Betty Johnston was only six years old when she was taken by welfare officers and placed in foster care after suffering a childhood full of abuse and neglect. Separated from her parents and five older siblings, Betty lost total contact with her family, choosing to keep her traumatic past a secret for over 70 years.
“I suppose I wanted to move on and look to the future rather than become stuck in a past I couldn’t change,” she said.
However, throughout lockdown, Betty found that with the time alone, came reflection, and with that reflection came the decision to finally speak about the past she tried to forget.
“I was horrified to hear of what my mum had been through,” said Megan Ivory, daughter of Betty Johnston.
“I just couldn’t believe she had kept that a secret for so long… we immediately felt we had to do something to try and help her deal with what was obviously a traumatic thing for her.”
It was so exciting speaking with him after all these years… there was this unmistakeable connection that we were family.
Betty was unaware that genealogy and family-finding websites like Ancestry.com existed, believing she would never be able to find out what happened to her family.
“I truly had no idea that there was even a possibility I could find my siblings until my granddaughter helped me,” she said.
That granddaughter was me, and throughout lockdown we searched for any information about Betty’s lost family, spending hours looking through family trees and genealogist reports.
Finally after days of online digging, we struck gold, finding records of Betty’s mother, father and five siblings.
Most remarkable was the discovery of Betty’s one surviving brother, who she was finally able to reunite with after years of separation.
“It was so exciting speaking with him after all these years,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of history between us but there was this unmistakeable connection that we were family.”
Ruth Graham, CEO of the Society of Australian Genealogists, believes Betty’s story mirrors many in lockdown.
“I think the pandemic has made people think a lot about their family, and that has increased the interest in those trying to reconnect or find some closure through genealogy,” said Graham.
“We get calls probably every day about people who are looking to find their birth parents or issues of broken families, just trying to work out what they can find out these days.”
New genealogy discoveries are increasing daily as more people choose to record their family histories online.
Betty was able to find details of her own family’s history dating back to the 15th century due to past records that were already uploaded online.
“Ten years ago you never would have imagined it could be this easy to find your family history,” she said.
Ancestry, one of the leading genealogy websites with over 30 billion records online said, “with members having more time at home… it is quite possible that more members have been using their Ancestry accounts and researching during the pandemic”.
There has been a reported 37 per cent increase in the amount of subscribers to the site since the pandemic began, a trend which appears to be rising among other genealogy websites such as Genealogist Fiona Brooker’s website, Memories in Time.
Brooker even began a lockdown family history group due to the recent rise in demand.
“We started a lockdown genealogy group, and it’s just keeping everyone enthused and plus it’s that connection which is the whole point of doing family history in the first place, is to get connections,” she said.
We often don’t think to ask our older family members about these things until it’s too late. We need to be talking to our family, asking these questions so that we can record some of these family stories.
Brooker has also noticed a recent trend.
“The other thing that’s happening is the DNA testing is meaning that people are getting interested in family history earlier,” she said. “And, so now you have a younger generation that are starting with that and then finding the research part to go along with it.”
However, Brooker also encourages more young people to start asking their older family members more questions.
“We often don’t think to ask our older family members about these things until it’s too late,” she said. “We actually need to be out there now, talking to our family, asking these questions so that we can record some of these family stories.”
Coming out of lockdown, both Brooker and Graham are excited to hear more stories like Betty’s of reconnecting and healing through genealogy.
“I think it’s marvellous that people like Betty are finally being able to use this time to really gain a sense of who they are, and where they come from,” she added.