State Records Home
Personal tools
You are here :: Home The State Archives Guides and finding aids Short Guide 12 - Muster and census records, 1788-1901

Short Guide 12 - Muster and census records, 1788-1901

Filed under: , ,
This Guide lists the more significant State archives relating to muster and census records, 1788-1901.

Sections of the guide are as follows:

Read below for an historical background to census and musters and the common abbreviations used in the records.

Historical background | Common Abbreviations used in Musters and Censuses

Historical background

The first systematic survey of the population of the New South Wales settlement was made in 1795 when Governor Hunter called a muster. Until 1828 when the first census was held, musters were used to number people and to note whether they were victualled (received provisions) or not by the Government, as a means of assessing whether the Colony would be able to maintain itself without assistance from the public stores, and as a control over the convict population. Prior to 1795 returns giving the population count at Sydney and Norfolk Island appear to have been compiled and sent back to England for the years 1791, 1792, 1793 and 1794. Unfortunately, copies of those returns do not appear to have survived. The earliest muster to survive appears to be the 1800 Settlers Muster, which along with the 1788 Victualling book and the 1792-96 Norfolk Island Victualling book, constitute the earliest records of this kind for the Colony.

General musters which included all the inhabitants of the Colony appear to have been held annually between 1795 and 1825 and different classes of musters were taken at different times more frequently. The other classes of musters included settlers musters, musters of livestock, musters of convicts or ones specifically to include only males, females or children or convicts per a certain ship. A general muster was usually supervised by the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor and always an officer of the Commissary who was responsible for the collection of land and stock returns. In the dependent settlements musters were taken by the Lieutenant Governor or the Commandant. In 1820 the procedure was changed and, in the hope of greater accuracy in the returns, the Magistrates were instructed to supervise and receive the returns for their respective districts. In 1821 the Governor again personally supervised the muster, probably owing to the inaccuracy of the 1820 Muster. However, in a proclamation dated 15 August 1822 Governor Brisbane ordered that the Magistrates again supervise the muster.

The first census was held in November 1828 after it was found that a Governor had no right to compel free men to come to a muster. Although the Census fulfilled the same functions as the muster, there were some differences. It was taken by specially appointed collectors, generally responsible to a Commissioner or a Bench of Magistrates, who completed printed forms for each household in the territory allotted to them. After the Census the magistrates were instructed to check the returns and send abstracts to the Colonial Secretary. The returns were then gathered together, statistics extracted and the final returns made.

Censuses were held thereafter in 1833, 1836, 1841, 1846, 1851, 1856, 1861 and then every ten years to 1901. The relevant Act passed for each census is listed below. Unfortunately, records of individuals' names are available only for the 1841, 1891 and 1901 censuses.

Census Act
1828 9 George IV No. 4
1833 4 William IV No. 2
1836 7 William IV No. 1
1841 4 Victoria No. 26
1846 9 Victoria No. 21
1851 14 Victoria No. 18
1856 19 Victoria No. 5
1861 24 Victoria No. 5
1871 33 Victoria No. 12
1881 44 Victoria No. 2
1891 54 Victoria No. 31

The military were not enumerated with the rest of the inhabitants in the censuses of 1828, 1833 and 1836, although their wives and children were probably included in the total population. Separate military returns may have been submitted to the Home Office.

The 1841 census showed a marked advance over all preceding enumerations, the population being taken in police districts, counties and towns. The tabulation of results was more scientific. The results included age groups, conjugal condition (married or unmarried), religious denomination and civil condition. Civil condition provided statistical information on the number of bond (convict) or free males and females in a household, whether they were born in the colony, arrived free, held a ticket of leave, and whether they were in government employment or private assignment.

The 1891 census was the second time (1881 being the first) that the enumeration (recording) of the inhabitants of the British Empire was made on the same day. The date of the 1891 census, 5 April 1891, was determined by the British Government for the United Kingdom, India and the Crown Settlements, and was assented to by the various independent colonies.[1] The 1901 census, taken on 31 March 1901, made provision for:

'the taking of a census of New South Wales in 1901, and for
obtaining certain statistics and certain particulars relating to
livestock and crops, and the occupations for the said and
subsequent years; and for purposes incidental to or consequent
on the aforesaid objects.'

The above description suggests that the 1901 census may contain a wealth of information about the people of NSW, their occupations, land held and information regarding the produce of the land. Unfortunately, the only records created under the census that have survived are the Collectors' Books for household returns.

1. T.A. Coghlan, General report on the Eleventh Census of New South Wales, Government Printer, Sydney, 1894, p.7.

Common Abbreviations used in Musters and Censuses

Abbreviation Meaning
B.C. Born in the Colony
C.F. Came Free
F.S. Free by Servitude
A.P. Holding an Absolute Pardon
C.P. Holding a Conditional Pardon
T.L. Holding a Ticket of Leave
C. Convict
C.S. Colonial Sentence
G.S. Government (or Assigned) Servant