Investigating family legends

Blown up by mines

About 20 years ago, my husband spoke with his father on the phone to find out some details of his ancestry. He filled an A4 page with names, dates, occupations and locations and I then used those details to get started on an ancestral tree for his side of the family. It was only when I was re-filing that piece of paper in 2020, that I noticed the note scrawled in the margin – ’56 Lansdown Rd. Blown up by mines’. What could that mean? By using a variety of sources, I was able to uncover the details of this dramatic event.

My first port of call was the British Newspaper Archive website. Using “56 Landsdown” plus the family surname as search terms brought up a number of news articles from January and February 1923, which showed that yes, indeed, the family home was ‘blown up by mines’.

By continuing to search with various keywords from the articles, I was able to create a bibliography of more than fifteen articles from a variety of Irish and English newspapers which helped me to piece together the story. In summary:

The Dennison family were recent arrivals in Dublin. According to some articles, they had fled Belfast after their business there was ‘burnt out by the pogramists’, and Mrs Dennison had been ‘shot at by Orangemen’. On this particular January night, three siblings were at home, while their parents were out. One of those siblings was my husband’s grandfather, a 17 year old student at the time.  After persistent knocking at the door, and a break-in to the basement, the siblings were ordered out of the house at the point of a revolver, and minutes later, a mine was detonated – completely wrecking the house. The Dennison children had made their way across the street, where they were fortunately unharmed by the falling debris.  Later articles suggest that the action was a case of mistaken identity – and that the perpetrators had actually intended the target to be a different house on the street.1

I confirmed the other inhabitants of Lansdowne Road by using digitised Dublin city directories, and the names and ages of the siblings using Irish civil birth registration entries. While the initial search of newspapers provided the colour and detail which fleshed out the initial ‘56 Lansdown (sic) Rd. Blown up by mines’, it also raised many more questions, such as:

  • What had happened to the family in Belfast?
  • Why were they and their business targeted there?
  • What type of business did they own?
  • After the house in Dublin was destroyed, what happened next?

By using Belfast and Dublin city directories, further newspaper searches, Irish birth, marriage and death registration details, Ireland census entries, shipping passenger lists and South African death notices, I am expanding the narrative of this family story.

From one scrawled line on a page, a fascinating tale emerged.

1. Some of the most comprehensive source articles were: ‘Blown Up By Mines. Series of desperate outrages by armed men in Dublin. Belfast Refugee’s house wrecked.’ The Freeman’s Journal, 30 Jan 1923, p5; ‘Mines and Fires. Night of Terrible Destruction in Dublin. Dwelling houses Blown Up.’ The Evening Telegraph, Dublin, 30 Jan 1923, p1; ‘Havoc in Dublin. Private Houses Wrecked. Use of Land Mines’, The Derry Journal, 31 Jan 1923, p6.

Object biography – capturing the story behind your possessions

Two tiny shoes

Throughout my childhood, two tiny silver slippers sat on my bedroom dressing table. When I moved out of the family home they remained there, until my parents downsized, and the slippers were included in the boxes of ‘treasures’ they sent to me. The silver slippers were ‘favours’ from wedding cakes of two of my Scottish family, and I remember the display of these small shoes being a source of childhood familial pride and a connection to my Scottish heritage.

However, to anyone else, they may seem like insignificant pieces of mass-produced plastic and it may be a mystery why I carefully store them. This is where an ‘object biography’ is useful to document the details of valued possessions to ensure that current and future generations understand the background and/or significance of family objects.

Object biographies can range from formal written documents, such as I did for one of the tiny shoes above, which examine the life story of an item – its origins, how it was made, its purpose and how that purpose may have changed or been interpreted over time, through to more informal video object biographies, with the owner discussing the object and its significance, ensuring there is a permanent archived record of the item’s story.

In each case, biographies can include information about the object’s:

  • manufacture – what materials were used, how they were sourced, techniques and processes used in making
  • purpose – both practical and symbolic
  • ownership – the chain of ownership from manufacturer/creator through to current day, and the means by which ownership has been transferred
  • condition – damage, repairs, alterations, identifying marks
  • significance – what does this object mean to the owner, why, and was that was the intended effect?

What are the stories of your favourite things?

Researching house history

Who lived here before me?

It’s fascinating to imagine the people who lived in your home before you. Who were they? What did they do? What were they like? Was the house the same as it is today? These are questions that have intrigued me for every home I’ve ever lived in.

Our current house is a relatively new one for the suburb, as it was built just 25 years ago. I know, however, there was a house on the site for the 85 years prior to that, and it was demolished to build our current home. And of course, before that first house was built, the land had other uses and custodians…going back for millennia.

I am tracing the custodianship of this piece of land as far back as I can, documenting the people, the structures and the land use over time.

Some of the sources I am using include:

  • Local council rates books
  • Certificates of land title at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV)
  • Research files at the local council history centre
  • Newspapers on Trove
  • Wills and probate files at PROV
  • Maps on the State Library of Victoria website
  • Secondary history books of the area
  • Research reports on Indigenous land use
  • Architectural house plans found in the garage
  • Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works plans
  • Online genealogical databases (e.g. Ancestry, FamilySearch)
  • Electoral rolls

Who lived in your home before you?

Oral history

Becoming an Australian

Often when tracing family stories, I’m looking at shipping passenger lists or records of assisted passage in the 19th century to find the migration details for the first person in a family to migrate to Australia. But not all migration stories reach back generations. N’s story falls firmly into this century. To capture the details of her path from growing up in the UK, to fully-fledged Australian citizen, we sat down for a one-hour oral history interview.

By gently guiding N through the chronology of her journey from her decision to visit Australia on a working holiday visa through to permanent residency, and ultimately citizenship, we collated an interesting account of her experiences over that 18 years, and the conversation also provided her an opportunity to reflect on the recent past.

The interview was captured in both audio and video format which, together with a printed transcript of the audio, creates an archival record for the future. Using the source material, the next stage will be to write a narrative article which will draw out the story using N’s own words, but also place it within the wider context of the time.

Spending time with Alison allowed me to reflect on how and why I was here sitting on my sofa at home in Melbourne.  Capturing the memories, the stories, the whys and the hows…I will be forever grateful.  Alison’s guiding questions got the most out of my story, and we talked about things I had forgotten but are again in the forefront. 

Testimonial from N

Tracing an ancestor’s migration story

The lucky migrant

‘Orsova’, [ca. 1909-ca. 1936], Allan C Green, 1878-1954, photographer, courtesy of State Library of Victoria pictures collection

There’s often a lot more to an ancestor’s migration story than just the dates of the journey and the name of the ship (or flight number of the plane) they arrived on.

Robina was the youngest sibling of my great-grandfather. Family stories recalled by my grandfather, told how ‘Aunt Beenie’ had migrated from Glasgow, Scotland to South Australia, where she was a nurse who did her rounds on horseback. Although this story was often told around the dinner table when I was a teenager, I had never written down the details. So, years later, when I was interested to find out more about Aunt Beenie, I had just the barest of details to work from.

Starting from the known details of her birth and early life in Scotland (as documented in records on ScotlandsPeople website) I was quickly able to find her application for assisted passage record in 1914 indexed in the State Records of South Australia (and also that of her sister and brother-in-law three years earlier in 1911). I purchased digitised copies of both files. Combined with the passenger departure and arrival lists (from the National Archives (UK) and State Records of South Australia), these documents provided a wealth of detail about the migration process for both parties.

Migrants often describe themselves as ‘lucky’, but Aunt Beenie proved to be a particularly fortunate migrant. Her sister and brother-in-law sponsored her passage to South Australia and she was approved for migration in 1914. However, before Robina was able to travel, World War I broke out, and her brother-in-law, Matthew, was informed by letter in August 1914 that the Government had suspended immigration operations, except for ‘arranging for assisted passages for wives and families of nominators and other specially urgent cases’. He was told that passage would not be arranged for Robina, ‘unless there are special circumstances under which your nominee can be introduced without in any way affecting the labor [sic] market’.

Matthew replied immediately, emphasising that Robina was a trained hospital nurse who would be valuable in the community, ‘as there are no nurses or doctors within 14 & 16 miles and there is a good deal of sickness in the place at present’.

He received a reply within days that Robina’s passage was approved. This correspondence is all contained within Robina’s Application for Assisted Passage file.

Robina completed the forms and medical checks required and was aboard the SS Orsova when it departed from the Port of London on 15 January 1915.

As the Orsova sailed through the Suez Canal in January 1915 the passengers had a vivid reminder of their good fortune to be heading towards a life in Australia. Newspaper articles of the time describe how, after stopping at Port Said where the pilot was sandbagged into the bridge, the ship entered the Suez to find large numbers of troops on either side of the canal. ‘Passengers were warned to keep to the side of the vessel farthest from the Turks’, and they reported hearing ‘the sounds of firing of skirmishes in the distance’(see references to newspaper articles below). The Great War was unfolding around them.

Robina’s timing in getting onto that ship was fortuitous. Assisted migration to South Australia ceased shortly after for the duration of the War.

Tracing her initial migration to South Australia was just the first step in recording Robina’s story.

Sources referred to in this post include:

  • Applications for Assisted Passage, 1911-1917 (GRG7/2), State Records of South Australia.
  • National Records of Scotland, (Scotland’s People website) – censuses, statutory registers for births, deaths and marriages, Old Parish Registers
  • Passenger arrival lists, GRG41/34/0/102-1915, 1915, State Records of South Australia
  • UK and Ireland, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890–1960, The National Archives UK via Ancestry website
  • Newspapers via Trove website: Express and Telegraph, 22 Feb 1915, p1, Daily Herald, 19 Feb 1915, p5, Daily News, 18 Feb 1915, p7
  • Australian Development and Migration Commission, Annual Report, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1927

Acknowledgement of Country

I was born in Western Australia to Scottish migrant parents and grew up on the lands of the Wadjuk and Ballardong people of the Noongar nation.  Now,  I live and work in Melbourne on the lands of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin nation.  I pay my respects to all their elders past and present.

I also acknowledge the important role elders everywhere play in maintaining the tradition of storytelling.

Member of