Amenuensis Monday


How are you going with your family history research in this new year?  An area which is often difficult to research is that of our female ancestors.  We are also reminded how quickly memories or information about our ancestors, even relatively close ones, is lost.  For example how much do you really know about your grandparents' lives?  Are they still alive?  Did you record any interviews with them?  What evidence do you have?  And your parents?  You think you are pretty familiar with their lives but are you really?  

I am fortunate that my mother was a great letter-writer and gave me many of her letters before she died.  They are all in manilla folders and marked with the year.  They range from 1959 up to 1992.  My mother died in 1995.  Much of the correspondence is with her father, her cousin, an old flatmate, and friends.  My mother was an only child so friends were very important to her.  Some of those friends are alive today and much of the information contained therein is of a personal nature so I can really only share bits and pieces.

Spending too much time reading them can be a bit debilitating and leave me feeling "not very how" as Winnie the Pooh used to say.  But occasionally I find little bits of genealogy gold and I thank her silently for being somewhat of a hoarder.  I think she had an eye for history and knew that some bits might come in useful one day if only to give an insight into her life story.

Tonight's little find was an application for a job.  I like this because it is an account of her work experience to this point in time.  I could give you a general outline of it from memory but the truth is I was six years old when she wrote this letter, so her account is more detailed and "first-hand". The original advertisement is pinned to the letter.

Here is a transcription:

19th February, 1967.

The Staff Inspector of Schools,
Box 388, P.O., 

Dear Sir,

I wish to apply for the post of Clerical Assistant in Primary Schools, Canberra, as advertised in The Canberra Times.  I am thirty-one years old and my last position was as typist/receptionist with the Small Homes Service (N.S.W.) in Sydney, for seven years prior to my marriage.  I worked also on a part-time basis in the same office on our return from Scotland in 1964 until we moved to Canberra in December, 1965.

As ours was a small office, my duties were general, including banking, preparation of cash books for auditing, compiling of agendas for meetings of the committee, filing, and with considerable contact with the public.  Although I was trained at Miss Hale's Business College in Sydney as a shorthand/typist, after a short time with the Small Homes Service, ti became more convenient for the Director, Mr. S.A. Morris, F.R.A.I.A., if I wrote my own letters on most occasions.  As a result, I have lost my shorthand speed and no longer use this medium for note taking.

My last school was Fort Street Girls' High School where I left in fourth year to attend business college.  Since then I have taken courses at East Sydney Technical Collge and in Edinburgh for dress designing, tapestry, and a brief course in Italian.

I have the use of the family car during the day, if mobility is of any importance.

If you will grant me an interview I shall be most grateful.

Yours Faithfully

Mrs. James R. Conner

So what have I gleaned from this letter?  Well, I knew she worked for the Small Homes Service (this thesis gives an interesting insight into the history of the service from page 113 onwards) but if you'd asked me I couldn't have told you for how long.  I also didn't know that she went back to work there after we returned from Scotland.  I knew she studied dress design at East Sydney Tech but I didn't know about the tapestry course or the course in Italian.  They must have been completed in Edinburgh.  Her friend Betty now Elizabeth Elston Cumming was a great tapestry artist.

The ad is of course fascinating too.  Despite the job being in the A.C.T. I see that the N.S.W. government was in charge of education.  The pay was $1.37 per hour.  Crikey.  

My mother finally got the job as it were, two years later.  They accepted her but there were no positions vacant at the time.  My parents bought a block of land and started building a house in Aranda later that year.  However the builder, for reasons unknown, took forever to actually build the house.  They finally moved in on 30th January 1969.  

Here is another extract from a letter to her father dated 17th February, 1969.

"The day before we moved in, Alex started at a new school.  She finished her three years at St. John's and is now at the 'big school'....Her day is long for someone not yet eight.  She leaves before Jim, at 8.15 and takes two buses to school, changing at Lyneham.  School finishes at 3.25 and one bus, the rural bus which takes the children to Weetangara and passes through here, gets her home at 4.30.  She says the best part of the new school is the buses - the independence and the freedom to her are bliss.  Me...? I just die a thousand deaths each day worrying about her.  I know we have to let go at some time, but isn't it hard? "

My mother hoped to get a job at Aranda, the local school but ended up working at Cook Primary, the next-door suburb.

Do you have any old letters?  They are worth reading if only to assist with the development of your own timeline for future generations reference.  I am participating in the 21 Day Family Connections Experiment and yesterday's task was to do up a timeline for my life.  That was no mean feat and I didn't do a very good job.  Lots missing.  I think these letters may help sort out the facts.  

That's enough for one night.  Time for bed.


I have a lot of letters from my mother and mother-in-law. It has been a struggle not to get overwhelmed. I have worked with another relative to understand a couple's courtship via their letters, he was a sailor she was an adventurer they only wrote for 18 months while he was a sea but I have been amazed at how much information is hidden just below the surface and as a consequence was able to locate hospital records, shipping company records etc.
I've also put some into photo albums to help enrich the viewer's experience. The younger generation is fascinated by the handwriting and incredulous they are seeing their ancestor's actually writing.
For those who aren't fortunate to have inherited letters like I have it's interesting to note that I've also come across personal letters in government land records at the PROV. One interesting one was for my Normal Crump who talked about how he came to the farm etc., even trouble that he had with the rabbit plague in 1933. A total unexpected find.
Alex Daw said…
Dear Sandra Thank you so much for taking the time to visit and comment on my blog. It's good to hear that someone else struggles with being overwhelmed with the volume of letters. I think it is a mix of feelings: guilt at having so much wealth in terms of primary sources, grief at their loss and frustration with not having a strategy or plan for how to get through it all. I really like your idea of combining the letters with the photos. My subconscious game-plan (to be made real) is to digitise as much as I can, use my software programs to their full potential, make more use of timelines et al. The letters need to be read several times. I tend to have an emotional or biased response on the first reading (skimming over bits I think I know or bits I think are too personal about other folk) which is why I need to read them again and possibly again, maintaining a detached or dispassionate point of view and looking for facts or statements which need to be substantiated or backed up by other sources. Yes finding personal letters in official records is grand. Like the one my uncle wrote about his passion for being in the airforce at the end of WW2 which is in his official military record. Proof of family hearsay about a man I never got to meet.
GeniAus said…
What a precious legacy and a wonderful way to stay in touch with your Mum. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the life of Mrs. James M Conner.
Alex Daw said…
Dear Jill Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to visit and comment. It is a precious legacy indeed. I would like to do it honour for her descendants. I believe they will derive strength, encouragement and enlightenment from knowing what their ancestors achieved, experienced, understood and believed.
HI Alex,
Since one of my collections has 60 letters, this includes telegrams, I found sorting them into date order first crucial, then scanning them, and then transcribing them, as well as having someone proofread the transcription were the first three critical steps. Time consuming and boring but help me to come familiar with their content and pick-up many nuances that I would have otherwise overlooked then the real work began.
Good luck with your project.
Cheers sandar
Alex Daw said…
Thanks Sandra - that's excellent information. It's always good to hear about how others approach these tasks. :)
Fiona Tellesson said…
WoW �� you have a genea-gold treasure trove.
I have a medium sized box that houses all of my Mum’s Personal memorabilia (including the letters exchanged with my father who went to work in Gippsland in the 1960’s.

I’m going to publish on my blog, but life has intervened. But it is scheduled!

It is a true i sight into the day to day life. It says a lot about my parent’s relationship and their thoughts on the going’s on of their family and friends.

Looking forward to reading more of your posts xoxo ��
lindamaycurry said…
My husband’s letters home while he spent three years teaching and travelling in England and Europe in the 1960s are all together in a box (his mother kept them all). I’m thinking I should type them up as they are a record of a golden time in London and beyond for a young person and he is still here to check on the details.
Alex Daw said…
Thank you Fional and Linda for your comments. Letters are fantastic I find for recording details that we probably don't think are very important at the time but are gold later.

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