How I Use Ancestry To Create Forgotten Australia

My great-great uncle, Albert “Big Neck” Nichols, boatswain of Titanic.
Below you can learn how I found his story — and mine — using Ancestry.

Researching and writing every episode of Forgotten Australia is like a game of join-the-dots, with each fact a point linking to another point to create a picture of the past.

While occasional episodes cover events that have been chronicled elsewhere, most of my shows relate stories that have never been told in detail from a modern perspective. Sister Annie Egan, Robert Walker, Big Jim Cush, Hannah Mitchell, the Van Tassel Sisters: they and many others featured in Forgotten Australia don’t even have basic Wikipedia pages.

When I’m researching these obscure people and forgotten events, historic newspaper articles are vital.

But they’re not always reliable in their reporting of all the facts, whether names, ages, dates, addresses, occupations, immigration arrivals or prior criminal records. Similarly, once interest in a story faded so, too, did coverage of the people involved. And, obviously, if a journalist had no idea of what a subject had been up to before he or she became newsworthy, there was no way to report that information in their stories.

That’s where Ancestry is vital in helping me uncover facts as they were recorded at the time in official documents. These concrete details form a solid foundation for further research and, when used in conjunction with archival newspaper stories, references in books and other more modern tools, they give Forgotten Australia episodes a level of detail I hope is absorbing and immersive.

For me, diving into Ancestry is endlessly fascinating and I can’t help but feel like a detective as the facts accumulate and a detailed picture begins to appear. From electoral rolls and marriage records, to enlistment papers and police gazettes (sometimes complete with awesome mug shots), I’ve used Ancestry for every episode of Forgotten Australia — and also to write my book Australia’s Sweetheart.

In the coming months, I’ll be sharing a lot of specific examples of what I found using Ancestry and explaining how these records contributed to episodes and shone new light on people and events long forgotten.

Right now you can start telling your own family story — and/or become your own DIY history detective — with Ancestry. By following the link and considering a subscription, you’ll also be supporting Forgotten Australia and help me to keep on digging to bring you new stories.

If you find something awesome in your sleuthing, don’t hesitate to let me know.

Your Forgotten Australia host. Photo by my daughter.
Admittedly, three years ago, since then I’ve thinned on top and thickened in the middle.

Electoral Rolls — A Personal Story

At the risk of sounding like a supernerd, these are my favourite records on Ancestry, even if they’re among the most basic. That’s because a single electoral record changed my whole life.

Firstly, an electoral roll is simply what it says: an alphabetically organised list of registered voters in a specific Australian electorate. In addition to their names, rolls specify people’s addresses, genders and occupations. Like this one:

So here’s how this one line changed my life.

I am adopted. My name wasn’t always Michael Adams. I was born Damian Ingram Nichols. I knew this all my life and also that my birth mother’s name was Daphne Ingram Nichols. I presumed that Ingram Nichols was a double-barrelled surname. For most of my life, I didn’t have any great desire to find my birth family. When the idea did occur over the years, casual Googles returned nothing.

Until they did — a military enlistment reference to a Harold George Ingram Nichols.

What I learned from this was that Ingram wasn’t a surname. It was a middle name.

Armed with this information, I hit Ancestry and found a wealth of Nichols who each had Ingram as a middle name. The most recent was the one above: Bernard’s electoral roll entry, from 1980, so I thought I’d see what I could turn up about him.

Googling his name led me to a Government gazette entry from 2006 that said Bernard had acquired the official status of Lord Howe Islander. Another Internet search revealed he’d relatively recently been the owner and editor of the island’s newspaper, The Signal. So I sent an email to the publication, explaining who I was and asking that my message be passed on to Bernard.

A week passed and I got an email back.

It was from a Mark Nichols and in it he wrote that he strongly felt that we were related and that I should call him if I liked.

With my heart pounding, that’s what I did.

He answered. I said who I was.

“What can you tell me?” I asked.

His reply: “I’m your brother.”

My full brother — same father — and what’s more Mark’s an identical twin to Brett.

I had — have — two brothers, just 18 months younger than me.

Mum — Daphne — is alive and well and we talked the day after my phone call with Mark. The day after that I spoke to Brett.

Turned out Bernard is my uncle, Daphne’s brother. Mum’s a twin, so I’ve also got another uncle, Garth.

Our family goes back to 1842 on Lord Howe and I’m related to about half of the island’s population of 380 or so people. Before this discovery the only blood relative I knew I had was my daughter.

In June 2018 — just six weeks after I found that electoral roll record on Ancestry — my partner and daughter met my mum and brothers and their families for the first time. Six months later, we all had our first Christmas together on Lord Howe.

Like I said, that electoral roll changed my life, which is why I’m a bit biased towards them.

Ff you want to know a bit more about the Nichols family of Lord Howe Island, listen to the two-part episode “Australia’s Forgotten Titanic Hero”.

Electoral Rolls — A New Episode

Scouring old newspapers to piece together stories for Forgotten Australia is endlessly fascinating, not least for the incredible stories you stumble across while looking into an already incredible story.

For instance, it was while reading a Sydney newspaper’s front page about Robert Walker’s demise for the three-part episode Australia’s Most Vicious Gunman that I saw he was sharing the page with another man-killer, this one named Shirley Beiger — and that led to the two-part episode The Model And The Murder Case.

But historic newspaper articles, particularly those from the first half of the 20th Century and earlier, can also frustrate in their naming conventions, with people often only referred to with an honorific, perhaps an initial and then a surname. If you want to know more about a “Mr A. Smith” that can make things difficult. Good luck if it’s simply “Mr. Smith”.

For the most recent episode, In The Execution Of Their Duty, I wanted to humanise not only the mentally ill killer, John Kennedy, but also the young police who responded when this gunman was reported stalking the streets of Bondi Junction, Sydney, on the morning of 3 January 1931.

That meant knowing their full names, their dates of birth and a little of their personal and professional backgrounds. Newspaper articles from that week provided these details for the dead constables, Norman Allen and Ernest Andrews, but not for the surviving officers involved, who were only referred to by their rank and surname.

Here’s where Ancestry came to the rescue – and led to a whole new episode.

Ernest Andrews’ friend, roommate and fellow officer, Constable Denholm, was on the spot his mate was killed. So who was this man? While he was quoted about his friend’s death, newspapers didn’t include his first name, his age or how long he’d been in the New South Wales police force. But a couple of articles did mention in passing that he and Constable Andrews had boarded together in Grosvenor Street, Waverley/Woollahra.

Using Ancestry, I searched the electoral rolls for people with the surname Denholm who lived in the area around the time of the murder. Lo and behold:

Constable Denholm’s first name was Adam.

From there I was able to search his family history on Ancestry, and learn where he was born, when he came to Australia, when he joined the police, when he married and so on. It helped make him more than just a name in the episode.

But I was utterly astounded by what else I found in terms of his contribution to policing in New South Wales and to… Australian television. Here’s a clue.

You’ll be able to hear all about Adam “Scotty” Denholm in an upcoming episode.

And check back next week for an insight into how I use Ancestry’s passenger lists to track the movements of people all over the world.