How to: History hunting

Last updated 13:27 07/12/2012
History hunting
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The wedding of Alexander Lloyd Williams, electrician, of Halcombe, to Maggie Christina Patterson household, of Ashburton, May 25, 1920.

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Did Great-Uncle Cyril have two wives or three? When was the house built? Is the family business as old as everyone says it is? These are the kinds of questions that gnaw away at those of us who have caught the history bug.

Equally, they trouble folk who, having no interest (yet) in historical research, have a school project due next week or a character house they want to market. Happily, the internet can help both the enthusiastic heritage hunter and the reluctant researcher to find out more about the family tree and the ancestral home.

So, at the risk of giving away our heritage secrets, here's a beginner's guide to heritage research.

Just don't blame us when a vague interest becomes an overwhelming obsession, one that makes you miss your favourite TV programme or forces you to stay up way past your bedtime hunting down just one more lead!

Let your fingers do the walking.

First and foremost, there is a wealth of information that can be accessed from the comfort of your own home.

The internet has completely revolutionised heritage research in the past 10 years, and these days, invaluable historical information to suit both professional and amateur historians is just a couple of clicks away.

PAPERS PAST

Top of the pops for heritage websites is PapersPast, where you can find more than 2 million pages of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals.

Spanning the period 1839 to 1945, PapersPast offers a treasure trove of all the things you find in a modern newspaper, including feature articles, family notices and advertisements.

For the Waikato region, the website has digital copies of the Ohinemuri Gazette (1891-1921), Te Aroha News (1883-1889), Thames Advertiser (1874-1899), Thames Star (1874-1920), and the Waikato Times (1872-1892). Other papers, such as the Daily Southern Cross (1843-1876), the Auckland Star (1870-1945), and the New Zealand Herald (1863-1884), also include Waikato content. The search function on the site's home page lets you hunt for a specific person or building, and you can restrict your search to just one newspaper or to a specific period of time.

MATAPIHI

Words are wonderful, but pictures can be even better. Matapihi is a digital library that brings together a wealth of material from a number of New Zealand's archives, galleries and museums. You can search this website for pictures of your relatives, your home town and even, sometimes, your street.

It is possible to download copies of most images for personal study or research use, and because Matapihi is an umbrella site for a number of institutions, it may well lead to the discovery of other useful sources of information.

HATCHES, MATCHES AND DISPATCHES

If you have taken up the mantle of family historian, or had it thrown at you by one of the cousins after Aunty Betty's funeral, chances are you will already know about the Department of Internal Affairs' Birth, Death and Marriage Historical Records site. There are some limits on what you can find here: for example, the births listed occurred at least 100 years ago. Still, the site is constantly being extended, and you can order copies of birth, marriage and death certificates from it.

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LOCAL CEMETERY RECORDS

Family history research can start to seem a bit ghoulish when you spend your time looking at obituaries and death certificates. Nevertheless, burial records are another invaluable source of information, especially when you may be on the lookout for the wife [or wives] and children of the man who got all the attention when a historic building was newly built. Across the region, most council websites offer access to their local cemetery databases. These commonly show the age at death and sometimes include the last address of the deceased. Three cheers for Christchurch City Libraries' listing of South Island Cemetery Databases on their website.

NZ HISTORIC PLACES TRUST

If your home, place of work or another building you have a soft spot for is registered by the NZ Historic Places Trust, then take a look at the trust's website to find out about its history and significance. Simple or advanced search functions will allow you to search by township, by architect or by building type. There's information about a large number of design professionals on the site, too, so if grandad was an architect or engineer, you may find out more about him here.

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND

Another reason to be thankful for the internet. Not long ago, if you wanted to access the treasures of the National Library, which includes the Alexander Turnbull Library's wonderful photographic collection, you needed an air fare, a capital city friend with a sofa bed, and someone to feed the cat in your absence. Now you can sit in your PJs and search the nation's treasure house to your heart's content. On this site, for example, are all 76 issues of Te Ao Hou - The New World, the Maori Affairs Department's journal published from 1952 until 1976. You'll also find hundreds of White's Aviation aerial photographs that chronicle the changing face of our towns and cities. The latter have been scanned at such a high resolution that you can zoom in on a Frankton street and see if there was a car parked outside your house on December 2, 1955, when the White's plane flew over.

ONE-STOP SHOP 

THE LOCAL LIBRARY

So far, so good, but not so helpful for the "but I don't have a computer" or "we haven't got broadband yet, let alone the ultra-fast stuff!" folk out there. That's where a key source for everyone becomes your go- to place. The public library! Not only will experienced reference librarians throw you a lifeline when this history detective business gets too frustrating, but they can also point you to a computer, offer access to heritage collections of books, newspapers and photographs, and add their local knowledge to your search efforts.

Street directories are one of the great resources to be found in the heritage section of your local library. These list the occupants of residential and commercial addresses, and are very handy for determining where on a street a particular business or dwelling was once located. Add electoral rolls to the pile of books on your library desk, and you have another way of joining the name, address and occupation dots for great-grandfather James.

Back online, Hamilton Libraries' Kete Hamilton site has a useful index of city streets, as well as photographs and historical information. There's a Kete Hauraki Coromandel, too, and both sites invite people to register and upload content to share with others.

BACKROOM TREASURES

Don't forget the local museum, which may hold a Waikato Winter Show souvenir glass donated by a relative or an architectural drawing of your house.

The Waikato and Te Awamutu museums have architectural drawing collections, and these can be both highly informative and also quite lovely to look at. And if you have a research inquiry that leads to the Thames Coromandel district, do take a look at The Treasury, in Thames' former Carnegie Library - historical information and a heritage building all in one brilliant package.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!

The Auckland War Memorial Museum has a Cenotaph Database, which allows you to search for family members who have served in the military from the Crimean War to Afghanistan. Here you'll find the names of next of kin, as well as the serviceman's occupation before enlistment and his iwi affiliations.

ARCHWAY

Archives New Zealand has a website called Archway that provides access to a plethora of government records. If you want to see the actual record, you'll need to jump in the car to Auckland or catch a plane to Wellington, but very often there's enough information recorded on the web page to fill in another piece of the puzzle. Inclusion of probate records means that this site is not just for people interested in the history of courthouses and post offices.

HERITAGE PHOTOGRAPHS

For more fabulous heritage photographs, head to the Auckland Libraries' web catalogue of heritage images. More than 100,000 images, including many maps, can be downloaded for closer scrutiny. Because the Waikato was once part of Auckland province, there are many items of local interest here.

A simple search for "Te Awamutu", for example, leads to 132 images, many of which have been "clipped" from the Auckland Weekly News.

If one of your relations served on the executive committee of the Te Awamutu Flower Show in 1899, then you are only a few minutes away from admiring Miss Ida Vause's hat, the trim beard of Mr J P Vause and the fulsome moustache of Mr H H Burton!

ENCYCLOPEDIC

Websites like Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand can provide good-quality background information to flesh out your personal search for a family member who took part in the 1975 hikoi [land march] from Northland to Wellington, or who worked for Crown Lynn Potteries in the 1960s.

The splendid Dictionary of New Zealand Biography [DNZB] is also to be found on Te Ara, and being able to search for names within the biographies is enormously helpful if your research subject was once associated with a notable New Zealander.

Just keep in mind that in order to qualify for a DNZB entry, you need to be dead, so you won't find any biographies about prominent people who are still alive and kicking.

BUT WHAT ABOUT MY HOUSE?

Researching a building is very much like researching a person: in both cases, you need to be on the lookout for names, dates and places that help to answer the who, what, where, when and why questions.

If your home isn't registered by the NZ Historic Places Trust but was architecturally designed, try Auckland University's Architecture Archive.

That's if the architectural firm is no longer operating, possibly under a different name, because if it is, the firm itself may be able to help.

The Certificate of Title for a property can tell you a lot about previous owners and help you to work out when it was built.

If you have an idea that your house dates from the 1920s, have a look at the title from that era. If someone raised a mortgage in 1923, this could be a sign that he borrowed money to build a house. If you only have the current title, or you have the full set but they do not go back far enough to match the age of the house, then you'll need to visit Land Information New Zealand [LINZ] and spend some money on this part of the search.

RESEARCH TIPS AND TRICKS

Don't forget to start at the beginning. If possible, grill Grandad over a nice cup of tea or three, and prompt him to remember where his parents were born and when the family moved off the farm. Ask him: Was that before the war? or Was that after John and Beryl got married? so as to try to line up the memories with a reliable timeline.

Hopefully, your family name is not Brown or Smith or Williams.

Sorry, folks, but searching for common family names is going to be trickier than if you're the only Greenville in the phone book. When you get 554,761 hits for John Smith in PapersPast, try to narrow the field by adding search words that focus on your John Smith: for example, "Pollen Street", "plumber", or "ping pong".

Keep in mind that transcription errors may mean that you have to search across a number of different spellings: McPherson or MacPherson?

Don't forget to print or bookmark that useful piece of information - the road to madness is littered with folk who did not record their research sources and now cannot for the life of them remember how they know that cousin Frank once rode a Melbourne Cup winner!

Try again tomorrow (or next week or next month). Heritage websites are constantly being expanded, so if you can't find your grandmother today, don't assume she won't be there tomorrow.

Get in touch with the New Zealand Society of Genealogists [NZSG] or the local historical society and find out where they meet. The NZSG offers its members access to a range of handy databases, and once you become a history addict, it's good to meet others with the same fixation.

Finally, label those photos and leave the plans behind when you sell your house! Future researchers will be grateful that you had the foresight to see that today's clutter will become tomorrow's heritage treasure.

We are not all destined to be famous historical figures, but every one of us is part of history. The story of your life will be treasured by family and may well be pored over by historians in years to come.

Ko ia kahore nei i rapu, te kitea. He who does not seek will not find.

- Waikato

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