Digitisation has made genealogy research much easier than ever before. A few clicks of the mouse and the information you seek is in front of your eyes, without the need for travel.
But I do miss the experience of looking at the original documents. Even more exciting is when you get the opportunity to look beyond documents, to artefacts. items that ancestors would have touched and used.
On a holiday in New Zealand this past month I had an opportunity to see some of the items owned once by one of the early Heenan settler families. Details about the family are available here on this website
Denis Heenan took his wife and eleven children to New Zealand on board The Mariner in 1850. His eldest son Dennis had already arrived in Port Chambers, in the Otago province of the south island, the previous year. The family acquired land in the North East Valley, of Otago province, where they farmed on a very small scale. It seems they had a tough time, surviving with the help of local Maoris until their crops began to grow and provide them with food.
They became staunch members of the Presbyterian church in Dunedin and well respected members of the local community. They produced a large family – said to extend to 60 grand-children.
Dennis Heenan and his wife Joanna were originally from Parsonstown (later renamed as Birr) in County Offaly, Ireland. According to family legend they were members of the Roman Catholic community until Dennis, like a number of Catholics in Birr at the time, had a falling out with the priest and they converted to the Presbyterian faith. There is some suggestion – but this is unconfirmed – that they left Ireland for Scotland. When they sailed to New Zealand it was from London.
With them they took some precious items, amongst which was a solid silver spoon which is now held in the archives of the Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin, New Zealand. The spoon isn’t on public display but I was given access to the item by the curator and allowed to hold it (not with bare hands of course). It was surprisingly heavy and of good quality, giving me an idea that the family had enough wealth in the late 1840s to be able to purchase items like this.
The item was bequeathed to the museum by Mrs Jane Heenan sometime before 1949. I’m not entirely sure what relationship she had to Dennis and Joanna – they did have a daughter Jane but she died in 1902. Was Jane a daughter in law possibly?
Another item I saw during my visit backstage at the museum is an oil painting of Joanna Heenan.
It’s in oil and painted on board. It has a wooden frame with a gilt inner edge The half length portrait shows her sitting on a red chair and looking directly towards the painter. She looks rather formidable but according to her obituary she was had “a kind heart” well known for the hospitality she showed to tramps and travellers who passed by their homestead. The museum doesn’t have any records of how the painting came into their possession.
There are scores of portraits of other early settlers in the museum, in fact there is a whole room of them, some of which can be seen in this photograph.
The majority of photographic portraits which probably reflects the growing popularity of photography from the mid 19th century. So an oil painting is rather more unusual and makes me wonder what was the driving force for this to be commissioned. Something to mark a landmark birthday perhaps?
I suspect we’ll never learn the truth. But just seeing this portrait in the context of other memorabilia about the early Otago settlers and information about the history of Dunedin and its environment has helped bring far more context to all those databases and indices containing dates and names.
History is far more than dates and events. It’s about people and how they lived.
- Otago Witness, July 24, 1890:https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/OW18980331.2.183. Copyright permission: the newspaper publications provided from the 19th and early 20th century are out of copyright
- New Zealand, Archives New Zealand, Passenger Lists, 1839-1973, Archives New Zealand, Wellington, (Family Search).
- THE CYCLOPEDIA OF NEW ZEALAND [OTAGO & SOUTHLAND PROVINCIAL DISTRICTS], Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, (Cyclopedia Company Limited)
- Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand