Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Body (okay Ancestor) in the Library....

Greenham Studios. (1901). Victorian Parliament House, Federal Parliamentary Library, Melbourne, [1920?] Retrieved January 30, 2017, from

Libraries are my happy place.  So you can imagine how pleased I was last weekend when I discovered that one of my ancestors worked in this fabulous looking place in the 19th century.

How did I discover this?  Well, I was mucking around, as you do, trying to be a good family historian.  I had received an email from the Lost Cousins mob and was trying to add more ancestors and their households to the site.  I knew my Sinclairs had come out from Scotland and was trying to remember when and then trying to find relatives in the 1881 Census.  I didn't have much joy in that regard but in the process reminded myself of some earlier research I had done here.  

Do you use your blog to remind you of previous research conducted?  I do all the time. Thank goodness I have a search bar on my blog. It is my lifesaver- my back-up brain as it were.  

So, about this time four years ago, I discovered when one of my earliest "arriving in Australia" Sinclairs died in Melbourne - Isabella Sinclair died in Fitzroy in 1891.  What about her husband Peter?  I had written a warning to myself on my blog to be careful when searching the Victorian indexes because they charged for searches, so I opted to search Trove instead.  Here I found a couple of beautiful Funeral/Memorial notices inserted by Isabella Jnr. - Isabella and Peter's eldest child.  Here they are:

Family Notices (1888, January 26). The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil (Melbourne, Vic. : 1873 - 1889), p. 15. Retrieved January 30, 2017, from

Family Notices (1888, December 31). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 1. Retrieved January 30, 2017, from

God bless dear Isabella Jrn. for putting that handy bit of biographical information in the notices. I trotted off to the Victorian BDM site which happily now doesn't seem to charge for searches  - HOORAY! and bought myself a digital copy of Peter's death certificate.  ($24.60 kerching! before you ask).  This gave me his parent's names - yay! back another generation - though of course one must be a bit sceptical (okay a lot sceptical) of information in death certificates but it was something to go on.  

Peter was described as a Gentleman - 84 years old.  He died of Senile Decay.  His father is described as Donald Sinclair. There is something written in brackets after his name which I think says (not known) and his mother is described as Margaret Sinclair formerly Bell.  He was buried 31st December at Melbourne Cemetery and was born in Glasgow coming to Victoria about 30 years ago.  He was married at Inverness about 40 years before to Bella Birrell and his children are listed as follows:

Bella 43
Anne 40
James 38
Helen 36
Emma 32

Jolly good.

"Melbourne Cemetery" I thought to self - "I wonder where that is?"

This is where it is timely as a Family Historian to actually look at what you are reading and SLOW DOWN.  I'm not very good at that.  Do as I say, not as I do.  

I got all distracted by this page....when really I should have been looking at this page .Never mind.  It got me off my bottom and off to the QFHS at Gaythorne which had the Marjorie Morgan book mentioned on the Old Melbourne Cemetery page and better still, the CD-ROM published by the GSV and AIGS Melbourne General Cemetery: index and transcriptions of Melbourne General Cemetery monumental inscriptions to 1989.  

I searched under the surname Sinclair and then narrowed it down to all the Peter Sinclairs and found my family.  I was a bit confused at first because the headstone had ROACH on the top of it rather than SINCLAIR.  But then I realized that the youngest daughter Emma's married name was ROACH.  From the headstone I found out who all the other children married and/or when they died.

Yes, I also tracked down Peter's will and probate on the PRO site.  That was all free to download - yay!  Peter basically left everything to his wife and then in the event of her death, it was to go to his unmarried daughters and son.  Son James died in 1895.  Wife Isabella died in 1891.  Daughter Helen Sinclair applied to the Supreme Court to administer the estate in 1901 declaring that the only persons entitled to a share in the distribution of the estate were sisters Anna and Emma.  Their eldest sister Isabella was still alive at that time but perhaps they considered she was well provided for and indeed, I have to agree when I reflect on her probate as discussed in this post here.

Anyway, that's not important in the scheme of things.  I really would like to find out more about their father Peter and what led him to be Chief Clerk at the Library.  I wonder what he actually did as Chief Clerk.  

Here's a map of where he lived and worked and was buried.

I've looked him up in various directories and have managed to plot a bit of a timeline.

From about 1867 there is a Peter Sinclair living in Napier Street Fitzroy (later clarified to be number 54) and he seems to move to Best Street in about 1884.

According to the Blue Book of 1867 which I found online here, 

Peter was appointed to the position of Clerk on 24 June 1861.  His annual salary was £250. He still seems to have been clerk according to a directory in 1871 at the age of 69.  So he would have worked for Librarians Charles Ridgway and James Smith.  I wonder how he obtained this position.  Previously, on his daughter Isabella's marriage certificate he was described as a contractor.  That could mean anything really yes?

A bit more digging on Trove and I found a couple of articles which indicated how the position might have become available.  It seems that there was a young book-sewer by the name of Jessie Gallie who fell pregnant with the assistance of Alfred Britter, a clerk in the Parliamentary Library. According to the morals of the time, she lost her job due to her condition and was forced, through destitution, to take him to court for maintenance.  If you want to get a sense of the times  this article and this article  will enlighten you.  I suspect Mr Britter didn't suffer too much though and that he was just moved sideways into the Post Office according to this article - sigh.  

What would it have been like working in the Parliamentary Library I wonder?

This article gives us some idea.

MELBOURNE. (1862, December 12). Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 - 1918), p. 2. Retrieved February 4, 2017, from

I'll never complain about my job again!

Sue Reynolds in her paper Libraries, Librarians and Librarianship in the Colony of Victoria quotes Patrick Gregory who wrote a history of the Library as saying:

 "that the true work of the library was performed by the Committee, with Ridgway (the Librarian) the "fetcher and carrier" who had "little to do with the development of the collection, a task that fell to the Committee and its London agents...his work consisted more of checking the inventories against the contents of ever-increasing number of creates, cataloguing the unpacked books and doling them out to members."

Dr. Diane Heriot's paper Integrated Library and Research Services in the Australian Parliament here quotes Biskup and Goodman:

"Parliamentary libraries grew up in the nineteenth century tradition of the cultured gentlemen’s library and were, for many years, little more than well-appointed clubs where members could read their favourite newspapers and find the occasional literary allusion or quotation for speeches."

If you are interested in the history of the Parliamentary Library in Melbourne, click here and here.  There is also an online exhibition celebrating 100 years of the National Library archived in Pandora here.

Next time I go to Melbourne I am going to have some fun aren't I?


GenieJen said...

What a wonderful story, so interesting, I also love a detailed death notice or obituary in the newspaper of the day, such a great help with sorting out the family.

Alex Daw said...

Thank you GenieJen. I had a lot of fun sorting everything out as you can probably tell. Now to tidy up my desk!

MichelleNichols said...

Asa librarian myself, found your blog post of great interest.

Alex Daw said...

Oh Michelle your comment make my heart glad. For some reason I found it quite difficult to write. I was excited but sorting out everything took some time and working out how to say it was tricky too.

Annie ODyne said...

Impressive work! Next time you go to Melbourne you might try to get into Parliament House and the library. it is quite beautiful and has all the latest glossiest books and some titles surprised me. The interior has exciting detail and I wished I could have stayed there for days.
I have Bell ancestors who cam to Melbourne and married during the 1850's. Historically the Bells "were Reivers on the borders, rampaging about and terrifying one and all". Google Reivers and see what you find. there was a movie with Steve McQueen if you can imagine that.
Good luck with the next bit.

Alex Daw said...

Hi Annie - isn't that interesting about the Bells? Thanks for the tip. I noticed that Turnbull was in the list of Reivers names too. From Middle March. And Kerr too. The plot thickens!

Crissouli said...

You, like many family historians, genealogists, and indeed, librarians,would make a great detective, Alex.. I loved going through your unravelling of the tale..

Alex Daw said...

Dear Chris - the hunt was quite exciting!

JenniferAlison Jones said...

Great researching Alex. Great story and I loved reading about your progress at each step of research.

Kerryn Taylor said...

Very interesting post and great sleuthing Alex. A coincidence as I was just working on my Trove Tuesday post for this week of further stories about my mum's cousin who was also a parliamentary librarian.

I would certainly be lost without my blog's search box. I am forever using it!

Are you aware that searching the Victorian BDM historical indexes is now free?