British parliamentary papers might seem an unlikely source of information about your family’s history, but they are well worth digging in to.

Bearing in mind how far the British Empire extended in the 19th century, information can be found about the lives of people in many places around the world. The Colonial and Foreign Offices documented activities in minute detail, and regularly presented their reports (papers) to the British Parliament. The papers date from 1801 to 2004, and can easily be accessed at the Library, or online from home by registered Victorians.

The reports include plenty of information on the colony of Port Phillip, and Victoria. For example, Reports from Colony of Victoria, and report by Colonial Land and Emigration Com[missioner]s, on mortality on emigrant ships (1852-3) includes first-hand accounts of the terrible voyages of the migrant ships Bourneuf, Wanata, Marco Polo, and Ticonderoga.

Thomas Robertson, Marco Polo, 1859 (H306)

Information on working conditions can be found in inquiries into miner’s working conditions, and the health of child factory labourers. If your ancestor worked in an English cotton mill in 1816, you might be interested to read that at a typical mill ‘the hours of work per day, for the children and others…were twelve, including one hour and a quarter for meals’ (Select Committee on state of children employed in manufactories of United Kingdom (1816) ). The names of people living in British workhouses also appear in several reports.

With staff employed around the world in government organisations, conditions, pensions and accommodation were carefully documented. For example, in the Account of allowances and superannuations to servants of East India Company 1816-17 we discover that Daniel Raush ‘was murdered by the Rajah of Dring’, and that his widow was awarded a pension of 100 pounds per annum. In the Return of lodges, houses, official residences and rights of pasture in parks under charge of Com[missioner]s of Works and Public Buildings (1878), we find that Elizabeth S. Doherty, the wife of a Park Constable, was living at the lodge at Black Lion Gate in Kensington, and that her home was used by the Commissioners of Works as a cloak room.

Of course the papers weren’t designed for use by genealogists, so it can be tricky to search them by name. For example, a man called Thomas Smith might appear in the reports as:

  • Smith, Thomas
  • Smith Esq., Thos
  • Smith, T
  • Mr Thomas Smith

We recommend searching using several variants of a name. If the surname is unusual, try searching using just that name. If you can’t find your ancestor mentioned by name, try searching for information about the ship they arrived in Australia on, the company or person they worked for, their school, or other important influences in their life.

Happy hunting.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Another useful report is ‘Return of the number of applications made to the land board in New South Wales, from 1826 to 1828, for convicts as servants; statement of the number of convicts employed by the government in certain gangs, in 1828; and, average number of female convicts confined in the factory at Paramatta, in 1827 and 1828’, from 1830.

    It lists settlers who were assigned convict labourers and servants.

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