How Family History can Reveal Poor Peoples Lives in the Past

Dr. Tanya Evans

Dr. Tanya Evans, Guest Writer

 Family historians working on their poor white ancestors often style themselves as new social historians, the vanguard of the “history from below” movement, determined to recover the histories of society’s marginalised. In their path-breaking study ‘Australians and the Past’, Paul Ashton and Paula Hamilton argue that most Australians’ knowledge of the past does not come through the formal teaching of history, in the classroom or at university, but rather, through an understanding of their family’s past acquired from a range of evidence (oral, material and visual). This knowledge is developed and augmented during visits to museums and by television programs and films about history. This is why family history, with its ability to uncover details of poor people’s lives, is so important.
I am an historian of the family, sexuality, gender and poverty in Britain and Australia from the eighteenth century to the present. I have written two books on the history of unmarried motherhood in England and I am currently writing one on poor families in nineteenth-century Australia. Since 2011, I have worked on the bicentenary of The Benevolent Society, Australia’s oldest charity, established in 1813. My focus on the family histories of former clients of The Benevolent Society’s asylum has revealed some of the histories of poor families in nineteenth-century New South Wales as well as some of the motivations of contemporary Australians who practice family history using the charity’s archival records. My efforts have been enriched by recent scholarship by a range of public historians who share my fascination with the growth of genealogy amongst “ordinary” Australians over the past twenty years or so. The project was driven by a desire to bring together the work of family historians, recovering the histories of their poor ancestors, with academic research focused on analysing the history of the organisation and the wider historical context of this nineteenth-century charity.
On 8 May 1813, Edward Smith Hall, along with five other “like-minded gentlemen”, met in Sydney to form the New South Wales Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Benevolence. On 5 June 1818, this organisation transformed into the Benevolent Society of New South Wales “for the relief of the poor, aged and infirm and for other benevolent purposes” when Lachlan Macquarie became its patron. He funded the construction of the Benevolent Asylum which opened in 1821 (where Central Station in Sydney Australia now stands). It functioned much like a workhouse in the colony. In its early years, the Society focussed much of its efforts on the aged poor of the colony but from the 1830s, a lying-in ward was dedicated to poor pregnant women who presented themselves at the asylum to give birth. Single women, amongst many desperate others, flocked to the charity throughout the nineteenth century.
Most of the family histories gathered from genealogists for this project are of clients of the asylum who gave birth to “illegitimate” children. Family historian Anne Coote discovered that her paternal great-grandmother Sarah White gave birth in the Benevolent Asylum three times between 1877 and 1882. Sarah was born in Kent in 1858 to an agricultural labourer Weeks White and his wife Mary, who died shortly after giving birth to her last child in 1861. The family, including the widower Weeks; his eldest son William, with his wife and younger son; two out of three of his married daughters with their husbands and children as well as Sarah who was 16, emigrated to Australia in 1874 on board the Samuel Plimsoll from the south-east of England as assisted immigrants. The other married daughter also came to Australia with her family ten years later. William White continued his trade as a baker in Sydney and established himself quickly and successfully with his brother in Redfern.

Sarah was first admitted into the Benevolent Asylum on 11 April 1877. When the Committee enquired into the identity of the father of her child, she stated that he was William Johns, a painter. Their daughter, Mary Edith was born on 3 June 1877. Mother and child were both discharged from the asylum six weeks after the birth. Shortly afterwards, in August, Mary died of enteritis. On Mary’s death certificate, Sarah’s brother William and his wife were stated as her parents. Sarah’s brother was more fortunate than her. His bakery business later became Gartrell-White and he made generous donations to the charity later in life. His economic security had perhaps encouraged him to take on the potential guardianship of his sister’s infant. It is also possible that Sarah’s shame was to be obscured in this process.

Three years later, in March 1880, Sarah was admitted into the asylum again following a relationship with another man. Her son George had been fathered, she claimed, by George Taylor, an engineer. They both remained in the asylum until George was 5 months old. Two years later in July 1882, accompanied by George, Sarah was again admitted into the asylum to give birth to Leo. This time she named Louis Heinmouth (though the spelling was not clear on the document), a seaman as the father. Sarah told the authorities that she believed him to be dead. They were both discharged a month after the birth and she collected George five days later. Leo died later that year of dysentery. She gave birth to three more “illegitimate” children but she did not return to the asylum to give birth to these, which gave her some license to play with her life story for the authorities. Lies were written on their birth certificates, fathers were fabricated and two marriages imagined. She told those people in her midst that she was a widow and often changed the spelling of her surname in the process.

Her paper trail reveals the ways in which she was able to receive optimal care and support and how her family tolerated her misfortunes. Life-stories like Sarah’s reveal how individuals could slip in and out of poverty. Families with incapacitated or non-existent breadwinners were amongst the major client group of the charity throughout the century and into the next. Sarah lied about her circumstances in order to gain admission into the asylum three times to give birth but this charity was also known to turn a blind eye to women’s multiple “falls” because they acknowledged single women’s need. We have no idea what impact these pregnancies had on the prosperous and well-regarded White family but presumably she was deemed a disgrace of some kind. Nonetheless, she survived a series of liaisons with a variety of men, gave birth to, and lost children, with frightening regularity and presumably was provided with a modicum of support from her family. Her father left her some (though not a large) provision in his will. When working as a laundress in Miller Street, North Sydney, in 1894, she met and settled into married life with Alfred Hewitt from Hurstville. The couple had three more children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. Sarah died at the age of 59 in 1917 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Gore Hill cemetery. Sarah’s life had desperate moments of misfortune but she had resources at her disposal allowing her to access minimal charitable care on occasion.

I want to place the life-stories of clients of the nineteenth-century asylum alongside those of the family historians who have revealed them. When asked why she practices family history, Anne Coote stated that she enjoys “the thrill of the chase” and “being able to uncover as much as possible about previous generations … [taking] a particular, if rather guilty, pleasure in uncovering the secrets some of them tried so very hard to hide”. This encouraged her to focus on revealing the complex history of her great-grandmother, Sarah White, a serial single mother in late nineteenth-century Sydney. She enjoys revealing the lies Sarah told to a variety of charitable authorities and looks forward to further research – “a treat saved for another day”. She has studied history at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels and has also been a member of the Society of Australian Genealogists and the Genealogical Society of Victoria for over twenty years.

‘Sharing authority’ with family historians has allowed me to reveal many details of poor people’s lives, the intergenerational experience of poverty and changing meanings of illegitimacy since the 19th century. I look forward to reaping the fruits of continued collaborations with family historians and to practicing ‘critical family history.’ This project has led me to believe that the work of family historians is vital to enrich our understanding of nineteenth-century Australia. We’ll also learn more about the meanings of our past in the present if we explore the meanings of family history today.

Further resources:
Evans, Tanya and Curthoys, Patricia (2013), ‘Family history, identity and public history: writing a history of TheBenevolent Society in its 200th year’, Journal of Australian Studies
Evans, Tanya (2011), ‘Secrets and Lies: The Radical Potential of Family History’, History Workshop Journal.

This guest blog is based on an article published in the Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, September 2013. I want to thank the Journal and the publishers Taylor and Francis for allowing me to summarise it here as well as Anne Coote for sharing her research with us.

Dr. Tanya Evans teaches Australian history and public history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.



  1. I also believe in wider historical context. You have mentioned very precise information and I am sure it will help many for probate property related issues.

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