Thursday, January 16, 2014

Family in Historical Context..

Placing Family within Historical Context- History and your Family History

Photo NSW C Class Tram built by John Morrison in the mid 1890's ©

The key to understanding what life was like for our ancestors, is to place their lives into real historical context. By understanding the economic, social and political events relevant to the period in which our ancestors lived, we can open a window of  insight into the circumstances which impacted upon their personal lives.

WW1 photo taken by a family member ©

Studying history provides us with a backdrop for our ancestors' lives. Investigating historical events assists us in constructing a more complete and accurate story about our forebears within the context of the time in which they lived. History is not, as is commonly interpreted,  'the past'. History is how historians  interpret  events of the past. Our family histories are a wealth of  individual and personal narratives of the past, which cannot be separated from the historical events which shaped them. Our family stories allow us to interpret our personal past, and collectively, our individual family histories become a significant part of the bigger picture of history. 

Image - Wikipedia

It is exciting to discover where ancestors lived, when they married and what their occupations were. It is significant to record the dates of voyages and the names of the ships upon which ancestors travelled when they emigrated. These facts, however, are the just the introduction to an ancestor's story. By looking at the events which occurred in a forebear's lifetime we may discover circumstances and events which affected our families' lives and rationalise the decisions they made. Placing your family into historical context can help you to understand much more about your family's personal lives, values, economic circumstances, work ethics and even hardships endured.

To understand the lives of ancestors, we should not just search for WHAT happened, but importantly, we should discover WHY.


The following story demonstrates the way in which, through my research into Australian history, I came to fully appreciate events which significantly affected the lives of my Morrison great great grandparents. By understanding the events which saw Australia ride a wave of economic boom in the 1870's and  1880's, and the severe economic downturn in the 1890's which plunged the country into crisis, I turned a framework of facts about the life of my great great grandfather, John Morrison into a detailed  and elaborate biography which sits comfortably within the authentic Australian historical narrative.

The Bare Facts 
John Morrison, house carpenter by trade, arrived in Melbourne, Australia on December, 31,1878, on board the ship Kent, from Northumberland, England, with his wife Hannah (Gair) and four children. After living in Melbourne for one year  John moved the family to the leafy suburb of Strathfield in Sydney, where by 1882 he had established himself as a builder of considerable repute. From newspaper articles accessed on Trove (National Library of Australia website), I followed John Morrison's career with great interest. With significant buildings such as Chapter House, adjoining St Andrew's Cathedral, the Strathfield Council Chambers,  and numerous large Gothic Style churches to his credit, John Morrison, builder, turned his attention to the construction of tram and rail carriages in around 1880. John commenced a new chapter in his life as he operated a large carriage works at Strathfield, in Sydney where the name J Morrison  earned a reputation for fine craftsmanship in the construction of trams and rail carriages in New South Wales. John and Hannah had, by this time, added seven more children to their family. Suddenly in 1894, John Morrison lost everything. Advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald for the auction of his home and contents as well as his business interests, proffered evidence of the considerable wealth he had acquired. Amongst items listed for auction were, a large number of paintings by famous artists, expensive jewellery, made to order quality furniture and furnishings, and two grand pianos, reportedly for sale, due to circumstances caused by 'the cancellation of a government contract for 180 rail carriages'. I can only imagine how heartbreaking this situation was for the Morrison In 1900, John moved his family to Queensland where he took up the role of Foreman at the Ipswich Rail Works. After leaving the Rail Works, John invested and worked in the Stuart River Saw Mill with his son John William Morrison. John Morrison died in 1927, in Cooroy, Queensland.

The question which needed answering, was, WHY did John lose a government contract for a large number of rail carriages. The period of Australian history in the 1890's was not one with which I was familiar. I looked for answers in articles published in the Sydney Morning Herald between 1890 and 1891, where John Morrison's railway carriages were described as being of excellent quality and nicely finished (April 19, 1890).  Bad workmanship was most certainly not the reason for John Morrison's sudden descent into financial trouble. The next step was to research Australian history in the 1890's to look for any historical circumstances which might throw light upon John Morrison's financial disaster.

J Morrison's C Class tram at Sydney Tramway Museum, Loftus ©

John Morrison's story remained unfinished as I undertook a history course through the University of new England, which gave me little time for my family history. Then came one of those delightful genealogical, serendipitous moments......
Whilst studying Australian Colonial History, and in particular the events of the last three decades of the 19th century, I  inadvertently discovered the cause of John Morrison's business failure. The first clue was the introduction to Topic 9 in my Australian Colonial History course:
The 1890's are a crucial decade in Australia's history, a time when major social, economic and political change occurred in a relatively short period.
 The reality of John Morrison's situation hit me when reading a paper by B K Garis, I read :
In the third major area of boom-time investment, railway construction.... massive expenditure of overseas capital on such facilities as roads, bridges, harbours, telegraphs, and above all, railways, had been an integral and valuable feature of the thirty years between 1860 and 1890... but in the end the colonial governments had carried their railway building to excess...
Despite concerns in the 1880's about government expenditure on railway lines and rolling stock, the expansion of railways continued until in about 1891, British funding ceased. No Australian railway system had expanded more rapidly than in New South
Suddenly, I was able to fill significant gaps in John's story and to place John Morrison's life within a real historical framework, amidst real historical events.

A Rail Carriage constructed in John Morrison's Carriage Works at Strathfield
now located at the NSW State Rail Museum ©

On the 1871 UK Census, John Morrison is listed as living in Byker, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Northumberland and his occupation, a house carpenter. John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazette, 1870-1872, describes Byker as,

a Township... Population 7663, Houses, 1046. The inhabitants are employed variously in potteries, glassworks, quarries, collieries and other manufactories and works.

From Wilson's description, I know that at the time that my great great grandfather worked in Byker, the area was very much a working class environment. John Morrison, as a house carpenter would have been an integral part of that working class environment, however, since the family arrived in Australia as unassisted immigrants, it can be assumed that John Morrison had the means to pay for his and his family's passage. 

Byker, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Northumberland, England

After living in Melbourne for one year John moved his growing family to the leafy suburb of Strathfield in Sydney. By 1882, he had built for himself, a reputation as a builder of some renown in Sydney. With buildings of significance to his credit, including St Andrew's Cathedral's Chapter House, the Strathfield Council Chambers, and a number of large Gothic style churches, it seems that John Morrison was astute enough to realise that there were important opportunities for him as a builder, amidst the railway boom which began around 1878, especially in New South Wales.  From the late 1880's to the mid 1890's, he owned and operated a large carriage works at Strathfield, which fulfilled government contracts for trams and rail carriages. J Morrison was one of the big rail carriage contractors in New South Wales and a self made man of considerable wealth. From advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald, found on the National Library of Australia's website Trove, I discovered that John Morrison's good fortune came to an abrupt end in 1893, when according to newspaper advertisements he was forced to sell his home and contents, as well as his business due to the cancellation of a Government contract for 180 rail carriages.

An interview given by John Morrison in May, 1890, which appeared in the Launceston Examiner ( the nature which was his opinion of Tasmanian Blackwood and Huon Pine timbers in the construction of rail carriages), I discovered that Morrison's carriage Works employed almost 200 people.


  1. Fascinating post Sharn. It's the merger of personal and social context I find so fascinating. Our ancestors were affected by events, and in turn played their part in them. I guess those 200 men were out of work too as a result of the downturn.

  2. An interesting story. 'Historical context' is so important, not just for understanding a particular family but also for making us consider what records might have been created (hopefully containing references to our family!)