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Using the ARK - The Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825

Overview | Summary of the Colonial Secretary's Papers in microform | Using the Colonial Secretary's Papers and Index


The Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825, are the most comprehensive collection of public records relating to the early years of European settlement in Australia. In order to make them more generally available they were first published in microform as part of the State Government's Departmental Program for the Australian Bicentenary. They comprise 72 reels of 35mm roll microfilm and the 312 microfiche which make up the microform edition of the Papers.

The correspondence of the Colonial Secretary is one of the most valuable sources of information on all aspects of the history of the Colony and the State of New South Wales. Chiefly responsible for this was the Colonial Secretary's pre-eminence in public life and the fortunate occurrence of the survival of the greater part of his papers. Included among these are earlier papers of the Secretary to the Governor taken over by the first Colonial Secretary, Frederick Goulburn, on his appointment in 1821.


The position of Secretary to the Governor began with the foundation of the Colony and the duties of this officer gradually increased. Governor King described his duties in 1804:

Secretary-Has the custody of all official papers and records belonging to the colony; transcribes the public despatches; charged with making out all grants, leases and other public Colonial instruments; also care of numerous indents or lists sent with convicts of their terms of conviction and every other official transaction relating to the colony and Government; and is a situation of much responsibility and confidence.

Historical Records of Australia (HRA) 1.4.538

Frederick Goulburn took office as Secretary and Registrar of the Records in 1821. He was the first such officer officially called Colonial Secretary and was appointed by a Commission dated 13 June 1820. He also held the position of Private Secretary to the Governor. Although this represented a change in the method of appointment and title of the office his commission did not detail his duties, which in fact were the same as those of his predecessor. Following a long dispute with Governor Brisbane the Colonial Secretary ceased to act as the Governor's Private Secretary. In May 1824 Major Ovens was officially appointed Brisbane's Private Secretary although he had in fact been acting in this capacity since the middle of 1823. Thus the two offices were separated. Many of the records prior to the establishment of the separate office were retained by the Colonial Secretary and hence appear here. Others were transferred at the end of 1825.

Prior to 1823 all inwards correspondence for the Governor was addressed to the Governor, although filed in the office of the Secretary to the Governor and, after 1821, that of the Colonial Secretary. In 1823 a notice appeared in the Sydney Gazette directing that letters and memorials intended for the Governor were to be addressed to the Colonial Secretary and the following year Goulburn maintained that he was the only channel through which the Governor could give directions to the various members of the civil establishment.

The duties of the various Government offices were revised by Governor Brisbane and notified in a Government and General Order dated 5 January 1825 (HRA 1.12.152). This also ordered that:

The Public Correspondence in the Colony is to be carried on generally through the medium of the Colonial Secretary. The Heads of Departments and Commandants of Stations (except when the subject relates to the Military Branch of the Service) will address their Applications and Reports to that Officer for the information or decision of the Governor'.

Previous to this the Governor must still have received many papers direct as the Memorandum of papers handed over at the end of 1825 shows.

The basis of the dispute between the Governor and the Colonial Secretary had been the lack of an authoritative statement as to their relative positions. This was largely remedied in 1825 when Darling was given additional instructions on this matter:

... in addition to those functions which under your general Instructions are specially committed to the Colonial Secretary, he is to conduct, under your direction all Official Correspondence in the Colony, and is to act on all occasions as the general medium of Communication, through which your orders are to be signified either to the community at large, or to private persons. (HRA 1.12.18)

Summary of the Colonial Secretary’s Papers in microform

The surviving records of the office of the Secretary to the Governor (1788-1821) include letters received and a few drafts of letters sent, and copies of agreements, despatches, out-letters, general orders, instructions, ordinary regulations, proclamations, memoranda, reports and returns. The original arrangement has been obscured by several re-arrangements. Few records survive prior to 1810 but the papers were fairly systematically kept after that time.

Up to 1826 the letters received were probably kept in alphabetical sequence by the author of a letter or petition. No contemporary registration numbers appear on the letters. The surviving lists of memorials and petitions received are all arranged alphabetically and the papers were probably put away in the same order with perhaps some division by type of application and year.

There have been several attempts to organise the early papers. The first appears to have taken place when Darling took office in 1826-the lists of letters received in 1821 and 1822 are watermarked 1823.

On 1 October 1857 Edward Smith Hall was appointed as an extra clerk in the Colonial Secretary's Office to work on the early official papers. Hall died on 18 September 1860 and would seem to have been engaged on this work in the interim period. It is not clear what he actually did. However he may have been responsible for the registration system on the 1824 letters received.

A major re-arrangement of the early records was undertaken in the Colonial Secretary's Office during 1888-90 for the purpose of facilitating research in connection with the publication of the History of New South Wales from the Records. The correspondence up to 1826, with a few exceptions, was made up into bundles. A Summary of Colonial Records in the Colonial Secretary's Office, 1788-1826, NRS 902 [5/2331] was prepared listing each document or group of documents and showing the date of each, the writer, to whom it was addressed, and a description of its contents. A number was allocated to each bundle and to each item described. The description varies in detail however, as does the item described which may be one sheet of paper described with lengthy comments, or a whole bundle of papers dismissed with the words 'Miscellaneous and unimportant correspondence for the year'. There is an index in the front of this Summary.

In various rearrangements of the records some of the items were removed from the bundles and consequently are located separately. Notes identifying the reference numbers of these items have been filmed where appropriate. See Handbook for further information and for a detailed listing of the Papers available in microform.

The published Index to the Papers should be used by all researchers wishing to locate documents concerning a particular person or subject.

Indexes concerning Colonial Secretary's Correspondence, 1826-1867 have been compiled by Joan Reese.

  • Colonial Secretary's Correspondence: Index to Convicts and Others
  • Colonial Secretary's Correspondence: Index to letters sent re Convicts

Contemporary Indexes and Registers, 1826-1900 are available in State Records' Reading Room.

Using the Colonial Secretary's Papers and Index

When searching for a particular person, place or subject, first consult the microfiche index to locate the entry.


BRADY, Patrick. Per 'Henry Porcher', 1825

1825 Dec 9 On list of convicts landed from the 'Henry Porcher' and forwarded to Liverpool for distribution [Reel 6016; 4/3516 p.104]

Go to Reel 6016 and first locate [4/3516]. This will appear on a title page and show that you are viewing the correct volume (as often more than one volume is filmed onto one microfilm). Once you have this, then look for your page number (page 104). Do not look for the page number before establishing that you are in the correct volume on the reel otherwise you may find page 104 in another volume which is on the reel and it will not contain the information you require.

The Index

Summary of Index Contents of Microfiche

Fiche Contents Fiche Contents Fiche Content
1 Aa-An 22 Gos-Gy 43 Pa
2 Ap-Az 23 Hac-Hap 44 Pe-Pi
3 Bab-Baz 24 Har-Haz 45 Pl-Py
4 Be-Bi 25 He-Hi 46 Q
5 Bl-Bo 26 Ho 47 Ra-Rh
6 Bra-Bri 27 Hu-Hy 48 Ri-Roc
7 Bro-Bry 28 I-Ji 49 Rod-Ry
8 Bu-By 29 Jo-Ju 50 Sa-Sf
9 Cab-Car 30 Ka-Ke 51 Sh-Sl
10 Cas-Ci 31 Kh-Ky 52 Sm-Sn
11 Cl-Col 32 La 53 So-Sti
12 Com-Con 33 Le-Ll 54 Sto-Sy
13 Coo-Coz 34 Lo-Ly 55 Ta-Th
14 Cr-Cy 35 Maa-McG 56 Ti-Ty
15 Da-De 36 McH-McW 57 U-V
16 Di-Do 37 Mad-Mas 58 Wa
17 Dr-Dy 38 Mat-Mit 59 We
18 E 39 Mo 60 Wh-Wig
19 Fa-Fle 40 Mu-My 61 Wil
20 Fli-Fy 41 N 62 Win-Wy
21 Ga-Gor 42 O 63 Y-Z

For those requiring more detailed information on the indexing methods used see the Handbook pp. 23-28 or for a list of subject headings used in the Index see the Handbook pp. 85-186.