How I Use Ancestry To Create Forgotten Australia

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, 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.

Until then 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. (In fact, an upcoming episode about a mysterious death 100 years ago was suggested by a listener. And, using Ancestry, along with other sources, I reckon I’ve got a compelling theory as to, well, whodunit. Stay tuned.)

Electoral Rolls

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: alphabetically organised lists of registered voters in specific Australian electorates. In addition to their names, rolls specify people’s addresses, genders and occupations are also listed. 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.

Heart-pounding, 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 still alive 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, the Nichols, who, until me, had the middle name Ingram, go back to 1842, when Lord Howe was settled. That literally means I’m related to about half of the island’s population of 350 or so. 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 — 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.

In another update, I’ll detail how I use electoral rolls to research Forgotten Australia. In the meantime, if 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”.