Sandra Powell’s family spoke little about their past as she was growing up in Manchester, UK. And it wasn’t until her wedding day that she learnt the man she thought was her biological father was actually her stepfather.

Discovering the Truth

After the initial shock, Sandra didn’t think much more about it: she got on with her life, emigrated to Sydney, had children of her own and, in time, welcomed grandchildren. Then, one day in 1998, when one of her grandchildren asked about family, Sandra realised she knew nothing about her birth father other than his surname: Moseley. And she was curious.

Sandra started a search. She applied to the General Register Office in England for his birth certificate. Once she had it, she called the pension department to see if he was on their records. He was, but she was too late: her father, Melville Moseley, had died three months earlier.

Disappointed, Sandra applied online for his death certificate and then saw it listed a stepdaughter in northern England as his next of kin. Sandra flew to the UK, went to the village and found the woman in the phone book. “I’ve been expecting you,” Sandra’s stepsister said when she rang.

That was in 1999. Had Sandra’s search started a decade earlier, she may not have got much further. To research your family’s history meant hours spent trawling through library microfiches, scouring old phone books and writing away for certificates.

But since the mid-’90s, a revolution has taken place in genealogy. Organisations across the world – such as government archives, churches and companies like familysearch.org – have been methodically digitising millions of records and putting them online.

 

Online Genealogy Revolution

What used to take many weeks – particularly when searching for records in another country – can now be done in seconds from a computer or smart phone. Currently about six billion records are online – still only a fraction of what’s available globally, but nevertheless an incredible resource for amateur genealogists.

“The internet has just opened up a whole new world for people who are searching their family trees,” says NZ family historian Christine Clement.

When Sandra returned, she couldn’t settle until she knew more. A couple of weeks after starting her internet search, Sandra knew her grandparents were Welsh, and that Melville had two sisters, one dead and the other living in Canada. Then she uncovered a bombshell. Prompted by the revelations of a dying relative on her mother’s side, Sandra found court records that showed her larrikin dad had been a bigamist. Both families lived in the same village in northern England, and his secret was only discovered when a clerk at the local baby health clinic recognised Melville’s distinctive name and became suspicious.

Sandra uncovered documents that showed her father had gone to jail for bigamy but had been released after six months because baby Sandra had been close to death with meningitis. And there was one more thing: Sandra had an older half-sister.

“After I found that out, I put my father’s full name into an online genealogy website and a day later I got a red flag with a message, saying: ‘We are researching the same man, please can you contact me?’ ”

Within hours Sandra was talking to her sister, who was living in Spain.

 

A Family Detective

The internet lets anyone to be a family detective. Genealogist Anne Bromwell travelled around New Zealand for 20 years, transferring documents in libraries, bookshops and archives onto microfilm. Now many of the country’s records are accessible online. Traditional census records are not available here, so the ability to easily search electoral rolls, Maori land claims, school rolls, passenger lists and jury duty lists provides a big boost for New Zealanders wanting to trace their families back to the mid-1800s.

Once an activity associated with retirees, family history is now appealing to a new generation. “At 45 I used to be the youngest at the talks I give, but now I’m seeing parents with young children turning up, young women, sometimes 19- and 20-year-olds,” says Brad Argent, content director of ancestry.com.au.

You do need time to search your family history properly. While it’s now easier to track down records online, they’re not necessarily linked. And as there’s a long history of people travelling between Australia and New Zealand, it’s important to be able to extend your search beyond this country’s borders. Australians and Britons are now discovering they have Maori blood. But sometimes, the discoveries go the other way round.

 

Tracing the family across the ocean

Hokohinu Jock Horne, a 66-year-old company director from Mount Maunganui, knew his grandmother had been a Maori chieftainess. But it wasn’t until he started delving into his family tree that he discovered he not only had an ancestor in England, but that part of his family had played a role in Australian history.

After leaving Hertfordshire, the Horn family (the spelling of their name later changed to Horne) had settled in Australia. Various members of the family became well known – one was a mining magnate, another a pastoralist, a politician and the organiser of the Horne Scientific Expedition, which was the first scientific expedition to study the natural history of central Australia.

In 1870, two Horne brothers enlisted in the New Zealand Armed Consta-bulary, which provided soldiers as well as police, and later, after the cessation of hostilities, went on to build roads, bridges and the Auckland telegraph line.

While acquiring Maori land to build the telegraph line, one of the brothers, Thomas, met and fell in love with a Maori woman, Marara Rangihoro, the landowner of a portion of land used for the Maketu Telegraph station.

The couple had two sons, the eldest being James Te Uara Rangihoro Horne, who was Jock’s grandfather, before Thomas returned to Australia, and with his brothers set up a successful vineyard, which is still operating today. “I was never really interested in my family history before but we went on the computer to do some investigating and we ended up finding all this out”, says Jock, who has already been to Britain to try, unsuccessfully, to locate his great-grandfather’s grave, and has plans to travel to Australia.

“I’m extremely proud of my Maori heritage and now I also have information [that] relates to our English and Australian family connections.”

 

Sandra’s Real Father Revealed

Sandra Powell and her half-sister gradually pieced together their father’s life. After dual marriages, he disappeared and when he resurfaced ten years later, he was married to a third woman, and had more children. Sandra has now traced ancestors back to the 11th century. Her grandchildren, especially, are fascinated by her revelations. “I’ve found out good stuff and bad stuff,” Sandra says.

One thing is sure: when you dig into your family’s story, you will find something that will surprise, horrify or delight you.

“I have yet to find anybody for whom their family history is dull,” says Brad Argent.

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