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15 May 2020

Many of us don't really think about our personal history until we lose someone important to us from an older generation. We spend our lives busily making our own stories, with no time, or inclination, to explore the past; but one thing that will always make us stop and reflect on what's gone on before, is a funeral. This is when we start to hear astonishing stories about people we thought we knew, people we should have taken time to talk to, but didn't. If we're lucky, they'll leave behind keepsakes - heirlooms and diaries - things we can use to piece together their (our) history. And sometimes, rarely, we happen upon clues from the past left by strangers... ghosts who still have something to say.

I never aimed to be an historian - I hated history as a child and used to fall asleep in my history classes. My grades reflected the fact that history was never going to be part of my career, but the universe had other ideas. Whilst renovating a 1912 Queenslander in Milton, I accidentally wandered into the path of some of Brisbane's historical mysteries.

Not having any idea where to start investigating the origins of my discovery, I posted a photograph of what I'd found on Facebook's Old Brisbane Album. I asked over 20,000 avid history lovers what I should do with four five-pound notes, three 1940s Commonwealth bank books, and some coins, that had been hidden under my kitchen lino.

What happened next changed the course of my life...

Over 1000 people responded to my post, which then kicked off a huge online social media investigation. We started the Under the Lino Facebook page, where people asked questions, shared stories and turned into curious detectives, intent on finding all the answers behind the hidden money and bank books.

Over the course of two years, our community uncovered untold stories of mischief: fraud, brothels, theft and murder; all of which were directly related to the Milton discovery. We wove the stories of our extensive research about the lives of the people who originally owned my house, and the money, around related historical facts of Queensland, to create a story like no other. Where fact is stranger than fiction.

Hundreds, and now thousands, of strangers have come together for a common cause, sharing personal stories, research skills, companionship and humour. Many have become friends and respected colleagues.

Generations have connected through modern technology, and people whose paths may never have crossed, have joined forces online, in a safe environment, managed by sensitive administrators. Everyone had their say, opinions were welcomed, but were often challenged, gently and intellectually. Facts were discussed, ideas were tabled and conclusions were reached. We mobilised a community and revolutionised online historical sleuthing.

The community crowdfunded the publication of the award-winning book, Under the Lino: The History The Mystery The Community, where all of our stories and techniques are shared.

I have spent the past year speaking to community organisations - seniors’ groups, schools, clubs and historical societies - about the value of personal historical storytelling and the use of technology to connect to family, friends, information and research opportunities. It has been a privilege and an honour to share my story and main message: to leave something behind of yourself, so we don't need to look under the lino for clues about you, your life and your history!

And just when I thought my time as an historian was coming to an end, we sold our Milton home, and bought a little cottage in Paddington, built in 1906. It had been extensively renovated, so we thought there was nothing left to discover... until we pulled down an old Fibro wall, exposing the original weatherboards on the back of the house. There, we found twenty-three names from the 1960s and '70s, written on the green timber under which was carved one word, one place... Cherbourg.

What we discovered has now started another detective investigation about a community that needs its stories told like no other.

Get ready Brisbane, for Beyond the Fibro...