On the subject of the highs and lows of research… It’s exciting when you find the grave you’ve been looking for after a five year search. Not so exciting when you see that the family chose sandstone for the headstone, a very common choice in the Carlisle area during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s soft and it weathers quickly. Here, the inscription (that might have revealed all) has worn down to a blurred smudge on the surface. All part of the historical fun.
Ten years ago I had no idea what the note on this envelope might have meant but when I saw it again recently I had learned enough about Georgiana’s mother to understand the abbreviations she used. It’s the same with handwriting. Documents can be difficult to transcribe until you become familiar with an individual hand. After a while it even becomes possible to decipher tricky words because you can predict the particular vocabulary a writer might use.
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Sometimes an old document can give a strong feeling of connection with the original writer. Thinking not just about the factual evidence in the words on the paper, but also about the person who wrote those words, can create vivid pictures of an individual who lived long ago.
It’s hard to believe now, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries, knowing your exact age wasn’t essential for most people in a world where few legal things were connected to date of birth and form-filling wasn’t part of daily life. When Georgiana’s father wrote a personal note recording the date/place details of his own birth, he wanted to know exactly how old he was at the time of writing and he worked out the subtraction not in his head, but by writing it down. A few years later, he must have found the note and he did the same thing again, working out his age once again by writing a simple calculation on the back of the folded paper.
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Research can be an exciting experience especially when working with primary sources. You sometimes feel as if you’re touching fingertips with the original writers of the documents in your hands. But it can also be a long, frustrating process. These are some of the precious documents in Georgiana’s family archive, dating back to 1567. Many are written on vellum (calf skin) and in Latin, with heavy wax seals. They hold the stories of a family’s past but they are so very difficult to read.
It’s interesting that, so far, this photograph has been viewed by more readers than any other on the ‘Georgiana Molloy 1805-1843’ Facebook page.
When Georgiana packed in 1829 for the sea voyage to her new home in Australia, she included some reading choices that wouldn’t usually be on the list of a person described as strictly pious, including this copy of the songs of Robert Burns. This beautiful little book was given to ‘GM’ as a wedding gift and includes Burns’ reworking of old verses that leave no doubt at all about the bawdy subject matter – even when written in Scots dialect! It told me right away that there was much more to the story of Georgiana Molloy than had been told before. It was also the place where I found the subtitle I’d been looking for, in a poem called ‘On Cessnock Banks’ in this edition of the collection.
RWAHS, Perth WA