On discovering my family’s papers

Researching my family history might be something I’m not supposed to admit as a professional historian, but it was the thing that reminded me how much I wanted to return to work in history when I felt I would not be able to get out of teaching in schools. And I’m discovering, as I meander down this path, how much the history of the ordinary fascinates me. Yesterdays’ post, for example, my growing interest in backyards, the fact that I spent a crazy amount of time pouring over the tiny diaries of Azelia Ley last week are all bound up in this direction I feel I’m heading in.

So, while I have and will continue to research my family’s history, I tend to do it as an historian, rather than as a genealogist. Names and dates are far less interesting than finding newspaper articles, land leases and snippets of information that might tell me more about these people as people, how their lives really were and what they saw as their successes and failures.

Can you begin to imagine then, how I felt when I discovered that there was a book of letters sent between members of my great, great, great, grandfather’s family? A little excited and perhaps a touch hysterical. It was only available at two university libraries in Melbourne so I co-opted my very good friend to perform copyright infringement by photocopying the entire book and then insisted he send it express post to me. When I got it I read the 166 page book in two nights.

Then I found that the originals were at the State Library of Victoria.

Yesterday, I went to visit them.

Nine envelopes: more than 270 letters, three recipes, two wills and a number of land related legal agreements. This isn’t an incidental collection. It is a sustained commentary on immigration, gold prospecting, establishing farms and businesses and family relations. They run from 1854 to 1889 – the years that saw the establishment of Victoria by those who really did the establishing; living just a week’s pay from destitution. The letters record the lives, successes, failures, sicknesses, travels, marriages, births and deaths of the family as they began to settle their new chosen country. It is really more than a family historian could hope to find.

I still can’t quite believe that it is my family.

The most incredible part of it all was on opening an envelope and discovering, hidden between the folds of wisper-thin letters, scrawled with ink, a tiny fold of paper with ‘In memory of Joe Mapleson’ written on it. Joe Mapleson was my direct ancestor and my connection to this family. He died at 31 after living long enough to father three children. When I opened it I found a lock of hair sewn onto the paper with pink thread. Obviously saved by his mother at or after his death, the hair was as real and as close as I’ve felt to this man who in some ways I have to thank for dying and altering the path of his children, leading to a rather unanticipated branch of the family in Western Australia. I remember when I started this journey it was Joe’s grave I went to find first and on discovering it was lost in the oldest part of the Footscray Cementry, I sat in the sunshine and tried to imgine his life and death. It felt so far away then.

The State Library of Victoria require you to apply to take photographs of their heritage collection and then again if you want to publish them, so I suppose a photo of the hair (if I get it later this week) cannot be put on this blog until I go through that process. I don’t agree with this level of control of papers and have found it difficult to understand why the library operates this way when others, with just as precious collections, don’t. But they are the rules and I’m not going to get anywhere by jumping up and down in the silent reading room. Suffice to say that IF I get a photo and IF I get permission, I shall share, but until then, I hope my description will do.

And I’ve now learnt my lesson about knowing all about an archive’s quirks BEFORE I turn up there!

9 Responses to “On discovering my family’s papers”
  1. Jamie says:

    Wow and wow. How incredible that must have been – I had chills reading it. Just amazing – I’m very lucky to have you unearthing all this!

  2. Nicole says:

    If the book is out of print then you didn’t break copyright. You may make a copy of an out of print publication.

  3. Pamela Kennedy says:

    So beautifully written Jen.

  4. geniaus says:

    Found your post via my Google news alerts.

    Enjoyed the story of your library visit – it got my spine tingling too.

    I share your frustration at the photography rules, the Museum of Victoria has a clock made in the early 1800’s by a direct ancestor and they will allow it to be photographed by not shared/published. I’d love to blog about the clock and include a photo but the red tape imposed by the institution creates a barrier.

    • Hi! I’m wondering if they have the clock as part of their online collection and if so you may be able to ask permission to use their photo and details of it. I’d ask them, because I know they have moved into online collections and the sharing of their collection in a big way now.

      I think many institutions will start to find that rules such as these will impact on their engagement with their visitors and, having just been to the Museums Australia national conference, this was certainly a topic that was discussed. Things will change I think!

      I’d love to read a post about the clock and your connection to it 🙂

  5. Megan Brown says:

    Hi Jen,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and love of history. I am the Marketing Manager at the State Library of Victoria and am going to look into this for you. I am quite new here, so can’t tell you off the top of my head about some of these processes, but I would like to clarify them for you and look into how best to get you access to these important images. My email is in this post if you would like to contact me.


    Megan Brown

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