Digging up family history
THE children were rushed into a classroom, and all the doors and windows closed.
No one was allowed to see what was happening outside.
Some of the pupils may have covered their ears and shut their eyes to pretend it wasn’t real.
But surely they would ask older brothers and sisters even if their parents wouldn’t tell. And soon the truth would be out there.
The floggings of convicts, which took place at St Helena Island Prison in Moreton Bay from 1867, were unbearable to watch and considered a bad influence on children at the nearby school.
The school was shut down soon after, with memories becoming locked away in time. But the ghosts of history often reveal themselves to those researching their family trees.
And Paul Seto, of Kings Beach, discovered the brutal truth because his great-grandmother had been one of those children at the St Helena school.
Paul has been on a “magical mystery tour” of his family tree for the past five years.
Caloundra Family History Research has helped him in his journey, as well as websites such as www.ancestry.com.au.
So far, Paul has traced his family back 200 years and 11 generations.
His trip through time has had its fair share of “brick walls” but it has also offered him “windows that have opened”.
The passion for his quest was instigated by his mother, who often talked about her own grandmother and the songs she sang around the house.
“I wanted to learn the songs she sang and sing them again,” Paul said.
Discovering his great-grandmother went to school on St Helena Island was an insight into our convict past for which he wasn’t prepared.
“When they (warders) wanted to flog the prisoners, they took the children inside and shut all the doors and windows to keep all the noises out,” Paul said.
“My great-great-grandfather was a warder for the prison and a trade instructor for masonry.
“I WAS excited for the discovery. I drove to Kawana library (for more computer research) and there was a photo of the school from 1887.
“There was a small window (of time) where the children of the warders and trade instructors were allowed to be on the island.
“It was then seen (by authorities) to be too much trouble and not a good influence on the children. It locked the school into a time frame.”
St Helena housed the worst of the worst convicts.
“The prisoners called it ‘The hellhole of the Pacific’ and the government ‘The world’s best prison’,” Paul said.
“The genealogy joke is, ‘You stop your research when you trace your family back to God’.
“I’ve now got a genealogy chart on an A4 page – my summary document. You can see at a glance where I and my generation have all come from.”
He said researching family trees entailed finding the links one by one, then “proving them” – getting documentation from sources, and patiently making sure all the facts were right.
Paul is unsure which golden doors will open next on the way to “completing the circle” but that’s all part of the adventure.
Sunshine Coast libraries have helped make the search for family trees easier for residents by offering members free internet access, which allows them to visit the www.ancestry.com.au website.
If you have your own internet connection, you can also search more than 2.3 million convict records for free today from the comfort of your own home.
Brad Argent, from ancestry.com.au, believes “history is becoming sexy”.
“If it doesn’t, we run the risk of it becoming redundant,” he said.
“Three-quarters of the population admit that passing on Australian history is important.”
The website holds more than 930 million records covering births, deaths and marriages, and other areas such as convict and criminal records, including the recently launched NSW Tickets of Leave Butts from 1824-1867.
The website has been compiling convict records for the past four years, including Australian and UK documents.
If you are not Australian but its history still intrigues you, Mr Argent suggests you “adopt a convict” and learn their history.
“We are all sticky beaks and want to find out what people were about – it’s history heroin,” he said.
June Blackburn, from Caloundra Family History Research, encourages people to start digging for their roots through a beginner’s course in genealogy at little cost.
The next course for beginners starts on February 19 and runs for four weeks every Saturday from 12.30pm to 4pm.
June said family-tree research “starts out as a hobby then becomes an obsession”.
“It’s about putting meat on the bones, so you don’t just have dates, names and places – you have a whole story about that person, the time and the social scene,” she said.
“You’re writing their life story without input from them – bringing them alive.
“It’s not just a name on a piece of paper anymore.
“It’s not just learning about your great-grandmother. It’s about things that were happening at the time, what she experienced.”
For more information, contact June on 5493 2679.