By Michael Heim
If you like detective games, then trying to work out your family history based on the clues and objects and stories you inherit from your family is something you are going to enjoy. There is a lot of information rolling around the place, in people’s memories, in family stories that get handed down, and now in online genealogical sources. But some of it is misinformation and some is misplaced in time or space and trying to disentangle fact from fiction… well that is quite a task. But there are some skills and ways of thinking that can be brought to bear when we come upon information that we can use to see whether it fits, whether it’s likely or even possible. There is not much we can be absolutely certain of, but if we keep our wits about us we can find pathways through the entanglements.
Debra Earl brought in an album of photos that she inherited from her mother.
She discovered it when her mother died so she wasn’t able to ask her Mum any questions, but she already knew some things and the photos themselves have clues and information, and there are more clues in the interview where Debra shared her own memories and discussed what she had been told of the photographs.
The work of family historians is surprisingly complicated. Family memories are stored in two main places: In the memories of family members, the things they were told by their loved ones, the family stories that are handed down generation to generation. These are like oral histories, and there is a whole discipline devoted to the craft of tracing history through those. The other store of family memories is in documents; photographs, letters, books, objects and what historians call all the ephemera of daily life, playing cards, or movie tickets or hat boxes, to take some random examples.
When someone is kind enough and keen enough to bring their oral histories and their treasured objects out into the public, how do we keep track of all that information they provide? One of the main skills is keeping track of chronologies – the order in which things happen in time. For that family historians need to record lots of detail; people’s surnames, maiden names, dates of birth, where people lived when, etc. – even approximately. These allow us to cross check the information between the conversations, the interviews, the memories, and all the documents. These are the keys for keeping the chronologies in order, and that is the key to keeping everything else in order.
Let’s consider Debra’s wonderful photo album, with its picture of a fashionable young woman on the front and a cover of some sort of plastic or cellophane (key clues, though not clear cut, for a chronology).
Debra says that the album was given to her grandmother by her mother. That is Debra’s great grandmother gave it to her grandmother. All three lived together for a while, the great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. Debra reports that “they went through the photos together when Nana was in her 90’s” when “her eyesight and memory were not very good”.
Let’s look at a couple of pictures.
Here is a page of the album. Debra tells us that this is “the grandmother Nell and that was her husband and that was the woman who gave it to my grandmother”. The photo is labelled “Nell Sims my mother”, and the man of the top right is her husband.
The person who wrote in the album is Debra’s Nana. It seems that would be Deb’s great grandmother. Then Nell Sims in the photo is Nana’s mother, and Debra’s great-great grandmother. (This is still a maybe, but let’s work with that).
This is what that family tree would look like:
Here is the photo labelled as Nell Sims and as you can see it is labelled “my mother”.
The first thing you see is that she has a bicycle. A little bit of internet research tells you that it became something of a fad for women to ride bicycles in the 1890’s. The style of bike reinforces that, and we also get some interesting social information about the relationship between the bicycle and the process of women‘s liberation, remembering that this was the decade in which the women’s suffrage movement really got into swing. And in fact South Australia, where this photo was taken, was the first place in the world where women could vote and stand for Parliament, in 1894. You can also investigate women’s fashions in the 1890’s and see that yes, the clothes Nell is wearing fit with that time frame.
Now a bit of guesswork. Would you agree that Nell looks as if she is in her mid 20’s in the photograph? That gives her a birth date of around 1870. So, she might have children around 1900, grandchildren in the late 1920’s. great grandchildren around 1950. This is guesswork, but it gives you a framework and if things deviate a lot from that, you can start to suspect there has been a mistake somewhere.
The next piece of information is from the Debra’s interview with us. She says:
“Interesting, she was called Charlotte, my grandmother was called Charlotte, but went by the name of Jean, because back in the day a Charlotte was a harlot and you weren’t called that at all. Which is what she said – I asked her once “Why aren’t you called Charlotte?” and she said, “I didn’t like the name, because they used to call me Harlot.”
It’s a terrific anecdote and gives insight into the culture around names, and into how people treated each other, and something of the ethical ideas that people try to construct into their communities. It also gives us some technical information. Who is Debra talking about when she says “she was called Charlotte”? It seems likely that it was the second woman on the bottom left of this photo, and that Debra’s grandmother was also called Charlotte. That is, we have two women called Charlotte, the woman in the photo and Debra’s grandmother. This is reinforced by the fact that Debra’s grandmother was still alive for Debra to question her about these things.
My next step was to go into the State Library of South Australia, where you can look at Ancestry for free (brilliant!) and I just tried plugging in the names in the photo album and in Debra’s interview. In the photo album there is this photograph, labelled Aunty Grace and Uncle Charlie Sims.
I plugged the name Charles Sims into Ancestry and I found a marriage notice showing that Charles Sims married Grace Jane Kirk at Mundoora in South Australia in 1900. I discovered that Mundoora is over on the coast of Spencer Gulf in the north of Yorke Peninsula. That fits with some annotations in the photo album referring to Ardrossan and Crystal Brook.
Charles’ father was given as William John Henry Sims. Then I found a family tree and it referred to Charles Sims and Grace Kirk, and said that Charles’ parents were William John Henry Sims, 1851 – 1903 and Charlotte Cox, 1852 – 1934, and it had those same two photographs, these ones:
Now, family trees on Ancestry are notoriously unreliable and you shouldn’t rely on them without double and triple checking for confirmation from independent sources. And I have not done that here, so that is a job of work still to be done. Nevertheless, we do have two sources coinciding on the photographs, and several names, so it at least worth pursuing. I also found on Ancestry that Charles Sims was listed in the electoral rolls for Crystal Brook in 1939 as a Labourer. So now we have possible names and dates for two of the main people in Debra’s family, and an occupation for another.
Here is another photo from the album.
It’s labelled Aunty Dot and Grandma Sims, and this is clearly the same Charlotte Sims nee Cox who is the mother of Charlie Sims. And this seems to fit. The label is written by Deb’s great Grandmother, whose mother is Nell Sims, born as we calculated abut 1870. Charlotte, here “Grandma Sims”, is of the previous generation again, i.e., one generation before Nell and two before Nana, i.e., Charlotte Cox is Debra’s great-great- great grandmother.
(This brings up another issue with this photo album. A lot of the people are referred to by their nicknames. There is an “Aunty Dot” and an “Aunty Doll” and an “Aunty Dash”. That makes it hard to check against other sources like birth or marriage records. Sometimes you can make a reasonable guess. “Nell” might be “Helen” or some such. But what is “Dash?)
Now we can make a guess at a better version of the family tree:
Now let’s look back at the first two photos in the album:
Debra says of these photos “So, these were the two originals that came out from Ireland and England. Interestingly enough, she was a Church of England, he was a Roman Catholic, so they weren’t allowed to get married over in England. So, they actually came over to Australia and got married in the Presbyterian Church that’s now been knocked down. But in the 1920s apparently they got remarried in the Catholic Church”
The woman’s photo is labelled “Mary Ann Mitchell My grandmother.” This notation is again by Nana, which puts Mary Ann in the same generation as Charlotte Sims nee Cox, but in the other side of the family. Here is a bit more guesswork. The clothing Mary Ann is wearing can be dated around 1900, and at a rough guess she looks perhaps 40? That fits so far, giving her a birth date around say 1860. But then that has them getting remarried when she is in her 60’s, if the 1920’s is a real date. It’s not impossible. But what prevented them being married in England in the first place? Mixed marriages (that is marriages between Christians of different denominations) were recognised by the Catholic Church in 1741. So there is something else going on here, that begs for more investigation. Such mysteries are one of the joys of this type of research!
So, what do we have, from all of our clues and guesswork? Nana, Debra’s great grandmother, has two grandmothers, one Charlotte Sims nee Cox born 1851, the other Mary Ann Mitchell, born around 1860 and half a generation younger. Is “Sims” Nell’s maiden name or married name? There is another photo labelled “Aunty Dot and Grandma Sims” and Grandma Sims is (by the looks – this is still a guess) the same Charlotte Sims nee Cox. We can surmise that Sims is Nell’s married name and that Charlotte Sims is Nana’s paternal grandmother, and that Nell is Mary Ann’s daughter with maiden name Mitchell, married name Sims, and Nana has maiden name Sims.
So, we might have a family tree that looks like this at a guess:
They seem to be an upwardly mobile family (indicated by Nell’s bicycle and the formal portraits) of Irish and English (the “two originals”) working class (indicated by Charlie Sims occupation of labourer), who settled in the mid North of South Australia in the 1850’s, for whom there is at least one intriguing mystery (the story of the “two originals” and their marriages).
This family tree is a guess, more formally a hypothesis, which is a structured guess that you can test by experiment, that is by observing, by collecting data. For example, we could find out whether Nana’s maiden name was indeed Sims, and whether Nell Sims maiden name was Mitchell. Check my reasoning. Do you agree?
There remain a whole series of photos of brothers and sisters that we haven’t considered here and who knows what stories lie there? Our thanks to Debra for showing us the beautiful album with its intriguing stories.