Thursday, 17 April 2014


My name is Eliot. I am one of the volunteer helpers at the Genealogy Help Desk Stanton Library, North Sydney. I’m here every Friday morning from 10am to 12pm. This little article is about an ancestor of mine who I discovered has an interesting story.
I am writing here about John Neal (born abt 1632 Scotland died 18 Feb 1704 Berwick, Maine) who was my Great great great great great great great great Grandfather.
Not everyone realises that before English convicts were sent to the sun drenched golden sanded beaches of Australia they were sent to other places around the world including the fetid mosquito ridden swamps of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. No accurate records were kept of the number of transported persons to the North American colonies. Estimates range from 50,000 to 120,000. An American’s ancestor was just as likely to have been a godless ruffian with a ball and chain and a meal of gruel as a pious farmer giving thanks for a turkey dinner with cranberry sauce.  The American revolutionary war put an end to convict transportation. Australia was founded as a replacement destination. A place so lovely that revolt against the mother country was thought unlikely.


My ancestor, John Neal (Nieal, Neale, Niel, who couldn’t spell, a trait I have inherited) was a bit different in that his only crime was to have fought against the armies of Oliver Cromwell and lost. He was a Scottish prisoner of war. Thought to be too dangerous to be banished to somewhere as close as Ireland, he, along with 149 other Scottish prisoners were sent to Massachusetts sometime in the early 1650s on the ship ‘Unity’.

Oliver Cromwell

The Scottish army loyal to King Charles II, who was recently proclaimed King of Scotland in 1649, was defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. It is estimated that 6000 Scottish prisoners were taken of which 5000 were marched south to Durham. 3500 of these men died either on the march south or from malnourishment and disease while in captivity. The majority of the 1400 survivors were sent to North America.
John Neal became an indentured servant (read ‘slave’) for 6 years at the Saugus Iron Works along with other Scottish prisoners. The need for iron tools for the new colony was a priority for the Governor John Winthrop who was personally involved in establishing a foundry. The Saugus Iron Works has been preserved as a museum in the suburbs of Boston. The Iron Masters house is the only original building that has survived. The rest of the site was excavated and rebuilt in the 1950s with the support of the American Iron and Steel Institute who consider it the birthplace of the American Steel Industry.

The Iron Masters House

Here is a link to the official US National Parks and Wildlife Service film about the site.
Here is the clunky 1950s film about it’s excavation.

After his release John Neal was given a grant of land in the southern part of the state of Maine with other Scottish ex-prisoners of War. The town was named Berwick. It is thought to have been named after Berwick-on-the-Tweed a place near to where the Battle of Dunbar took place. Whether this was a name chosen by the Scots with pride or forced upon them as a humiliating gesture by the ruling English elite of Boston is not known.
Unfortunately no personal documents or possessions of John Neal have survived so it’s hard to know anything more about him except to imagine how his life was affected by the historic events of the time.
John and his tiny community of Berwick would have been involved in various skirmishes with the Native American tribes who lived nearby. The King Phillip’s War in 1675 was followed by 6 wars over the next 76 years between English colonists, French colonists and the Native American peoples.


Although not much is known of John’s specific involvement in these conflicts his son Andrew Neal (my ancestor) gets a mention in the 'JOURNAL OF THE REVEREND JOHN PIKE; A Memorandum Of Personal Occurents'.

Jan. 28. [1703-4.] About 9 or 10 in the morning, the Indians
(to the number of 30 or 40) made an attack upon Andrew Neals
garrison in the Lower part of Berwick,! killed a poor maid, wounded
a Lad who made his escape & was healed, burnt 9 houses, killed many
Cattel, had one of y' own Crew sorely wounded, if not slain, & so drew

Rev Pike’s (1653-1710) diary describes the day to day battles and deaths of various Indian wars during the time of his ministry at Dover New Hampshire as well as the deaths and misfortunes of his own congregation and family. The language to me really evokes the era.


1684. — March 22. A prodigious Tyde rising some feet higher y"

the observation of oldest standers (in this place) did great Damage to wharves & ware-houses in Boston § & Pascataqua.

Feb. 8, 1684[-5]. An earth-quake was sensibly observed by
many : tho not universally perceived : This hapned Sabbath day four a clock afternoon.
1685. — July 15. Humphry Tiffany & Frances Low travelling betwixt Swanzy & Boston, were slain with Lightning.

An earthy innocence seems to shine through the pomposity of the language. Very Puritan.  But I digress. It’s a great read and it’s free online at the internet archive website.

If any volunteer helper or member of the public would like to write an article about an ancestor they discovered that they find particularly interesting please contact me and we can add it to this blog. I personally have heard a few really riveting stories from people during our Friday morning Help Desk at Stanton Library and would love to see some of them published here for others to share.

Thursday, 10 April 2014


One of the best things about researching your family history is the stories you discover.  Sometimes you find a detailed well documented account of the struggle and tribulations of an ancestor or you might find something very simple, such as a date on a document recording the death of a child.
Sometimes a tiny mark on a page or an empty space can say more than a paragraph of text. These are unknown stories that you are piecing together and discovering for the first time. They are your family stories. They are unique to you.

The ever vibrant Carol Fox is giving a talk on Writing Your Life Story at 2:30pm Wednesday 30th April 2014 at Stanton Library North Sydney. She has been hosting a course on this subject at Mosman Evening College for the last 15 years. The art of writing your life story takes some skill. Carol’s talk will be based on her own experiences and using examples from her own life. How do you begin? How do you structure and research your story? How do you unlock childhood memories? What is the best way to interview family members?
History is ever changing, as are our personal stories. Historians continuously reinterpret the past as we do as individuals. “What really happened back then?” we ask. As we reinterpret the connections and intertwining of our lives with the lives of our family and our ancestors we better understand ourselves in the present moment.  We create our life story.
There is more to this than you might think and Carol’s engaging ‘hands-on’ session will be very informative. There will be plenty of time for questions and discussion. Bring a notebook and pen to take notes.

This is a great opportunity for personal growth and development. Not to be missed.
Free talk but bookings essential

Friday, 4 April 2014



While attending the North Sydney Genealogy Help Desk last Friday I was told that Fairfax has now made transcriptions of their newspaper articles from 1990 to 2014 freely available on the internet. This includes Birth Death and Marriage notices. Fairfax Media Limited publications include The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and others. To search these newspapers you go to the Newsstore website, and do an advanced search, choosing Births, Deaths or Marriages from the drop down menu under ‘Section’. 
This now means that The Sydney Morning Herald can be searched, in it’s entirety, for free from home. Two other websites cover the rest of the paper. One of the State Library’s eresources has the Sydney Morning Herald and Sun Herald from 1955 to 1995. You need to be a State Library member to access this. If you are not a member you can join online, but you have to be a NSW resident.
This eresource database is very good. It has photographed pages of the newspapers which can be searched with keywords (by OCR). Problems I have found with it are that it takes a long time to do a search and the text of the BDM records is tiny. Finding your ancestor’s record on the page needs exceptional eyesight or a magnifying glass.  Printing can be a bit tricky too as it prints chunks of records rather than just the one you want.
Most people know the Trove website covers the rest of the SMH from 1831 to 1955.
When you can access the entire newspaper for free you can see how the normal ‘business model’ for newspapers is changing and many are going broke. This certainly makes it a lot cheaper and easier for genealogists.
If you are looking for a death notice these would be your second port of call after visiting the Ryerson Index website and finding  the date and newspaper that your ancestor’s record appears in.
Thanks  Joyce Ryerson!

RIP 30 August 2012