It’s happened to me, and I guess it happens to most people who are looking into their family history, that the ancestor they are seeking seems to vanish. I was following my family, census by census until suddenly in 1871, there they weren’t… I checked death records, I tried spelling their names in alternative ways, I tried ignoring the father and looking for the mother and then the children. None of them appear in the 1871 census. What a mystery… but there they were, back again in 1881.

There may be reasons why people are not on the census; maybe they were travelling, maybe some of the records are not complete for some reason. I haven’t yet found where my family went, but in my novel about a family in search of their roots, ‘Radwinter’, they do find an answer to the mystery.

My fictional character Thomas Radwinter is searching for a relative who had been living in the seaport of Portsmouth in the 1840’s and then disappears. It occurs to Thomas that maybe his ancestor boarded a ship and went somewhere, and an obvious destination at that time was half-way round the world to Australia.

Most people know that thousands and thousands of people, men women and children were transported to Australia as convicts. The prisons had become full and containment of criminals was becoming a major problem in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. Running out of space for all those sentenced to imprisonment, many were housed in chains, in hulks, old rotting ships moored along the banks of the Thames. Previously, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries North America received those transported from the British Isles, sent to work on the plantations. The American War of Independence, 1775-1782, put a stop to that.

At the same time, Australia and the antipodes offered vast, seemingly limitless opportunities for farming, forestry, whaling and mining, and sending ne’er-do-wells far away not only got rid of them, but also ensured there was a labour force which needed minimal if any payment. It was a primitive and brutal life for all concerned. More than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia

However, not all the travellers to these far off lands went because they were forced to; my family went to Tasmania in 1839 as merchants and traders, importing fine wines from Europe, porcelain and silk from China, and tea from India to their warehouses in Hobart. They exported wool, whale products, timber and minerals in their ship, the Lady Denison, until it sunk… or maybe the convicts on board overwhelmed the captain and crew, threw them overboard and sailed for San Francisco!

My character Thomas discovers that his family also went on the long voyage, round the Cape of Good Hope across the Southern Ocean to a new life. Thomas investigated his history as I did. He, and I, had a successful outcome to our research, thanks to the internet! The many very good genealogical web-sites make it possible to do in-depth research from home!

So, if your family seems to have disappeared, try looking up shipping lists and manifests, and records of passengers travelling from British ports… There are a lot of lists with a lot of ports, a lot of ships and lots of passengers – in fact in 1852 alone nearly half a million people emigrated to Australia!  However, playing the genealogical detective and with a little determination you might very well find your missing ancestor!

 

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