Interview: Olwyn Barnes – Cowra Family History Group


This week we talk to Olwyn Barnes from the Cowra Family History Group (CFHG). Cowra is an Australian town, in the state of New South Wales, with a rich  history.

Australia’s world peace bell is housed in Cowra, an honour normally bestowed upon a nation’s capital.  The town  was also the location of the infamous Cowra Breakout where over 500 prisoners of war attempted to break out of the POW camp there.

Olwyn, how did you get into family history research? Why are you so involved with it now?

I have been a member of Cowra Family History Group since its inception in 1983. I was on the steering committee and was the first treasurer. I got into family history in 1981 when my maternal grandmother died and I received  many personal possessions, jewellery, photos and more. Stories relayed to me by my aunts encouraged my sister – and then me – to begin researching the family.

This led to researching my husband’s family tree for our children. My sister is not married so she has concentrated on our family, although I have also been involved.

Our maternal family has been traced back to the 1100s and includes clergy, a poet, a very well known painter (Europe, 1880s-1920s), the first governor of South Carolina, and an aide to the famous Clive of India.The paternal line consists of very dull, illiterate Cornish miners.

My husband’s family arrived in Australia in the 1830s, but were not convicts; I researched them for many years. When our daughter married and had a baby, I asked my son-in-law if I could research his family as the baby’s family tree was very lopsided. He agreed, and I have spent nearly 20 years working on his family as well. It is much more interesting than my husband’s, as our son-in-law has two convict ancestors.

What’s the background of your surname? Are there any interesting stories in your family tree?

My surname – Barnes – is not really the family’s correct name. My husband’s grandfather – Frederick Williams Barnes – was actually born Frederick Williams in London, and he took his stepfather’s name (Barnes)  as a young man. Interestingly, my maiden name was Williams, but my husband’s family were from London and mine were Cornish tin miners.

What’s your role at Cowra Family History Group (CFHG)?

At present, I am vice president, research officer, publicity officer and seminar coordinator. I have worn all hats during the last 28 years, sometimes more than once.

Tell us more about CFHG

Our group began with some six or eight people in 1983, and has grown to about 130 members.

What are some of CFHG’s key activities?

Quite a few members do not live in Cowra, but a dozen or so members  work in various positions. We transcribe cemeteries and publish books of these, together with other books on the history of Cowra and the district. Recent publications include They Shaped a Town Called Cowra which tells the stories of 80 people whose lives contributed to the town today, including teachers, farmers, doctors, musicians, local government members, nurses, sportspeople and others. Another just published is Tragedies in the Cowra Shire, with stories from local newspapers (1850-1950) of fires, floods, accidents, murders and more. We have a publishing committee that works on publications.

We  hold a collection of some 30,000 photographs, taken by a local photography family over some 70 years, some earlier. Images include streetscapes, weddings, portraits, accidents, fires, floods and more. When the business was sold, the negatives were found in the attic. The CFHG received a grant to print those which were still able to be salvaged. They include a large number of photos of soldiers who were in the local POW camp, as well as migrants who came to the migrant camp after the war. We have worked for years to catalogue the images and place them in archival albums. Our Pardy Photographic Collection Committee handles these.

Our research committee  –includes me and two other people,  President Lindsay Swaddling and member Phillip Fryer – handle inquiries which come to the CFHG via mail and email. We are also on hand several days a week to help beginners start climbing their family trees.

Do you have an upcoming event you’d like to promote?

Until this year we have held two large annual seminars, with speakers from Sydney, Canberra and elsewhere. These events attract visitors from around the Central West area of New South Wales (NSW). Attendees number 60-70 at each event, which is advertised via radio, TV and flyers to other groups. Now, however, we’ve decided to hold only one seminar each year and – in place of the second event –  to  arrange trips to various sites for our members, including the National Library, Society of Australian Genealogists in Sydney, State Archives in Kingswood and other locations. We have done several of these over the years, but not regularly.

You’ve been doing this for some time now. How do you see the Internet affecting genealogy / family history researchers?

We regard the Internet as a most effective tool for genealogy, but not the only thing. We still advise people to search other resources such as books, family histories and the large collection of resources in our library. Pioneer Registers are a great tool, as are shipping records, Government Gazettes and other sources.

Do you have any tips for someone beginning his or her genealogical journey?

We tell all beginners they must begin with themselves and work backwards. They should try and confirm all stories and information given to them via  at least two primary sources, and three, if possible. We urge them to acquire birth, death and marriage certificates.

If readers wish to learn more about you or the CFHG, how can they contact you?

Readers may email the CFHG at, visit our website at, or write to us at:

Cowra Family History Group

PO Box 495
Cowra NSW 2794

Leave a comment

The email address is kept private and will not be shown