Whatever happened to the Hendrys?

Whatever happened to the Hendrys?
A National Library family history mystery
26 April 2016

This blog was co-written by Ashley O'Neill of Scotland.

Of all the different places to plonk myself down in the National Library of Australia, the Newspapers and Family History Zone is my favourite. Awash in the amber hues of a Canberra twilight, abuzz with the gentle hum and occasional click-clack of microfilm readers, visitors flock to this glorious space to fastidiously uncover scant gems of their family history or perhaps just read the newspaper.

The Newspaper & Family History Zone in the National Library of Australia

The best thing about working in the Newspapers and Family History team at the Library is the questions you sometimes get asked. Last year, a query arrived all the way from Scotland from a young lady by the name of Ashley. She wrote in the hope of finding out what became of her great-great grandfather and his children after they moved to Australia almost 100 years ago. The story of her ancestors, as written by Ashley's Uncle, begins:

My grandfather told me that the Great War affected so many families in Scotland and that when it came to an end, his father Thomas Hendry, his older brother Thomas, and his sister Elizabeth Jane, had emigrated to Sydney Australia...

My grandfather never saw or heard from his father, brother or sister again but he often spoke of them...

Ashley was especially keen to learn if she has any family here. Most people who trace their family history are trying to find ancestors who are long gone, however some people want to reach out to other living descendants. Getting in touch with distant cousins allows you to pool your collective wisdom, hear family stories you might not have come across before, maybe they'll share their research....if you acknowledge their hard work.

Australian electoral rolls online and on microfiche

Ashley had done some of her own research and had discovered that Elizabeth married a man named Cyril O'Brien. She'd also managed to find where the Hendrys and the O'Briens were living in Australia using the electoral rolls on Ancestry, but had hit a bit of a brick wall on where to next. Hoping for some guidance, she turned to the the National Library’s Ask a Librarian service. The Library has a huge variety of family history resources across a range of formats; online, on microfilm and in print - take a gander at our Family History research guide and our Family History Sources in the National Library booklet to find out more.

Further digging by us through the Australian electoral rolls on Ancestry shows that Thomas Hendry Snr lived with his son Thomas Jnr, and then later moved in with his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Cyril. Electoral rolls can be a useful way to identify other adults with the same surname living at the same address, such as siblings and children. Unfortunately no adult sons or daughters appear to have been living at either the Hendry or O'Brien households.

Electoral rolls on fiche
Say! What a lot of fiche there are!

Ancestry currently has Australian electoral rolls up to the year 1980. More recent electoral rolls (to 2008) can be accessed on microfiche in the Library's Newspapers and Family History zone. To search current electoral rolls you'll need to visit your nearest Electoral Office.  For more information on Australian electoral rolls check out the Library's Australian electoral rolls research guide

Family history can be expensive

We come now to a sad truth of family history research: at some point you might have to crack open your piggy bank and pay for a birth, death or marriage certificate to get the information you seek.

Information on birth, death and marriage certificates varies across the States and Territory registries. The Jaunay website has a useful guide for information you can usually expect to find on a historical birth, death or marriage certificate. Most State and Territory death certificates issued in the 1900’s have the names of the children of the deceased listed on them.

Ashley was prepared for the sacrifice and, with the exchange rate in her favour, purchased the death certificates of Thomas Jr and Elizabeth from the New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Thomas Jr's death certificate does not show the names of any children. Elizabeth's death certificate shows that although she and Cyril never had children of their own, she had previously been married.

All particulars unknown - from Elizabeth O'Brien's death certificate

Death certificates can be considered the least reliable of the three registry certificates because they're a secondary source of information. The accuracy of death certificates, and the amount of detail on them, depends entirely on the level of knowledge which the person filling them out (or informant) has about the departed. Sometimes the informant for a historical certificate knew the deceased very well, other times not so much. Whoever filled out Elizabeth's death certificate believed she had been married before, but couldn't provide any further information.

While purchasing Elizabeth's and Thomas' death certificate might have seemed a bit pointless, it was money well spent as it gave us another mystery to investigate - who was Elizabeth married to before Cyril, and did they have any children?

Newspaper notices

Obituaries can contain snippets of information that aren't recorded on registry certificates, so are often a great way of learning more about the deceased and their family. Death and funeral notices will generally be placed by the partner of the deceased and/or their children, and will usually include their names as part of the tribute. Sometimes obituaries also have the names of extended family - grandchildren, cousins, nephews, aunts, uncles. Thomas Hendry Jnr’s 1942 obituary available on Trove’s newspapers tells us where he was from as well as where he was living when he died, but not much else.

Thomas Hendry Jr's obituary on Trove

Sometimes you won’t be able to find an obituary in Trove’s newspapers - perhaps the newspaper hasn't been digitised, or maybe you’re looking for somebody who passed away more recently (most of the newspapers published on Trove cease after 1954 due to copyright - click here to read more about this).

Elizabeth's obituary doesn’t appear on Trove as she passed away after 1954, but fortunately for us it has been indexed on the Ryerson Index. The Ryerson Index is a freely searchable index of contemporary death and funeral notices which is essential for family history buffs. Hard working volunteers are constantly indexing new notices, with nearly five-and-a-half million death and funeral notices indexed so far.

Perseverance pays off... sometimes

Unfortunately there are quite a lot of people on the Ryerson Index with the name Elizabeth O'Brien so tracking down the right obituary took a little bit of time. When we finally did find Elizabeth's obituary it was well worth the effort as along with the name of her husband, Cyril, it also revealed the name of her only child by her first husband.

Using the information in Elizabeth’s obituary, Ashley was (finally!) able to get in touch with a Hendry descendant living in Australia via social media, ending almost 100 years of silence from across the pond.

Do you have a family history mystery? Perhaps you’ve hit a brick wall and need some advice on where to next? Ask a Librarian.

This is a brilliant example of how utilising all sources of available information can put the jigsaw together. I also like the way you caution about taking information recorded on death certificates as accurate. I have found 100% accuracy on only a small number of my ancestors' records. xx
Thanks so much for your lovely comment Geraldine! Yes, the hardest part is often knowing where where to look and taking what you do find with a grain of salt until you can (hopefully) verify it using other sources of information - especially death certificates.
What an interesting post. Shannon, I really like the way you write!
Thanks CatherineA! I'm always chancing upon something unexpected and interesting in Newspapers and Family History. And I do enjoy giving blogging a burl every few years.