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From reels to radio. Find out about the National Film & Sound Archive Collection

In our goal to uncover as much information as possible on our ancestors we often leave no stone unturned. But have you investigated whether your family appeared in a film or was on the wireless? Genealogist Shauna Hicks looks into Australia’s main media archives.

Many of us have ancestors who were involved in theatrical pursuits and may have been on stage, radio or in films. There are a variety of resources to learn more about this, but an often overlooked repository is the National Film & Sound Archive Australia (NFSA) located in Canberra. So just what is the NFSA? It has an audiovisual collection of more than 1.7 million works including films, television and radio programs, videos, audio tapes, records, compact discs, phonograph cylinders and wire recordings. Plus there are documents, photographs, posters, lobby cards, publicity items, scripts, costumes, props, memorabilia, oral histories and vintage equipment. When I lived in Canberra for a few years, I was fortunate to visit the NFSA on a number of occasions and it is a must-see destination on any trip to the nation’s capital. If you can’t get there in person, their website is a great place to discover what’s available, and search the collection online. Searches can be narrowed by the type of media, for example film, radio, paper, photograph, recorded sound, television, artefact and documentation. Other filters include category (a broad subject type listing), date by decade, and country.

The National Film & Sound Archive site in Canberra houses more than 1.7 million records.
The National Film & Sound Archive site
in Canberra houses more than 1.7 million records.

The database currently lists more than 700,000 items and covers more than a century of audiovisual history. Some items have been digitised and are able to be viewed or listened to online, while other items can be loaned, copied, digitised and accessed at the NFSA’s centres in each state capital city plus Darwin and Canberra. Contact details for each centre are available on the NFSA website. This is fantastic access and a service that is not offered by any other archive that I’m aware of. Remember too that the NFSA, like all other archives, is continuously adding to their collection and online catalogue, so it’s a good idea to revisit the site at least annually. There are copying and handling fees depending on the nature of your request. Details of the various charges are available on the website.

All requests for copying and loan of materials  are subject to Australian copyright law. The NFSA does not usually hold the copyright and it is the responsibility of the researcher to clear the usage of material. A very useful guide called Tracking Down the Copyright Holder — Hints and Tricks is available on their site. There may also be access restrictions especially if the material is in a fragile condition.Even if you don’t have a showbiz ancestor, it is still interesting to look at films that your family might have seen or listen to music or a radio program that they liked listening to. Don’t forget that newsreels played a big role before the advent of television and it is interesting to watch an event that your ancestor may have been part of. One example is when politician Arthur Calwell was addressing an Australian Labor Party rally in Sydney’s Domain on the coal strike in 1949. He was heckled by communists and a near riot broke out. You might be interested in this newsreel footage if you had a coal miner, unionist or even communist ancestor who may have been there. Click here to apply for access to this archive.

Newsreels played a big role before… television and it’s interesting to watch an event that your ancestor may have been part of”

Newsreel footage relating to both World Wars may be of interest to many readers. One silent film item from 1918 really intrigued me. It relates to British officers and soldiers of the Shropshire Regiment who escorted German prisoners from China (they had been captured by the Japanese) to be interned in Australia. In the film they are standing on a dock in Sydney next to their ship.

In the 1920s Australia had a flourishing film industry. City streets, houses, and parks became backdrops for silent movies. Ever wondered if your ancestor was an extra in the crowd? Anne Miller from Kingaroy in Queensland had. “I was always brought up with the story that my great grandfather, Matthew Moore, was very mysterious, and lived in Woolloomooloo in Sydney,” Anne says. “And that his wife appeared in an old silent movie where a goat nicked the washing off her clothes line. Dad always said it was a Fatty Finn movie but didn’t know the name.” One day Anne was watching SBS and on came Kid Stakes, a well-known silent film from 1927. “I watched it through and there was a scene where a goat goes into a yard and steals some washing off a clothes line! It can’t be proven that this was my ancestor’s house, but the film was shot in the Woolloomooloo area and the timing is right.” While Anne’s identification of the film (and proof of the family rumour) comes down to luck, it does show the value of following leads. Kid Stakes is available for viewing through the NFSA.

A scene from Kid Stakes, a silent film shot  in 1927 around an inner-city suburb of Sydney. Could your ancestor have appeared in it?
A scene from Kid Stakes, a silent film shot in 1927 around an inner-city suburb of Sydney. Could your ancestor have appeared in it?

It’s also possible to use their collections to enhance the memories of still living members of your family through the NFSA’s oral history program. As an example, there is a collection of interviews recorded at the RAAF base in Butterworth, Malaysia, in 1985 as part of its 25th anniversary. This was of huge interest to my partner, who had served a number of years at Butterworth.

What other archives can you visit? 

While the NFSA has the largest audiovisual collection, other supporting records may be found in archives and libraries. The National Archives of Australia (NAA) has a collaborative arrangement with ABC Archives and many of the latter’s collection, including audiovisual material and documentation more than 28 years old, is available through the NAA’s reading rooms. Another rich source for artistic ancestors at the NAA is the copyright, patents and trademarks category of their online catalogue. These records have been indexed by name, and it is a simple matter to enter a first and last name and perhaps find a literary or musical work submitted by an ancestor. I knew my son’s grandfather had been involved with Sydney theatre when he first arrived in Australia in the early 1950s, so I searched on his surname, not really expecting to find anything. Serendipity does happen and I discovered that Ivor Henry Andrews Speed had lodged a literary work in 1951 titled Made to Measure, so now I want to investigate this further! My example demonstrates that we really do need to look for our ancestors everywhere as we don’t know where they might have left a record of their activities.


A Look at Local Authority Archives

Cheryl-Ann Leggatt, from Sydney, knew that her grandfather, Stuart Russell Phillips, had performed in a band during his younger years. When he died in 1952, funeral notices gave an indication of his musical interests with references to the Sydney Metropolitan Band and the Leichhardt Municipal Band. According to family stories, he was also very active on radio, but unfortunately no reference to his name comes up in a search of the NFSA catalogue. The ABC Archives also confirmed that they had no radio archives featuring Phillips. It really is only in the last few decades that more audiovisual records have been collected and preserved.

But that doesn’t mean that older material hasn’t survived. While searching for Phillips in the NFSA online catalogue, I came across an item for the North Sydney Boys’ High School Orchestra, Cadet Band and Choir with various recordings between 1948 and 1950. Anyone with a relative who attended that school and was involved with the music teams is still able to listen to their musical efforts now, 60 years later.

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