By Bob McAllister.
Beginning family history researchers quickly come to rely on a very small set of good quality documentary records relevant to any particular ancestor. So we are accustomed to wringing every last drop of information from each record that we do find. That is one of the reasons why I am so embarrassed to look back at my earliest searches to see the gems that I overlooked, failed to recognise the significance of, or simply ignored on first reading.
Civil registrations of births are high up on our scale of reliability. We know that they were created within a short time of the event in a standardised form by a person who was at least nominally literate for an agency with a vested interest in its accuracy. The documents themselves also usually provide an indication of the informant and the basis of his or her knowledge of the event. All of which leads us to place a high value on such records. But, however reliable these records may be, we must exercise caution.
The cynic reminds us that all a birth certificate proves is that one woman and her child were in a particular place on a specified day. It makes no explicit claim about their usual place of abode or indeed their location in the weeks or even days immediately before and after the event. Yet we all too readily yield to the temptation to create a “residence” event supported by a citation of the birth record!
There are few references in the Gospels to Jesus of Bethlehem. Despite the location of his birth, the writers made clear that He was a Nazarene. Perhaps anticipating our future tendency to over-interpret such records, they took pains to explain the reason why the birth did not take place at the usual residence of the family.1 Sadly, the stories of most of our ancestors are not so thoroughly documented.
We stare at a gap in the records and begin to speculate. Before long “it is possible that he was born at home” becomes “it is reasonable to infer that the family was living in the village where he was born”. Except that it is not always “reasonable to infer” without independent supporting evidence; and in some instances the inference is just plain wrong and leads me into grievous error.
The records show that in the 1901 Census my great grandparents, Andrew and Agnes Burton were living in Scotland at Pollokshaws outside Glasgow. The 1911 Census shows Agnes, now widowed and living at Leonard Street, Victoria in Ulster.2 At some point during the previous decade, the family had relocated from Scotland, where Agnes had been born and the couple married, to the province of Andrew’s birth. I had confirmed Andrew’s death occurred in Belfast.
There were six children living with Agnes in 1911, and another enumerated in a house a few blocks away, but that is a story for another day. If I could identify the place of birth of each of them in turn, it would define a window of opportunity within which they shifted house. I know that the Census Returns claim that all the children were born in Scotland, but that is simply illogical.
Initial searches suggested that none of the births were recorded in the documents available, without cost at irishgenealogy.ie but the older ones were definitely available for purchase at scotlandspeople. So I had no option but to open my purse again and again as I worked my way sequentially through the births in Scotland. The outcome was excellently documented evidence that every one of the children had been born in Pollokshaws, even little Susan whose birth came six months after the accidental death in Belfast of the father she would never know. Since the evidence could not be moulded to suit my theory, I set the whole matter aside and moved on to another branch of the tree.
A few years later, I recounted this depressing tale of failed research to a cousin sufficiently generationally removed to have some childhood memories of Agnes. “Oh yes, Grannie always went home to have a baby. She said that no child of hers would be born Irish!”4 Apparently a road trip from Belfast to Larne and then a ferry ride to Glasgow was a small price to pay for the security of familiar surroundings at such a time. All my theories and clever search strategies failed to take account of my ancestor’s personal preferences.
One might imagine that this experience would have taught me a salutary, not to say, expensive lesson, about the risk of reading more into a birth record than can be justified. But, in recent weeks I have fallen into almost exactly the same trap. I was part of a group investigating the Hammond family who played an important part in establishing the pastoral industry. They had originally established properties in New South Wales before making the move to Queensland. Diary entries and fragmentary correspondence suggested that droving the stock north took a very long time, possibly years. Since James Hammond and Fanny Tully had at least 11 children, perhaps the location of their births could provide some evidence of when they set out.
The youngest son, Michael, was born on 6 May 1864 in Yass.5 But land acquisition and occupancy records showed that the family was apparently well-established near Quilpie several years before Michael’s birth. Perhaps the initial move north had been undertaken by the older children who took up runs in their father’s name before he joined them later – speculation piled upon supposition. Eventually good sense prevailed and I abandoned the notion that the place of birth indicated anything more than just that.
We subsequently located an account of the southward journey made by Jim and Fanny to enable her to have the support of her sisters during what might have been a challenging confinement for a woman approaching her eleventh delivery at age 43.6 The properties in the Channel Country were left under the able management of the eldest sons until their parents returned with a new little brother.
Michael Hammond would eventually assume control of the iconic Hammond Downs run but before then he became well-known (in the style of the Outback) as Michael from Tenham.7 That extensive grazing property took its name from a tiny village in Kent (actually Teynham) where his father James may have lived, possibly was born, but almost certainly was baptised circa 1797.8&9
- Luke 2:1–5 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_(King_James)/Luke#2:1
- Renfrew, Scotland, “Statutory Births,” 560/00 0905, Susan Johnston Burton; digital image, “1906 Births Parish of Cathcart”, Scotlands People https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.
- Ordinarily I would be loath to repeat such an unsupported claim of deplorably racist attitudes to anyone outside the family. But Agnes Burton had been resident in Ulster for a quarter of a century when she migrated to Queensland. On the passenger list, she gave her nationality as Scot!
- New South Wales, Australia Birth Registration 16741/1864, Michael Hammond child of James and Frances, district Yass, online database, NSW Registry of Births Deaths & Marriages https://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au
- Document USH00488 in collection of Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre https://ehive.com/objects?query=USH00488
- “LOCAL AND GENERAL.” The Evening Telegraph (Charters Towers, Qld. : 1901 – 1921) 9 July 1912: 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article214382384.
- Parish register extracts, 1568-1828 Parish Church of Teynham (Kent) https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/007769482?cat=485800