August is Family History Month – Reflections of a Genealogist….

Today, 1 August 2020, is the launch of Australian and New Zealand Family History Month….over the course of August, Ancestor Detective, will reflect upon her journey as a genealogist and the lessons and history she has uncovered….

When I started my genealogy journey I had no expectations or knowledge of what family history was out there and what family history stories were yet to be uncovered and written. Nor was I expecting to uncover that some of the facts and stories told to me by family members would be in fact incorrect. But that is history and what happens when stories of our ancestors are handed down to the generations. It is somewhere along the line that folklore is retold with added narrative that changes these stories, that for a genealogist adds an extra layer of facts to be explored and a layer of mystery to these ancestors and their lives.

I have previously written about some of these family stories and while I research to find out more about the folklore told to me and the generations before me. Family history month in Australia provides the opportunity for me to write about my experiences and how my research has influenced my approach to genealogy and the stories told to me growing up.

My first reflection is the story told to me about my grandfather’s grandfather, James Robinson. Growing up my family told us that James came to Australia on a migrant ship when he was a very young boy (some have said an infant). Off the coast of Australia, it was told that the ship that James was onboard became shipwrecked and he was the only survivor.

My research took me to uncover in the Biographical Index of South Australians (1836 – 1885) a record for James and his family. In that record I was able to confirm that Thomas and Ann (nee Paterson) Robinson, were the parents of James and that he was born in c1848 in Liverpool, LAN, ENG. These details were confirmed upon review of his Marriage Certificate for his first marriage to Hannah SLADE in 1873. More importantly, the record states “James was brought to SA by an aunt and uncle. His parents were drowned when the Cumberland was wrecked“. The record also states his residence in Adelaide and infers that following the ship wreck he entered Australia through South Australia.

Biographical Index of South Australians 1836 – 1885

As any genealogist or historian will tell you, the records you find are only as good as the person who has reported the details. These new findings provided additional information to explore in my quest to confirm; a) who his parents were and his birth date, b) that he was onboard a ship, possibly the “Cumberland” that wrecked off the coast of Australia, where he was the only survivor, and c) where he entered Australia as a migrant.

Up until his marriage to Hannah SLADE in 1873, I was unable to find where James lived once he entered Australia as, what has been told, as a young boy. However, after an extensive search of English records I finally came across a baptism record where he was recorded as Jacobus Robinson. The baptism record is written in Latin, with a Latin variation of his name (outlined in the source description of the record), hence Jacobus translates to James in English. and confirmed his parents to be Thomas and Ann Robinson. From that I was able to trace James with his parents in the 1851 census where he is one month old.

Liverpool, England Catholic Baptism, 20 August 1848

Finding both the baptism of James and the census recording his family in 1851, aged one month, and in 1861, aged 10 years. These records provided me with confirmation that the following in the index was correct; a) from the baptism record his parents were Thomas and Ann Robinson, and b) the baptism record shows James was born on 11 August 1848 in Liverpool, Lancashire, England.

The second time I came across a ship name was in James’s obituary from the Mildura Cultivator on 17 October 1923 following his death on 14 October 1923. The obituary reads “that he [James] came to Australia 68 years ago, having a mostly adventurous voyage out in the ship “Schomberg”, which was wrecked off Curdie’s River, near Cape Otway. He was then a boy of seven years, and was providentially saved from the wreck, the passengers being taken off by another steamer“.

While this may explain the family folklore, no passenger list of the Schomberg can be found to date, nor a passenger list of the steamer, which has been reported in the Colonial Times of 31 December 1855, as the steamer Queen. Records further state that all passengers survived.

If, as the obituary states, James died after being in Australia since he was about seven years old, this has me asking, have I got the right family now in the England census records of 1851 and 1861?

Family history is initially drawn from the family stories handed down to each generation about the lives of our ancestors. When we are young, we are left in awe when hearing of some of these stories but they are never questioned to be true or not. It is only when, like me, I start to explore my family history that I come to question folklore handed down to me because despite hours upon hours of research I am unable to find the evidence to support these stories. I like most genealogists would like to think that the folklore I heard as a young girl, and even now, is true but one must question the authenticity of some of these stories and how much was added to them as they were handed down the generations. How much is fact and how much is exaggeration? How much is told, to cover up the real truth? Without the evidence to support these stories, are we left to just assume they are correct, or do we then believe them to be fairy tales, because the facts told can not be proven with recorded evidence? As a researcher I am a critic if I am unable to find the evidence to support what has been told to me.

Family history month has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on my journey as genealogist and the research I have undertaken to write my blog, Ancestor Detective, and the history I’ve written for friends. There are always challenges when delving into the depths of records that the internet now provides to us, but at the end of those challenges finding that one gem of evidence can be the biggest reward. Uncovering the histories of families left unknown to many descendants and being able to provide those histories to people, is all the reward you need at the end of a long research process. History that until now, was a gap in the family who they are descended from their ancestors many years after they paved the way for the lives we lead now.

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving“…..J.R.R. Tolkien


Statton, Jill & South Australian Genealogy and Heraldry Society, (1996), Biographical Index of South Australians 1836 – 1885, Marden, S. Aust : South Australian Genealogy and Heraldry Society.

Registration of Marriage, James Robinson to Hannah Slade, 29 May 1873, Wentworth, NSW. NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Sydney, NSW. Copy in possession of author.

Liverpool, England Catholic Baptisms, 1741-1919, ROBINSON, Jacobus, 20 August 1848. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011. Reference Number: 282MAR/1/3.

1851 England Census, Civil Parish: Manchester; County: Lancashire, Class: RG9; Piece: 2950; Folio: 28; Page: 43; GSU roll: 543054.

Mildura Cultivator, 17 October 1923, A Pioneers Death – The Late Mr J. A Robinson of Mildura.

Colonial Times, 31 December 1855, Wreck of the Schomberg, Hobart, Tas: 1828 – 1857.

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With a love of genealogy and research, I started my blog Ancestor Detective. My passion for this field continues to grow and I am starting to pursue a part time career in delving into the lives of other peoples ancestors.

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