When family history goes bad

ROZ GATWOOD
Last updated 05:00 22/03/2011

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Tracing your family history was once seen as the arcane hobby of faded great-aunts and eccentric second-cousins - the ones who'd corner you at clan gatherings to bore you rigid with the details of their research. But thanks to the success of celebrity genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?, there's a renewed interest in delving into the family back story. If celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and Nigella Lawson can get enthused about their ancestors, and if their quests can make gripping TV viewing, then maybe there's something in it for the rest of us, too.

Add to that the fact that websites like Ancestry.com.au and Findmypast.co.uk have made historical research easier than ever before, and it's not hard to see why unprecedented numbers of people are being bitten by the genealogy bug. The thing is, though, that not everyone discovers, as Brooke Shields did on the US version of Who Do You Think You Are?, that they're descended from the kings of France. Au contraire ...

When I first started digging into my family's past in the 1980s (though not a faded great-aunt at the time), I already knew that my mother, whose maiden name was Cross, was descended from Robert Cross, a convict from Yorkshire who arrived in Sydney in 1814, having been transported for life for theft. What neither she nor I knew was that her tree was very generously endowed with convicts - that the upper branches were positively dripping with "light-fingered gentry"; at least nine of them, and very possibly more.

As I successively unearthed transportee after transportee, I became more and more excited, and my mother less and less so. One convict, she thought, was a piquant detail in the family story; more than a handful was actually a bit embarrassing. Where were the free settlers from comfortable backgrounds who decorously decked the branches of my father's family tree, which I was simultaneously tracing? And if there had to be convicts, why couldn't they have been found guilty (preferably unjustly) of stealing a (stale) loaf of bread or a (threadbare) handkerchief?

In fact, their crimes, all theft of one sort or another, ranged from the mundane (stealing a watch) to the spectacular (ransacking a gentleman's house and stealing "401 guineas in gold, 171 in silver, several gold watches, some trinkets and two hams"). None of them seemed to be noble in purpose, and if all were frankly criminal, some were also criminally stupid.

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Nelly Davis, for example, the very earliest of my ancestors to arrive here, in 1791, seems to have been a prize twit. A lodger in the house of one John Brown, she was promised sixpence to mind the children while Brown's wife went out. When Mrs Brown left, Nelly took the opportunity to gather up several items of clothing, some china, a mustard pot and other knick-knacks, and took them to a broker to sell. She also made the brilliant decision to take with her one of the children, who later told his mother. Nelly was apprehended in the coach in which she was attempting to make a getaway, and soon found herself on a seven-year holiday to the far side of the world.

Despite these shameful details, I was able to console my mortified mum (who wouldn't allow me to mention my findings to anyone on my dad's side of the family) with the fact that her naughty forebears served their terms or received pardons and went on to lead blameless, productive lives. John McAllister, for instance, the bootmaker who stole that watch and became the last of my convict ancestors to land in Sydney, in 1838, did his time, married a free-settler Irish lass, and spent the rest of his life supplying shoes to the citizens of Orange, NSW.

Or so I thought. It turns out that after nearly 40 years in the colony, our John McAllister was sentenced to 12 months in jail for obtaining money by false pretences. What my late mother would have made of this snippet, recently discovered courtesy of a new online index at NSW State Records, I can well imagine; but I was delighted to stumble upon it, because it came complete with a photograph - the only one we have of any of our convict ancestors.

But does my family history have anything to add to the question, "Who do I think I am?" Does the fact that one ancestor stole a couple of hams and that two others stole mustard pots account for my taste in sandwiches? If dim-bulb Nelly Davis contributed one-64th of my DNA, is she what's keeping me out of Mensa? Do I have a criminal bent myself - one that's lain dormant for the past half century, but might pop into action next time I see a set of silver spoons like the ones my ancestor Jane Host nicked?

It's fascinating to learn about your forebears, but unfortunate if you feel that you're diminished by having reprehensible ones, or if you feel excessively gratified by having the aristocratic or powerful kind. So, for me, the question has never been "Who do you think you are?", but "Who do you think they were?" - and seeking the answer to that question has given me hundreds of hours of pleasurable employment.

And, whatever else they may have been, at least my ancestors weren't dull. Unlike, for instance, Michael Parkinson's, who proved to be so bland that after six weeks of research the Who Do You Think You Are? team decided they'd make too boring a program and pulled the plug on the Parky episode. Now that's really something to be ashamed of.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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