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Archives In Brief 7 - Tracing your family history

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Provides a brief overview of the major resources held by State Records in relation to family history research.

Searching for individuals in the records

Particular individuals may be difficult to trace because the records are generally arranged by the public office that created them rather than by the person's name. When searching for individuals, your first step should be to determine what dealings the person may have had with the government of the day. You then need to consider which public office would be likely to have retained this information.

Starting your family history

Work from the present to the past

Remember, it is always easier to work from the present to the past. Before doing anything else, you should try to further your knowledge of the family by 'quizzing' your relatives and studying any available family papers or documents such as family Bibles or family photographs.

Spelling variations

The spelling of surnames may change over time and before starting your research the possible variations should be considered. Always remember to check any discrepancies in spelling against other sources, as clerical errors may have occurred in the original documents.

Relationships with families of the same name

Never assume relationships with families of the same name. Always start from what you know and base your research on a firm line of descent using the available records.

Birth death and marriage records

Almost all research must start with birth, marriage or death records. The information supplied on birth and marriage records tends to be fairly accurate, since details are supplied by parents and prospective couples.

Death certificates

Death certificates frequently indicate the length of time spent in New South Wales, and are therefore very useful. It is, however, wise to remember that as this information is supplied by relatives or friends in attendance at the time, it may contain inaccuracies.

Indexes to births deaths and marriages

Indexes to births, 1788-1907, deaths, 1788-1977 and marriages 1788-1956 are available at NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

TD Mutch Index to Births Deaths and Marriages

This index is believed to cover all relevant extant records relating to New South Wales from 1787-1828, except for the Newcastle Register and the Methodist Church records and selected records to 1957. Later entries are from tombstone inscriptions and the most recent from news-cuttings and relate only to comparatively few families. State Records holds a microfilm copy of the index, which is held by the Mitchell Library. The index is on Reels 2125-2129 in the reading room.

Probate Index, 1800-1984

The Probate Index was published by the Probate Division of the Supreme Court. The index is available in the reading room. This index shows name, residence and date of death. Probate packets for the period 1817 - 1960's may be accessed at the Western Sydney Reading Room, Kingswood. The Supreme Court NSW holds later probate packets. See Archives in Brief 84 for further information.

Registers of births deaths and marriages

State Records holds microfilm copies of the Registers of Births Deaths and Marriages to 1856 (volumes 1-123). The registers are indexed in the NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages indexes. The microfilm copies of the registers are available in the reading room on Reels 5001-5048. The registers are also part of the Archives Resources Kit (*ARK).

Registry of births deaths and marriages

Researchers unable to check the indexes or registers may contact the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, where, for a fee, searches are undertaken and copies of certificates supplied.

NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages
35 Regent St
GPO Box 30
Telephone: 1300 655 236

Online resources

Archives Investigator

Archives Investigator, State Records' online archives information and access system, is a valuable tool for historical research. Records are listed by series title and item title. It is important to note that only a small proportion of State archives are listed in AI, and that other guides and finding aids should also be consulted.

Short guides

State Records' suite of short guides is of particular value to family historians. The Short Guides are available to access online.

Online indexes

Many of State Records online indexes mention the names of indivduals and are therefore excellent sources for family history research.

The Archives Resources Kit (*ARK)

Records in the Archives Resources Kit

The Kit consists of a wide selection of microform copies of State archives, which are of particular value to genealogists. See Archives in Brief 39. The records are explained in more detail in The Guide to using the Archives Resources Kit.

Community access points

The addresses of the holders of the Kit, the community access points, are listed in Archives in Brief 40. Addresses of other institutions holding parts of the ARK are listed in Archives in Brief 6.

Colonial Secretary's papers, 1788-1825

These papers constitute the largest and most comprehensive collection of public records relating to the early years of European settlement in Australia. They reflect all aspects of colonial life and provide valuable information for the family historian. The index to the Colonial Secretary's papers 1788-1825 is available to search online.

A select list of sources

Arrivals and departures

State Records holds arrival records prior to 1922. For arrivals see Archives in Brief 1, Archives in Brief 2 and Archives in Brief 21. For departures see Archives in Brief 45. See also the Shipping Guide, available in the reading room.

Business records

State Records holds company registration records. See Archives Investigator for records of the Registrar General Companies Branch. Bankruptcy records may also include details about businesses. For more information see Archives in Brief No. 58. Insolvency records 1842-87 are also indexed.

Land sales and transfers

Records relating to the purchase of land from the Crown, created by the Colonial Secretary, the Surveyor General and the Lands Department can be found in Archives Investigator.

Records relating to transfers of land between individuals are available from:

Land and Property Information NSW (LPI)
1 Prince Albert Road
Queen's Square

Digital copies of selected documents may be viewed in the reading room on the Land and Property Management Authority's Historical Records Viewer (PIXEL).


State Records has a large collection of original surveys and maps of areas in New South Wales. See the Index to Surveyor General's Crown Plans, 1792-1886, on State Records' Web site. Also consult the Index to Maps and Plans, available in the reading room. Land and Property Information New South Wales has scanned available parish, county, pastoral, town and municipal maps. Scanned maps are available for viewing on the LPI's Web site. See Archives in Brief 80 and Archives in Brief 81 for further information.

Gold field/mining records

References to miners can be located in the records of the Gold Commissioners and in the records of Mining Wardens' Courts in the Department of Mines. See Archives Investigator under the relevant public office entries.

Hospital, health and death records

State Records holds records of psychiatric institutions dating from 1838. Records of State government run mental institutions are listed in Archives Investigator. See also Archives in Brief 85, Archives in Brief 86 and Archives in Brief 87.

Coroners' records such registers of coronial enquiries can establish basic details (age and birthplace) of individuals into whose deaths an enquiry was held. Detailed reports have not survived for the years 1828 to 1911. See Archives in Brief 4. Deceased Estate records relate to the payment of death duties, may also prove useful. See Archives in Brief 29.

Intestate Estate files should be consulted in instances where a person died without a will. See Archives in Brief 53 for full details.

Probate packets are available at State Records for the period 1817-mid 1965. See Archives in Brief 84.

Muster and census records

Muster and census records list individuals by name and may list further personal information such as residence and the numbers or names of other people in the living in the same household. Short Guide 12 describes the census and muster records of NSW in more detail.

Naturalization records

Naturalization legislation came into force in New South Wales in 1849 (Act 11 Vic. No. 39). Prior to then, the only way that a non-British resident could be naturalised was by a special act of Parliament. Following this legislation any person born outside the British Empire who had resided in New South Wales for a period of five years and who wished to vote or own land needed to become naturalized.

Naturalization records are an important source as they can provide both the date of arrival and the name of the ship. See Archives Investigator and Archives in Brief 3 for a full list of records relating to denization and naturalization. Also search the Naturalization Index, 1834-1903. The National Archives of Australia holds post 1903 naturalisation records and information on alien registration and internment in New South Wales. The National Archives may be contacted on telephone: 1300 886 881, Web site:

Police, court and prison records

NRS 10958, Police Gazettes
Reels 3129-3143 (1862-99), Reels 3594-3606 (1900-30)
contain entries and photographs of people.

Court records, court depositions and related documents provide details of people convicted in New South Wales. The various court jurisdictions can be found in the Archives Investigator. Prison records include, from the period of the late 1870s, photographs of prisoners with details of conviction and personal history. The photographs are being progressively indexed. Details of prison records can be found in Archives Investigator.

Professions and occupations

Short Guide 10 lists a selection of the more significant State archives relating to particular professions and occupations. For Public Service Board records relating to public servants consult Archives Investigator. See also Archives in Brief 19, Archives in Brief 20 and Archives in Brief 54 and Archives in Brief 113.

For records relating to publicans see Archives in Brief 61.

School records

Files, which cover the years 1876-1979, include administrative documents relating to government schools. See Archives in Brief 26 and the Schools index. In addition, there are some records, such as admission rolls, from individual schools. A list of these records, arranged alphabetically by the name of the schools, is available in the reading room.

Further information

Other records may be identified in Archives Investigator, the Guide to using the Archives Resources Kit and the Short Guides.


Researchers should consult the Register of Access Directions, which is online, to confirm the public availability of records. State Records' staff can advise you on the availability of records if they are not listed on the register.

For information about your rights of access to State records see Archives in Brief 9: Your rights of access.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
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