The Women Who Came Before Me; Creating Ancestor Heirlooms

8 minute read

Isn’t it funny these days that we know more about the lives of celebrities than we do about the people who made us? We spend time chatting about celebrity ups and downs or about trashy reality TV shows, not realizing that in fact the most interesting stories lie buried deep in our past.

I started seeking the stories of my ancestors over 30 years ago. The fire of curiosity was lit by my grandmothers Connie and Irene who remembered family characters from their past. Often what they didn’t know about them was more intriguing than what they did know.  And so I set off on a lifelong quest to bring all my ancestor stories to life. Creating these biographical heirlooms is my way of honouring the people who made me.

You may be curious too about your forebears. But you also might ask ‘what if my ancestors are not that interesting’? I’m here to assure you they are! Just like a good detective story, each and every ancestor will come with their own set of unique features and life events. You’ll find stories with twists and turns, unbelievable hardship and sorrow, moments of great joy and success but more than anything, you’ll gain an appreciation for the life we live today.

So how many stories could I possibly write? If I go back eight generations, which is the point at which records start to thin out, I have 510 ancestors. That’s over five hundred possible stories to tell. There have been more than a few astonishing characters amongst them these five hundred individuals.

On this particular blog I’d like to share with you who my female ancestors are. Of the 255 women in my ancestry (back those eight generations), I have photographs of just sixteen of them. I have to imagine what the others looked like. I have photographs of my two grandmothers and four great grandmothers. Of my eight great-great grandmothers, I have photographs of just five of them. For the next generation back, my 3 x great grandmothers, of which there are 16 women, I have photographs of four of them.  And extraordinarily, I have one photograph of a 4 x great grandmother, out of a possible 32 women. Are there more photographs out there? Perhaps one or two more. I do hope to find them one day.

Of the 16 ancestors in the collage, I’ve completed stories on six of them. Other stories are in draft, as I continue to research each detail and pull together a biography befitting their life. Each story takes me dozens of hours to research and perhaps another good dozen to draft, edit, polish and publish. Your stories need not be this detailed if you’re a beginner writer. The key is to at least start writing down everything you know. The rest can flow from there over time.

To gain a little insight into who you might find in your family’s history, I’ve added a brief bio of each of my female ancestors along with their photograph and a link to their story (if completed). Their lives inform my story, show me where I’m from and illuminate what strength and determination I inherit. As they will your life, should your curiosity get the better of you!

Sixteen faces of my female ancestors

The lives of the dead are preserved in the memory of the living. Marcus Tullius Cicero

Irene ‘Rene’ Mary Reidy 1921-2011 (Grandmother) Purple geraniums on the windowsill; memories of my grandmother Irene – Quirky Characters  Irene was born in the 1920s and lived to age 90. She was my father’s mother and a dearly loved member of our Poulter family. She lived her whole life caring for others and was a comforting presence in my life. She was the kindest person I’ve ever met.

Constance ‘Connie’ Drew 1913-2010 (Grandmother) Bombs, blackouts and bravery; Connie’s survival of The Blitz – Quirky Characters  Connie was born just before WW1 to a bigamist father whom she never met. Raised by her mother, she returned to England aged 7 and didn’t return to Australia until her mid 30s, when she left city life behind to marry a country boy. She was the greatest storyteller of our family and had a cheeky laugh.

Clara ‘Minnie’ Broadie 1899-1980 (Great-Grandmother). Minnie was born prematurely, hence why her real name of Clara was rarely used. She raised three girls and was the loving grandmother to dozens of grandchildren. She was kind, funny and a great cook.

Eileen Quirk 1894-1978 (Great-Grandmother). Eileen was my paternal grandfather’s mother. She lived in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney all her life and was a devout Catholic, proudly attending church every Sunday. Born of Irish parentage, she lost a brother during WW1 and saw her own son fight the Japanese in New Guinea.

Ada Mary Drew 1882-1953 (Great-Grandmother) A picture tells a thousand words; Ada’s Mother’s Day story – Quirky Characters Ada was a strong woman raised in a middle class family in East London. She found love with a sailor who died before they could marry. Finding herself alone in Sydney, she met another sailor and married him, only to discover he was already married. Ada spent the rest of her life devoted to her children and never remarried.

Unita (Nita) Rubena Myrtle Andriske 1896-1971 (Great-Grandmother). Unita was born during the 1890s depression in western NSW. She moved to the small community of Coonamble aged 7, the same year her father died. Unita fell in love with a local boy and aged 16 gave birth to his son. However her mother pressured her to marry another man, 13 years her senior. This marriage did not last and Unita eventually lived with her first love for many of her later years.

Mary Quinton 1865-1950 (2 x Great-Grandmother). Mary grew up the daughter of an English convict and Irish famine orphan. She worked as a domestic servant on sheep farming properties before marrying an Irishman who left her in mysterious circumstances (he is still missing)! She was described as ladylike but did like a drink or two. She died aged 85.

Ellen May Core 1879-1917 (2 x Great-Grandmother) The price of love is grief; Ellen Broadie’s story – Quirky Characters  Ellen had a deep love of horses and she competed at events in the Mudgee area before settling down to marry. She was a wonderful wife and mother who could bake her own bread and make her own butter.  She lost her life giving birth to her 11th child. She was just 38 years old.

Ann Jane Digby 1858-1943 (2 x Great-Grandmother). Ann Jane had a rough start to life, abandoned by her alcoholic Irish famine orphan mother in Sydney. Her father was an ex-convict. Ann Jane only survived due to the charitable institutions set up for destitute children. She married and had eleven children and later lived a comfortable life close to Bronte Beach.

Hannah Holmes 1850-1904 (2 x Great-Grandmother) The birth of feminine resilience; Hannah’s story – Quirky Characters Hannah’s rough start to life began in the slums of East London. She lost both her mother and father by the time she was five and she was raised by her siblings. Hannah married ‘above her station’ as they used to say and ended up a respectable middle class lady who sadly died far too early aged 53.

Jane ‘Jennie’ Woodward 1843-1886 (2 x Great-Grandmother). Jennie’s early life was lived in the slums that lay in the shadows of Westminster Abbey. Her father was frequently out of work so she and her mother held the family together by taking in other people’s laundry. Jennie married a tradesman who adored her. She lived just a short life, dying aged 43 when her youngest child was just a year old.

Anna Ruschen 1850-1940 (3 x Great-Grandmother). Anna was born in Prussia, (Germany). She arrived in South Australia aged 8 and later moved to Jindera, NSW with her family. She married a man who later committed suicide. Left with seven young children and a hotel to run, she married a local widower, only to have him die two days later of a heart attack. Her third marriage to a local farmer was a long successful union, producing another four children. She died aged 90.

Nancy Procktor 1817-1904 (3 x Great-Grandmother). Not much is known as yet of Hannah’s early life or family. She was raised in Yorkshire but moved to London in the 1840s. She married a man who worked in gentleman’s club and together they lived a relatively comfortable existence, with their three sons. Nancy died aged 87.

Charlotte Taylor 1823-1918 (3 x Great-Grandmother). It is believed Charlotte was born illegitimately in a small village in Yorkshire in the 1820s. She was related somehow to a wealthier family and as a young girl was employed in their household as a maid. She married one of her employer’s grandsons and later emigrated to Sydney. Her six children were gifted musicians. She lived an extraordinarily long life, dying aged 95.

Mary Ann Snook 1853-1924 (3 x Great-Grandmother). Mary was born in the 1850s on a property owned by the famous Macarthur family, where her ex-convict father worked as a labourer. Her mother was a Scottish orphan whose own parents were also convicts. After Mary married James Core the family moved around a lot, eventually settling in the Mudgee area. They had 12 children.

Susannah Core 1839-1908 (4 x Great-Grandmother) A colonial mother; Susannah’s story – Quirky Characters Susannah was born in western Sydney in the 1830s, the granddaughter of convicts. She had an illegitimate baby before marrying a widower in Sofala. She birthed an amazing 13 children and raised some of her own grandchildren before dying of alcohol induced liver disease aged 68.