History in the Making author in focus: Rebecca Hart

Rebecca Hart is the author of ‘Where There’s a Will: Using Deceased Estate Documents to Inform Family History’, which was published in Volume 4 Number 2 of History in the Making.

Rebecca has a background in midwifery and health science, and is currently studying for a Graduate Diploma in Local, Family and Applied History at the University of New England (UNE).

In this blog post, she explains her interest in history, gives some advice about submitting to History in the Making, and gives her tips for primary archival research.

How did you come to your topic for your article?

My interest began as purely personal as Hannah, the central figure of my article, is my great-great-grandmother. I had always known the story of her being the local midwife, and became more interested in her when I became a midwife myself, and I really wanted to tell her story. Through the Grad Dip in Local, Family & Applied History at UNE I have been able to explore a range of topics around Hannah, including the paperwork relating to her death. The original essay topic was unpacking the distribution of wealth across generations within the family i.e. from Hannah to her children and subsequently onto theirs. It was interesting to see the differences in how each of the children fared and try to understand their circumstances in a socio-economic sense, especially as her daughters were much more successful than her sons. But the differences in the paperwork were also really interesting – both Hannah and Catherine’s wills are rich in clues about their relationships and connections, but dramatically different in tone, content, and intent. This is the aspect I focussed on for my article – can paperwork such as a will tell us about a person? How? Why would Hannah leave a house to Jack, but let Lizzie use it indefinitely? Why would Catherine leave the farmland to Elsie, but deny her the equipment she needed to run it? For me, family history really lives beyond names and dates on a tree and in the stories – both Hannah and Catherine left such tantalising little clues to explore!

Why do you think the study of history is important?

I think studying history gives us context for our lives. Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Taking a midwifery perspective for example, I realised as a student that midwives are not taught a professional history. There is no ‘Florence Nightingale’ heroic identity or image, or stories of skilled pioneer women, respected in their community. Although the regulation of midwifery is now well documented, much of the discourse around midwifery practice is very negative, emphasising baby-farmers, abortionists, and Dickensian ‘Sairy Gamp’ style drunkards, and often couched in ‘us and them’ terms in opposition to the professions of nursing and/or obstetrics. Midwifery has begun a process of re-establishing itself as a discrete profession in the last decade or so, but we have no context for professional identity or professional pride without knowing our history. How can we know who we are or where we are going if we do not know who or where we came from?

What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to the journal?

Do it! It is a really interesting process from being told a paper is good and ‘you should publish that’ to producing an article for publication. It was actually fun to be able to ditch the assigned question and reframe it to focus on my choice of topic. The peer-review feedback process was revealing in the way it presented different perspectives to those I had considered, and also provided genuinely constructive criticism on technical aspects of writing and editing. The 1-1 feedback from my assigned editor was invaluable. There was nothing threatening in the process, and everyone I dealt with from the journal was supportive and encouraging. I was much more excited than I expected to see my paper ‘out there’ – tick that goal off the bucket list! – and the reactions of my lecturers, friends & family have been great.

How did you find and access your primary sources?

Most of the primary sources for this paper are available in public archives – Public Record Offices in Northern Ireland (PRONI) and Victoria (PROV), Registry of Births Deaths & Marriages Victoria (BDMVic), National Archives UK and Australia, Parliamentary papers, Convict LINC Tasmania, Victoria Police Museum, and Trove. Some of these are freely available online, for example, many wills in Victoria can be downloaded free from PROV, and LINC provides extensive convict records free. Other resources require a trip to the archive to view and photograph, such as land grants from PROV. Victoria Police service records must be requested through the media unit before a .pdf is emailed. Although they can be valuable, I have so far refused to pay for services such as ancestry.com, but instead accessed them via my local library. These services can be very hit-and-miss: you might spend hours and find nothing or strike absolute gold in minutes. Similarly, you might find nothing in one and loads in another on the exact same person! It can be time consuming and frustrating. Also, you may or may not be able to access actual documents; sometimes only a transcript is available. BDMVic is excellent in that online searching is now free, and certificates are available for immediate download but of course there is a cost, and at $25 per certificate it can become very expensive to explore a family.

Where would you like to take your research next?

I want to do a major research project around Grannie Watts next year, exploring her midwifery practice in rural Victoria 1880-1920.

You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three historical figures are invited?

1. My great-great grandmother Hannah Jane ‘Grannie’ Watts obviously!

2. Mary Gilbert – the pregnant wife of blacksmith James, Mary was the only woman on the Enterprize, which landed in Port Phillip in August 1835.

3. Abraham Lincoln

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