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The Women’s Suffrage Petition Biographies Project: Research 101

August 11th, 2020 By Christa Hopkinson
Creating a biography for women who signed the 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition is an interesting way to start learning about genealogical research. Christa, Learning Facilitator at the Library shares her experience of writing a biography for Ellen Peacock.

Telling the stories of the Women’s Suffrage Petition

The team at He Tohu, Archives New Zealand and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage are crowdsourcing biographical information about the women who signed the suffrage petition. I was asked to write a biography as part of my role as Learning Facilitator at the National Libary.

This blog aims to share my experience and help people who are new to genealogical research. To do this, I’ll walk you through the process of researching one of the biographies that I wrote.

I had previous experience researching music history during my time at university but found that genealogical research was a very different experience. It was fascinating finding out about people’s lives through the different records that people leave, like breadcrumbs, during their lives.

Cartoon shows woman climbing the Parliamentary Heights and a man reaching out his hand to help her to get to the top of the summit.

The summit at last. Comic by New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal. Ref: PUBL-0126-1894-01. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Researching Ellen Peacock

To start my research I had a look at the Suffrage Petition database on NZHistory and selected Ellen Peacock. I originally wanted to write about Ellen because my Great Grandma’s maiden name was Peacock (turns out I’m not related to Ellen though).

Birth, death and marriage information

The first step is to look the person you are researching up on Birth, Death, and Marriage Historical Records. This can help you determine a number of aspects about them, such as whether they:

  • were born in New Zealand
  • signed using their maiden or married name
  • what their maiden name was
  • how old they were when they signed the Women’s Suffrage Petition, and
  • when they were born or died.

Doing this first part of my research is how I found out Ellen’s first name (she signed with her initial), that she wasn’t born in New Zealand and that Florence, who signed below Ellen, was her daughter rather than a sister.

If you can’t find when your signatory was born as I experienced with Ellen, the chance is high that they were born overseas, and it may take more detective work to discover where they were born and when they emigrated to New Zealand.

This is where websites such as Ancestry can be really helpful. It is a paid service, but your local library might have a subscription that you can use for free while onsite — do enquire whether this is the case.

Ancestry has access to many overseas records such as passenger lists, births, deaths and marriages records, census records, electoral rolls, and many more. As some of the information available is uploaded by users, it pays to double-check your information from the records available. If in doubt, leave it out.

Another useful website is Find My Past. Here, you will be able to access over 50 million genealogical records from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Pacific Islands. Like Ancestry, your local library might also have a free onsite subscription that you can access.

The information about creating a biography on the He Tohu website has links to places that you can research for information about the person you are writing a biography for.

The e-resources at the National Library are also a useful resource. You can use some of these from home.

The gossip column of the 19th century

Before we started gossiping on social media, newspapers were the original gossip columns. How else were we going to find out about who won the local flower contest? Or what your Mum’s best friend’s daughter wore at her wedding? Papers Past contains digitised newspapers from the 19th and 20th century that were published in New Zealand and the Pacific.

Images of old newspapers.
Screenshot of the Papers Past website.

This is where we can find out about the activities that the signatory got up to, whether they played sports, ran a business, experienced divorce, got top grades at school, got in trouble with the law, or attended high society events. This is where I found out about Ellen’s philanthropic efforts, donating money to local causes.

What to do when you get stuck

Never underestimate the power of a concise Google search! Typing in ‘First name Last name Town/City’ can help you to find paths that haven’t been explored yet. Occasionally, you might come across the jackpot of biography writing: the family history book!

This is exactly what I found when searching for Ellen and was able to find anecdotal evidence about her personality and family upbringing, and what was important to her, as mentioned by her descendants. Make sure to double-check any information against records to make sure the information is authentic. You can do this by cross-referencing the information you find in your google search with the dates and other information in have found.

People around a carriage and horse, small wooden hut with women standing outside. Man on a horse in the foreground.
Women vote at their first election. Ref: PA1-o-550-31-1. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Writing your biography

The team who are running the biographies project have asked for the following when you write your biography.

  • Title your biography with the Sheet number and name of the woman as she signed: 496 Euphemia W. Doull. You get this information from the 1893 petition database on NZHistory.
  • Aim for around 200-300 words per biography. Longer ones are suitable for NZHistory but will need to be shortened for the He Tohu exhibition.
  • Record full names; maiden and/or married, year and place of birth, family, death, job, and so on, if you can, but we also want to know about her character, any organisations she was part of, or events she experienced, if possible.
  • Even if you don’t find much information about someone, write it down anyway. Women are difficult to trace in published records, so any information, as small as it is, will be useful.
  • Please note your sources at the end of the biography, if possible. If you wish to be credited, please include your name.
  • We can upload photographs if you have them. Please include the source if you submit a photograph.

Submitting your biography

Once you've done your research and written your biography you can send it to NZHistory. They will add it to the Suffrage Petition database and it will appear in the He Tohu exhibition.

Further information

Archives New Zealand has an excellent guide on creating biographies, which I've referred to throughout the blog, which is a must-read!

Not sure what the Women's Suffrage Petition is or never heard of He Tohu. Have a look at the He Tohu website for more information.

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