Archives Outside

For people who love, use and manage archives

Archives Outside - For people who love, use and manage archives

International Women’s Day: Women, how do you find ’em? (in the Archives, we mean)

Suzanne Upton is a Public Access Archivist at State Records NSW. She researches and creates a number of web resources, including the Gallery of NSW Women. She has spent many hours following up leads for elusive records.

As International Women’s Day is celebrated for another year, it is an ideal time to take stock of the resources available that may help researchers to locate records relating to women in State Records NSW.

Cafe on wheels, 1948

These records fall broadly into two categories:

  1. records relating to women’s issues, or public policy, and
  2. the search for individual women.

Women’s issues are the focus of our Women in the records page. This page provides details of “access gateways” at a NSW government agency level on the following topics:

  • Aboriginal women and children
  • Women in the workplace
  • Women’s advocacy, and
  • Women in the home.

The broad themes encompassed on this page include suffrage, citizenship, divorce and health.  These gateways provide starting points for further research.

Finding individuals

The search for individual women who were born, lived or died in New South Wales can be encompassed by a large number of government agencies. These records may be sparse, depending on the time period you are interested in.

For so many years women worked in the home and had very little contact with government agencies beyond death and taxes. It is only once women leave the home to run their own businesses, own property, join professions and are able divorce their husbands that we start to catch glimpses of how they lived.  It is a matter of putting together a number of pieces to catch a glimpse of the life that woman lived.

Working at the cannery

A Gallery of NSW Women is an attempt to highlight a number of different lives that famous, and not so famous women lived in NSW.  It shows a wide variety of records that can be accessed with digitised examples alongside each woman’s story.

Where to start

On beginning any research it is best to start with what you know:

  • names
  • dates
  • ship names
  • marriage
  • children, or
  • death.

This gives you a base to build upon. A researcher needs to think of what contact their ancestor may have had with the government.

Questions you need to answer

  • Did they have a land grant or land obtained by a conditional purchase?
  • Did they operate a business such as a pub or a shop, and may they have gone bankrupt?
  • Did a marriage fail and end up in court?
  • Did your ancestor have a will or die intestate?
  • Was your ancestor a convict, an assisted immigrant or a free settler?
  • Would there have been a professional organisation or registration required for their job?

Luggage transport at Sydney

State Records online resources

For all researchers out there, please be aware that at State Records we are constantly updating and adding to our website.  Online indexes are often updated with new names and topics and Archives Investigator now has the ability to provide images for certain search options.  In our reading rooms we offer free access to and now include WiFi hotspots.

A Case Study: Louisa Lawson

The name Louisa Lawson may be familiar to many of us as the mother of poet Henry Lawson. Louisa is also remembered as a writer, poet, newspaper proprietor and suffragist in her own right.

When I was creating the Gallery of NSW Women focusing on Louisa Lawson I started with a broad outline of her life.  One of the bonuses of tracking down a famous woman is that work is already done for you – someone else has written the life story.

What I was trying to find was the evidence in the State archives to back up all the claims from Louisa’s life.  I spent nearly six months tracking down records and putting the gallery page together and I still struggled to find some of the documentary evidence I was hoping to find.  There were letter register entries that did not lead any further because the letters had not survived.  Although she ran a successful newspaper, The Dawn, I couldn’t find any business registration papers for her.  Louisa supposedly took out a patent for a mail bag fastener but I was unable to find any references to the patent.  When it came to miners rights there were just no records.  I think this serves as an example that you will only ever find part of the story in the records and you should use other resources and your imagination to fill in the rest.


  • Cathy says:

    Excellent post from Suzanne Upton on what it takes to research the invisibles, the powerless and the disenfranchised. History is “‘written by the winners” in so many cases. Same issues with lack of documentation if you work on tracing non-white, non- British people and their lives in Australia.

    March 11, 2011 at 7:02 am
  • Anthea Brown says:

    Thanks for your comment, Cathy.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:55 am