Emigration of Women to
Australia: Forced and Voluntary
This paper delivered to Society of
Genealogists, Charterhouse Building, London.
2pm, Wednesday, 31st August, 2005
The forced and voluntary emigration of women to Australian, began with the
First Fleet, with 568 male and 191 female convicts on board. By the time
transportation ended, in 1853 for New South Wales, Tasmania, Norfolk
Island and Moreton Bay, and in 1868 for Western Australia, approximately
158,702 male and female convicts had been transported. About 84,000 of
these landed in New South Wales of which, approximately 11,5000 were
women. Around 12,000 female convicts went to Van Dieman’s land and Norfolk
Island. No Women were sent to Western Australia. The total number of women
transported, 24,960, was tiny compared to men, comprising about 15% of all
Free women also arrived with the First Fleet and
continue to emigrate today. Unassisted female emigrants arrived as wives,
daughters and mothers, mostly within a family group. These free settlers
paid their own passage, and are notoriously difficult to research. Until
the 1850s few were listed individually in shipping lists and, if they
travelled in steerage, were not recorded at all. The New South Wales State
Records hold all immigration records to 1922, when the Federal Government
took over responsibility.
Assisted immigrants are almost always easier to find in the records. With
government funds involved official records are readily available, and made
accessible today for most states. There are indexes to Bounty Immigrants
(1828-1842), and for assisted immigrants from the 1840s to the 1890s for
New South Wales, Moreton Bay and Victoria. Many indexes for assisted
emigrants to Australia are now online and searchable on state library and
state archival websites. The majority of the 125,000 free emigrants to
1850 to New South Wales were assisted and men outnumbered women by two to
one. Women were a minority group in colonial Australia whether convict or
free. The social, economic and political status of Australian women
reflected British society but was modified by the rough and ready living
and working conditions experienced by early arrivals to the colony. While
still under sentence convict women can be traced via marriage
applications, assignment registers, conditional pardon lists, convict
indents, and tickets-of-leave. It is when they were freed and able to
marry, travel interstate and re-located elsewhere, that research becomes
When researching convict women it is useful to be aware of the general
administration of convicts in the colony, and the social and economic
differences experienced by women. Although convict women were sent to all
destinations, apart from Western Australia, almost half of all women
transported went to Van Dieman’s Land. The records for convicts
transported to Tasmania are held in the Mitchell Library in the State
Library of New South Wales (ML, NSWSL) , New South Wales State Records.
formerly New South Wales State Archives, (NSWSR) and the Tasmania Archive
Office (TAO). On arrival most women were assigned to do domestic work for
a family. In the first years they were likely to be assigned to individual
soldiers or officers. Some assignment records do survive but are patchy.
The NSWSR hold indexes relating to assignments, and convict indents.
Convict indents or arrivals are progressively being placed online. Perhaps
of more use to beginning researchers are the muster and census records,
which list every resident in the colony. Census records survive for 1828,
1841 and 1891. Musters recorded the numbers of convicts in the colony, and
for New South Wales are found for the years 1787-1825 and for Tasmania
1811-1822. Convicts who gave satisfactory service under assignment were
entitled to a Ticket-of-Leave (similar to parole) and if they continued to
show good behaviour would gain a Certificate of Freedom. All of these
phases of convict administration are well-recorded on the website of the
NSWSR at: http://www.records.nsw.gov.au and the Society of Australian
Genealogists at http://www.sag.org.au
Although women convicts were subject to the same legal and administrative
practices as men their lives were very different. In the early years it
was widely believed that assignment of female convicts to male overseers
was a form of prostitution. The Parramatta Female Factory in Sydney and
the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania were holding depots for
arriving female convicts, were prisons for re-offending women, and acted
as places of refuge for women mistreated by employers. Prior to this some
were housed in the upper floor of the Parramatta gaol but this proved
highly unsatisfactory to all concerned. Located on the top floor of the
Parramatta Gaol form 1804 and known at first as the “manufactory” the
female factory it was used to house female convicts who were not assigned.
A ‘new’ Parramatta Female Factory, “surrounded by a stone wall, nine and a
half feet high” was completed in 1821 further away near the Parramatta
River. It closed in 1848. There is an index to the Parramatta Female
Factory compiled from records held at NSWSR and the Cascade Female Factory
has a website at http://www.femalefactory.com.au/
The records of the female factories are found in the Mitchell Library,
(ML) and the NSWSR. The following is an entry found on the NSWSL website:
Entrance to Female Factory, Parramatta, showing stone bridge
Frame order no. : GPO 1 - 13815
When a female convict was assigned to a family as a servant she moved into
a household and can disappear from the records. Similarly, if she married
or re-married, or co-habited with someone, it is difficult to trace her
movements from place to place, to pinpoint precisely the details of her
working life in the colony. This difficulty is less problematic since New
South Wales births, deaths and marriages have been put online and more
recently with an improved search facility. The story of the convict Mary
Holland, is a classic example of how convict women survived once they were
in the colony. Holland was sentenced to seven years transportation for
stealing bed sheets valued at twenty shillings and a cotton counterpane
worth two shillings. Mary Holland, a convict on my father’s side of the
family, was nineteen when she was sentenced and she waited for two years
in a prison hulk on the Thames before sailing for Botany Bay in 1796. She
was finally put on board the French-built Indispensable. It left England
with 351 female convicts and took 169 days to complete the voyage.
Like so many other female convicts Mary Holland began her new life in
Sydney living in a de facto relationship. She lived with the New South
Wales Marine Corp soldier Lauchlin Ross bearing him two children, Donnal
or Daniel (1797) and Mary Ann (1799). Researching Lauchlin Ross I was able
to find out more detail about Mary Holland. In the early years of the
colony officers, men in the Marine Corp, ex-convicts and other male
settlers could apply for women servants to be assigned to them. Many women
described as 'wives' were in fact cohabiting with their employers, some
did of course eventually marry. In fact, Governor Phillip encouraged such
convict assignment arguing that convict labour used in this way would lead
to greater prosperity and expansion in the fledgling settlement. Officers
of the Marine Corp are said to have treated such women well evidenced by
some of the long term relationships emerging out of these unions.
That Ross would eventually desert Mary Holland was probably inevitable.
When Lauchlin Ross left he took the eldest child Donnal with him, despite
the fact that on the birth certificate Donnal was not officially
recognised as his son. Ross was able to invoke his social superiority and
greater political and economic power and simply walk away with the child.
Mary Holland was left destitute with her baby daughter. Mary Holland began
a new de facto relationship with Joseph Butler. The de facto
relationships, which convict women established, were viewed by the middle
classes and the authorities in the colony as prostitution. Yet, some of
these unions were long-lasting and caring. Mary Holland and Joseph Butler
were together for four years and during this time she had two sons; James,
born in 1802 and Sylvester, born in 1804. It is Sylvester Butler who
married Ann Elkin, in 1822 to link the Butler name to the Roses on my
father’s side of the family.
Mary Holland's life mirrors the uncertainty of many convict women's
experiences in the early years of the colony. Few, if any, women convicts
were able to return to Britain after expiry of their sentences, only a
small number were landholders (and only by default after the death of a
husband). The problems of deserting husbands, domestic violence and tough
economic conditions did make marriage uncertain and the numbers of convict
marriages remained low until after transportation ended. Employment
opportunities were few for women and were mostly limited to domestic
service. Most convict women, married or not, continued to have at least a
partial dependence on the government and are found in official records.
While Mary Holland served her sentence she received food and other support
from the government, her name appears regularly in the various musters and
“victualling” lists. At times desertion, domestic violence and/or poverty
forced convict women and their children to seek the help of charitable
organisations, orphan schools or churches.
Despite finding Mary Holland in the official records it was difficult
filling in gaps in her life in this early period and in the end I was left
with a very sketchy story indeed. Often the only information I could find
was linked to the birth and/or death of children, or her association with
male partners. Her link to Joseph Butler was useful. He arrived in the
Second Fleet on the Neptune, and his life in the colony had already been
researched and recorded and his link to Mary Holland well established, by
the time I began my family history research. After she and Butler ended
their relationship in 1804/06 she was alone until 1814 when she was found
living with a J. Butterworth in the Windsor district. However, her
relationship with Joseph Butler had enduring aspects to it as she was back
with him in 1828 described as his servant. Perhaps she was his servant for
the purposes of official documentation or perhaps they decided to live
together again, in their older years. One can only guess, from this long
view in history at the details of the actual circumstances of her life.
However it is possible to make some comment about the bonds of family
here. In his old age Joseph Butler was cared for by his son Sylvester,
whether he also cared for Mary Holland is unknown. She outlived him by
more than a decade.
At least convict women are listed somewhere. But it is not always the case
we find free women in the available records. Researching women emigrants
to Australia and finding out how/where and with whom they lived their
lives, presents similar problems as are encountered when researching women
more generally. The records for researching free emigrant women are many
and varied, but patchy and dispersed. Some, like the Female Emigration
Societies, meticulously record the leaving, voyage and arrival of
individual women. In Australia there are a bewildering array of government
and non-government sources, including those associated with women’s
health, maternity and employment. There are specific passenger lists to
search such as those managed by the London Emigration Committee these
found in the Fawcett Collection, London. Nola Mackey has indexed Sydney
newspapers for passengers and crew in and out of Sydney for the period
1830-1842. The Society of Australian Genealogists is compiling an index of
passengers arriving with the CD for 1826-1842 near completion. These free
passenger indexes are however incomplete and there is no guarantee you
will find the person you are looking for. And, as Kay Daniels and others
point out, most female emigrants to Australia were not middle class
gentlewomen but were generally poor, young and unlikely to be important
enough to be officially recognised and recorded.
The Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney was an Immigration Depot for single
female immigrants from 1848-1886, and a female asylum from 1862-1886.
Caroline Chisholm established her Female Immigrant Home in 1841 and she
also worked on a scheme for female emigrants departing England in
1846/1847. Upon arrival in Australia immigrant women could make use of or
be supported by such organisations as the Young Women’s Christian
Association, Girls’ Friendly Societies, Female Immigration Societies,
Boards of Immigration, Traveller’s Aid Societies and various Immigration
Agents. Women’s lives were invariably bound up with children and they are
found in the lists of charitable organisations, children’s societies,
industrial and reformatory schools and orphan schools. Your research
journey will certainly be a jigsaw charting the ragged and uneven life
events mirroring the uncertain and difficult times young free and convict
women faced in the early decades of Australia. Records that have survived
from such organisations will be located in the NSWSL or NSWSR and you
should check online catalogues as well as other primary databases offered
by these repositories.
Researching the life of my great grandmother Nurse Mary Kirkpatrick, who
arrived as a twenty-year-old in 1884 from Belfast, and then left her
husband in 1889, illustrates some of the complexities of researching free
female emigrants. Nurse Kirk, as she became more widely known, was a
respected midwife establishing four private hospitals and working in the
community from the late 1880s to the 1930s in the McLeay Valley on the
mid-north coast of New South Wales. But after my great grand mother died
in 1943 the records of her midwifery work and her hospitals, her letters
and private papers were lost, possibly thrown away. No one, at the time,
thought her life and career important enough to be saved for history. And
when I began the research into her life in the late 1970s there was
nothing left but memory – family memory and the collective memory of the
My grandfather, and Mary’s only surviving son, had died in 1945. His
surviving children, my mother and her sisters and brother, had been
children when Nurse Kirk was an old woman. Their memories gave me useful
insights into the family but little detail on my great grandmother’s
actual movements after she first arrived in Australia with her husband
Hugh and my grandfather, Dave, aged one. They arrived as assisted
immigrants and by the time I did the research there was a paper index for
that period, this now online. Finding Mary and Hugh Kirkpatrick and the
ship they sailed on was relatively easy. What was difficult however, was
charting the detail of her life in those first years, made all the
trickier when Mary left Hugh and became a single parent in 1889/90. Mary
had a daughter, Mary Ann, in 1886, this child dying a year later, her
short life mapping for me where the family lived in Sydney for the years
1884 to around 1886/87. When Mary’s next child was born she was living in
Armidale, a town located in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales,
and here she separated from her husband. Once I had the Armidale location
I was able to search for the family name in the 1891 Census and it was
here I found Mary Kirkpatrick alone as the head of the household. I have
not found any further detail on the whereabouts of my great grandfather;
he does not appear in any of the marriage or death indexes for any
Australian state. It is possible he returned to Belfast but he remains a
mysterious and shadowy figure in the research.
How did I fill in the gaps in my grandmother’s life story? I certainly had
family memory and this was a starting point for my research. Mary
Kirkpatrick trained in midwifery in 1902 and returned to the Macleay
Valley working there and establishing four private maternity hospitals.
Because she was a midwife and in business I found her in the records of
the Australasian Trained Nurses Association, in the records of Register of
Licensed Private Hospitals and in some local council records. But the most
useful source was the local newspaper the Macleay Argus. Mary Kirkpatrick
advertised in almost every edition of this paper from 1902 until she
retired in the late 1930s. These brief entries gave me the location of
early places she lived and worked in, the dates she moved from one place
to another and the names of other midwives who worked with her. In
addition, the Macleay Argus contained reports on Nurse Kirk’s community
activities, her involvement in the Red Cross, and stories of her pain and
anguish when her youngest son was killed in the First World War. None of
these stories were remembered by my family.
But I had no stories to tell me how she lived out each day, who her
friends were or what she might have believed in, what she felt
passionately about. All I had were half-remembered bits and pieces. For
example, my mother told me that Nurse Kirkpatrick had many friends in the
community. I wasn’t sure what this meant until I decided to look at the
lives of the women who worked with her, the lives of some of the women she
delivered babies for and also at the broader community around her. This
research into the lives and events surrounding my great grandmother’s time
in the Macleay Valley proved very fruitful. I traced the lives of all of
the other midwives in the Macleay and found that almost every one of these
women worked with my great grandmother at one time or another. I found
that often she would share a house as well as a midwifery business with
one or two of them. I discovered that Nurse Kirk knew them well; that
these women were a network of nursing colleagues and friends to each
other. Researching the lives of the women she delivered, many of whom
became lifelong friends, also filled out the historical and biographical
landscape. Certainly I had to research my family because they were central
to her life too. But because Mary Kirkpatrick was an independent,
professional woman with her life lived well outside the family, these
other stories shaped her life too in significant ways. I call this a
reconstruction strategy. By reconstructing as many of the lives of the
people associated with your female ancestor – including husbands, fathers,
brothers or sons, women friends, sisters, neighbours, business associates,
friends of the family – you will assemble information that is relevant to
her life. And as we all know, the smallest crumb of information is
sometimes all we need to lead us into a line of productive research.
It was certainly true that the birth of her children provided crucial
information to link Mary Kirkpatrick to a time, a place and family events.
Oral history was important too. Without the memories of my mother and of
the people of the Macleay Valley my story of the life of Mary Kirkpatrick
would not have been possible. Oral history is doubly important for womens’
history as our mothers and grandmothers were less likely to create public
written records. Or, as was the case for my great grandmother, they might
simply be deemed unimportant and thrown away. Birth and death certificates
were especially useful for tracking the family’s movements when they first
arrived in the colony. Ordinary families do not get into the records
unless they commit a crime or caught up in a scandal. Without the births
and, sometimes early deaths of children, it would be impossible to know
what happened to the family.
A useful source for immigrant arrivals in Australia before 1850 is to look
at the website of the Society of Australian Genealogists. Most of these
records also available in major Australian state, university and some
My great grandmother was an assisted immigrant. But if your female
ancestor was an unassisted immigrant, the research problems encountered
are more difficult. If you look at the website of the New South Wales
State Records their advice for researching unassisted passengers is not
encouraging. There are no lists of unassisted passengers comparable to the
assisted records and if you do not know the name of the ship your ancestor
sailed on, you are faced with the painstaking task of combing through
endless and mind-numbing microfilm copies of un-indexed lists of
passengers, one ship after another. I have done this for my Kyle ancestors
and have concluded the two original Kyle brothers were likely steerage
passengers and never recorded. I have been more persistent, but no less
successful, researching the voyage of a middle-class woman who arrived
here at almost the same time as my great grandmother. I began researching
the life, career and family events surrounding Constance Kent and the Road
Murder two years ago. The events of the Road Murder are well-known.
Sometime during the night of 29th June 1860 the child Francis Savill Kent
was taken from his bed and murdered. Five year later Constance Kent, a
half-sister, confessed to the murder and was sentenced to death, this
commuted to a life sentence, which she served in various English prisons.
After her release she emigrated to Australia to join her brother William
and other family members. My interest in the case is in her confession,
the impact of the murder and subsequent events on the family, her
emigration to Australia, and her long working career, which did not end
until her death in 1944 at the age of 100. Constance Kent had every reason
to hide her identity after she left prison. The Road Murder had been a
notorious case, there had been enormous public interest and press coverage
at the time of the murder and the confession. She changed her name to Ruth
Emilie Kaye and her siblings and half siblings also hid their identity in
one way or another. This family were very determined to keep their past
well-hidden from the public and thus researching their lives in Australia
was doubly complex.
The first difficulty was finding their arrival in the shipping records.
Her brother William arrived first in 1884 and is easily found, also his
wife and sister Mary Amelia are listed as travelling with him. Her half
brother Acland is recorded as arriving in December 1885. Constance Kent
left prison in July 1885 and it is known, from various family records,
that she travelled to Australia, between then and mid-1886, and was
accompanied by her half siblings Florence and Eveline. But it has been
impossible to find the actual shipping details of these three women. It is
surprising that this is so as they were middle class, cultured ladies who
would have travelled in the best ship accommodation they could find. They
sailed to Launceston, Tasmania but the relevant records for the several
months I want to search in 1886 are missing. I am still searching.
Tracing Constance Kent’s life in Australia has been interesting partly
because it is clear that she and her family did not want to be found. Two
of her half-sisters married and had children. I am in contact with the
descendents from these unions and they tell me that the family was
reluctant to talk about Constance Kent. They have given me access to
letters, photographs and notes that show that the family knew where
Constance was living in Australia under the assumed name of Ruth Emilie
Kaye and also information on how secretive the family continued to be
about that past. Constance Kent, like my great grandmother, was a
professional and there are records of her nurse training and her career
progress. She also worked for the New South Wales state government and
these records survive. She trained, late in life, as a nurse at Royal
Prince Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, she nursed at the Coast Hospital
(Prince Henry’s Hospital), Sydney, and she was the matron-superintendent
of the Parramatta Industrial School for Girls at Parramatta, in Sydney,
for more than a decade. Her last business venture was to manage a Nurses
Home at Maitland. All of the administrative/nursing positions Constance
Kent held from 1890 through to the 1940s were relatively senior and I have
been able to find considerable detail on the competence, skill and nature
of her work. As with Mary Kirkpatrick I have researched around Constance
looking at the women she worked with, the men who were her supervisors,
and the life and times of the family members she emigrated to Australia to
In summary, some of the strategies for finding out more about emigrant and
convict women include:
· Birth, death and marriage certificates – the staples of family history
research. If women are single look at the marriage and births of their
sisters, mothers, aunts, brothers, and cousins. Check the witnesses to
marriages as these can reveal significant family relationships; look at
the nurse/midwife/witness to a birth as this may show mothers, sisters or
other family members take care of birthing. With death certificates look
at the informant – was it a nurse, the husband, a close friend?
· Marriage, re-marriage - researching the men in a woman’s life can
provide starting points for mapping out her life. Women’s lives are not
just reflected through men’s but can be seen as parallel to and explained
as a part thereof. Look at the personal, social and political dimensions
of how women lived in the period you are researching.
· Local records, especially local newspapers, records associated with
their work – Australian towns and villages were small prior to 1900 and
local newspaper were more likely to report on minor characters, and indeed
women’s lives. I found information in the local newspaper detailing when
my great grandmother left town to visit family or when she arrived back.
There were reports on fetes, fund raising and events she organised for the
· Look at work colleagues, women friends, sisters, neighbours, the
community in which she lived – if you do not know anything about how your
female ancestor lived then widen your perspective. Look at people around
her, the community in which she lived.
· Oral history – if female ancestors are not as likely to be in the
official records we need to try and find out as much as we can from
remaining relatives, other people who might have known her.
· Other sources -There are many other sources to add to your research of
convict and emigrant women: these include letters, diaries, family books,
cook books, photographs, sewing books, other memorabilia, trophies/prizes,
obituaries, divorce records, electoral rolls, directories, government
publications, pioneer registers, council records, court and gaol returns,
inquests, charitable records, hospital records, church records, school
records and women’s organisations. Begin your search by looking at the New
South Wales State Library and State Record collections (their online
information is very good) and then move on to other Australian states.
There are local, state and national genealogical societies that can help
· For female immigrants after arrival the following list of Australian
organisations could be useful. Look for them in the records of the various
state libraries or archives:
· Agents for Immigration, e.g. New South Wales Immigration Agent Reports.
· Assisted and Unassisted Immigration and Bounty Indexes
· Boards of Immigration, e.g. New South Wales Immigration Board Lists
· Girls’ Friendly Societies (in all states)
· Young Women’s Christian Associations (Sydney and Melbourne)
· Benevolent Asylums, ( Sydney and Brisbane)
· Refuge for Fallen Women, (Melbourne)
· Ragged Schools, (in all states)
· Other female refuges, church societies, and private charitable
· Immigration Aid Societies
· Female Immigrant Homes e.g. as established by Caroline Chisholm in New
I was once asked to deliver a paper focusing on lost women in family
history – to talk about how difficult it is to find the names of women,
the detail of their lives, the stories that can place them more squarely
in our family histories. The image of all these lost women, these lost
souls, somehow wandering around in our past and no one ever finding them,
stayed with me. And it is true. Often even if we find a wife or mother or
daughter or several of these, the detail is so sketchy, the information is
incomplete. Full names are rarely recorded, and certainly, the details of
previous family, marriage and re-marriage, are too often incorrectly noted
or just omitted. Women are not lost, of course, but the records, the
stories, the official notes, the significant memories have been pushed
aside or viewed as less worthy.
When I was looking at the women’s lives associated with my great
grandmother, in an effort to find more detail on her life, I found two
women who seemed very close to her, a Nurse McCarthy and Nurse Cook. Nurse
Adelaide Cook trained in Sydney for six months in 1902, at the same time
and at the same hospital, as my great grandmother, and eventually became a
partner in the first private hospital my great grandmother
established….and later on I found a Nurse McCarthy who was close colleague
in another hospital venture in the 1930s, when my great grandmother was
older. Both of these women, Nurse Cook and Nurse McCarthy, were close
working colleagues and good friends to my great grandmother and I thought
it useful to research their lives as well. I completed some of the
research at a local museum, with the help of Billie Crawford their
research officer. As we trawled through the records one day Billie pulled
out a photograph of Nurse McCarthy and her husband, and I saw the name
Adelaide McCarthy - a quick search of the obituaries in the local paper
and there we had it - Nurse Cook and Nurse McCarthy were the same person….
And yet to that moment, Nurse Cook and Nurse McCarthy, appeared as two
different people in the local records and in local histories. Finding out
that Adelaide Cook married Michael McCarthy in 1915 and was the same
person, a close and long time friend and colleague to my great
grandmother, made so much more sense.
It is the age-old research problem for researching women’s lives…We find
Mrs. Smith, or Mrs. A. Smith, (the “A” could stand for Alan, the husband,
or it could be her name Alice), there is Nurse Brown and Matron Brown,
and, of course, Miss Smith,…the missing names and incomplete or incorrect
names for women and the lack of rigour in linking not just married names
to single names but the problem of when a woman marries several times…all
of this imprecision with women’s names complicates the research process
unnecessarily. The most difficult part of family history research is
finding elusive ancestors who are not listed in the census or are missing
from shipping records. Too many of these are women. Such problems were
exacerbated in the past because record keeping was inaccurate. But not
just poor record keeping can be blamed for all of these omissions. Women’s
invisibility in family history is part of a wider historical perspective
which relegates womens’ lives, too often, to the invisibility of neglect
and omission.. There is no right way to bring about change and redress the
imbalance of past histories. But it is important to try and as family
historians we are in a unique position to research, record and write about
our women ancestors who were brave enough to live the most extraordinary
lives. The least we can do is include their stories more vividly, in more
detail, and more precisely in our family histories.
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Kyle, Noeline, Memories & Dreams: A Biography of Nurse Mary Kirkpatrick,
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Australia, Vol. 1, & Vol.2, The Genealogical Society of Victoria,
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Women in Australian History
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in Australia, Penguin Books, 1975.
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Women and Family History
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Kyle, Noeline, We Should've Listened to Grandma: Women and Family History,
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Vine Hall, Nick, Tracing Your Family History in Australia, Rigby, 1985
(for information on later edition of this and other books on Family
History Research in Australia see Gould Genealogy at: