Catch that Aussie census taker

Continuing the series of Genealogy for beginners, lets look at census records.

 Census records are some of the best records I have found when researching family history, because most census records give information about the whole family.   But not in Australia.   In this post I will try to send you in the right direction for your Australian census type research.

From 1971 to 1996 the ABS had a policy of destruction of the original census forms and their electronic representations, as well as field records. Prior to that it appears most material had been destroyed because of lack of storage facilities, and a fire.

If you think census takers have a hard time these days, take a look at one about to go on his route, which covered 600-700 square miles, in 1911.  The 1911 census was the first national census in Australia.

The Brisbane Courier 1 April 1911 (per. ABS)

And the census was certainly different in the past:

An 1841 NSW Census from the NSW Archives site

Compared to just 1 page of the 2001 census:

The 2001 census offered, for the first time, an option to have personal data archived by the National Archives of Australia and released to the public 99 years later, and in 2001  only 54% of Australians agreed to do so.  Looks like we will not have Australian census records for some time.

However, if you have relatives in the United Kingdom or the USA you are in luck!  In this post we will look at Australian Resources, then in further posts at United Kingdon, USA, and other countries, and at the end of each post some tips and tricks, so hopefully it will not be too confusing.

Australian Census Resources

Firstly, when did Australia start recording census type records?


First Census/Muster by Australian State
           State earliest census
New South Wales        1788
Northern Territory        1861
Queensland        1861
South Australia        1841
Tasmania        1803
Victoria        1836
Western Australia        1829


For a full history of Australian census check out the ABS website.
The first 'census' type records were called musters, and took place in the early days of the colony, to work out how much food was needed.  A great guide to these, and where to find them, can be found at WA State Library site .  for more detailed information check Convicts to Australia who have a very comprehensive list of musters. These run from 1790 to 1911Note: free men could not be compelled to go to a muster, so names may well be missing! 

Page from the 1837 Convict Muster
Page from the 1837 Convict Muster

1841 Census - An indes of this can be searched online at the NSW Sate Archives site and there are 9354 entries in the index, some of them are not legible.

1891  Census - these records are at the NSW State Archives on microfiche.  Only the householders name is available, the rest of the people living in the house are not there.

Tasmania - 1837, 1838, 1842, 1843, 1848, 1851, and 1857.   Some are available at Tasmanian Archives. Most of the individual returns (the forms recording details of each household) have not survived.  These returns have been indexed by the name of the head of the household. Note that returns for many areas are incomplete, and the information recorded varies from year to year.  - It's worth a try though!

So, in Australia we need to go to some resources other than census records.

Electoral Rolls
These list the names of anyone registered to vote, so are not as comprehensive as census records, A guide to electoral rolls is a fantastic resource, as it tells you where all the Aust. Electoral rolls can be found.  Some are on & Find my - but not all of them.

One thing to remember is the electoral rolls started out as State rolls, and in 1903 became Commonwealth electoral rolls.

1787-1834 New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia, settler and convict lists, check Ancestry,com. (Read the NSW State Archives guide first!)
1842-1863 - These are held at the NSW State Archives. Click here for a comprehensive guide
1859-1929 - are held at the NSW State Library
1901 to January 2008 - These are available at the National Library

1903-1928 - Commonwealth electoral rolls are held at the NSW State Libaray
1930 onwards are combined Commonwealth and State rolls, available at the NSW State Library

More information guides
Victoria - Find out more from the Victoria State Library guide.
NSW - - check the NSW State Library 
Queensland - check out the Qld State Library guide.
Comprehensive guide to musters and pre 1842 records - read this guide from the NSW State Archives

Other Records
As there are very few census records, we need to look beyond them to try to locate ancestors.  For a comprehensive list of where Land Records and Directories (eg. Sands) are held click here.
Newspapers can be a source of birth and death information, but often contain the names of several family members, and where they live - search Trove.  Police Gazettes can be found at State Libraries, some are on Ancestry, Find My Past, and Trove. 

Tips and Tricks

  • The first step is to identify which state you may be looking for - then look at the guide for that state. 
  • When looking at electoral rolls, families will not be all together, look at the whole list of surnames and addresses to find more of the family.
  • Don't be discouraged if you don't find early ancestors in the early colony records, remember they are mostly incomplete.
  • Austrtalian Census records will usually only have the main householder listed & no-one else.
  • Census records can tell you where your family was living at a particular time.
  • Get creative, look for land records, directories, phone directories, almanacs, newspapers etc.


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