Tracing my family tree and filling in the blanks

George Starling I HAVE long been interested in my family tree but haven’t really done much to trace my ancestors. However, as mentioned previously, time is pressing and what was previously an idle wish to “one day” explore my tree, has now become a more urgent matter. We live in such a new country that you only have to go back a few generations to find out how your family arrived here and for me, it’s exciting to begin building that picture…

My father’s side – the Shea family

On my father’s side, much of this work has been done by an uncle, who has persevered for quite some time to track down the Shea lineage. He tells me it has been a frustrating endeavour and is stopping now because it’s becoming impossible to authenticate the documents and facts that he’s uncovering. He’s done a fantastic job getting as far as he has, I think.

I’ve been going through what he’s discovered and I’m really getting a kick out of actually learning the names and seeing, in a linear fashion, the journeys of my ancestors. My dad’s dad died when my father was just 12 years old, of a massive heart attack. So that side of our family has always been a bit of a mystery. My grandmother, also now passed away, wasn’t one for dwelling on the past, and she remarried. She didn’t talk about her first husband or his family at all and I don’t even know if he had any siblings. Or where his people came from.

But what I’ve learned from my uncle’s detective work, is that my father is the fourth of a long line of Richards. In 1845, Thomas and Margaret Shea of County Kilkenny, had a son, Richard. Then in 1873 Richard and his wife Ann, had a son, and called him Richard. Then in 1902 that Richard (Richard W), with his wife Eliza, had a son – called… yep, Richard! In 1945 that boy Richard (Richard H) and his wife Ada May (who later changed her name to Maisie by deed poll) had a son called, that’s right, Richard. That last Richard is my Dad. My dad went on to have two girls. I guess I should count myself lucky that I wasn’t called Richardina, or Richardette.

So, on my father’s paternal side of the family, we left Ireland somewhere between 1845 and 1873, right around the time of the great Irish diaspora, and made our way to Ballarat, Victoria.

My mother’s side – the Starling family

On my mother’s side of the family, the work has also been done, tracing our tree back as far as 1726 when William and Ann Starling had a son, Robert Starling, in West Wratting in Cambridgeshire.  William Starling is my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. The Starlings didn’t come to Australia until my great-great grandfather George Starling came to South Australia as an agricultural labourer in 1878, at just 20 years of age.

Interesting that my father’s paternal line and my mother’s paternal line both arrived in Australia within about 20 years of each other.

South Australian history

In 1878 South Australia as a colony was just staring out. It was the first colony to be settled by free settlers, rather than convicts, as happened New South Wales, Tasmania and WA. It was designed to be a self-sufficient colony and rather than giving away land, the Crown sold it and used the proceeds to transport skilled labourers to SA for free. The colony was designed to be a haven, tolerant of all religious beliefs and political views. In fact, it was the first to offer women the vote, and the first to allow women to stand for elected position.

So, a young 20-year-old George Starling arrived as the colony was setting up its parliament, writing its constitution and establishing its industries. Exciting times! Wool seemed the go and after some time labouring and mining, George took a parcel of land released by the government at Denial Bay, west of Ceduna. He, with his new wife Julia (pictured below – aren’t they stern!) and their tiny baby Myrtle were granted 4000 acres of land in 1891 and set up Linton Farm, (named after Linton near West Wratting, Cambridgeshire).

George and Julia Starling

For almost 25 years Linton Farm was doing well, until 1914 when a drought virtually wiped out the family’s finances. George, who hadn’t had a holiday in years, took a trip to visit his brother James in Kingston. George fell in love with Kingston and decided he would set up farm in Kingston. In 1920 George and Julia sold Linton Farm and moved to Kingston to the farm they bought there, Telang.

Telang is still in our family to this day, and doing very well. My grandfather’s brother, Allan, took over Telang and it’s now run by two of his sons, James and Robbie Starling. My grandfather struck out on his own and started his own sheep farm, Binowie. So I’m the product of eight generations of sheep farmers. And my parents’ generation was the the first, in more than 200 years, to not follow in their parents’ footsteps and become sheep farmers. Wow.

Piecing together pieces of the puzzle is fun, but for me, the real enjoyment comes with filling in the details that are hard to see on a birth record or a marriage certificate. It comes with researching the history of the area, and then putting people inside that history and coming up with characters, filling in the light and shade of their lives. The hardships, the triumphs, the fears.

There’s one paragraph in the family history I’ve been given, that is particularly appealing because it conveys so much about the my great-great grandmother, Julia Starling:

During the day (or evening) when George walked four miles each way to get drinking water from the nearest neighbours (after cutting scrub with an axe all day to clear the land), Julia would lock herself and the two girls inside the wheat stripper (a tin box with beaters to strip the wheat) until he returned, as she was afraid of the Aborigines. George carried the water, a total of three or four gallons in two earthenware jars – their ration for the day. They had no trouble with the Aborigines.

I can just picture this pioneering woman, living a hard life out in the harsh South Australian environment. For a city girl (Julia grew up in Adelaide) she’s as tough as nails, but the local Aboriginal population scares her and she’s convinced they will kill them all in their beds.  She hates it when her husband leaves to get water, but she’s knows it’s necessary. So she would lock herself inside a piece of machinery with her daughters for hours while she waited for her husband to return with the water.

In my mind’s eye, I can see it as clearly as if it were a movie by Paramount, starring Nicole Kidman.

Maureen and Cliff Starling But at the moment, the focus is on my grandfather, (pictured left, with my grandmother on their wedding day, September 24, 1951). My goal is to fill in as many details about him as I can, to be his biographer and try to extract the emotion and the light and shade of the life he’s lived, from a gruff man who is not prone to waxing lyrical about hardships and overcoming challenges. Whenever he is asked about his life, he responds with clinical facts and a surprising level of detail.  It will be through talking to his friends and extended family that I get that light and shade that I’m after.

Cliff Starling with my sister Meredith (left) and me in August 1986 Does anyone have any tips? Suggestions for how to get all the information I need. At the moment I’m using Ancestry.com.au but I haven’t paid for a subscription yet. I’m using the free component of their site to plot out all the relatives and look for missing facts. Pictured left is my grandfather with my sister, Meredith, left, and me, in 1986.

1 comment for “Tracing my family tree and filling in the blanks

  1. Rachel vS
    March 4, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Great post! I have wanted to do this for years too, and did collect some details on my father’s family when I was last in Ireland. Unfortunately the last of my grandmother’s 8 siblings died this year, the youngest and the storyteller of the family. But my uncle, who still lives in the next town, had started work on it, so I am hoping he collected some of Billy’s stories over the last couple of years. Billy’s wife Nan will probably be able to fill us in on a lot as well.
    I loved learning that SA was designed to be a tolerant haven, it does help explain why they were so early to give women the vote – I think they may have been the first or second place in the world. Certainly something for South Australians to be very proud of!

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