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
History in the Making recently published David Taylor’s article about race and aesthetics in the nineteenth century portraits of Thomas Bock and Benjamin Duterrau.
David is a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania, where he is writing a thesis about knowledge and information networks in eighteenth century Britain and Europe. He can be found at UTAS, LinkedIn, Academia.edu and Twitter.
Here, he describes his writing process, his experience of the peer review process at History in the Making, and his ideal dinner party.
What did you learn from the peer review process?
I gained an awful lot from the peer review process. For one, it opens your work up to constructive criticism. While you may feel that this kind of thing is a negative thing that you do not need, it’s important to remember that, at most times of your career in history, you will be asked to offer your work up for reading, debate, and criticism. Why not start with History in the Making, where you can get reviews from peers and fellow students, and learn from there? It also allows you to become familiar with the ongoing editing process. Many students come out of high school and into university without the important editing skills that make good work great. Editing is as important as the article itself. It can let down your work if it looks shabbily edited, or not edited at all, no matter how many references you make. Lastly, it taught me to work for reward. You need to set yourself goals as a researcher, and to have a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of publication, is a major bonus.
Why did you choose to study history?
I chose history as much as history chose me. From when I was a little boy, I was exposed to the wonders of history through documentaries and books. As a teenager, I would write fictitious histories of European kingdoms and write myself into their narratives. It might sound obsessive or strange, but I think now that it was history enacting itself through my learning, and vice versa. By writing early and writing a lot, it taught me to develop my thinking, reasoning, editing, and story-telling abilities. So early on, story-telling was as important to me as history itself. The two link together perfectly. Even if history is not your sole passion, it has a way of binding itself to your brain and making you think differently about so many areas of your life.
What’s your writing process?
My writing process is to continuously write. In previous times, I was very much a cerebral researcher, taking thousands of words of notes for an assignment that might be only 500-1000 words in length. That is fine for undergraduate work. When and if you come to postgraduate study, it is important to write continuously, because storing references in a master file or in your head will only get you so far before one or both explode. Writing continuously links to editing continuously, and by the end of a research project, you can be working with a large chunk of good text, instead of starting from scratch! Also, a good lecturer once told me to write up every book that came across my desk. Just write 100-200 words on it, so that you don’t forget later what you read or why you read it.
What’s your favourite history book?
My favourite history book would have to be The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama. It is a study of wealth and culture in the Dutch Golden Age and it is what taught me that history writing doesn’t have to be boring, nor does it have to be strictly academic. The book subconsciously taught some of the most important elements of historical writing: a sharp eye for detail, meticulous research and referencing, and above all, a delivery method that captures the reader. Although I have wandered many different historical paths since first reading it, it is a book I return to in the course of many different investigations. It’s a sign of a good history book, that it becomes a reference guide to many different areas of your work.
Who is a historian you admire and why?
Again, I would return to Simon Schama. A reasonable amount of my lecturers over the course of my studies have crinkled their nose at the mention of his name, as if he were a glass of milk poured on the day of its expiry. I never understood their reaction. There is an unspoken disregard for historians who ‘go mainstream’, as if they’re somehow corrupting the discipline. What Schama has instilled in me is a belief that history is not just for academics and journals, but for everyone, to relate to and to learn from. It is our common heritage, the dirt beneath our feet and the words on the pages before our eyes. We must dust it off, lift it up, and make it presentable to the world, and we must do so with respect to history itself, and not to suit our own ends.
You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three historical figures are invited?
I think the first choice would have to be Rembrandt van Rijn, the famous Dutch Golden Age artist. Not only would be supply interesting conversation, he would also probably paint a quick portrait of our group for posterity. I’ve seen enough time travel movies to know these moments can easily be lost forever. Rembrandt is also highly enigmatic, with a magnetic force around his life and his work that has made or broken the careers of many historians and art historians. Along with him, I think I’d invite the topic of my PhD dissertation, Sir Andrew Mitchell, the British envoy to Prussia during the Seven Years’ War. Not only could this fill in much of my historical research, but he is also a diplomat highly skilled and informed in many different areas, and perhaps there would be no better placed person to enlighten me on the attitudes, beliefs, and world of the eighteenth century than him. His career also crossed paths with many eminent persons of that century, and so it would be like having a reference guide at the table. Having invited a seventeenth and an eighteenth century figure, my last guest would be a Roman, but for a fun evening, let’s go with Caligula. Many of the rumours and anecdotes surrounding the young emperor’s life have persisted for centuries, and while some may be true, many have been brought into question. His fiery determination and acute paranoia for security don’t seem to be in doubt, and also the rich cultural heritage of a young Roman Empire would be too much for my dinner guests to resist. Not only could we be entertained by stories of Rome, but the darker side of Rome would also be fantastic dinner conversation. Maybe we could finally resolve the debate over whether or not he made his horse a Roman consul! It’s in Rome and Greece, too, that my historical inspiration began, so all the more reason to invite this tarnished emperor.