It takes just seconds to send off a saliva swab to see where your DNA comes from, but family history research can uncover some real shocks, as Rachel Croucher found out firsthand.
By
Rachel Croucher, Presented by
Kimberly Gillan

19 Apr 2018 - 2:12 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2018 - 8:56 AM

I had been researching my family history for the best part of 10 years but it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I made an upsetting discovery – that my great grandmother, Emily Edith Singh was a victim of rape, and her attacker was let off without charge, in a horrible example of the White Australia Policy of the early 1900s.

When I got an alert that there had been a new 'data dump' on Trove, the National Library of Australia's online archives, meaning there were 50,000 new articles available to be searched, I typed in 'Emily Edith Singh' who was my rebellious great grandmother to see what would come up.

I already knew Emily Edith had done the 'unthinkable' of falling pregnant to and later marrying a non-British man in 1909. Her husband – my great grandfather – was Nutta Singh, a hawker (travelling salesperson) who had come to Australia from Punjab, a region of northern India and eastern Pakistan, in 1894.

I've been known to have some wild ways and I've long felt an affinity with my great grandmother Emily Edith. I often think about what her life would have been like marrying Nutta, who was 17 years older than her, in an era when marrying a non-British person was virtually unheard of.

I've always wondered what relations were like on the ground between hawkers and the local community. Was it a case of "Don't be friends with these people"? They also lost a baby and I imagine life would have been very lonely and isolated.

When I searched "Emily Edith Singh" in Trove, an article came up from the Melbourne tabloid newspaper Truth from August 1910, referring to "Emily Edith's extravaganza". I laughed and thought, 'Oh gosh, what has Emily Edith done now?' but when I read it, I was shocked and confused.

The story explained that Emily Edith, who was living in a tent with Nutta at the time, had felt "off colour" and gone to a nearby farm to ask for some lemons to make a lemon drink. There, the farmer named King reportedly offered to show her the lemons himself and despite her resisting his "overtures", he "effected his purpose".

I felt immeasurable sadness at Emily Edith’s powerlessness, and anger that the charge was dismissed despite witness testimony and physical evidence.

The language was almost comical in reporting this horrific encounter, and despite her providing evidence to the police, the court discharged King, with the newspaper article concluding that advocates of "black labour" would see the "error of their ways and become straight-out White Australians", as though it was Emily Edith's fault for being married to a non-British man and bringing trouble to the community.  

I felt immeasurable sadness at Emily Edith’s powerlessness, and anger that the charge was dismissed despite witness testimony and physical evidence.

It's important for people to know that family history research is fun, but there will be moments when it gets emotional.

I work as a professional genealogist and I think it's important for people to know that family history research is fun, but there will be moments when it gets emotional. Not everyone is going to find the rape of their great-grandmother belittled in the entertainment section of a newspaper, but it can also be quite harrowing to learn about the conditions impoverished children in English workhouses were subject to.

I advise anybody who is undertaking family history research to keep a diary for your thoughts, not just your research. It's important to accept that you might not get all the answers you want or are expecting, and don't be afraid to reach out to family, friends or professionals from an organisation like MindSpot if you are having difficulty processing what you have discovered or are unsure how to break difficult news to others.

Ultimately, the stories that make up our genealogy are personal, so we feel them more.

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter at @kimberly_writes or Instagram at @kimberlygillan

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