What the SoG holds to help Australians find their British roots

Remember when any Australian with British ancestors assumed they had been sent out to Australia on a convict ship? “Sent out for stealing an apple!” we would happily claim. Well, now we know a lot more about how and why our ancestors migrated to Australia.

Of course, we do find some of our ancestors on convict ships up to the 1860s, in the listings for convicts and for the guards or military that sailed with them. We may find them as bounty migrants, paid for by settlers already in Australia, who were desperate for more workers in the mid 1800s. We may find them in the assisted migrant lists, where their travel costs were subsidised, or paid in full, using one of the many Australian government immigration schemes. In fact, we now know that there were waves of migrants from Britain to Australia, from the early convicts to the ‘£10 Poms’ in the mid 20th century.

But what we can’t always find easily are the parents and grandparents our ancestors left behind. And sometimes we can only guess at the reasons they left. Family history records in Australia are wonderful, detailed, and many of them are freely available online. But I want to travel back in time and place. My ancestors migrated from Britain to Australia and New Zealand. And I would like to visit the British towns they came from. I’d love to explore the graveyards that might hold earlier generations of their families. At the very least, I want some context about who they left behind.

The Society of Genealogists (the SoG) has a unique place in family history. It’s been around since 1911 and over the years many British families have deposited or bequeathed their family history documents, images and records. This offers great opportunities for family historians like me. There’s a chance that some of the families’ papers held are related to my ancestors. The SoG might have been around for over a century but it’s also totally up for 21st century research. Anyone can search their databases and indexes online from home. Members can also see digitised items or details from them home (See Note 1 at the end). So I decide to plan a visit to the SoG, and then to go in and test their archives and library. For my test I will search for the following family surnames: Maunder, McAlpine, Hawkins and Miles (Myles).

Planning before my visit

I start with the Document Collection. It holds legal documents, wills, photos, newspaper clippings and letters. All these items are collated and indexed online, by surname. There are more than 44,000 surnames. From home, I search the online index on the SoG website (tip: select the Search Records tab then Index to Documents). I find an entry for each of the four surnames I’m researching which means that somewhere in the Collection, families that share my surnames have deposited family history papers. I start a list for my visit to the SoG.

Then I search the SoG’s birth briefs index. When they join the SoG, each Member is given a birth brief form and asked to record their ancestors back to their great-great-grandparents. From home, I search SoG Data Online (tip: on the Search Records tab, select Index to Birth Briefs). I find one entry for Maunder and another entry for Miles. I add them to my list.

Finally, I decide to see what the SoG Library holds for the areas in England that I’m interested in: Stoodleigh in Devon, Yardley Hastings and Towcester in Northamptonshire, and maybe Worcestor. Again, from home I search the SoGCAT, the online library catalogue (tip: on the Search Records tab, select Library Catalogue). I find 27 items relating to Towcester, 7 for Yardley Hastings, 2 for Stoodleigh and absolutely loads for Worcester and Worcestershire. I print out the lists for Towcester, Yardley Hastings and Devon, ready for my visit.

Document Collection

The Document Collection is held in boxes in the Lower Library. Visitors just need to ask at the Help Desk and a member of staff or a volunteer will bring the boxes out for them. (See Note 2 at the end)

I have spectacular success with ‘Maunder’. There is a huge folder full of notes from family historians, with a hand-drawn family tree for the ‘Maunders of Stoodleigh’. I know this must have some relevance because I have birth certificates telling me that my 2 x great-grandparents were born in Stoodleigh. There is a frame hand-drawn around a part of the tree, with a note ‘left for Australia’. I find three letters written by George Maunder to his sister in the UK. George describes the journey by ship and mentions many times my 2 x grandmother who travelled with him! I am beyond excited.

In an envelope marked ‘Hawkins’ I find references to William Hawkins – born in Worcestor and died in New South Wales. But is he one of my Hawkins? At least I have a name that I can double check with other records.

I find a small reference in a folder marked ‘Miles’ to Benjamin Miles of Yardley Hastings in Northamptonshire, with a note that his son went to Australia. It’s not nothing and maybe the parish registers will help me tie Benjamin and another great-grandfather together.

Birth Briefs

I already have a note of the names in the birth briefs that I’m interested in. But I do the search again on one of the computers in the Lower Library, with the help of a volunteer. When you find an entry you’re interested in, you can actually see a preview of the information held. I find an entry for John Jordan Maunder, born in Worcestershire and died in New Zealand. This doesn’t feel like a good fit to me because I’m fairly sure I’m looking for Maunders born in Devon. The second entry I find is for Mary Ann Miles, which is exactly my great-grandmother’s name, with the correct spelling for ‘Ann’. But the birth date given is 1817 and I have 1822 so I wonder if I really have the right person. There are a lot of entries for Hawkins but none mention Australia.

The preview of the entry for Mary Ann Miles also shows the volume, quarter and folio details. The actual birth briefs are held in the Upper Library. With the help of another volunteer, I look at the brief. The Member who completed this brief certainly shares some ancestors with me and I also see some names that I don’t recognise. I can follow this up later.

The Library

Next, I decide to explore the Middle Library, which holds books, magazines, and other items relating to all the counties of England. I already have a list printed from the SoG’s online catalogue to help me.

The Northamptonshire section is wonderful. There are 7 books covering Yardley Hastings. One gives the history of the village, from 925 AD onwards, which is great background. Two other books are very interesting as they relate to Independent Chapels and I’m sure that my ancestors were not Church of England. For Towcester, there’s a lovely book describing the small towns of Northamptonshire which covers how important this town was. There are a number of books from Wesleyan, Baptist and Methodist sources and again, I am sure this is relevant to the family I am researching. And there are two references to maps held in the Lower Library, which I plan to look at before I visit the area.

On the Devon shelves, I find two sets of parish register transcriptions which include Stoodleigh. They may be useful.

No luck at all.

The one I’ve completely struck out on is my McAlpine family. I can’t find anything helpful. I’m used to this outcome but it’s still irritating. The shipping lists show that this great-grandfather of mine arrived in New Zealand in 1864. When he embarked he described himself as a ‘railway worker’ from London. Where is he? While grabbing some lunch I decide to give it one last try. I had found someone else’s family tree on one of the genealogy websites, listing someone with my great-grandfather’s name as a brother to a family in South Africa. I decide to check the Upper Library, which holds books and items from around the world, including South Africa.

Using the computer there, I search for books on South Africa. I find reference to one by Esme Bull called Aided immigration from Britain to South Africa 1857-67. It’s not a large book so I sit down to browse through it. There are explanations of why people left Britain for South Africa and descriptions of the bounty migration schemes. Then there’s just a listing of all the ships and all the passengers.

And there is my great-grandfather, aged 17, and all the other people named on that other family tree. They were bounty migrants, paid to migrate to the Cape Town area to work. Plus, any name with an asterisk next to it indicates that they did not stay in South Africa but moved on to either New Zealand or Australia. So, from a small, quite old, little book quietly sitting on a shelf in the Upper Library, I’ve just found an entire branch of my family tree.

Coming in to visit us

Everything you need to know before you visit is held on the Preparing for your visit web page.

Do take note of our opening hours. It would be tragic to plan to visit us on a day that we are closed.

We’ll ask you to leave your bag in a locker before you enter the Library. So organise some notes for yourself that are easy to carry around so that you know what you’re looking for. There are pencils available on all the floors as pens are not allowed.

There are loads of sandwich shops and coffee bars in the area so you can pop out for food. Plus everyone eats lunch in the Common Room so you have an opportunity to meet other people as passionate about family history as you are.


1. Both Full and Associate Members can see items on our online databases and catalogues when they work remotely.

2. We ask non-Members to pay a small fee to use our archives and library. Associate members receive a 50% discount on the day search fee.

3. Aided immigration from Britain to South Africa 1857-67, by Esme Bull publisher Pretoria : Human Sciences Research Council, 1991

- Sherryl Abrahart

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.