Peter McKenna has been researching his family background for close to a decade, and back in 2014 decided to start on his wife Julie’s side of the family.
He recently made a timely discovery.
Last month McKenna uncovered a bundle of postcards, with one in particular piquing his interest. Written in 1913 by man named Will Morrison, the postcard vividly describes what was occurring in Sydney at the time: the city was in a months-long lockdown.
“He was writing to the family up in Grafton and about to go on a voyage to Newcastle, past Sydney. They weren’t allowed into Sydney because the city was in quarantine,” McKenna says.
When reading up on it, he found there had been a smallpox outbreak in 1913, with Sydney ending up in lockdown for 145 days.
“There were very similar problems [to today] with discussions about vaccinations, responsibilities and disputes between state and federal, so very similar to what we are experiencing now,” McKenna says.
Past and present collide
While McKenna has had an account on the genealogy site Ancestry for many years, since posting his family’s genealogical information he’s noticed a significant rise in interest from other users.
“Every day now, I’ve got three or four or five emails telling me those people have updated their family trees [to reflect the new information I’ve added],” he says. “I suspect that’s all happening because of COVID, because you wouldn’t normally have that frequency of updates.”
The McKenna family are not alone.
These past few months have been tough for many, and with lockdown restricting everyday lives, most significantly in NSW and Victoria, McKenna believes a number of us have turned our attention to the past as a way to fill up long hours at home.
Retired sociologist Dr Robyn Sheppard agrees. “Lockdown gave us time, and we had to decide what we were going to do with that time,” she says.
For Sheppard, lockdown has given people the opportunity to pursue their genealogical interests but also the inspiration to understand how previous generations coped with things like pandemics and outbreaks of disease.
“We like to look back and wonder how they coped. As we get older, we are more interested in other things outside of ourselves,” she says. “Your interests tend to be wanting to learn a little bit more about your past, whether it’s your family history or the place where you were born, or the changes that have taken place in your own life.”
Sheppard says the popularity of social media is related to connecting with others who are interested in what is being said on a topic and adding to their own knowledge: “Online, we’re all anonymous, we’re all the same, we all have an opinion.”
And connecting with history in the digital age, she adds, can be rewarding.
“Once you join a group and you start commenting [on an old building, for example], then from that you will get comments back … ‘Oh, I remember that building, no heating and cooling and so on’ … It’s nostalgia, but not in a soppy romantic way. It’s identifying with something concrete that was there in the past when we’re not too sure what’s ahead of us.”
There are many popular groups on Facebook specifically created for history enthusiasts including Lost Newcastle, Historic Australia and Australia Looking At Times Past.
Digging a little deeper
Port Macquarie man Warren Luxford has dedicated almost 30 years of his life to retracing the steps of his ancestors, publishing three intricately detailed volumes of his family tree along the way.
But even for him, COVID has provided an opportunity to dig deeper.
Although he had a close relationship with his grandmother and documented her past, he knew little of her life before her marriage in 1944.
Earlier this year, he decided to delve deeper and uncovered some surprising results. “She was a great hoarder, my grandmother. She kept everything,” Luxford says.
As he researched his grandmother’s life, Luxford found a box of old documents and photos she often referred to as “junk”. One photograph showed his grandmother in what looked to be her early 20s, taken in the main street of Newcastle in 1929.
This discovery led Luxford to type his grandmother’s name into a search engine. He received an “avalanche” of newspaper articles in response, finding around 180 references to her between 1920 and 1944.
“This was a woman who basically lived the social life of Newcastle. She attended balls, and dances … There was a list of references to her wardrobe, her extravagant gowns. Descriptions of what she would wear, you know … ‘Miss Grace Cobcroft made a wonderful entrance at the mayor’s ball’,” he says.
Details of Luxford’s grandmother’s ostrich feathered dresses, whalebone corsets and affiliations with various organisations in the area flooded his screen. He had never felt closer to her.
“I kept thinking, ‘I wish I’d done this earlier’ because I could have asked her so many questions.”
Bringing history to life
Researching history is a full-time occupation for University of Newcastle Professor Victoria Haskins. Her theory as to why people are intrigued by their family heritage stems directly from the visual image, as it is a vital part of piecing a story together.
“When you see something, it feels more real,” Prof. Haskins says.
“To see an historical photograph, or even a painting from a time gone by, it makes you feel as though you’ve got this window into the past. It’s different from reading. When you read something, you imagine it.”
Sandy Earle runs Tocal Homestead, one of Australia’s oldest colonial working farms near Maitland in the NSW Hunter region. As the property prepares to celebrate its 200th anniversary, Earle knows well the significance of visual history.
Before lockdown, Tocal hosted school groups and tourists eager to take in its wealth of historical information. “Photos are a really important resource for us,” she says.
Before COVID, Earle used photos taken around the property to bring history to life for the local school children.
“We stand them on a certain spot and say, ‘Look at the building there. Now look at this picture’ — which is a photo of that building which was taken 100 years before, [and we’re] standing on the same spot. That’s quite a powerful thing for the kids to realise,” she says.
And although the pandemic slowed things down at Tocal Homestead, Earle is confident business will pick up again soon.
“I think people are sort of locked up and looking to things that are beyond themselves. Beyond their life and their confines,” she says. “And that’s really nice.”
© 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
ABC Content Disclaimer