The Branching out online course is curated by the Family History Team from State Library Victoria (SLV), who guide participants through the processes involved in family history research. Participants learn about the wonderful online resources available for researching Victorian family history, and are provided with support and interaction in a friendly forum environment.

Our special guest blogger, Mandy, completed the course in early 2019. She shares her experience and some of her family history findings below.


Peter Johannsen: my great-grandfather

Peter Johannsen.
(Image supplied by author)

The Branching out course was a wonderful time of new discoveries and exponential learning for me. From a basic knowledge of some of the important dates in my great-grandfather Peter’s life, I have been able to fill in a lot of the gaps and questions I had when I started the course. Peter and his wider family have come to life for me. Along the way I have also increased my knowledge of the times in which he lived, the movements of members of his extended family and the socio-historical circumstances (such as the gold rush and First World War) which would have impacted their lives.

Peter was born in Smythesdale, Victoria in 1862. His parents, Johann and Magdalena Johannsen (née Kniphals) arrived from Germany in 1855 and 1858 respectively, and married in Melbourne in the German Church in 1858. Peter’s early life was in the Piggoreet and Smythesdale area. Aside from his Piggoreet school enrolment, I can find no further mention of him around this time other than on his younger siblings’ birth records. I discovered that his father, Johann, was involved in several gold mining ventures, was in business as Japp & Johannsen Builders in Piggoreet and later had his own business as John Johannsen Undertaker.

Johannsen & Son, Parkin Street, Allendale.
(Image supplied by author)

There is a period from about 1877-1886 where I can find no sure mention of Peter, until his marriage to Sabina Hale in Melbourne in 1886. At the time of his marriage he was living in Clifton Hill and working as a grocer’s assistant, so it may be that he had come to Melbourne before that time. In the 1886 rate records I found an entry for a Peter Johannsen, labourer, who was working for a carrier in South Melbourne. I wonder if this was my great-grandfather.

City of South Melbourne rate book, 1886, page 163.
(Sourced from Ancestry Library Edition)


The birth records of his first 3 children show he lived in Burwood Road Hawthorn and worked as a grocer. I will look further into SLV records that mention grocer’s assistants and also local directories which may mention businesses in the Hawthorn area.

Rate records have enabled me to see that Peter’s father had moved to Allendale by 1882 and that he and his older son Johann were working as cabinet makers. The following year they were owners of a store. Following his father’s death in 1892, Peter returned with his family to live in Allendale. In rate records, I found that he went into the family business with his older brother, which became known as Johannsen Bros, Carpenters. They turned their hands to many things including carpentry, building and undertaking. Peter and his family resided in Allendale for many years.

The Johannsen house in Allendale, Victoria [1903-1904].
(Image supplied by author)


I found many newspaper articles showing that during this time he held positions of office in a number of local organizations – including the Methodist Church (where he was a lay preacher and Sunday school teacher), the Allendale Relief Fund, IOOF and the Catholic Young Men’s Society. In 1918 he was involved with the running of ‘Our Boys Day’ which was a special effort for augmenting the fund of the State War Council for the assistance of soldiers. He was clearly a civic-minded person! As these organizations held regular meetings, his life would have been a busy one (especially as he had 7 children!).

Methodist Church and School, Allendale. [ca. 1908]
H96.200/1628, Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria.


By 1920, a number of Peter & Sabina’s adult children were living in Melbourne. An article from The Argus on the 4th November 1920 mentions a farewell and presentation to Peter upon the impending move of the family to Preston. In 1922, the electoral roll shows that Peter & Sabina were living at the same address in Preston with two of their children. His brother Johann died in 1920 and I can find no mention of the family business after that time.

1922 electoral roll, showing Peter and Sabina living in Preston, Victoria.
(Sourced from Ancestry Library Edition)


From a land title search I was able to find that the house they moved to in Preston was owned by one of their sons and later transferred into one of their daughter’s names. It remained in the family until 1950, and to this day the house has a nameplate beside the front door with the inscription ‘Allendale’ – their time in Allendale must have been a happy one.

Following his wife’s death in 1930 Peter moved to Canterbury where he lived with his sisters Wilhelmina & Ellen. He remained there until he died in 1938. Peter and Sabina are both buried in the Box Hill Cemetery.

I would have liked to have known my great-grandparents. My grandmother Jessie was a truly lovely person so I imagine that her father Peter and her mother Sabina would have been too.

From the research I have done, I feel I have been able to form a good impression of my great-grandfather and his life. It is interesting when reflecting on all of this, that had I chosen to research my great-grandmother, I would have found little information, as her role was one of supporting her husband in his busy life which included many civic duties. She would have been a homemaker and I imagine that her life would have been one of caring for her husband, her 7 children and other family members. She would have been very busy!

The Branching out course has given me the opportunity to explore so many resources I didn’t know existed. I have especially enjoyed using the SLV research guides, Trove, Public Records Office Victoria, and rate books and electoral rolls on Ancestry Library Edition. These resources have led me on many side journeys which uncovered all sorts of information about Peter, his wider family and the times in which they lived.

Pitfield, Woady Yallock. [1859?]
H2013.345/90, Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria.


Visits to the Woady Yaloak Historical Society in Smythesdale, the Colac & District Family History Group in Colac and to the Newspapers and Family History Reading Rooms at SLV have been informative and enjoyable new experiences for me. I still have much to learn and plan to visit the SLV to learn about and view their physical records.

The course continues to benefit my research even after it has ended – the final module explored how to use the Internet and social media to further family history research. This gave me the confidence to reach out to a family history group in Germany. This group has researched and provided records for me which trace my ancestors back to 1650. I have also been able to contact 2 distant relatives in Germany who have been able to provide me with further information. This has been a very rewarding time. My correspondence with these people continues.

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to be part of the Branching out course and thank all of the SLV staff who have assisted me. Your knowledge and generosity have been greatly valued.


Want to find out more about your own family’s story? Register now for the free Branching out online course!

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