Researching military ancestors

The centenary of World War I has prompted many Australians to delve into their own family history and discover the wartime experiences of their ancestors. Us historians at Way Back When have worked on a number of war-related history projects in the last few years and become pretty adept at uncovering these forgotten Anzacs and interpreting the sometimes complicated and often hidden military archives. So we thought, why not share the tips and tricks we've developed over time with those people wanting to know more?

We recently gave a presentation for the City of Boroondara at Hawthorn Library on researching military ancestors and it was met with great enthusiasm from attendees. So we've decided to take this show on the road. If you are interested in having us speak to your group or organisation, please contact us.

Australia Calls: Whitehorse exhibition launch

Throughout 2015 we have been working with Whitehorse City Council to produce an exhibition commemorating the centenary of World War I and examining the impact of the war on the local community. Australia Calls was launched in the Whitehorse Artspace at Box Hill Town Hall on Friday 11 September by Whitehorse City Councillor Helen Harris, Federal Member for Chisholm Anna Burke and Federal Member for Deakin Michael Sukkar.

The exhibition examines the impact of the war on Whitehorse by exploring the stories of local families and individuals – from those who enlisted and experienced the war first hand, to residents who contributed to the war effort from Australian shores. We had the rich resources and archival collections of local historical societies to draw on, as we researched the stories of five local servicemen and examined themes including local recruitment efforts and fundraising activities, the conscription debate, and efforts to support returned serviceman following the war and to commemorate their experiences.

  Way Back When  historian Nicole Curby with panels telling the stories of local servicemen.

Way Back When historian Nicole Curby with panels telling the stories of local servicemen.

The exhibition also features abridged articles printed in local newspapers during the war, and stories contributed by the family members of local residents who lived through the war years. There are items from local heritage collections and private family collections on display.

We also conducted an oral history project with descendants of local servicemen, and the exhibition features four audio documentaries created from these interviews. The documentaries include stories from the battlefront and examine what life was like for returned servicemen after the war.

Click below to listen to this short audio documentary on remembering World War I.

 Collection items on display.

Collection items on display.

  Way Back When  historians Sarah Rood, Fiona Poulton and Katherine Sheedy (far right) with local council and historical society members.

Way Back When historians Sarah Rood, Fiona Poulton and Katherine Sheedy (far right) with local council and historical society members.

It was a privilege for us to work with Whitehorse City Council, local historical societies and community members to produce this moving, informative and stunningly presented exhibition. We would like to thank the historical societies and community members for generously sharing their collections and stories with us.

Australia Calls will be open until 14 October 2015. We urge you to visit and explore the impact of the war on the Whitehorse community.

Fiona Poulton

History in (many) Places

Way Back When was engaged by the National Trust of Victoria to facilitate the History in Place project at four National Trust sites. The History in Place project is the result of a partnership between the Heritage Council of Victoria, the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria and Culture Victoria. The project was designed to establish a framework for students to engage with their local history and heritage.

 Students learn about the mulberry tree at Mulberry Hill

Students learn about the mulberry tree at Mulberry Hill

Over the course of several months, Way Back When coordinated the History in Place project at the Portable Iron Houses in South Melbourne, Mulberry Hill in Langwarrin, Endeavour Fern Gully in Red Hill and Gulf Station in Yarra Glen with groups of local primary school students. Each school was taken on a tour of the site and encouraged to take photographs, film and notes about the site and themes that interested them to later turn into a film using an iPad and iMovie. 

 Students in the Gulf Station school house

Students in the Gulf Station school house

The hands-on nature of the day appealed to students and they loved using the iPads to film, photograph and curate their films. The films the students produced showed us what appealed to them at each site. The slaughter house was a particular favourite at Gulf Station, while Daryl Lindsay's paintings were a highlight at Mulberry Hill.

It was a great learning experience for us as historians. Working with kids between 10 and 12 years of age certainly presented some challenges! But it was so rewarding to be a part of students experiencing history in a tangible way, sometimes for the first time. The students' positive reactions to the sites, the concepts and the overall project were so encouraging and reaffirmed to us our belief that history is inherently interesting and fun - when presented properly.

A bonus for us in this project was getting to work with so many passionate and interesting volunteers at each of the National Trust sites. Without the dedication of these people, these important historical links to our shared past would not be accessible. So we'd like to say a very big thank you to everyone who helped us with this project.

If you'd like to see what these students came up with, the finished films will soon be available on the National Trust website, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, below are two previews:

 Learning about the Portable Iron Houses in South Melbourne

Learning about the Portable Iron Houses in South Melbourne

  The land at Endeavour Fern Gully, looking almost exactly as it would have during the time of the Bunurong people

The land at Endeavour Fern Gully, looking almost exactly as it would have during the time of the Bunurong people

Lucy Bracey

Book Launch: Boroondara Remembers

On Saturday 11 April our latest history Boroondara Remembers: Stories of World War I was launched along with the City of Boroondara’s ‘Gallipoli and Beyond’ events program. Way Back When was thrilled to attend this auspicious occasion as part of commemorations of the centenary of World War I.

The Hawthorn Arts Centre was packed with local residents, historians, community members, politicians, families and friends, all keen to participate and strengthen their connection to our shared past.

Way Back When was engaged to write a history of how the residents of the City of Boroondara (including the suburbs of Ashburton, Balwyn, Balwyn North, Camberwell, Canterbury, Deepdene, Hawthorn, Hawthorn East, Kew, Kew East, and parts of Glen Iris, Mont Albert and Surrey Hills) experienced WWI on the home front. The resulting publication, Boroondara Remembers: Stories of World War I, includes family stories from local residents, such as the story of Edward Slade, a 32 year old bricklayer and father of three from Kew, who enlisted in February 1916. During his service in the AIF, Edward wrote letters home to his wife and three young daughters, which have been treasured by his grandchildren Isabel Harkensee and Kevin Saunders. Edward’s letters are heartbreaking to read:

 Dear little Annie,
Mummy said in one of her letters that you had forgotten what I am like. It is a long time now since we said good bye, but my hopes are that it will not be very long before we remember each other again…

Thankfully, Edward survived the war and returned home to his family three years later. We had the privilege of meeting Edward’s grandchildren and capturing Edward’s story in this history. His is just one of many stories of the ordinary men, women and children who lived in the city of Boroondara during World War I and experienced the hardships and community spirit of the time.

 Authors Fiona Poulton (L) and Lucy Bracey (R) with local resident Isabel Harkensee (centre) who was one of many Boroondara residents who shared their WWI stories with  Way Back When  for this project.

Authors Fiona Poulton (L) and Lucy Bracey (R) with local resident Isabel Harkensee (centre) who was one of many Boroondara residents who shared their WWI stories with Way Back When for this project.

The book was launched by the Mayor of Boroondara, Cr Coral Ross, who spoke about the project with great sensitivity and compassion. The full version of her speech can be found here.  In closing, Cr Ross said:

There will be many histories written for the centenary of Gallipoli. But I would encourage you to read this one – it is a deeply personal local history and we are all the richer for knowing about the lives of these Boroondara ANZACS.

The Federal Member for Kooyong, the Hon Josh Frydenberg MP, was also in attendance and spoke passionately about the centenary of WWI and the City of Boroondara's work to commemorate it. 

 Authors Alicia Cerreto, Fiona Poulton, Katherine Sheedy and Lucy Bracey with  Hon Josh Frydenberg MP. 

Authors Alicia Cerreto, Fiona Poulton, Katherine Sheedy and Lucy Bracey with Hon Josh Frydenberg MP. 

The launch of this publication marked the beginning of a series of events the City of Boroondara is hosting to commemorate the Anzac Centenary. The full list of activities can be found on their website. Copies of Boroondara Remembers: Stories from World War I are available for purchase from the website above through the City of Boroondara. 

This is just the beginning of Way Back When's involvement with projects commemorating the centenary of WWI, so stay tuned for more stories of Victorians at war.

Lucy Bracey