Sunday, 7 August 2016

Exploring census data

As part of National Family History Month,  held in August, a challenge was issued to write a post on a selected topic each week. The topic for Week 1 was a Census Story.
Read more contributions here
Recently, as part of the Convict Ancestors course, I  reseached one of my convict ancestors, Mary Bateman, who arrived in New South Wales aboard the Lady Juliana in 1790 and was then sent to Norfolk Island where she lived until her family relocated to Hobart Town in 1805. On Norfolk Island Mary had married George Guest, a First Fleet convict. The New South Wales Convict Death Register shows that Mary died in April 1829 and was buried at St Luke's, Liverpool, NSW.

We know from newspaper reports and correspondence in Historical Records of Australia that Mary and her family travelled to Port Jackson in 1806 as opportunities for education for the children in Hobart Town were limited. It seems, however, that Mary did not return to Hobart Town with her family. There are a few reports mentioning Mary and her husband, who made frequent trips to Port Jackson, in Trove however I needed to rely on the muster and census records to try and piece together what happened to Mary.

Mary's name, sometimes under Bateman and sometimes under Guest, is recorded on the New South Wales population Muster for 1811,  the New South Wales Settler and Convict List for 1818 and the New South Wales Musters of 1822 and 1825. The last two records show that Mary was at the Lunatic Asylum in Parramatta. The New South Wales Census 1828 then shows that Mary had been transferred to the Lunatic Asylum at Liverpool. She died there the following year.
Tuesday 9 August 2016 is Census Night when once again the Australian Bureau of Statistics is asking householders to complete the Census of Population and Housing. From the early days of the settlement of the Colony of New South Wales, officials carried out and relied on census data to record information about the convicts, former convicts and free settlers in the colony. The initial surveys were known as musters but by 1828 the term census was being used.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics website has an article on Colonial Censuses and Musters while the State Library of Victoria has a useful guide on Early Australian Census Records.  The links at the top of the SLV guide page provide specific information for each state.

Fortunately much of the early collected data up to the 1841 New South Wales census is available for the use of historians, including family historians, via online databases such as Some census reports (not the data) is available on Historical Census and Colonial Data Archive. Some of this data can also be found on microfiche. The first Commonwealth Census was held in 1911. Initially the census was taken every ten years but since 1961 has been held every five years.

During the second half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century the census records were destroyed once the data had been collated into reports. This policy has changed since the 2001 census resulting in those filling in census forms being able to indicate if they want their information to be kept in secure storage for one hundred years when information may be released for general research. Those of us investigating the history of family members in the UK are likely to have used data from census records from 1841 until 1911 and are grateful that this information is now readily available.

Those of us using the available census information for family history research know that the data about family members varies. The later British census forms now available online provide quite detailed information about households. However even the limited information to be found on some of the early colonial muster and census forms can still provide a new, sometimes unexpected, piece of information leading to further research. Census information can be a really useful research tool.

NB: A useful link that has just  appeared - Australian Census 1828 and 2016
Also Census Musters Guide


  1. Hi Vicki - wasn't the Convict course great? I learned so much on that course. Looking at the census records if nothing else, just makes you think about stuff. This weekend I finally realised that my ancestor's property Sydenham was probably named after the area he came from in Kent. Sometimes I am so slow in coming to conclusions that I despair.

  2. Alex, I thoroughly enjoyed the Convict Ancestors course and recommend it to anyone wanting to explore this aspect of Australian history. Vicki

  3. Wow 1790 is early. I have my convict coming over in 1816 and I thought that was early. Will you be doing the advance Convict unit?

  4. Sandra, I will probably do the second convict unit next year. I am in the process of completing Place, Image, Object (hopefully this evening)and have just started Introduction to Family History. What about you? Re my convicts I have two in the First Fleet, two in the Second, Once in the Third and the rest arriving in NSW by 1808. Having convicts in the family does add colour to family history research. Vicki

    1. Hi Vicki, I am currently finishing Place, Image, Object and Family Saga and will commence the next convict unit in a couple of weeks. 3 Identified relatives were convict, of those one is a direct ancestor. I also have another who came over on a Bride ship to WA and the sure the more I dig I will find others making a new start once they reach the Australian shores under a cloud of mystery

  5. Sandra,
    One thing I have discovered about convicts in the family is that they seem to multiply the more research that you do. I was brought up knowing about Simeon Lord who was transported on the Third Fleet but it was not until I started my own research that I discovered that his wife was a convict, his son married the daughter of two convicts etc. My father then found, much to his joy, a convict on his side of the family and since then the list has expanded. Good luck in your family search and also in the next UTas units. Vicki

  6. Hi Vicki, Some great links in your post. I have done the introduction to FH course. I have been thinking of doing another one so it is also good to read you benefited from the convict course. Fran