by David Carment.

I recently returned from the excellent conference in Canberra honouring the eminent and influential Australian historian Alan Atkinson. His most substantial publication is The Europeans in Australia, the third volume of which appears this year. Other important books include Camden, The Commonwealth of Speech and his co-edited Australians 1838. Conference speakers addressed a range of themes that emerge from Atkinson’s work. Among these is his commitment to family history. Camden, for instance, has a strong focus on the Macarthur family while Atkinson’s own family is mentioned in the second volume of The Europeans in Australia and features to a greater extent in the third. As Stephen Foster argued at the conference, unlike Atkinson many Australian academic and public historians have tended to stay away from family history, particularly when the family was their own. Foster believed that this was regrettable and urged historians to embrace the genre, including the histories of their own families. The explosion of digital resources in family history made that much more possible than it had once been.

I support Foster’s views. Although I sporadically collected information on my own Scottish-Australian family for many years, I only felt able to write about it after I retired from paid employment as an academic historian. Before then, I was concerned that my university and other academic and professional historians would not regard such a project as appropriate or scholarly. After completing a history of my family last year, I am researching the life of a great grandmother not included in that history. I now regret not doing such work earlier.

As with many family histories, the research and writing of my own commenced as a personal response to long-standing and possibly self-indulgent curiosity. I found, as Atkinson writes, that ancestors ‘are strange reflections of the present – an early shadow of yourself’. There are, however, other reasons for recording and understanding my ancestors. Their lives illuminate various aspects of class, education, gender, economic changes, identity, religion, war and work from the late seventeenth century onwards. They allow an exploration of periods, places, individual personalities and personal relationships. Through their journeys, many of my ancestors led what are often described in historical scholarship as transnational lives. Their experiences and mobility strongly reflect the fact that during much of the period I covered Britain and Australia did not exist in isolation from events elsewhere. Finally, researching members of my family disrupted some assumptions that I had about them. Along with the historian Tanya Evans, I found that the techniques and outcomes of family history often uncover ‘secrets and lies’. Illegitimacy, mental illness, violence and divorce are all part of my family’s past, as they are of many other families, but were often omitted from the earlier accounts that I encountered.

Tom Griffiths eloquently spoke at the Atkinson conference of the relationships between popular historical consciousness and scholarly history as practised in both the academic and public spheres, applauding Atkinson for his interest in the connections between historians and their audiences. His work on family history, as Griffiths showed, is a powerful demonstration of this. Like Foster, I think there are sound reasons why more historians ought to follow Atkinson’s example here.


  1. Wonderful post David, as a reader of your family history I admire your thoroughness and persistence in what can often be a murky exploration of the past.

  2. Early efforts in family history inspired me to move on to colonial history. The explosion in online information on family history is paralleled by an explosion in incorrect information uploaded to family history sites. Accurate research and primary sources have never been more important.

  3. I certainly agree with David. The knowledge I gained of historical sources through studying my own family history has helped me to direct other researchers where to look whether for famiy, local or academic history. I have applied the methods used for family history to conference papers on biographical and transnational history. Family history can reveal much about people and their experiences in different times and places adding to our wider understandings.

  4. Great article. It seems to have taken some scholarly historians sometime to get to this point? What is one without the other? It would be difficult to study local history without the people and in turn it is important for family historians to put their research into context at least at a local & state level. Each has much to offer the other, family historians are good at locating the nitty-gritty whilst the historian can pull it altogether. Imagine if ALL historians could work together what could be produced!!

  5. Everyone is part of a family, including historians. The kernel of all history is family history.

    This post has burrowed into my mind, popping up unbidden at odd moments. I grew up in a family who actively researched and retold their own history. My journey in history started with listening to visiting relations retell family stories. When I was older I looked up things in the archives at their behest – a great education in archival research. But there is still a lot to be done to contextualise what is known and to carefully (and diplomatically) understand more about those loud silences that families are often burdened with.

    Thankyou David for such a thought provoking post!

  6. Thanks for an interesting post David. I used family histories (not my own) when working on a project that linked individuals / families living in the Rocks area of Sydney in the 19th century to archaeological deposits found on the site/s of houses they lived in. It was an interesting way to understand more about ordinary working class people in this period, who left behind few written records and are only really knowable through family histories and the material culture they left behind. The post also made me think of a book I read last year by historian David Walker (Not Dark Yet) which wove family history with memoir but then connected it to broader historical narratives and happenings.

  7. Thanks for this summary David, it sounds like an interesting conference. Family history is certainly practiced from the ground up, and is the way huge numbers of people connect with history. I couldn’t’ agree more that the methods and insights gained from delving into family history have so much to bring to academic history (and vice versa). Your post has reminded me to make time to delve further into my own family’s past.

  8. David’s observations on the Atkinson conference and Michelle Nichol’s comment particularly resonate with me as I am involved in the assessment of an important archive of company records relating to the Australian textile manufacturing industry. Many of the former employees or their families may use the archive to find details of their own working life for their family histories. My role, as a public historian, will be to provide a wider context for their stories. With the preparation of a history of the company’s activities and its place in a technologically complex industry which was once part of Australia’s booming post WWII economy I am hoping that those former employees and their families will have another reason to be proud of the crucial role they played.

  9. Excellent post David. I spent a lot of my boyhood with grandparents and elderly uncles and aunties, all great storytellers keen to entrance a boy with tales of the ‘olden days’. Anyone who has grown up in a small and isolated place has probably experienced the same thing. Those old people certainly provoked my love of history, and I have explored the family histories of my partner and myself for many years now. It has been a journey through historical imagination all over the world and across many centuries (and types of records), and it has left me sceptical about much of what passes under the rubric of ‘Australian history’.

    You mention transnational lives, and I think one thing family history has given me is an ambivalence (at best) towards nationalistic or essentialist histories. Family history has shown me how changeable identities can be, how adaptable people can be to new situations, how readily people can re-invent themselves. Perhaps that’s not unusual in societies based on migration – but then, what societies aren’t? It has lead me to a deep interest in why societies desire, and how they imagine, historical continuities and commonalities. I suppose that’s how I have come to practice history in cultural and environmental heritage? I have sometimes thought of writing a large-scale history thorough the lens of my family history, rather than as family history for a solely genealogical or personal interest. Perhaps its time to read some more Atkinson!

  10. Great to see public support for family historians David. As you probably know it was family history that inspired me to write A Cargo of Women all those years ago. In addition to historians writing about their own families which is certainly valuable, the work done by family historians can of immense value to people writing a scholarly book, something I have found on many occasion. I hope you will write a large-scale history through the lens of family history. That’s exactly what I did with Cargo and it has proved valuable. Stephen Foster’s own work which I’ve read is a wonderful example of the value of tracing a family’s history. It was good to hear him talk about it at the conference.

  11. Your comments David have shown that Family History should not just be relegated as a past time for pensioners.

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