Write your family history

29th October 2021
By Jenny Morris
‘JUST TELL ME I AM NOT RELATED TO MY BOYFRIEND!’ a frustrated cry that is now a family legend.

The Family History ACT website carries an eye-catching exhortation in bold capitals: 


For me, writing doesn’t come naturally and the task of ‘writing my family history’ is always on the backburner.  The task seems overwhelming.  I can talk underwater about family history – or so I am told.  Yet I am much happier to ‘go down rabbit holes’, ‘chase shiny objects’ and collect information than enter data into a programme or write a story.  Maybe Lockdown needs to be longer to achieve these goals?  Sorry – couldn’t resist!

Many inspiring writing instructors at conferences and events have given excellent advice over the years.  There is a wealth of ‘how to’ information around.  Some of the key factors can be summarised in a few simple ideas.  Start with what you know, maybe yourself.  Keep it to a size that won’t give you nightmares, maybe a paragraph, page, person, event or topic.  Share it with others.  But the most important step of all is…. START!  Then once you start, like any muscle, the writing muscle needs exercising regularly.  If all else fails, ask someone to make you accountable.  Like dieting!

In view of a request to ‘find a story’ I am reviewing an earlier article about my family’s long ties to the Canberra area.  The title’s frustrated statement by my daughter has become a family legend.  As a teenager in a family with several generations of Canberrans on both sides, she probably felt there was just no getting away from relatives and friends who knew any boyfriend’s pedigree.  And this one was special!

My earliest Canberran ancestor is Bartholomew COREY, born in 1852 while his parents were living at Molonglo.  Both his parents were Irish convicts who had served their time and were looking for work, opportunity and probably anonymity.

Well before the creation of Canberra and by the mid 1850’s my maternal families had already settled in Yass and Cooma – euphemism for walking behind a cart for a week!  Yass families include GAVAN, HEREWARD, SMITH, HILLIER, BURGESS, GARLAND, CRESWELL, SCANES.  Cooma families include ROBINSON, ROLLASON, NANNERY, COREY, LINDSY, DONOGHOE and BURKE.

At the same time my father’s PARKER, PAYNE and DAVIS families progressed via Liverpool to Gundagai, Adelong and Wyalong.  Only the PARR, SUTTON and WHITE families came through Port Fairy into Victoria and north towards Moama-Echuca and Hillston.

I was born in Canberra and have always lived here.  Well…actually I was born in Queanbeyan Hospital.  My children like to tease.  In the 1950’s we among the few people living in the last street in south Canberra – Strickland Crescent Deakin.  The joke was that anyone going past who didn’t call in was heading to the Cemetery!  That name didn’t require ‘Woden’.

So how did my family come to be living in the new city of Canberra?  About 1920 my great-grandfather, Timothy GAVAN moved to Queanbeyan for labouring work building the new capital.  Similarly, my great grandfather Walter ’Jim’ ROBINSON from Cooma.  Grandfather Fred PARR was transferred to Canberra working as a Post Master, later joining Immigration.

My father, Graeme PARR, was born at home in Coranderrk Street Reid in 1931.  The PARRs moved to the ‘South Side’, building in Forrest.  When my husband and I bought our house in ‘Old Red Hill’ my aunt, Lorna YEEND, told me she had played there as a child when it was still a farm in the 1920s.

My grandmother Clara PARR used to save up her ‘jobs’ to drive all the way over to Civic, across the river!  Akin to a day at Buckingham Palace, requiring a Fletcher Jones skirt, thick brown stockings and heels, hat and gloves, even unto the 1970’s.

Generations of my family have baptised, married and buried from St John’s C Reid and St Christopher’s Manuka.  Children attended some of the earliest schools in Canberra as they opened, including Ainslie, Telopea, Canberra High, St Gabriel’s School, Girl’s Grammar and Catholic Girl’s High Griffith.  I was involved in transcribing the Telopea Park Enrolment Records.  It was such fun reading several decades of records recalling the names of family, friends, in-laws and outlaws, like a long conversation at my grandmother’s dinner table.

And so in the 70’s, I met my own husband through a cousin.  Not an Eddies or Marist boy I had known since pre-school!  A Canberra guy who had boarded in Sydney come back to ANU.  We underwent the obligatory parental interrogation about our new relationship and were told our fathers went to Telopea together!! So much for fresh bait!

My husband’s mother was a DARMODY, one of a dozen children, who reproduced similarly.  He has 70 first cousins on that side!  John and Mary nee CAREY DARMODY arrived from Ireland in 1853, were employed by the Campbells and lived at ‘Duntroon’.  The children attended St John’s Schoolhouse.  They selected land at Majura in the late 1860’s and sons were there until the land was resumed in 1913 by the Federal Government.

His MORRIS grandparents came from England in 1925.  On arrival in Melbourne, they were told there was plenty of work available building the new capital so they came straight here.  Albert MORRIS worked as a labourer building the Kingston shops.  Fed up one very hot day, he walked to the Kingston Bus Depot, asked for and was given a cushier job as a bus conductor.  The bus wandered aimlessly around town picking up people by the roadside as neither he nor the driver knew the route or streets!  But nobody seemed to mind then.

Someone commented to me once that they had never met anyone who was born in Canberra.  To which I replied that nearly everyone I knew was born here!  I think that may be a reason why so many remarks were made that Canberrans weren’t very friendly, especially in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Perhaps there was a divide between those who were ‘new-comers’ and those who lived here ‘forever’. Those who lived here generationally had a broad and deep contact with family, friends and acquaintances.  Newcomers needed to actively find new social interaction amongst other people who moved recently or came on short or long postings from overseas, interstate or with the armed forces.

Sometimes it feels as an old Canberran that there are less than 6 Degrees of separation.  If you aren’t related to someone, you know them somehow.  It’s not surprising considering the population grew from under 2000 in 1910’s when my great grandparents started moving here, to about 9000 in the 1930’s when my father was born, to 51,000 in 1960 after I was born.  It’s no wonder early Canberrans all knew each other!

In conclusion, if you have lived in an area long enough your daughter comes home and says ‘just tell me I am not related to my new boyfriend!’

So, what was our answer?  Your and his great grandparents lived in the same house at 3 Barkley Crescent, I was good friends at school with his older first cousin, his uncle was my hairdresser, your father tutored his cousin in HSC Maths, your grandfathers worked together at Customs, your grandfather delivered milk to his grandparents in Narrabundah. 

‘But no, you are not related!’

And they are living happily ever after.  And have produced another generation of local Canberrans who I can tell ‘that’s where Grandma used to live when she was a little girl.’

You too have a story.  Just start writing!!

Photo is of my parents Graeme PARR and Patricia ROBINSON at the 1954 EDEX Trial Stopover in Canberra.

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