A cup of tea with..

Welcome to our new series, where once a month we’ll chat to an archivist or historian about what’s happening in the world of genealogy.

Christine Yeats is the Manager, Public Access, at State Records NSW. Cassie Mercer talks to her about the archives office’s latest convict databases, and what’s on the books for the future.

CM: Your role at State Records involves looking after many documents of historical importance. Do you find yourself walking around Sydney and thinking about what was there previously?

CY: Definitely, you can’t help but have an interest in the history and what the records tell you and translate it to the built environment. One of the interesting things about archives I think is they inform so much about our heritage and you really can’t have assessments of heritage or considerations of heritage without reference to the official sources and other documentary material.

Are there any stories you’ve come across of people finding forgotten treasure?

There is always the potential, say in the correspondence records of the Colonial Secretary, that you’ll come across something that’s not so much hidden in the records, but may be described in such a way that it’s not apparent what they are. All of it has the potential to make people say, that’s fantastic. A lot of it is the tried and proven genealogical path – convict records and shipping records – but there is a tremendous amount of other records that are rarely used and which still have that wow factor. We have had some terrific finds but often it’s a rediscovery. We might find a really beautiful map or a really beautiful plan. We’ve got some Burley Griffin drawings of towns. Then of course there are other things that might be a collection of records, for instance, about a bushranger. The records might be documents and newspaper clippings, but together they tell you this fantastic story.

The one-stop-shop for your convict databases is a wonderful resource for historians. How did the project come about?

These were indexes that we had on the site already but we decided to promote them in a different way by amalgamating them into a single database. The prompt was really the fact that we acquired the Ticket-of-Leave index of 1810 to 1875. The combined database has had an amazing effect. People have really taken to it and love it. So it’s been a really interesting initiative.

I was intrigued by the database called Convict Bank Accounts…

Yes, it’s easy to stereotype and think they were all people who were very poor. Many of them were of course, but a lot of convicts came here with money because they originated from all walks of life. They put their money into an account and then they would collect it at the end of their sentence. It made such a difference to people to have a bank account and money. I was reading something recently about Sydney in the early days and how expensive it was.

But of course it didn’t stop people being consumers. There is a lot of material in the records about people importing stuff into the colony, and it wasn’t simply food and alcohol and so on, they were also bringing the latest fashion from England and Europe. Although it took a long time to get the goods here, people were ultimate consumers; they were dealing and making money and all sorts of things.

They were quite entrepreneurial, weren’t they.

Extremely so. People were looking at ways of making money and generating revenue.

Tell me about upcoming projects.

Well, we’re continuing to add to the website. One of the major projects that we’re working on, which will probably take a few more years, is to list the loans files for the soldier settlement project. This is part of an Australian Research Council project with Monash University and the University of New England to really promote the collection which is hardly ever used, primarily because there were no indexes or registers [for the records]. We had probably 1km of files but no way of really accessing them with ease. So it’s been a really worthwhile project. That’s one of the major ones.

There is an index of publicans’ licences from the 1830s that will be on the website soon we hope. There are also some additions to the divorce indexes. So there are a few things like that happening.

Over the next few years, they’ll be a lot more listing and indexing [online] and probably also a jewel box approach – an online exhibition with some interpretations and some transcriptions.

Sounds wonderful. We’re already looking forward to it.

State Records NSW is located at:

Sydney Records Centre: 2 Globe Street The Rocks Sydney

Western Sydney Records Centre: 143 O’Connell Street Kingswood