SEARCH PhD student awarded NLA Summer Scholarship

Published on 07 December 2010 by in News


SEARCH project PhD student Claire Fenby has been awarded a National Library of Australia Summer Scholarship for 2011.

Claire is the recipient of the annual Norman McCann scholarship, awarded for research into Australian History.

She will be based at the NLA from 4 January to 12 February 2011 to conduct a cross-regional study of south-eastern Australian climate and weather from 1835 to 1845. .

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Saturnia feeds on Eucalyptus Sydney by John William Lewin. Image: State Library of New South Wales

With south-eastern Australia in the midst of wet La Niña conditions and Victoria suffering locust plagues, a team of SEARCH project volunteers has discovered early settlers battled many of the same extremes.

This heavy rainfall has created perfect conditions for insects such as the locusts that are currently swarming in south-eastern Australia.

Australia’s early settlers also battled plagues of insects and extreme weather, according to accounts from the country’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser.

A team of volunteers at the State Library of New South Wales has been hard at work extracting weather-related articles from the newspaper, along with meteorological readings from the early years of the colony at New South Wales.

These documentary accounts are being used by the SEARCH research team to help extend South Eastern Australia’s climate record back to 1788.

Volunteer, Gary Cook, who alone has contributed more than 300 articles to the SEARCH project’s OzDocs volunteer database, recently discovered a report of a destructive caterpillar plague that hit Sydney on St Patrick’s Day, 1825.

The research team’s preliminary rainfall reconstruction for the period indicates that 1825 was likely to have been a wet year.

Orgyier Ocks by John William Lewin. Image: State Library of New South Wales

The Sydney Gazette noted that the destructive caterpillar plague hit the settlement after a period of heavy rains, causing widespread crop damage.

“… Since the present enchanting fine weather has again set in, the number of these destructive insects has increased to an unparalleled extent, covering whole fields in their course, which in some spots seemed to be towards the South, in a line from East to West.

Wherever they make their appearance, the most complete destruction immediately follows. Upon Captain Campbell’s estate, in the district of Cooke, they were supposed to be at least two inches in height.”

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 24 March 1825

Australia is presently feeling the effects of a moderate-to-strong La Niña event, which the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts will continue into early 2011, bringing wet conditions to much of the south-east.

The Sydney volunteers have also uncovered accounts of storms that caused shipwrecks and heavy rains that flooded the streets of Sydney.

Volunteer, Ellie Brasch, discovered reports of a unique atmospheric phenomenon, a “peculiar white mist” in Sydney; the refracted light causing an illusion on the horizon line looking out to sea.

“… this line of mist ascended to a position above the horizon, its inferior surface being at one time about a ship’s mast in elevation above it, and forming there a mirror as it were, in which were distinctly visible reflections of three vessels which were going away to the eastward in full sail ; these images reflected on the mist, appeared of course inverted – the hulls upwards.”

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 October 1840.

The OzDocs volunteer project is proving to be hugely beneficial to SEARCH’s research. A wealth of climate information is hidden in the pages of Australia’s first newspapers. Library volunteers are already making this valuable resource much more accessible, by identifying and collating articles of interest to the project.

Thanks to the National Library of Australia’s Trove online newspapers, volunteers can work easily from home or from libraries.

To take part as a volunteer on SEARCH project, please contact the project team, or see our Get Involved page.

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SEARCH volunteers unearth vital climate data

Published on 23 September 2010 by in News


An end to the drought. Excerpt from the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Thursday 13 June 1839 (Click to enlarge)

A team of volunteers at the State Library of New South Wales has been hard at work sourcing valuable information about climate conditions in the early years of the colony at Sydney.

The volunteers have been examining editions of Australia’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, looking for information about weather conditions in the colony during 1838 and 1839, which have been identified as drought years.

The volunteers have unearthed many meteorological tables from each month of the target years, as well as stories about how the weather affected the colony.

This very useful material will allow the project team to reconstruct the weather conditions during the period.

The team has been conducting their research using the National Library of Australia’s Trove Australian Newspapers database. Trove is an important project to digitise Australia’s early newspapers from 1803 to the mid 1950s.

If you would like to be involved as a volunteer, please contact the SEARCH team on

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Black Thursday. Image: State Library of Victoria

Black Thursday. Image: State Library of Victoria

The SEARCH project will draw on the expertise of volunteers to build a comprehensive online database of early Australian meteorological records and historical accounts of weather events.

Volunteers will work out of our partner libraries, The State Library of Victoria, The State Library of New South Wales and the National Library of Australia to help us populate the SEARCH Project’s OzDocs Database with this valuable information about South-East Australia’s climate past.

This citizen science project will see our volunteers scouring historical documents such as early settlers’ diaries, the colony’s first newspapers and Government Gazettes, for evidence of significant weather events.

This data will help us piece together details of our climate history, allowing the SEARCH team to view our current climate patterns in the context of natural historical variability.

The OzDocs project is currently in pilot stage. If you would like to contribute as a volunteer, please sign up for a user account, or contact the project team at for further information.

The Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth (ACRE) project is undertaking a similar climate history citizen science project, spearheaded by SEARCH project partner researcher Dr Rob Allen from the UK Met Office.

A volunteer team in Adelaide is looking at the early South Australian weather records of Charles Todd, who kept meticulous weather data from Adelaide between the 1870s to the early 1900s.

The ACRE project was recently profiled on the ABC’s Stateline.

One of the most successful citizen science projects is Galaxy Zoo, an online astronomy project that enlists the general public to assist with the classification of millions of galaxies from telescopic images.

Lucas Laurson’s article in Science from June 25 2010 also profiles various research organisations undertaking citizen science projects.

The Journal of Arthur Bowes-Smyth, State Library of New South Wales

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Claire Fenby’s NLA research trip report

Published on 09 February 2010 by in News


The months of January and February have marked the first of a number of research trips to come during my PhD. I have spent four weeks in Canberra working with our project partner, the National Library of Australia. adobe creative cloud . The library treated me to the privileges enjoyed by the NLA’s 2010 summer scholars, providing me with an excellent opportunity to discuss ideas and resources with other historians.

Poster presented by Claire Fenby at the AMOS conference (click to enlarge

With the invaluable advice of the staff at the NLA, I uncovered a wealth of information and potential sources. My time was spent reading manuscripts (predominantly diaries and letters), newspapers, rare books, looking through the pictures collection and getting a feel for the breadth of the unique map collection.

The manuscripts collection contained, for example, first-hand accounts of the effect of flood on a farm near Wollongong, of the Black Thursday bushfires in Victoria and years of agricultural and pastoral returns.

Rare newspapers provided editorials criticising the continued poor state of roads following yet another destructive wet season and called for agricultural societies to promote research into crops that were resistant to the ravages of the Australian climate.

Material from the library’s collections will be very helpful for developing in-depth case studies of how past weather and climate conditions influenced society over the 1788–1860 period.

Along with my time spent at NLA, I also researched the Australian Agricultural Company records at the Noel Butlin Archive at ANU, presented a poster at the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society’s 17th Annual Conference and gave a seminar at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society.

– Claire Fenby, PhD Candidate

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