A Book Review – ‘Lost Relations’ by Graeme Davison

Reviewing a book by an established author is a great way for aspiring writers to learn new techniques and new and better methods of presentation. The book I am reviewing today does just that. I mentioned in my last blog that I had been reading three books over the holiday period. Today, I will discuss one which I think is of great interest to family history writers. It is called ‘Lost Relations: fortunes of my family in Australia’s golden age’ by Professor Graeme Davison, a renowned historian. So for a family history , it is rather unique – written by a professional historian.

Graeme, rather by default I understand, was given this task by members of his family as ‘he was the professional’ . The book is about his mother’s family – the Hewett family. It starts in farmland in Hampshire, England and goes steadily and in quite a leisurely manner through the social history of that region in the early 1800s. One learns of the advent of railways and the disruption of farmland that this causes, as well as the vastly improved access to cities and markets. One learns of the effect of economic change on the viability of farming tenanted land. This leads us to understand why the Hewett family chose to leave Hook Farm and migrate to Australia.

Rather amazingly and really bravely this widowed mother takes her eight children across the seas to the other side of the world. In Victoria, they move to Castlemaine in the gold-rush times (1851-1860). It is the story of this family settling in tents in the goldfields of central Victoria – building homes and mills, and rapidly realising those that survived on the goldfields were not the miners but those that supplied them with food and goods. One gains a wonderful view of those days on the goldfields and in particular the settlements of Wesley Hill and Forest Creek. Graeme very cleverly interweaves details of his family history into this broader social history. He goes on to describe the lives of several emerging branches of the family in different locations in rural Victoria. Towards the end of the story, they are found settling in Williamstown, Melbourne. Appropriately, the book was launched in the Williamstown Town Hall at a family gathering, near to the dwellings their ancestor’s occupied.

One very interesting theme through the book is the role that the Methodist Church played in the life, the ethics, the behaviour and the success of this family. In some ways, this book is a history of the church in Australia.

In his conclusion, he begins ‘Family history may be the oldest kind of history’. He goes on to discuss the current popularity of family history and reasons with himself why this might be so. This is a ‘must read’ for any family historian. It gives us a new non-boring way of writing our family histories. I thoroughly enjoyed it, learnt from it, and gained new ideas on how to better present family history.