While those with a local history bent may come to a One Place Study quite deliberately from an interest in their birthplace or place of residence, many of us arrive there through researching our family history. We probably all agree that any decent family history needs to account for the circumstances of time and place in which our ancestors lived. One day we look up and realise that perhaps our focus on the place has grown like Topsy and there we are, members of the Society of One Place Studies.
This has certainly been the case for me – a serendipitous arrival at a particular place, or indeed, three places. My three places are East Clare, Ireland (especially the town and townlands of Broadford, parishes of Kilseily and Killokennedy); Dorfprozelten, Bavaria; and the sleepy township of Murphy’s Creek at the Great Dividing Range near Toowoomba in Queensland. Three very different places which generate different approaches.
Murphys Creek cemetery with Kunkel family graves in the foreground. P Cass 2012.
Australian researchers are so very fortunate in the availability of records. Starting late in the 18th century with all those convicts, the British government was intent on keeping good documentation. As assisted immigration picked up pace the colonial governments were equally keen to know where their money was being spent and whether it was effective. The colonials themselves were equally keen to express their opinion of government spending (not much has changed there), feeling free to criticise successive waves of immigrants, especially the Irish Catholics such as the Irish Famine Orphans.
While researchers in other countries place a heavy focus on decennial census records, Australia is largely lacking in that regard. However what we miss there, we gain in other areas. In my opinion we have five invaluable record sets:
- Immigration records which list place of origin, family names, and sometimes sponsors. Unfortunately the information diminished over time so it can be the luck of the draw. Sponsorship of family migration is another related track of information through the Immigration Deposit Journals, which may even tell you why a relative chose not to take up the offer.
- Detailed and comprehensive civil registration which is enough to make other countries weep (except perhaps the Scots). The potential negative is that with the starting generation in Australia, there may have been little knowledge of family overseas.
- Electoral rolls which are available both online and offline. Coming early to equal suffrage (though after our New Zealand cousins), these include women from the start of the 20th century.
- Early church records: clergy covered vast areas of the country on horseback so there may be a concentration of information in one parish – though not necessarily the one you might expect.
- Trove. For those who haven’t heard of it, this is our fantastic digitised newspaper, photographs, etc collection maintained by the National Library of Australia. It truly leads the way internationally – and amazingly it’s entirely free. Researchers from overseas may even find reference to their only family’s emigrants through Trove.
My focus on Broadford and Dorfprozelten may have started serendipitously, but my continued interest has been strategic. It was the lack of immigration data for my Broadford and Dorfprozelten ancestors that led me to widen my search to others from the area. Sometimes those brick walls become strategic opportunities.
You learn so much more about your families when you understand their place of origin and understand the experience of others from the same place, both emigrants and those left behind. You can also make family linkages that might not otherwise be apparent.
View over Dorfprozelten, Bavaria. P Cass 2003
Then there’s the issue of stepping on toes and respect for others’ work. For example, Dorfprozelten, Bavaria has an active local historian, Georg Veh, with a community of researchers behind him. I can build on their work and contribute by filling in the gaps of what happened to their emigrant families. Because I’ve studied each family who left the village for Australia in the 1850s, I can also draw together the experiences of all the emigrants to try to pick out their similarities and differences. So my Dorfprozelten research is a limited One Place Study focused primarily on the emigrants to Australia.
View from Ballykelly townland over East Clare. P Cass 2006
Broadford, County Clare turned out, quite serendipitously, to be a locus of emigration. It was through trawling the Immigration Deposit Journals and the immigration records that I found so many from the east Clare region, especially Broadford where the parish priest was “working” the emigration system in the 1860s, especially during the American Civil War period. This contrasted with a statement from a local man, some thirty years ago when I first started, that “no one from here went to Australia”. In such ways are local memories lost. Again, there’s a local researcher with an interest in Broadford, especially its 19th century crime, but we have met and are happy to work collaboratively because, once again, my focus is on migration.
A heritage steam train arrives at Murphys Creek c1988. Photo P Cass.
My Murphy’s Creek interest is more general. The township commenced with the construction of Queensland’s first railway to Toowoomba. It thrived for quite a while contributing to the Queensland economy with its sandstone and agriculture but then languished becoming a sleepy hollow. I was curious about the transitions it’s undergone and wanted to learn more about it. In this respect, too, I’ve been fortunate that a long-time researcher, Cameron McKee, who is now not well enough to continue, has shared his knowledge and old cassette tapes of interviews.
Of course the main thing you need with a One Place Study, apart from good records, is determination and a lot of time. You may find yourself exploring a place entirely serendipitously, or you may decide to focus on it strategically to resolve brick wall problems. Either way, your family history research will be all the richer for the knowledge you gain.
Questions that recur in my mind quite regularly are:
- Do I have the right to research a place far away, especially overseas and in a different culture?
- Can I speak to a knowledge of a place which I have visited, but where I’ve never lived or been part of the community?
- Or does that external perspective actually add value?
It would be interesting to hear the views of readers on these questions.