How to find Australian ancestors

Jeremy Palmer explains how to research your Australian family history

Black and white photograph of a sugar cane farmer in New South Wales, Australia

When did immigration to Australia start?

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British migration to Australia began with the sailing of the First Fleet in May 1787. The loss of the colonies in North America meant that the British government needed to find a new location for a penal settlement to dispose of the growing convict population.

The founding of a new colony in Australia would alleviate this problem and would also provide a base for a new expansion of the British Empire into the Pacific. In the years up to 1868, more than 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia.

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Many of those stayed in the country after their sentence had expired, while others made the long and hazardous sea journey back home.

At the same time as the enforced movement of criminals was taking place, free settlers were also encouraged to migrate to Australia to help with the economic development of the country.

They came as either assisted or unassisted immigrants, which indicates whether they received some financial help with travel costs or paid their own way.

Many Irish families fled the famine in their own country by resettling in Australia in the 1840s. The gold rushes in the 1850s further helped fuel migration into the country from Britain, Europe and elsewhere.

With the shortening of travelling time brought about by the large ships of the early 20th century, migration to Australia before and after the First World War was a very popular option with people who wished to start a new life overseas.

A chronic manpower shortage “down under” in the period immediately after the Second World War saw the government subsidise migrants with free or cheap travel.

Over a million British migrants – “Ten Pound Poms” – arrived in Australia between 1945 and 1972. So although Australia is very closely associated with its convict heritage, they formed only a very small percentage of the migrants who have populated the county over the last 220 years.

While many people living in the UK today may not have direct ancestors who resided in Australia for generation after generation, there will be some whose forebears were there temporarily, either as convicts or free settlers. However, the major link with people in Australia is likely to be through brothers and sisters of the main ancestral line. Many families will have stories of aunts, uncles and cousins who moved down under to improve their chances in life.

What are the Australian states?

The states are New South Wales (NSW), Victoria (VIC), Queensland (QLD), South Australia (SA), Tasmania (TAS) and Western Australia (WA).

The territories are the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Consequently, each state or territory has different regulations concerning its record-keeping, and while most areas may have similar records, there are few national records available to the researcher.

It is therefore very important to have some idea of whereabouts in Australia your family were based so that the appropriate state’s records can be consulted. Each state will have an archive office and a state library that form, between them, the major repositories of family history information.

Where are Australian civil registration records?

Birth, marriage and death certificates are some of the major sources for research in Australia. Each state began its own system of registration at different times. Tasmania was the first to record such events – starting on 1 December 1838. The majority of the other states began either in the 1840s or the 1850s, but the Northern Territory records start as late as 1870.

The details recorded in the early years were fairly lax, but more consistent information is usually found from the 1880s onwards. Indeed, the information provided is often more detailed than that given on the same type of documents for England and Wales. Certificates of birth, for example, will provide not only the name, date and place of birth of the child, the full names of both parents and at least the father’s occupation, but also their ages and the date and place of their marriage. The number of previous children born to the couple is also recorded.

Marriage certificates will give the full names of the bride and groom, their occupations, ages, birthplaces and the date and place of marriage, along with the full names and occupations of both sets of parents.

Death certificates will give the date, place and cause of death, the age of the deceased and details of the time that person has spent in Australia. Other information given includes the number (and often the names and ages) of the children of the deceased, along with details of his or her parents. The birthplace of the deceased and where they were married are also recorded, along with the name of their spouse and the age at which they married.

Each state has different access rules for their birth, marriage and death records. New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia have made all or part of their indexes available on the internet. Victoria and Queensland will allow you to download uncertified copies of the documents for a fee.

How do you find convict records?

Many researchers see the discovery of a convict ancestor as a highpoint in their research.

The digitisation of many of the convict records from the National Archives in London by Ancestry has made the task of finding such ancestors much easier.

Its Australian website contains several indexes to the convict transportation registers from 1787 to 1868, as well as the convict musters 1806-1849, convict pardons 1834-1859 and convict lists 1787-1834.

Many of these documents will provide details of the date and place of the trial of the convict and the sentence they were given. By consulting the trial records, or newspaper accounts of it, the misdemeanours of an ancestor can be established along with details of their origins and family.

For those people who were tried in London at the Old Bailey before 1834, transcriptions of their trials are available on the Old Bailey Online website. The majority of the trials were for petty theft of clothes or food and would have been dealt with less severely by the courts today.

Other records

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Passenger lists

For those who came to Australia as free or assisted passengers, rather than convicts, it is necessary to seek the appropriate passenger list for details of their arrival.

Again, there is no national index of entry into the country and each state record office will have the material relating to its own area. For example, State Records New South Wales has an online index to assisted immigrants arriving in Sydney between 1844 and 1896.

There is also an index to unassisted immigrants for the period 1842-1855. Other states will have similar material. For dates not covered by the indexes, it can be difficult to pinpoint a particular family – due to the large number of ships arriving in the various ports – unless some idea of a likely date of arrival is known.

1890-1960 passenger lists for migrants leaving the UK for various destinations, including Australia, are available on Findmypast.

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Electoral rolls

Electoral rolls can be very useful for pinpointing the address of a particular person at a particular time.

There are three sorts of rolls – covering federal, state and local government elections.

State rolls began in the 1840s or 1850s, depending on the state, and federal rolls were introduced on 1 January 1901. Women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1902, making Australia one of the first countries in the world to provide such rights for its female citizens.

Copies of historic electoral rolls can be found in the state library of the area in question and will provide the residential address of the person sought. Copies may also be located at the National Library of Australia. By looking through consecutive lists, changes in residence may be found and likely dates of death pinpointed. Many electoral rolls are also available on Ancestry and Findmypast.

The current electoral roll can be viewed at the Australian Electoral Commission offices and is not available online.

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Church records

Parish registers are not quite as significant for research in some parts of Australia as in others, simply because civil registration started in some places at much the same time as the first settlement in the area.

However, for those places with an older establishment date – such as New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria – parish registers can provide some very useful details for the researcher investigating the years before civil registration.

Reverend Johnson performed the first baptism in Australia on 3 February 1788, eight days after the First Fleet arrived and New South Wales was established.

Church records do not provide as much detail as the later civil records. For example, baptismal entries might only provide the name of the child, the date of baptism and the names of the parents. Marriage entries will not give any information about the parents of the happy couple, and burial entries give few details other than the date of burial and the name of the deceased.

Parish registers will be found in the relevant archives office for each state, organised by religious denomination, and have been added to online birth, marriage and death records indexes.

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Visiting the country

A large number of important genealogical records are available on the internet for anyone doing research into Australia, and a lot of work can, therefore, be undertaken from the UK.

However, if you want to do your research in person, a trip to Australia needs to be planned well in advance. The archives all have websites listing opening times and access conditions and it will pay to make sure you know which records you can view and where before you turn up.

Australia is a huge country and if you have to undertake research in more than one location you will need to plan your research time accordingly, leaving yourself plenty of time for travelling from one state to the next. The National Archives in Canberra is several hours away by air from the State Records Office of Western Australia!

Depending on budgets and the time available, it may not be possible to get to everywhere required and it may be worthwhile employing a local searcher for
the smaller or more distant tasks.

There are many local family history and historical societies around the country. Contacting them before you depart will allow you to talk to local experts who will be able to give some useful advice on their locality.

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Useful websites

The following websites are great places to search for archives, records and other sources of inspiration for tracking down your elusive Antipodean ancestor – good luck with your search!

The National Archives of Australia

The National Library of Australia

New South Wales State Archives

Public Record Office Victoria

Queensland State Archives

Tasmanian Archives + Heritage

State Records Office of Western Australia

Northern Territory Archives Service

Australasian Federation of Family History Organisations

Trove – offers free online access to digitised newspapers and other collections from the National Library of Australia and partner archives