Using Time and Place Records to Find Living Cousins
Due to the privacy restrictions prevalent in many vital record sets, conducting descendancy research into the latter part of the 20th century—and beyond—can prove difficult. There are, however, a few resources available publicly and for free that allow one to circumvent these shortcomings. In this blog post, I will be focusing in particular on two major resources that can be used to find details of the living, particularly in Australia and New Zealand: electoral rolls and directories (White Pages).
An electoral roll lists those who are eligible and registered to vote in federal, state or local government elections. They can provide useful information, such as where a person may have lived over time, and their occupation, as well as their full name and address. With some sleuthing, family members living at the same or a nearby address can lead to new discoveries or bolster an existing connection.
When it comes to historical electoral rolls, both Ancestry and FindMyPast have extensive collections for Australia and New Zealand. They are almost entirely indexed and cover a large period of time—as early as 1842 in the case of New South Wales! While the content and structure of the various electoral rolls have changed over time, the basic premise remains that they are an excellent resource for not only finding but tracing family members across time and place.
Most digitised electoral roll collections stop at about 1980/1981. This is also the case for collections held by many Australian state libraries. But the true power of electoral rolls for conducting descendancy research is those rolls beyond the 1980s. Rolls to the present day are held and made publicly available by government organisations such as the Australian Electoral Commission. They are able to be viewed free of charge by anyone who has access to a local office. In New Zealand, many libraries hold rolls to the present day. The Christchurch City Libraries, for example, hold hardbound copies from 1984 to the present day at their Tūranga site.
The trick in successfully tracing a person's life in the electoral roll is knowing where they lived and when—which may seem to defeat the purpose! Modern electoral rolls have not been indexed for the most part, so the researcher must rely on their knowledge (or assumption) about the electorate in which an ancestor or cousin was enrolled to vote. Oftentimes people do live in the same house for many decades, but that is not always the case, especially as sea-changes and 'retiring to the beach' become more popular.
My advice is to not give up hope when you cannot find that elusive cousin living in the same area they did years before, and to be creative in searching for their present address. Clues can be gleaned from mentions in a parent's obituary, for example, or looking in areas where you know siblings or in-laws lived at some point. The other option is to use a directory, perhaps as a supplement to the electoral roll—which brings me to the second half of this blog post.
Most of us should be familiar with the good old phone book: that incredibly thick book, filled with tiny text, dropped off on our doorstep each year. Before the Internet Age, a directory like this was used almost daily by people everywhere, to find business and home phone numbers. Nowadays, with landlines all but gone and Facebook more prevalent than ever, the humble phone book is disappearing. But anyone who has used a phone book, or any kind of directory, for genealogical research will know the power of such a simple resource.
Directories still exist today, albeit in a different form. These include hard copy books printed and delivered locally, but also online resources such as White Pages and so-called 'people finders' like Facebook and Spokeo. Australia and New Zealand each have their own White Pages domain, and the websites feature both a business and residential component. For our purposes, the residential component is going to be the focus.
Deducing whether someone listed on White Pages is really a cousin can be tricky, and in the end you may have no choice but to stab in the dark and hope that you're right. But if you've already traced someone through to the early 1980s using online electoral rolls and then you find an entry on White Pages that seems to match their initials and general location, filling in the blanks with physical electoral rolls may be possible. And if you're lucky, a timely phone call or sensitive letter may yield a wonderful genealogical discovery. At the very least, you will have a new resource to add to your genealogy toolbox.
Something to keep in mind if the trail goes cold, literally. Be sure to always check for a death or funeral notice before trawling through hundreds of pages of an electoral roll for someone who has already passed away. It may not be pleasant, but you will save yourself potentially hundreds of hours of searching. My recommendations are the Ryerson Index for Australia, and A Memory Tree for New Zealand. Also be sure to try a probate index, for example, Archway for Archives New Zealand or PROV for Victoria.
Resources & Further Reading
I have personally found the following resources invaluable in learning more about the availability and usefulness of electoral rolls and directories in Australia and New Zealand: