Researching Family History

Hello, I’ve recently published my first book, which is a creative nonfiction history book about my 3G Grandfather James Magee, who was a convict transported to Tasmania in 1830.

Exiled to Exalted

I wrote the book to gather more clues about James’ heritage, because my mother Janice McCormack née McGee, has spent decades trawling through records, trying to find who James’ parents were and where they lived.  I’ve developed strong research skills during my career, working in Business Strategy Development, Competitor Intelligence, and Position to Win. These positions required in-depth research into market trends, emerging technologies, competitors’ activities, and customer requirements. I’m now applying those skills to researching James’ heritage and to better understand his living environment, so I can help my mother find who his parents were and where they lived. I’ll use this as a case study to highlight how I research.

Family History

The only information we have about James’ heritage, is from his sentencing record, which states that he was a 14-year-old, bricklayers labourer, from Toxteth Park in Liverpool. Researching family history is rewarding, because knowing where your ancestors lived their lives, gives you a sense of belonging. Even when I revisit my grandparents’ old farms, which are no longer in the family, and I don’t remember when my grandparents lived there because I was too young, I still feel like they’re part of me. This gives me the desire to know where James grew up, because the environment we live in, also shapes who we become. James learnt skills in his childhood that he passed down through the family line to me. Understanding where and how he developed those skills, helps me to better understand them, which gives me strength when I use them. Therefore, my mother inspired me to write a book, and I deeply admired James’ strength and resilience as I explored what he went through from living in the slums of Liverpool, stealing just to survive; being convicted of crimes; imprisoned on the Euryalus Hulk; sailing down and around the treacherous Cape of Good Hope into the Roaring Forties winds; being assigned to John Presnell and helping him run the Halfway House pub in Antill Ponds, Van Dieman’s Land; to a happily married life with John’s daughter Eleanor. I wrote the book in the hope that we’d find more clues into who James’ parents were and where they lived. At the very least it gave me a much better insight into where to look for records and interpret how important those records are to finding James’ heritage.

Researching James’ Family History

The records available to research family history are spread far and wide. Tracing family history is incredibly difficult when you only have a small amount of information. It’s a detective quest, filled with assumptions and speculations. It becomes a jigsaw puzzle. My Mother started with James’ Sentencing Record, which stated he was from Toxteth Park, so she searched for birth records in that area that matched his age. We suspect James was born in 1816, as his third conviction stated he was 14 years old. Therefore, his birthday would be between Jan 1816 – Aug 1817. She did find a James Magee baptised in Liverpool, England, on the 14 August 1814, listing his Father James, and Mother Mary. They lived in Queen Court, and James was listed as a Labourer2. But we’re unsure if it’s our James. It’s unclear whether the jigsaw piece fits our jigsaw or someone else’s. For example, there were four James Magee/MacGee/McGees’ transported to Van Diemen’s Land as convicts over the years. There are also family stories passed down through the generations. We’ve all played Chinese Whispers, imagine that game down through several generations. Jean Gibbs’ brother, who are direct descendants of James, was told that James was raised by an Aunt, which is where the Dedman name, that James added to his name after he was pardoned, could have come from.

Google is the obvious place to start for research, here you use key words to search for clues. I started with ‘History Liverpool’ and gathered information about what was happening in the city. Then gradually narrowed the search down to Toxteth Park in 1830, which was James’ last known address.

This initial research highlighted the number of Irish immigrants to Liverpool, due to the political and economic strife in Ireland and how close Liverpool is to Ireland. I also found the Magee name originally comes from Ireland. So I then searched for and discovered an Irish Genealogist on LinkedIn, Lorna Maloney and I was guest on her podcast talking about James.

She then kindly organised a team of University students to conduct some research for us. They, unfortunately, found nothing new, which doesn’t rule out that James and his family immigrated, but it’s more likely the family immigrated and James was later born in Liverpool.

While Google is a great research tool, most of the records from back then are held in Archives. So I explored Archives close to Toxteth Park and where his convictions were located, including the Wakefield Archive, because his convict record stated ‘one-month hard labour in West Riding’. There, I did find a conviction for a James Magee, which stated he was late of Wakefield. In my general research, I also found that many workers migrated an average of 59 miles to the nearest city in the 1800s, seeking better employment. Liverpool is the closest port, 71 miles from Wakefield, so it is possible he migrated to Liverpool from Wakefield.

The Library Archives also provide research services if you’re unable to attend in person, some charge a small fee for this, including the Wakefield Archives where I requested James’ conviction record. However, the Tasmanian Library does not charge and they provided me with some outstanding information regarding David Solomon, who had taken over the Halfway House pub after John Presnell passed away. I’d been unable to find any information regarding David, even though the family history records are much more accessible in Australia. The Trove website in particular, holds newspaper records back to Colonial days, its literally a trove of information. Using keywords to search for information, there are many newspaper articles, which explore the lives of our ancestors. The Obituaries in particular usually contain great information about our ancestors’ lives.

Facebook Groups are another great source of information. The members of the ‘Tasmanian Midlands – a pictorial history’, provided wonderful insights into James’ living environment, including connecting me with the current owner of the land where the Halfway House is located. There were also a couple of occasions when another member piped up that James Magee was their 3G Grandfather too. They were not known to my family beforehand and they provided wonderful insights into the legacy that James left behind. Including Eric McGee who was the chief shearer for the prize-winning Merino sheep David Dalkeith, who inspired the Golden Fleece logo on service stations all around Australia. Also, John and Dot McGee provided decades of service to the Irrewarra Fire Brigade.

Historical images are another fantastic research tool to better understand where and how our ancestors lived. The Tasmanian Library has an outstanding collection of images, including sketches and paintings from back into the 1800’s.

Being able to see what my ancestors saw was an incredible experience. I also found the History of Liverpool website, which has photos of what it was like for James living in the Liverpool slums back then. This provided me with incredible insight into James’ story and how it shaped him. The website owner Lee Rymill, also conducted further research for us into where James may have lived.

My mother also shares the desire to connect with where James lived. When she visited the first house James owned after he was pardoned, she had the most amazing spiritual experience. In her own words.

I was visiting Ross with Jean and Ernie Gibbs. Jean is also a direct descendant of James. As we approached James and Eleanor’s house, the current resident emerged. After explaining our connection to the house, we were invited in and as I walked through the door, I became aware that James had done exactly the same walk just 180 years earlier and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I stared around the kitchen that was still in original condition and I could see James moving around cooking meals. We then moved up to the Attic Room and stared out across the rolling plains of the Midlands; the breadbasket that fed Australia; to a town filled with historic sandstone buildings. It wouldn’t have been too dissimilar from what James would have seen, given that Ross has been largely preserved. I felt at one with my great-great-grandfather, proud to be in the home he purchased once he was a free man.

Many years later when I started writing about James, she told me this story and it inspired us to recreate the experience and also visit his grave. As we approached James’ old house, the current owner, Scott Wilmot Bennet, stepped outside, eyebrows furrowed, staring at us, looking a little bit suspicious. ”That’s a different owner than last time,” my mother says. “I hope he’s ok with us visiting” she adds.

“Can I help you?” he called out. We then walked over to greet him “Hello, my Great Great Great Grandfather, James Magee purchased this house after he was pardoned as a convict and we’ve come along to pay our respects, I hope that’s OK?”. The suspicion immediately left his face and we had a great chat about how tough convict life would have been. It was so rewarding to have this chat with him, standing outside the house that James had purchased after he was pardoned, because James probably had the same chat with his neighbours, in the exact same spot, telling them about his convict life. As we talked, I gazed around the property and I could see James moving around as a free man, maintaining and building his freedom home.

Scott then told us that he was an artist and showed us the most amazing picture he’d painted of the house, with the Aurora Australis in the background. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had the front cover artwork for my book. He then kindly gave me permission to use the picture in the book and I thanked him dearly.

Figure 1 – The Cover Page of my book with James’ Freedom House

We then went to track down James’ grave. My mother was hoping she remembered where it was. As she led me to James’ grave it gave me such a good feeling to be standing where his body lay. I promised him there and then that I’d make him proud of his story.

Figure 2 – Don’t worry, I won’t stop until I’m proud

The Halfway House and Ross are on the main highway from my hometown Latrobe to Hobart. I’d driven past them hundreds of times, as I’d started my career working in Hobart. I’d never even given Antill Ponds a second thought as I drove past. I hadn’t even known Antill Ponds was a town. But now as I drive toward the Halfway House, my connection to this place draws me in. I can feel James’ presence, I can see what he saw 190 years ago. I stare out across green fertile fields, arching up over hills, then rolling down the other side. I see the historic farms that were being built as he journeyed along and I can imagine what it would be like for him seeing all the new farms being established. I feel at home and I’m at peace, knowing what a welcoming sight that was for James, with all the green grass waving hello in the wind. So much more peaceful than the swell rolling around the Cape of Good Hope, with all the angry whitecaps threatening to knock him off the ship.

Figure 3 – Dane and his niece Gaby in front of the remains of the Halfway House

My 3G Grandfather passed down skills, which helped me conquer cancer and left me not being afraid of jumping into my new life after cancer. Thank you, James.


Dane McCormack
Dane McCormack
Dane McCormack was born and raised in Tasmania. He escaped to the mainland to pursue his career and has worked as a Business Transformation specialist for several of the world’s biggest companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and KPMG. His love of writing was reawakened as he explored how he survived and thrived through a recent cancer journey. After being given 24hours to live several times and losing his long-term memories, he set out on a mighty quest to find them and wrote his autobiography. It emphasised just how important history is because it made him who he was, which helped him survive and thrive. It left him determined to leave a legacy for his family. He’s now sharing his stories, to help others dealing with tough times and develop their careers. He is also exploring his family and friends’ history in more detail.

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