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Jill Ball: Family History Blogger Downunder

Anyone who knows Australian genealogist Jill Ball knows she emanates excitement for anything family and family history oriented. She blogs about family history and spearheads several online and local genealogy-related groups for Australians. She’s even flown halfway around the world several times to attend RootsTech, the world’s largest family history event, where she can be found gleefully handing out little stuffed koala bears (or some other proud Aussie memorabilia) and organizing meetups with Aussie attendees and other enthusiasts who have become good friends. She’s also a very staunch RootsTech ambassador, spreading the good word about the event and online resources within her sphere of influence Downunder. Her life and work have been filled with Australian history and genealogical tools that she continues to share with others with her signature cheerful and gregarious demeanor.

Jill's parents holding her as a newborn.

Jill’s Life before Genealogy

Jill Ball was born in Sydney and lived there until she recently relocated to Lake Macquarie, about 2 hours north of Sydney and close to Newcastle. She and her husband live right on this large saltwater lake. Of her ancestry, Jill says, “I’m a proud Australian with European ancestors reaching back to the early 1800s in Australia and aboriginal heritage many thousands of years.”

Jill was an only child and had few cousins, but she has very fond memories growing up as quite the focus of love in the “bosom of the family” with her parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles.

She and her husband, Robert, have been married for 50 years. They have 4 children and 12 grandchildren.

After studying library science in college, Jill began working in public libraries. She eventually added a degree in education and switched to working in the school library so her schedule would match her school-aged children’s schedules. As technology entered the schools more fully, she took a few classes (a master’s degree) and became the technology director at the school. Jill retired from this position in 2008.

When Family History Took Root

Jill especially spent a lot of time with her maternal grandmother growing up. She laments in retrospect that she didn’t pay attention to or have a formal interest in family history until it was too late.

Her attitude changed in 1988. Her maternal grandmother died that year, which caused a lot of reflection. Of that time, she says, “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to Nanna Duncan telling her stories of growing up in the bush. I could kick myself.”

Jill with her maternal grandmother.

However, 1988 was also the bicentenary of the first European settlement in Australia. Almost everyone was interested in their heritage, and her family took advantage of lots of big celebratory events.

She remembers they watched from Sydney Harbor as the replica the First Fleet came in on 26 January 1988.

Her experiences in 1988 sparked a real interest in learning about her heritage, but she had to fit her new hobby around her work and family life. For a while she just “puddled along” in her research, keeping track of what she found on catalog cards, going to repositories, and looking things up on microfiche and microfilm until she got genealogy software in 1994.

When Jill retired in 2008, she suddenly had more time on her hands. She began using one of her favorite work-related skills—blogging—to start a new blog about her growing passion for family history: Her family history appetite and involvement grew from there.

An Indulgence, Not a Job

As Jill attended family history events with speakers, she realized she could present too; it fit with her background and experience. Because genealogy is a hobby for her (howbeit a serious one), she freely shares her genealogical research knowledge. She likes to share any proceeds she receives from speaking with her favorite charity, called Kiva, which gives microloans to help people in third-world countries set up small businesses or improve their life. She is part of a group called Genealogists for Families, which has several hundred members who support this charity.

Jill and some of her genealogy friends.

Since genealogy is not her livelihood, Jill feels that as soon as the dollar comes into the picture, it adds such a sense of responsibility; it changes the whole experience for her personally. She leaves the paid research services up to the professionals and considers herself an eager amateur who does it because of her love of genealogy. She also likes to help those who want to learn how to do their own research.

You will also find Jill volunteering in local groups and with the Society of Australian Genealogists, where she is on the education committee. In this group, she teaches genealogy classes around the country. During the COVID-19 restrictions, these groups have been able to keep providing their services through virtual meeting technologies like Zoom. She believes when you help others, it comes back to you in the form of blessings as well, so she considers it “paying it forward.”

All Jill’s favorite interests seem to mesh nicely because they include family history, her living family, photography, and travel.

Her family travel plans now usually include a family history element. Her husband is fully supportive and happy to sometimes accompany her on her travels to ancestral homes, genealogy cruises, or big conferences like RootsTech!

Jill meeting up with other australians at rootstech.

Aussie Resources

Someone recently asked Jill when her family settled in Australia. She replied with a quick quip, “Did I tell you I had 10 convicts in my family tree? Ten of my direct ancestors got a ‘free passage’ to Australia. It wasn’t so much settling as being dumped.”

Her convict ancestors mostly committed small petty thefts during times of poverty and starvation. Despite their origins, Jill has found records that indicate her ancestors made a good life for themselves that was not available to them in England or Ireland, so it turned out to be an opportunity more than a punishment.

Jill also has ancestors who came as Irish famine orphans through programs to relocate them at the time. These orphaned girls acted as a sort of population balance since most of the population was male.

a historic family photo of Jill's.

Most of her ancestors were ordinary people who made lives for themselves in a very different place. Some of her ancestors have quite famous descendants. One married the governor of New South Wales, one was Australia’s cricket captain, and others have been well educated.

There are colorful stories about these ancestors! Today Australians no longer see it as an embarrassment to have convict ancestors but instead see it as “a badge of honor.” They term convict ancestors as “Australian Royalty.” Australians also take pride in having Aborigines or First Australians in their trees.

Jill’s Family History Advice

Jill fills her home with family photos and artifacts. She lets her grandchildren enter records in her family tree. She has them enter their own yearly school records or ancestors’ records. She posts interesting spotlights on ancestors to Facebook to spark an interest in her children, cousins, and grandchildren. This organic approach can be more effective than a formal tactic. As Jill puts it, “Take it upon yourself to create an environment where genealogy and family history will be a process of osmosis, without them even knowing it, for children to get involved.”

Jill with her mother and extended family.

As an amateur, she feels free to “go down a rabbit hole” hither and yon and not feel guilty about it. One thing always leads to another, and you never know where you might end up; Jill appreciates that freedom. There is no shortage of things to do, but she gets to choose to follow whatever lead interests her on a particular day.

Jill considers it important to be willing to move into the digital age. Sharing information online through something like a shared Google Drive or FamilySearch Family Tree will create a lot more involvement from all around the world. Jill is passionate about “not throwing the baby out with the bath water” by continually learning to use the latest tools that can encourage more people to get involved.

She suggests setting up a social media system or record-keeping system that fits each person’s unique needs as a group or family. There is no one size fits all. Each budding genealogist has to be prepared to adapt because tools and platforms come and go and develop and change. Jill is “keen on technology” and evaluating as she goes to see what works best now.

Jill ball at RootsTech.

Resources Jill has used in her own family research include:

  • TROVE, the project of the Australian National Library and other institutions, to digitize newspapers, journals, photos, archived websites, and much more—free, fully searchable, and ever growing.
  • State archives, particularly the following:
    • New South Wales was the first convict settlement in Australia. Its convict records are nearly all digitized and freely available. These include interesting facts such as physical descriptions of the convicts!
    • Immigration records of free settlers are all online for free.
  • Birth, marriage, and death registrations that are maintained by state registries.
  • National archives since 1901 when Australia became a nation. These include the following resources:
    • World War II records are currently being digitized.
  • Some city directories from the 20th century that are available online from a range of websites.
  • DNA testing. This can be a great way to connect with living relatives or overcome ancestral dead ends. Jill has done tests with 5 different companies, hoping to make as many connections as possible. She has discovered she has English, Irish, and Scottish heritage, along with her Aboriginal connections.
  • National and local genealogical societies and groups with regular meetings, some with scheduled topics and speakers and some with a looser format to talk all things family history on a monthly or weekly basis. These have traditionally been face-to-face meetups, and many have been made available online recently.

Where to Find and Contact Jill

If you want to contact Jill, she’s easy to find! She has a large online presence and several methods of communication.

Source: Family Search

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