Most records about the past prior to the 1930’s are public (and even more recent ones sometimes). But that doesn’t mean they are not hidden. Hidden from dinner table conversations, hidden from important intergenerational health discussions and hidden by what I think is misplaced shame. In my experience, hidden by boring beige people on a power trip. (Did I just say that? Whoops, I forgot to mention I am not one of those people who thinks that I should be entirely nice about people consciously still stigmatising meaningful mental health discussions in 2021).
If you find yourself wondering why you asked about the social history, or intergenerational baggage because of the anger and/or passive aggression you receive from other family members; the problem with the truth is theirs, not yours. Maybe time to ask the public record instead.
You can and should talk about this uncomfortable social history and more to the point, don’t be bullied by people into silence. You don’t have justify talking about public records to anyone. You also don’t have to justify talking publicly about your own struggles and efforts to break the shame of silence either.
If your family and extended family (biological or otherwise) survived a shit-ton of trauma and disadvantage you may well have some inherited trauma. But you also have inherited resilience and sometimes reading about what we have survived is healing.
So let’s access that resilience and talk about it. Not with blame, but with understanding and a reflective point of view.
There is a conservative “civilised societal” view that celebrating survival through the telling of survival histories is to be avoided. We beat each up with toxic positivity and fail to support one another when one of us develops mental health or addiction issues.
That’s not exactly very civilised, decent or progressive, yet here we are.
So let me say this loud and clear. Let the records speak. But not the commodified and expensive family history obsession that you can buy online. Good grief capitalism has some of you by the proverbial balls.
Some records will cost you money, but many are free. And if you buy them from ancestry dot com you’ll pay extra.
Some records you can request or are available online. It all helps paint a picture more than just some pointless family tree diagram.
So this post isn’t about just the lonely space of context free dates and names you’ll get from Births, Deaths and Marriages information, but other sources of information that help you to understand the past, not just recite it and tow the party (family) line.
One source below is an example of some collection information you can find in Victoria, Australia from the Public Records Office. Most states and territories in Australia have similar. Google is your friend (and as an academic I hate saying this, it’s only a start point and not research gospel!). The second source is national.
Some may require you to physically go into a reading room and read (gasp!). I know this excites me and not others, but reading is a good thing, not a chore. And most online collections have ways you can use screen readers and transcripts if you need a more accessible way to access the information.
Dodgy deaths and family we left behind via inquests and coroners reports Inquests into deaths (deposition files 1840-1985) | PROV
How the hell did we get here information and migration records like Assisted passenger lists (1839-1871) | PROV
A bunch of photos in various themes here at Photographic collections | PROV
All the griping about money and associated social climbing at Wills and probates | PROV
And finally I want to give you a treasure trove. Literally a treasure at TROVE.
Newspaper clippings a plenty! Find out when they got in trouble, were foolish enough to marry, did interesting things and more often than not, were just human at Newspapers & Gazettes Home – Trove (nla.gov.au)
A smorgasbord of scandal and crime (and a way to see it for what it really is, human, rather than scandalous) at The Prosecution Project.
What the colonial bastards and boffins scribbled in their diaries about us poor folk. A range of diaries and letters and manuscripts (okay, not always from bastards, sometimes from people doing good things – and now I technically am classed as a boffin myself).
Images, images, images. Maps. All kinds of visual things here.
I need to say, the bonds in my immediate family have only gotten stronger, and relationships healthier since we grappled with uncomfortable truths. And it may have saved some lives from the risk of suicide too.
Silence about events that just make us human is the way shame is carried, amplified and turned into ways we are retraumatised, generation after generation.
You don’t have to sit beholden at the feet of a website wanting to rip you off. Or worse, you don’t have to put up with bullshit from your supposed kin wanting to make you feel like a failure in comparison to some glorious retelling of old. Do your own research.
Often people don’t find out who they are or how they fit or how our collective history can help them be happier and healthier people because the hiding of truth has become a pretty messed up cornerstone of Australian culture.
Let’s throw it in the bin with the outdated ideas that tightly knit family that controls and manipulates each other is everything. Let’s get real about that notion that this “family is everything” kind of family really means women and children die more frequently at home (or in care) at the hands of family than on the streets.
In doing this I hope you find out that we all have mental health dilemmas, social pitfalls, issues with addiction as well as our triumphs and there is no shame in that. All we can do is learn from it and get the hells away from people who think otherwise.
And finally, don’t be a lazy sod (OMG! I used the ‘L’ word! Sorry!) and always select advanced search (unless of course you are just on ‘what can I find’ mission in broad terms, then I give you points for embracing your inner nerd).