had been owned and operated by James Hardie industries. In the audio file are interviews with my Uncle Ken ‘Linky’ Gordon and his wife Pauline (my dad’s sister). Uncle Linky was one of the many unlucky ones, having been diagnosed in the 1980’s with Asbestosis, the primary disease, among others, associated with asbestos. He’s been gone now since 2006.

Whilst I do love Baryulgil, it’s the area and the people, rather than the small parcel of land identified as Baryulgil Square that mean a great deal to me. Relatives continue to die there. Children with ocular cancers, and having had an eye removed because of asbestos are typical of what the community faces. Both my mum and dad in recent years have had scans with the Dust Disease Board, to certify that the currently are disease free, and I can only hope that continues to be the case.

My mum’s contact with the dust is limited in comparison to the miners. Uncle Linky in particular, who worked in an enclosed room, would finish work with his hair grey and asbestos fibres in his nose and ears. I have another uncle, who is still picking shards of asbestos out of the tips of his fingers and toes as his body tries to expel their poison. Sure, my mum only had to wash the dust covered clothes, but it only takes one shiver (a shard of the asbestos rock) to cause the sickness. The once dirt roads near Baryulgil were once literally made of asbestos and the local school kids played in a sand pit filled with the fibres.

Although where my family has always camped is not an area contaminated in the slightest per the township itself, I must now wonder, how greatly should I be concerned for my own health?

Images: Top, is my dad relaxing at our camp in 2004. Bottom is my Uncle Ken 'Linky' GORDON, circa 2000. A still from a television documentary 'Black Fella, White Dust'.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wordless Wednesday - 1957

February 11, 1957. Johnny Jarrett (my Dad, John Trevor PATTEN) v. Brian SMITH @ Sydney Stadium. Main event, Bantamweight bout.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Oral Tradition and skewing the truth

Family oral tradition is golden. I love it. The spoken word as offered usually by a member of an older generation is a fantastic, tried and tested means with which to introduce a younger audience to family history. It allows the potential budding genealogist to have their imagination stoked and it provides impetus and the perfect launch pad to the discovery of greater detail, and truth, via new genealogical detective work.

Slipping beyond the veil of oral tradition and its inherent pitfalls can however bring a mixed bag of emotions. Usually, the person offering the family stories, believable or otherwise, is a person who is both loved and respected. Having such a person’s stories potentially turned into dust or into a comical mixed-bag of truth and the wildly inaccurate can potentially drive a newly emerged researcher in the wrong direction – away from oral tradition, if not genealogy altogether.

If great Uncle Bob’s time in the Navy turns out to be the time he spent playing piano in the bar of a cruise liner, should we lose faith in oral history? Should we ignore our source of oral record?

Being discouraged is only natural. It’s all too easy to fall in love with family folklore and the often flamboyant and inaccurate portraits that our family members have painted, but turning away from those stories or discarding them completely would be a dying shame.

Inaccurate oral accounts aren’t worthless. They provide an opportunity, and a starting place where perhaps no other sources are offered. Folklore and skewed oral tradition are as much a part of our histories as the accurate accounts are. They add colour to history and to the hopes and dreams of the times they were conjured, and they deliver to us a colourful backdrop against which we can display the truth.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Secret Societies

When I first started down the road toward researching my family history, I looked to do practically everything myself. I ordered certificates, wrote down what I had learnt, and used those notes to proceed onto the next level of certificate ordering. It was linear, amateurish, and I missed a lot of clues, but that’s the pitfall of tackling this obsession as a loner.

A couple of years of research passed before I finally ventured into a local Historical Society or Genealogical Research Group, and whilst I’d love to say I joined up and found some handy contacts, made rapid progress in developing new research skills and even made a few friends along the way, that’s just not the case at all. Instead, I walked in, stood at what I assume to have been the reception desk, waited for the tumble-weeds to pass, looked back at the troupe of elderly researchers who were piercing my skull with an icy glare, exchanged a few words with an exceedingly reluctant volunteer and walked back out highly disappointed.

Are all groups like the one I described? I’m sure they aren’t. But the memory of my sour experience was refreshed this week when listening to the latest Genealogy Guys pod-cast, whilst fighting boredom on my long train trip to work.

In the pod-cast, a listener had written in, speaking about his own particularly negative experiences in attempting to make a contribution to a local genealogy group. This immediately had me thinking back to my own experience, and seemingly it fed into the recollections of the hosts, in their travels as well.

Is this a common problem? I’d hate to think that my, or anyone’s next foray into a Historical Society will be met with disappointment.

I was living in a small town of about 15,000 when I faced that clique, and now I’m in a city of 4 million. At least now I’ve got a wide choice of organisations to be potentially shunned by!

Whilst I appreciate that genealogists in their 20’s, as I was then, aren’t exactly a common sight to the typical septuagenarian researcher/volunteer, I still feel that a level of common courtesy and decorum should be extended to all who would venture through such a groups door. New blood and new members are a good thing, right?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Great Unknown

As daunting as it was to have leapt into the great unknown, and into exploring the genealogical mists of time, I took my first steps towards finding that particular magic bag of genealogical answers in the spring of 2005.

I started out just like most people do. I had asked an occasional question of both my parents, my uncles, cousins and aunts, and had listened to stories of family history as I was growing up. I had listened intently, and was easily drawn into the romance of both history and discovery. However, at the same time, I’d also sat on my backside and I did very little to satisfy my curiosity and a growing thirst for detail. It was all too hard, and would be too costly, and I probably wouldn’t get very far. You know the story. These were the fleeting and typically ignorant thoughts that plague most people who have yet to bother, and are unaware of the joys of family history and genealogical research.

Even now, I type those words “joys of family history” and it still sounds a slightly bizarre sentence. Perhaps because I, like most people, had been conditioned to not care enough about history and our past, other than via what Hollywood and our schools deliver in generic, bite-sized, non-consequential samples. There are after all, more pressing matters to concern ones self with than knowing where we came from, even though I can certainly guarantee that watching “reality” TV and updating facebook to notify others of your boredom, are not among them.

So, into the mists I threw myself. I started out slow, having ordered my mother’s birth certificate and my paternal grandfather’s death certificate from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages, and I really had no idea what to expect.

My mum’s history was a complete blank and I had a lot of catching up to do. I didn’t know my maternal grandparents names, and I had no idea what had ever happened to them. Ordering my mum’s birth certificate enabled the both of us to confirm a faded memory, of my mum’s original surname being FISHER. This had been muddled because my mum had been raised in an orphanage at Lane Cove in Sydney, and under the name SMITH which had been the only surname’s she has ever used prior to marriage.

I’d asked mum a few times when I was a kid what she remembered of her parents. The answer then, as it is now, is one of a few hazy memories. None of which have been particularly helpful as yet.

Both my mother, Margaret Ruth (b. 1943) and her younger sister Joanne Dell (born in about 1945), were raised at St. Anthony’s orphanage, in the Sydney suburb of Croydon, under the surname of SMITH. Mum recalls that on occasion that both girls were able to visit with their “father”, a man by the name of Jack SMITH, who lived at 4 Kettle Street, Redfern. There both would also see their brother, John SMITH.

I’ve never met my Aunt Joanne, or Joan as she is listed in an occasional record. I have no idea if she’s still alive. So asking her for clues, or asking her anything isn’t really currently viable. The last time that mum saw her sister was in the late 1970’s, before I was born. The last time that my mother saw her brother John, was when she was in her teens and he was living with his “father” at Lane Cove.

Basically, on my mother’s side of the tree – mum is all I’ve got!

Well, that’s not entirely true. Since having started my research, I’ve met a 5th cousin face to face, spoken to a 4th cousin over the phone, and had a number of highly enjoyable conversations via email with my 2nd cousin, once removed (I’m getting closer!). There are other researchers as well, who have been for the most part a friendly and helpful lot, but whom I haven’t exchanged much more than a few documents, kind words and data. I am after all, still a somewhat disconnected stranger, and one whose dominating background would seem quite alien to most researchers.But I digress. Let us return to my maternal ancestry!

My mother’s memory is pretty good. She remembers Kettle Street and her time at the orphanage just fine. She remembers the hardship of life when she turned 18 and was turfed out by the Nuns, without any viable career skills. She also happily recalls going off to work at the old “Pick Me Up” sauce factory in Sydney, and her time working in childcare. She can even break my heart, relating how time spent with Dad at their lowest ebb, living on the streets for several months and calling home to a cargo container, whilst waiting for my dad to have an operation in Brisbane became a reality.

Mum went through a lot of hard times, and so has my Dad. I don’t ask about the harder times much and I don’t ask about my mum’s first marriage. But I do ask about perhaps the hardest subject, that of how my sister, Susan-Marie, my mother’s first born, had been stolen from her by the Nuns hours after giving birth, when Mum had returned to their “care” at 21 years of age. My sister’s out there somewhere still, I hope and both my mother and I want to find her, but as can be imagined, my Mum finds matters terribly daunting.

As can clearly be seen, my Mum’s story is a bit of a rollercoaster. But there are as many happy highs to match the terrible lows that I’ve mentioned, and life for my parents since finding each other has seemingly only gone from one joy to the next. They have a happy home in the mountains, two sons, a dog, cat and two strong, cheeky, nappy/diaper-filling grand-children.

Still, when looking back at my maternal genealogy, there are still a few questions that burn brighter than others, and I’m not convinced that I’ll ever truly be able to have those questions answered. They however do remain as a constant challenge, and as prominent reasons among many, to keep pushing forward.