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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Census Records in Australia

In New South Wales, population surveys, known as "musters" in the early days, began in 1788, when a victualling list of persons being supplied with food from Government Stores was drawn up.

A history of Australian censuses, and those responsible for them since the first national survey was taken in 1911, is given in ‘Australian Statisticians and the Development of Official Statistics’.

A few scraps of name identified colonial census surveys for various parts of Australia, including New South Wales, survive up to 1901, but these only include perhaps some 500,000 people, a very small portion of the cumulative population of the 1788-1901 period.

Unfortunately, it was the Australian federal government policy over the years to destroy all the name-identified census returns. All original returns after 1901 have been destroyed under this policy in the name of “privacy”. Apart from one 1916 survey of non-British residents, no Australian census returns survive from 1911 to 1996. This has left huge gaps in the record of the Australian culture. Some millions of Australian residents have come and gone like burnt out candles, to be forgotten by history, as if they had never existed.

By 2001, some 4 million Australian residents were immigrants and therefore had no birth certificates in the Australian civil registration system. Many of these immigrants came from countries torn apart by war, in which ancestral records were never kept, or destroyed in the troubles. About one million of these immigrants had not applied to become Australian citizens and were therefore not listed in the naturalisation records. About one million Australian children and teenagers at this time were not eligible to vote and would not have been on electoral rolls. Over 40 percent of Australians were not getting married and, therefore official marriage records showing information like, age, parentage, occupation, residence and birthplace for these people, did not exist. 

The official census population of Australia in 1901 was 3,773,801. Immigrants to the country from 1788-1900 totalled 1,699,400. The Australian population at the time of the 1911 census was 4,455,005 and by 2001 had reached 19,334,200. So, over the last 100 years, the census records of about 15 million Australians have been lost.

In light of the above, it is interesting to contemplate how many Australian residents have fallen through the “record gap” over the last 173 years and cannot be found listed in any surviving record.

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