From Convicts to Functional Families – Exploring my Family History

Henry and Jenny small melville
Photo is of my 3rd great grandfather and mother who are both 2nd generation from convict parents. My second great grandfather is 1st on the left.

When I look at the visual diagram of my generational family I can see just how small we all are in the relationship web. For me this is grounding, humbling and strangely steadying.

Have you ever wondered if there is any tangible benefit in knowing details of the generations of your family? What insight does it really give to note interesting relatives in terms of their successes or misdemeanours? These are questions that have motivated me to do some extra family research over the recent holiday period. I’ve always known that, from one line on my mother’s side, I have two first fleet convicts as my ancestors.  My additional research has found another 2 convicts whose daughter married into that line. Across the other ancestral lines there is a mix of free settlers who came to Australia in the mid-1800s. Some came on assisted passage as domestic workers, labourers and tradespeople (such as a coach builder) and others came paying their own way having left behind in England families of relative substance such as Grazier landholders and business owners.

Seeing the bigger picture of my family over 5 to 7 generations does broaden my sense of the diverse influences that have been part of shaping myself and my current family. It lifts my view above the often exaggerated entanglement in present day issues.  One aspect of the facts of my family history that have particularly intrigued me is the rapid progress and resilience of my convict lines. From the first generation of these families since their transportation from England and Scotland there are signs of significant resiliency and progress. They produced many children who (apart from twins who died in childhood) lived long lives with apparently stable marriages and families. There were many more infant deaths from the family lines of the free settlers. This got me wondering about what factors contributed to such progress for those who came from a struggling petty criminal underclass.  What enables families who face such adversity to improve their functioning in society?

My hunch is that the convicts in my family had survived much adversity in their months in overcrowded prisons in England and on the arduous 8 month journey to Australia. The survivors were well trained to adapt to extreme environments and challenges. Some of the free settlers however were less experienced in enduring exceptionally poor conditions.

It is also interesting for me to consider what enables people to lift their functioning in society over the generations given the common pattern of multi-generational social dependency. As I look at the facts of the social and vocational positions achieved in the convict descendants it is striking that they were not in any way reliant on handouts after their original land grants. The onus was on each to lift their functioning to build a stable life for their families. The opportunity to build personal agency and competency is clearly a factor in a family lifting itself from imprisoned criminals (albeit often minor offences) to respected contributing citizens of a community. I am mindful of Dr Murray Bowen’s perspective on social processes that can impair group’s opportunities to adapt and progress. Too much benevolence can prevent groups from developing goals for themselves:

The poor are vulnerable to becoming the pitiful objects of the benevolent, over sympathetic segment of society that improves it’s functioning at the expense of those pitied. Being over sympathetic with less fortunate people automatically puts the recipients in a one down inferior position (Bowen FTCP p 445).

My sense is that there were not the resources for too much benevolence in the early Sydney colony. Sadly the treatment of the indigenous people in these times has often been destructive and disenfranchising; and the generational social swings from harsh treatment to over benevolent handouts has entrenched significant social difficulties for many.

Of course my research has opened up many more useful facts of the many generations of my family. I’m as interested in ascertaining those who have done poorly over the generations as those who have prospered as this gives useful grounds for understanding variations of resilience in my family systems. As I ponder the potential benefits of researching one’s multi-generational family Bowen’s ideas on this resonate with me. Family history research sets a context where:

One can get a sense of continuity, history and identity that is not otherwise possible… [and] can provide one with a different view of the human phenomena than is possible from examining the urgency of the present (Bowen FTCP p492).

I agree that there’s something clarifying about getting outside of the ‘urgency of the present”. It’s been a profitable exercise to revisit my family history and fill in a few more of the gaps in information using some books and an online research site. When I look at the visual diagram of my generational family I can see just how small we all are in the relationship web. For me this is grounding, humbling and strangely steadying.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How much factual information (as opposed to myths and emotive stories) do I have about all sides of my family for at least 4- 5 generations?
  • What do the gaps in my knowledge suggest about distance in relationships down some family lines?
  • What interesting data emerges about strengths and vulnerabilities in my family genealogy? Am I as interested in the challenging sectors of the family as the more noble elements?


Additional relevant quotes from Bowen

My goal was to get factual information in order to understand the emotional forces in each nuclear family, and I went back as many generations as it was possible to go. P 491

In only 150 – 200 years an individual is the descendent of 64 – 128 families of origin, each of which has contributed something to one ‘self. With all the myths and pretence and emotionally biased reports and opinions, it is difficult to ever really know “self” of to know family members in the present or recent past. As one reconstructs facts of a century or two ago, it is easier to get beyond myths and to be factual. P 492

‘From Convicts to Functional Families – Exploring my Family History’ – Jenny Brown