Tools for researching the past

When it comes to researching your forebears, you can either be pleasantly surprised or sorely disappointed.

Cases that fit into the latter category are more common than you would think. Many of our past relatives seem to leave great historical gaps in their wake rather than the opposite. As a matter of fact, is much rarer to find large amounts of information about someone’s ancestors who lived in the Ashburton District many decades ago.

A lot of Ashburton’s former citizens come and go with perhaps just one or two mentions in the newspaper, and an entry in the rates or local directories – that’s it.

Resources available for reading and copying in the Ashburton Museum Research Room. These include local history books, town directories, photo catalogues, maps, indices, births, deaths, marriages, and more.

There are tricks to unlocking the clues that our ancestors leave behind, and most of it is knowing where to look. I thought it would be interesting to lay out on the table exactly how we manage to find out about your great grandparents, estranged relatives, and ancestral homesteads, when we receive requests for information at the Ashburton Museum.

Surface-level research

One of the first places I will look when someone asks for information about a relative, is our surnames vertical file.

We have two filing cabinets organised from A to Z by surname, in which copies of genealogical information pertaining to each name are stored. It is a good starting point for researching a family name and is a general indicator of how easy or difficult a research request could be.

Following that, a quick search through the ‘New Zealand Five Significant Rolls’ computer program from the New Zealand Society of Genealogists Inc. can tell me where a person lived if we do not know already. The program covers several years over the period 1881 – 1925, and if this yields no results then we have many other resources that can be used to track someone down. Marriage records for the period 1936 – 1956 are also at our disposal.

The PapersPast website from the National Library hosts many historic newspapers from around the country. This clipping is from the second ever issue of the Ashburton Guardian, published on the 30th of September 1879. (

If they were a soldier in the Great War, then we can search a database of personnel and reserves to find information similar to that on the electoral rolls. Alternatively, the Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph website hosts a plethora of information on New Zealand Soldiers across multiple conflicts, with personnel files even accessible in some cases. Archives New Zealand’s Archway search tool is also a great way to browse historical documents and records, with some available to view online.

Websites such as PapersPast, which host historic newspapers from the Ashburton District and around the country, provide an invaluable tool for us to find information about individuals, governing bodies, companies, and properties.

Street numbers and sections

One problem that comes up when trying to find out where somebody lives is the fact that street numbers were almost always changing for a good part of the town and district’s history.

Copies of directories dating from the 1870s to the 1960s give us a year-by-year look at how the Ashburton District changed over the years, and they are a great research tool.

One year, a house may be number 36 on a street, and a few years later it could have become number 38, 42, or something else entirely. A tandem approach is useful in these situations, with the help of town directories and historic aerial imagery. Historic photographs giving an eagle-eye view of Ashburton District can be accessed through the Canterbury Maps website, with partial or full images currently available for the periods of 1940-1944, 1955-1969, 1980-89, and 1995 onwards.

By looking at the position of houses from the forties onwards – which can also be a good indicator of developments prior – you can compare the street layout to what appears in the town directories and work back or forwards as required.

When it comes to finding a farm, block of land, or any other rural properties, survey maps are our best friend.

The Canterbury Maps online map viewer allows the user to superimpose historic aerial photographs over existing imagery as shown here. Imagery shown courtesy of Canterbury Maps. (

By using a combination of the Ashburton District Council’s online property maps, County and Borough maps from throughout the 20th century, and older survey/farm maps, nine times out of ten we are able to pinpoint rural properties and can sometimes discern historic ownership. Once more, online newspapers are a great help with locating properties, as land transfers and auctions were publicised regularly.

Physical and digital

Although there are many digital tools that help us out, the backbone of our research capabilities is the plethora of physical archives and records that we preserve and store at the Ashburton Museum.

Most research requests require us to access physical photographs, maps, plans, documents, and books from our archives, which span tens of thousands of individual items. We can enter and retrieve data relating to all our archives, including locations, through our PastPerfect collections catalogue which we are constantly searching through and updating.

Our collections catalogue is also available for public use on our Research Room computer, which essentially works like a Google search for our archives and objects collections.

If you want to know about what we have in our archives, and perhaps research and view the items we hold, you can fill out a research request form at our reception desk and we will be in touch with you.

Note – at this time, the research room is closed in order to comply with the Ashburton District Council’s Business Continuity Plan to deal with the current COVID-19 situation. Please get in touch with us if you would research conducted on your behalf.

By Connor Lysaght

This article was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 13 February 2021 and was modified for this blog.

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