Identity Crisis

It’s a peculiar situation. You might well be in the same position I am. I’ve spent years tracing my family’s ancestors; yet I have not the slightest idea what most of them look like. In the admittedly unlikely event one of them was to pass me in the street I would walk right on by, unaware.

It’s worth saying again. Hundreds of people (I can almost say thousands) who bear an intimate relationship with me – my ancestors – are so completely strangers that I know only their name, birthdate and place, parents’ names, year of marriage and spouse’s name, and death date and place. That’s not a lot to know. It’s why I spend so much time trying to guess what they may have argued about, what they may have believed. I know more about George Washington than about my ancestors, and he’s no relative.

Some people have photos, and I urge them in a post here to annotate those photos, to excess if possible, to base their family tree around photos not certificates. Some have an extended family still living, and that’s why I urge these researchers to film and record these family members. And annotate and take copious notes of the recording session.

I, unfortunately, have just a small collection of black and white, out of focus, completely unannotated photos. I suppose they must be ancestors. But which ones?

Suppose they were criminals, and I was questioned by the police about them?
Hair colour?
Colour of eyes?
Build, slight or heavy?
Handicap or impediment?
Fashion sense?
Pitch of voice?
Places frequented?
I’d be very popular with the police when I replied “I don’t know” so many times.

There are, however, places where some of this information can be recovered. Sometimes, if we look at the names of witnesses on certificates, we can trace them to a common employer. We can find out they were family members and add them to our tree. We can find out they were members of a religious denomination and research that to find out more of what our ancestor believed. Witnesses on certificates can help us to more information on ancestors, but not to what they looked like.

But one place that can help is the Army or Navy, if the ancestor concerned served in the armed forces. This is usually the case if they were born at a time when they neared majority at time of war. For WWI and WWII in Australia the best source is the National Archives of Australia A name search will give you access to the Attestation Paper of those who were about to serve abroad. Details include:
parents’ names
place of birth
marital status
chest measurement (only given for men)
colour of eyes
colour of hair
service record
injuries sustained
medals awarded
etc, etc.
Copies can be ordered online ($30). Once digitalised records are put on the site and are accessible to later researchers free of charge. The record can be easily downloaded if so desired. Although there are records kept by other service organisations, these Attestation Papers are the fullest in details. They are one of the few places you can easily find a physical description of an ancestor;

Another source of an ancestor’s physical description is the NSW Archives online index of police appointments, though that is restricted to 1857-1913.The full record is available for a fee ($15+) and it includes a physical description. For other periods you can ask the NSW Police Historical Society, at PO Box 274 Merrylands, NSW 2160.

Then there’s the other side of the fence. If you have an ancestor who was put in jail you will be able to get a physical description of him. I have one who spent time in Braidwood Jail. The Entrance Book, online at gives details such as:
hair colour
eye colour.

Another ancestor of mine had a police record available through NSW Archives, and on the record card I found:
colour of eyes
colour of hair
marks, including a tattoo “I love Beryl”
previous convictions.

In this case there was also a photograph of the man. It was the usual unflattering mug shot, a bit like most people get in their passports, but I was glad to have it.

This particular criminal (not a close relative, honest) was a thief. The conviction gave me a clue, and I found an account of the crime in the Herald, using the National Archives Trove site.

Should a person be merely wanted by the police, the record may well be in the NSW Police Gazette, now available at Ancestry. Again, I can illustrate from my family tree. My grandfather, who didn’t get on at all with his wife, deserted her and refused to pay alimony. The police went looking for him, and his description was published in the Gazette. I found out that “…he is 27 years of age, about 5 feet 9 inches high, medium build, fair complexion, brown wavy hair, clean shaved, blue eyes, one tooth missing from side of upper jaw, impediment in speech; generally dressed in a black cloth sac suit and black velour hat; an electrician”. “Impediment in speech” was totally new, and colour of eyes and hair. It all adds up.

Some of my ancestors travelled a lot, and two went to stay in the USA, where a cousin of mine had gone to join her (American) husband. In this case the shipping record described both my cousin, and her mother. I hadn’t found that before. Some shipping lines asked for birth date, some for age, some for occupation. But here it was height, and colour of hair and eyes. As well as place of birth, and relatives and their address in America. Can’t be too careful I guess. The shipping records were found on Ancestry.

So, thanks to bureaucracy, we can gain more of an impression of ancestors than at first seems likely.

Now, if only we could hear what their voices sounded like…

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.



About phillipkay

Welcome. The essays you'll find on BestQuest are my opinions, my attempt to re-evaluate their subjects. I think the ideas, books, films, music, myths and history explored here are valuable just because they continue to be discussed, so let's hear what you think.

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