Find your family

I am responsible for the Family History area at the Library and I've been fascinated by family history for years. When I think about it, this began because of my mother's surname of Michel and because her father was a great story teller especially about the early days in Greymouth and Hokitika in the goldfields on the West Coast.

Alfred Michel, my grandfather's grandfather, had come to New Zealand via South Africa and the goldfields of Victoria. When gold was discovered on the West Coast in 1865 he left Otago with his family and headed to Hokitika. He died suddenly in 1866 leaving his wife Emma to bring up their six children.

I guess this is a fairly typical story for many New Zealanders. Over the years I've found out a lot more about the origins of the Michel family, who were Huguenots, and came to England via Jersey. My other ancestors were all English, Irish and Scottish and I've been on many family history trips to explore the places and houses where they lived as well as doing research in many different libraries and archives around the world.

Interest in family history has increased hugely with the growth of the internet and the development of very large family history sites. As we’ve seen, great-great-grandpa’s legacy not only lives on, it’s very easy to find.

It's now so easy to put in names of interest and come up with something relevant or connect with someone who is researching the same name, and many of those who start online then come into the Library. A high proportion of those using the collections of the Library, both online and on site are doing family history.

British immigrant children arriving on board the ship `Rangitata', circa 4 October 1940. British immigrant children arriving on board the ship `Rangitata', circa 4 October 1940. Ref: 1/2-058472-F

Family History Month

August is Family History Month throughout New Zealand. This great photo, which we’ve used in the month’s programme of events, is from our collections.

I decided to use it as a starting point to think about the different parts of our collections that can help you to research your family history. You can use our collections on the web and at the Library, as well as other family history sites, both free and subscription, to find out about your families.

How did they get here?

If you are looking for people who came by ship to New Zealand, there are lots of useful images, including photographs, sketches and paintings. All our digitised images , and there are still many more originals available at the Library.

Our hard-copy collections have many books on the history of shipping lines and of migration that can provide background material for your family history.

Ships' arrivals turn up in the shipping columns of newspapers, sometimes if you are lucky with lists of the passengers and a description of how the voyage went. You may be able to find out whether the ship ran into storms, or if there was illness on board.

Start with Papers Past, which now has 77 publications from all regions of New Zealand covering the years 1839 to 1945. As with images, there are more hard copy versions to see if you come on in.

If you are searching for family who came in the nineteenth century, you’re in luck, as we hold many shipboard diaries. Even though your ancestor may not have kept a diary, someone else on the same ship may have. These diaries can give the everyday details of life on board, and genuine insight into your ancestors’ personalities.

Family Search is the largest free family history site in the world with billions of names across hundreds of collections. For New Zealand it includes the New Zealand Immigration Passenger Lists, between 1855 and 1973. This is the indexes and images of the actual passenger lists held in paper form at Archives New Zealand. Currently 817,601 names are searchable and the rest of the images are browsable.

Who were those children in the photo?

I used our subscription databases, plus other resources in our Reading Room, to find out about them. It turns out that they were some of the 113 British child evacuees who arrived at Wellington on the Rangitata in 1940. They were one of the two groups that arrived in New Zealand during the Second World War and many of them went to foster homes.

When you’re in the Reading Rooms, you can use to see the original passenger list of this voyage of the Rangitata. From this you can find each child's name, age, country of birth, nationality as well as the name and address of the person they were going to live with, plus the name and address of their parent or guardian. Archives New Zealand have more records and information for this and other ships.

Subscription databases can be essential sources for family history. Alongside, one of the many subscription databases in the Reading Rooms, we also have Ancestry Library Edition,,, The Genealogist, Origins Total Access, and overseas newspaper databases.

What became of the passengers?

If you wanted to find out what became of these children and if they stayed in New Zealand, you could search for them using electoral rolls on Ancestry in the Reading Rooms, and then the hard-copy rolls from 1981 onwards in the Family History Collection.

Some of them may have married and stayed in New Zealand. Marriages that occurred 80 years ago are in the New Zealand births, deaths and marriages online but after that you could check the marriage indexes on microfiche.

A family history year

These collections and services are always available, as well as research support from our staff and the wonderful volunteers from the New Zealand Society of Genealogists. You’re welcome to come and start your research any time of year.

Got a question for Margaret, or want help finding a starting point? Send us an enquiry through the Ask A Librarian form.

By Margaret Hurst

Margaret is the Family History Librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field
Stephen Smith April 21st at 12:23AM

Hi Margaret
It was with great excitement that I read your blog regarding Alfred Michel.

I am a direct descendant of one of his six children, Edward born in Hokitika in 1869.

I have also been fascinated by family history for many years and the internet has made it possible to connect and gather much more information than ever before.

Please contact me so we can compare our information.



Campbell Mclay May 19th at 1:59PM

Hi Margaret
Is your family linked to the Malletts of Greymouth?

Reuben SchraderNational Library May 20th at 9:49AM

Hi Campbell,
Thanks for the question – Margaret will be emailing you.

Louis Nathan Michel September 9th at 12:09AM

I initially thought that my surname (Michel) was French, but as I researched further I found out it was an old Anglo Saxon name that means 'a place where there is a bend in the river'! The name Michel is far more common in Germany and Holland than it is in France.

Kind regards, Louis.

Terry Pearse December 8th at 12:51PM

HI Margaret - I am trying to track down the ancestry trail of my grandmother who was born in Hokitika in 1873. Can you point me in the right direction as to who and where I can obtain the information or else be directed to relevant source material. Thank you, Terry

Jude July 26th at 9:13PM

Kia Ora Margaret! what an interesting blog and a great idea to focus in on the photo to showcase the myriad of ways we can begin to research our family history! You've given practical tips for anyone perhaps gazing at a photo themselves and wondering .... who were they? Cheers!

Gina Pinkas September 26th at 5:52PM

My great grandfather claimed to be born in Hokitika in 1865. His names was either Charles Turner Moore or Charles Turner or Charles Moore Where could I find a list of births around that time specific to Hokitika?
Thank you

Reuben SchraderNational Library September 28th at 9:59AM

Hi Gina, we've passed your question on to the librarians, and you should be hearing from them soon.

Jill Bray March 1st at 1:57PM

Having difficulty trying to trace a 'Rhodes Sullivan" who came to NZ around the late 1800's, we think, he was killed in a truck accident on a farm at Lee Steam West of Dunedin. His older brother, 'William Sullivan' our Great Grandfather was already in NZ. we just can't find anything, in papers about his accident or where he's buried.
Can you help?
Jil Bray

Darian Zam September 5th at 6:34PM

There are currently some photographs for sale featuring Garnet (Jum) Michel, Henry Leslie Michel's son. These Michels are from Hokitika. My conjecture is that Henry was one of Alfred's sons whom along with brother Frank Alfred headed to Westland by the early 1880s. A lot of the information seems questionable. There are no records of the Michels being in NSW at any point, as per the Wikipedia page, however Frank Alfred Michel was definitely born in VIC in 1861 so the Michels did at least pass through that state of Australia before arriving to Otago. Further to that there are mismatched names and dates and missing records. Alfred Michel still appears in the electoral roll in 1870, yet there's no death record to be found at all. I think often the name was misspelled Michell. The Trade Me listing is here: