Senior lady with grey bob and glasses smiling at camera

Robyn Condliffe has lead a fascinating life, and she is currently the host of a series of Family History sessions on the Virtual Social Centre. She has put her life to paper, and she shares it with anyone interested in family history research. 

I was born in Kempsey, a country town in NSW, and lived there very happily for the first 13 years of my life before moving to Newcastle. Holidays were nearly always spent in Sydney with my adored Nanna and Great Grandmother while visiting all our extended family.

I have a sister 6 years younger and we share 3 much older half-siblings through our shared father. Mum was a lot younger than dad. The children from dad’s first marriage were raised by their maternal grandparents after the tragic death of their own very young mother and were in their late teens by the time of mum and dad’s marriage. In later years we have come to know and love one another.

I remember the war years as happy times, visiting neighbours, the ladies holding “knitting” parties for the war effort. Many tins of Anzac biscuits and knitted woolen socks winded their way to the soldiers overseas from the homes of our friends in Kempsey. I learnt to make and pack the biscuits and also to make scarfs for the soldiers. Not sure if they were of much use, however they were made with love.

Kempsey Infants and Primary School was a small school where it was easy to make lifelong friends. I missed my friends in Kempsey when dad was transferred, however, I enjoyed my time in high school at Belmont, a suburb of Newcastle. The school was new and even though I had to travel to school by bus each day, this school was chosen because it had the same uniform,I had for Kempsey High, and secondly it was one of the few high schools to teach French. Mum thought French was a good subject to study and I had already learnt French for two terms, however my favourite subjects were science, maths and history. I had an inquiring and organised mind.

My science master arranged with the BHP for me to start what was then an internship doing industrial chemistry. I couldn’t wait to begin because my mother had said I had to join the workforce at the end of the school year and I wasn’t interested in pursuing a nursing career, my mother’s choice, and I was happy to be able to follow my own interests.

Prior to the end of the year fate inflicted a curve-ball in the form of Encephalitis and Poliomyelitis and I spent the next 4½ months in hospital. Because I had a “heart condition” mum wouldn’t sign the form to allow me to have the very effective Salk Polio Vaccine in 1953. As you can imagine I have always been very pro-active when it came to vaccinating myself and my two children, a son and a daughter from my first marriage. They, my 4 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren, are all very special.

In late 1979 in Coffs Harbour I married my second husband, Tony, a very kind and gentle man.

Just prior to the death of my beloved Nanna she entrusted me with two birthday books. One belonged to her late mother, an absolute favourite person of mine who died when I was twelve. Garcar, as I called her, told me stories of her mother “who came out to Australia twice” and brought out good girls with Caroline Chisholm. There was also a beautiful ornament in the family to be passed down from mother to daughter and this belonged to Garcar’s mother Pheobe Jane née Biggs, which in turn had been passed down from her mother Sarah née Gretton. I eventually inherited that ornament with its history and it has been dated as mid-1790s. There is a long and interesting story attached to Phoebe coming to Australia twice! Perhaps a story for the Family History Program on the Virtual Social Centre? Who knows!

Back to the birthday books, which actually fueled the fire to start researching family history. The books were full of intriguing birth, marriage and death dates. Who were these people? Where did they fit into my ancestors' lives and so mine?

My mother had come to live with Tony and I after the death of my father and when mum became invalid, I left my position as a pastry chef to look after her; I felt the time was right to start my family history research. Tony said he would like to also research his family with my help, and so began the greatest obsession of my life! I decided I needed a computer to document all the files I very shortly accumulated. Very quickly a whole room in the house was conscripted to become my family history hub. This room was my own space when mum was sleeping and didn’t need my constant attention. Eventually the aged care provider arranged for mum to have two part-days a week at a respite centre and this helped to preserve my sanity. I was able to join the local family history society and converse with like-minded people. Absolutely invaluable! I have always found the family history centres full of very generous people willing to share their knowledge.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of helping many people with their family history. Some families are easy to research and others not so easy and very frustrating. My maiden surname was King, I then married a Smith (both challenging surnames to research) and secondly a Condliffe. One thing I can say is that I am never bored. I just do not get the time. This is all part of family history research. One becomes a detective as one weighs up the clues presented. You don’t always come to the correct solution as you cross reference and double cross reference again and again.

My research was done the hard way, without the internet and in particular Ancestry. I feel now it is easier to make mistakes and replicate the mistakes of others. Of course, eventually the time comes to make the decision about DNA. I don’t think I have quite reached that stage yet – maybe later this year or early next year. My gentle husband Tony died nearly 4 years ago after suffering many years of ill-health through diabetes, renal, heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease. His first heart attack was in 1993 while I was caring for my mother.

Through all this family history research has kept me sane. I hope I can continue to help others for many years to come.

If you are interested in joining Robyn's Family History sessions on the Virtual Social Centre, sign up here

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