A common lament among genealogists is that ‘no Australian census records have survived’. Well, I’m happy to report that the death of our historic census records has been exaggerated! While frustrating administrative decisions and accidental mishaps have meant that many census forms have been destroyed, there are still some very useful records out there.

The Library has copies of census data dating back to Australia’s first European settlements. This is published in a variety of formats – some online, some on microfilm or microfiche, and some in print.

I’ve published a comprehensive online guide to early Australian census records. It describes sources and explains how to use them to answer your research questions.

Using early census and muster records can really illuminate your family history.

Crucially, information about individuals is available from some early census records. You can answer questions like:

  • in 1806, how many legitimate and illegitimate children did my female convict ancestor have?
  • my ancestor lived in New South Wales in 1828 – what kind of house did he live in?
  • my ancestor operated a sheep station in Port Phillip District (now Victoria) in 1836 – where was the property, and how many sheep did he run on it?

You can also find contextual information by answering questions like:

  • my South Australian ancestor lived to the age of 65 in 1848 – was that common, or unusual?
  • my ancestor was Catholic, and lived in South Australia in 1844. How many Catholics were there at that time, compared to people of other religions? Would they have stood out?

Answers to these kinds of questions bring colour and flavour to a family history by helping you to place people in the context of the society in which they lived.

Admittedly the surviving census data is patchy. A lot of the census returns which name individuals were destroyed by officials after statistics had been collated from them. Other disasters befell the records too – for example, in 1882 a fire destroyed the detailed household forms from the 1861, 1871 and 1881 censuses of New South Wales. I can hear you wincing from here! But, it’s always worth checking to see what records are available. You may well be pleasantly surprised.

As far as our hometown of Port Phillip District/Victoria goes, records of individuals have survived for the years 1836, 1838, 1841 and 1852. Check my guide to find out what’s available for the other states and territories.

Taking the census

'Taking the census' by Julian Rossi Ashton (A/S23/04/81/137)

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