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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 correspondence records of the Colonial Secretary's/Chief Secretary's successor agency, the Department of Services, are also here.

After responsible government in 1856 the Colonial Secretary (at times known as the Chief Secretary or Principal Secretary) was frequently also Premier, and papers relating to this aspect of his work (until a separate Premier's Department was established in 1907) may also be found here.

To summarise, included in this guide is information about the primary correspondence records of the following agencies:

  • NAG 1861‚ 1788-1821 — Secretary to the Governor
  • NAG 16‚ 1821-1975 — Colonial Secretary and Registrar of the Records of New South Wales (1821-1824) / Colonial Secretary (1824-1856) / Colonial Secretary or Principal Secretary to the Government (1856-1859) / Chief Secretary (I)
  • NAG 661‚ 1975-82 — Department of Services (1975-1976) / Chief Secretary's Department (1976) / Department of Services (1976-1982).

History of the Office

The British Government in establishing the convict settlement at Botany Bay was little concerned with such administrative details as who would be responsible for the records of the colony. Not even a secretary was appointed for Governor Phillip, far less a registrar, and this lack of an official keeper of the records was not corrected until Frederick Goulburn reached Sydney in 1820 with a commission as 'Secretary and Registrar of the Records'.

Yet the Governor was responsible for almost all aspects of the inhabitants' lives and these activities had to be recorded. Phillip and his successors regulated the supply of rations, they granted lands, they allotted convicts to those who could employ them. They gave assistance to settlers and established Government stores. They fixed the prices of commodities, the rates of wages, and the hours of labour. They imposed tolls and duties. They gave and withdrew licences to trade. They established and controlled markets. They checked the weights and measures, struck a currency and fixed the rate of interest. They mustered the population periodically and published orders which forbade the holding of seditious meetings. They caused the different courts to be assembled, they examined and modified the penalties which the courts imposed. They made provision for the maintenance of order. (1)

These activities were carried out through the Governor's senior officers: the Deputy Judge Advocate; the Commissary; the Principal Surgeon; the Chaplain; the Surveyor General; the Principal Superintendent of Convicts; the commander of the forces and the senior naval officer; and most particularly the Governor's Secretary.

Hence Phillip, lacking a secretary on the establishment when he arrived in Botany Bay, soon felt the want of a close and confidential subordinate who could relieve him of some of the details of administration. Needing a man of integrity, Phillip appointed the Commissary Andrew Miller to do the extra duty. It was one of the first of many dual appointments that troubled the colony for years, for want of enough available talent. But the Commissary had work enough to do of his own and in mid-June 1788, after less than five months, Miller returned to full-time duty at the Commissariat. Phillip then appointed David Collins, the Deputy Judge Advocate in his place. (2)

Collins, an officer of marines, was wisely chosen and his outstanding personal qualities were important in establishing the role and function of the Secretary to the Governor, or Secretary to the Colony as the position was sometimes called. For the next eight years, quietly and efficiently, he was the indispensable aide to the officer administering the Government of New South Wales. He kept apart from the local factions and he earned the confidence of Phillip and his successors. Even as early as November 1788 Major Ross was complaining to Under Secretary Nepean that the Governor 'communicates nothing to any person here but to his secretary', (3) and it is perhaps indicative of the importance already attaching to the position that Ross spoke of Captain Collins as Secretary, not as Judge Advocate.

Collins left Sydney in September 1796 and it was one of Hunter's misfortunes that there was none to take his place as Secretary. For twenty-one months Hunter was his own secretary, aided by unreliable clerks. The post remained vacant until Richard Dore, the first legal man to settle in the colony, arrived in May 1798 as the new Judge Advocate.

Dore immediately solicited appointment to the 'confidential situation' of Secretary. Hunter agreed, with some reluctance, and appointed Dore Secretary under his order of 22 June 1798. The new Secretary, however, tampered with the despatch reporting his appointment in order to give a favourable account of himself to the Secretary of State, and his subsequent behaviour was in keeping with this action. (4)

Thus for the first time, serious differences arose between the Governor and the Secretary. In this instance trouble arose from Dore's perverseness and what Hunter called his 'improper innovations' and his determination 'to be govern'd by his own views and interests in the line of his profession, and to follow, or rather to establish, such rules as best suited those objects'. Dore was a sick man, but certainly as Hunter complained, those objects 'ill-accorded with his situation here, either as an officer on public service, paid by the Crown, or the confidential situation in which he stood with me'. (5)

Hunter had no authority to dismiss Dore as his only legal officer but he could dismiss him as Secretary, and did so, on 23 January 1799. He thereafter again managed the affairs of the colony without a secretary. Governor King, however, on taking office in September of the following year had had ample opportunity to perceive his predecessor's difficulties: he immediately appointed to act as his Aide-de-Camp and Secretary Neil McKellar, a subaltern and acting adjutant of the New South Wales Corps. (6)

McKellar seems to have brought some order back into the secretarial administration, but his other duties called and in April 1801 he was succeeded by William Neate Chapman, another of King's Norfolk Island officers, and a loyal family friend.

When Chapman went home on leave in March 1804 King was at a loss for someone to appoint, but with Hunter's experience still in mind he was determined not to do without a secretary emphasizing that 'it is impossible for the official Duty being dispensed with'. He described the duties of the Secretary thus:

'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 the 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.' (7)

and further expanded on his own duties at the time:

'Governor - As chief magistrate of the colony and Commander-in-Chief, he has the direction and the superintending control of every act and person — civil, military, settlers, and convicts — under his government, in executing which, he has to attend to the duty of every civil officer. His attention must be particularly directed to regulating and controlling the occasional expences of the colony, investigating and deciding on appeals in civil causes; and from the peculiar nature of this colony, a constant attention is required of him to keep the prisoners in order, attend to wants of all descriptions, fixing settlers, alloting lands, and the personal inspection of every species of public work going forward in the colony, added to which, he has every responsibility and care attached to him of the settlements at Norfolk Island, and now the addition of Lieut't-Governor Collins's Government — all which, and his correspondence with the different departments of Government, occasions the most arduous exertions of the mind.' (8)

King therefore appointed Garnham Blaxcell, formerly acting purser in H.M.S. 'Buffalo' and latterly, like Chapman, a deputy commissary, acting Secretary in April 1804 and he remained in office until his appointment lapsed with Governor Bligh's assumption of command in August 1806.

With King's departure from office a new precedent was set in the appointment of a secretary. For the first time, a governor brought to the colony with him his own secretary and thus was able to make himself independent of whatever local talent might become available for that duty. Bligh may well have blessed the foresight that led him to bring Edmund Griffin with him as Secretary, as he was served faithfully in very trying circumstances.

The Governor frequently consulted Griffin on public affairs and apparently valued his advice. His influence as well as the importance of his position was apparent: the rebels, once Bligh was safely under arrest, lost no time in seizing him and subjecting him to a rigorous examination in their attempt to extract suitable evidence against Bligh, though with relatively little success. Griffin remained with Bligh at Government House, still serving and recognized as his Secretary, although he no longer had access to the Secretary's office or to the official papers. He went with Bligh to the Derwent and later with him to England.

Major Johnston, in wresting the government from Bligh, clearly appreciated the importance of a secretary of his own persuasion, who was deeply enough implicated to remain reliable. He appointed Nicholas Bayly to the position the day after Bligh's overthrow. (9)

Bayly, as secretary to the self-styled lieutenant-governor, wrote much of the correspondence with the deposed Governor, and, as Secretary and one of the inner conclave, he was deeply involved in the general maladministration of the regime. Under the completely new administration, however, John Macarthur, the dominant figure of the rebellion, had no official position. Johnston needed in his own interests to give some semblance of legality to their relationship, or, as he put it, 'finding I should require the aid of some Gentleman in whose integrity I should have confidence, I requested Mr McArthur to assist me', and accordingly, 'As there was no Office vacant to which I could appoint him, and as it was necessary he should have some public character, I created an Office which has never before existed here, and I appointed him Secretary to the Colony.' (10)

The designation 'Secretary to the Colony' had been used before, if without official sanction, but now, for the first time, there were two distinct secretarial offices, in effect one private and one public, side by side.

Foveaux, when he arrived to take command on 28 July, brushed the whole secretarial structure aside and appointed as Secretary Lieutenant James Finucane of the New South Wales Corps, with the usual instruction that all correspondence on public business was to be addressed to him.

Paterson, the next commander in the interregnum, assumed office as Lieutenant Governor on 9 January 1809 and on that day appointed as Secretary Alexander Riley. Riley thus became the first person to hold important office after Bligh's downfall who had not been an officer of the New South Wales Corps or one of its close associates in Sydney. Riley had arrived as a free settler in 1804 and became storekeeper and subsequently acting deputy commissary at Port Dalrymple. His post as Secretary was of doubtful advantage to Riley's mercantile ambitions and he resigned in March. Finucane was therefore reappointed and stayed in office until December 1809. (11)

All together, ten different men served as Secretary to the Governor, or to the colony, or 'to Government', in the twenty-two years before Governor Macquarie arrived with an average tenure of office of less than two years, allowing for vacancies. The arrangements were not conducive to good recordkeeping.

The arrival of Governor Macquarie at the end of 1809 brought to the office of Secretary to the Governor probably the ablest and most experienced man who had yet filled it, one who was to hold it for the longest period, and who, as its last occupant under the old style, was to be the link between the older casual system of court appointments and the new method of permanent appointment by commission from the Crown. In his eleven years of office, the methodical John Thomas Campbell greatly improved the situation in respect of the public records of the colony, and the greater part of the early records surviving are from this period.

Macquarie, assisted by Campbell, set about restoring order in the colony and regulating the manner in which the public business would be conducted. The Governor issued a General Order stating that petitions and memorials would only be received on the first Monday of each month, those for land and cattle on the first Monday in June, and those from convicts for indulgences on the first Monday in December.

'9. His Excellency will receive the Civil and Military Officers of Government on Business each Day in the Week (Sunday excepted) between the hours of Ten and Twelve in the forenoon; and no Letters of Business are to be sent to His Excellency on Sundays, nor out of the hours he has assigned to Public Duties on the other Days of the Week; nor are any Letters of Business to be sent to His Excellency's Secretary but during his Office hours, and on Week Days. Letters, sent either to His Excellency or his Secretary contrary to these orders (unless on occasion of real necessity and pressing Emergency), will be returned unanswered to the Persons who wrote them. His Excellency's Hours for the Despatch of Public Business are from Ten in the forenoon to Three in the Afternoon; and his Secretary's hours are the same'. (12)

Generally, a new order and regularity was established in the performance of the public business during the twelve years of Macquarie's administration. He was succeeded by Sir Thomas Brisbane on 1 December 1821.

Frederick Goulburn succeeded Campbell, taking office as Secretary and Registrar of the Records on 1 January 1821. He was the first such officer officially called Colonial Secretary and was appointed by a Commission dated 30 June 1820. (13) 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. For a while the relationship between Governor Brisbane and Goulburn was extremely cordial but quarrels developed over the extent of the latter's duties. Brisbane accused Goulburn of acting contrary to his express instructions, withholding correspondence and information from him and exceeding his authority. (14) 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. (15) 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. (16)

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. (17) Although Brisbane had intended this order to refer only to applications for land grants, he did not wish, at that time, to risk alienating his most essential administrative official by repealing the notice. (18) 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, documents not passing through his Office being 'informal'. (19) This claim led to the final breach between the two men. (20) Brisbane was recalled and left the colony late in November 1825. Goulburn was relieved of the position of Colonial Secretary but continued to serve in that capacity until 7 January 1826.

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.' (21)

The duties of the various Government offices were revised by Governor Darling and notified in a Government and General Order dated 5 January 1826. This also ordered that

'12th. 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'. (22)

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. (16)

Further instructions changing the channels of communication in the colony were given by Darling in a Government Order dated 1 September 1829. Persons having:

'Occasion to make any Application upon Subjects relating to any particular Department' were to 'address themselves in the first instance to the Head of that Department, who in all Matters of unquestionable regulation, will at once afford such information as may be required. In Cases where it may be necessary to bring the Subject under the Consideration of the Governor, the Head of the Department will forward the Application with every necessary Information, accompanied by his own remarks to the Colonial Secretary'. (23)

For the following requests the persons to be addressed were set out specifically:

'Land - To The Colonial Secretary, where the Object is to obtain a Grant or Permission to purchase or rent; and to the Surveyor-General in all other cases. ...

Respecting Roads - To the Surveyor of Roads and Bridges. On the subject of Provisions and other Ordinary Supplies, to the Deputy Commissary General.

Relating to the Revenue - To the Collector of Customs, or the Collector of the Internal Revenue.

To the Marine - To the Superintendent of Government Vessels.

To the Police - The Police Magistrates, or Benches in the Respective Districts.

To Convicts - To the Principal Superintendent of Convicts.

On Legal Matters - To the Crown Lawyers.

And relative to Accounts - To the Auditor General.'

A 'List of Periodical Returns required to be furnished by the various Departments of the Government' dated about 1831 (watermark 1829) gives some indication of the amount of information the Colonial Secretary required from government offices at that time and the amount of detail that may be found in his records.

After responsible government in 1856 the Colonial Secretary (at times known as the Principal Secretary, or Chief Secretary) frequently acted as Premier or Prime Minister prior to the establishment of the Premier's Department in 1907. During the nineteenth century the Colonial Secretary's Department continued to be the most important administrative unit in New South Wales. It had dealings with other public offices on nearly all major developments and activities, as well as having responsibility for a wide and varied range of functions.

The diversity of the functions and duties of the Colonial Secretary are clearly shown in the administrative arrangements published in the New South Wales Government Gazette, No. 155, of 9 October 1856 whereby the Colonial Secretary was charged with the business connected to: legislative matters; naval and military establishments, including the Volunteer Corps; foreign correspondence; postal arrangements and contracts; immigration; Police, including Petty Sessions; gaols and penal establishments; medical establishments, including quarantine, vaccination and lunatic asylums; registration and statistics; municipal institutions; Government printing; proclamations, commissions, and other instruments under the Great Seal; naturalization of aliens; ecclesiastical establishments; public education; literary and scientific institutions; hospitals and charitable institutions; Aborigines; remission and execution of sentences; and 'all other matters of internal arrangement not confided to any other Minister'.

In the further administrative arrangements notified by the Governor on 4 October 1859, the Colonial Secretary was referred to as the 'Colonial Secretary or Chief Secretary to the Government'. This latter title was gradually adopted as the title of the office, although an official ministerial title change did not occur until 1 April 1959 under the Ministers of the Crown Act (No. 4 of 1959). Subsequently, between 3 January 1975 and 23 January 1976 the department was titled the Department of Services; between 23 January and 14 May 1976, the Chief Secretary's Department; and from 14 May 1976 to its abolition in May 1982, again the Department of Services.

The Letters Received and other papers, 1788-1826

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 prior to 1810 survive but the papers were fairly systematically kept after that time.

Most of the records were written on whatever sheets of paper happened to be available, in widely varying shapes and sizes. This was typical in a period of chronic shortage of stationery. Two isolated examples illustrate this: in 1794 Palmer, the Commissary, reported that lack of stationery made it difficult to keep his accounts (24); twenty-two years later Macquarie told Deputy Commissary General Allan (25) that his own and the Secretary's office was 'much in want of every kind of stationery for the use of the Public Service' and demanded some from the supply Allan had received in the Elizabeth.

The necessity felt by many early Governors to clear their names as well as the practice of not distinguishing between official and private documents, common among administrators throughout the Empire, may have been among the reasons why there are few records dated prior to 1810. Certainly many were removed contemporaneously.

Bligh is the most prominent example. He was the only Governor to suffer rebellion. Just before his arrest on 26 January 1808, he himself destroyed some official papers:

'I got together some papers ... which I thought it necessary to take care of,' and 'tore a number of them in order to lessen my bundle, which was too large to be concealed under my waistcoat. I tore a great number of them; and a vast quantity of the pieces were picked up by John Dunn, my servant, and afterwards burnt.' (26)

Other papers fell into the hands of the rebel Government. (27)

There is also some suggestion that papers were destroyed by Lieutenant Colonel Johnston to suppress damaging evidence. (28)

When Lieutenant Governor Paterson arrived he intended to return some papers to Bligh retaining only those necessary for his administration. (29) Bligh however sailed without receiving the papers from the Lieutenant Governor, so Paterson gave them to Lieutenant Colonel Johnston to take to England. (30)

When Macquarie arrived no papers of importance were found:

'The room in Government house in which Governor Bligh's papers were said to be was sealed on my arrival here. It has since been opened by himself, but no papers of any importance were found in it, and I understand they were all taken to England by Lieu't Col. Johnston and Mr McArthur.' (31)

In consequence of the practice of removing public records Earl Bathurst issued a circular despatch in 1822 directing that in future all official papers were not only to be 'most carefully and methodically' kept but were to be delivered to the next occupant of the office. (32)

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 (33) and the papers were probably put away in the same order with perhaps some division by type of application and year, probably in wooden 'pigeon holes' constructed for this purpose.

There have been several attempts to organize the early papers. The first appears to have taken place when Alexander Mcleay took office in 1826 — the lists of letters received in 1821 and 1822 are watermarked 1823. Mcleay began the systematic registration of correspondence, and set aside a room, referred to as 'the new Record Office', in the Colonial Secretary's building and had it fitted up with presses containing pigeon-holes for the files and bundles of papers. (34) The scheme was that all public correspondence from the very earliest was to be kept on one side of the room, 30 feet in length, while convict records were to be kept along one end of it, 19 feet in length, and the other records were to be arranged in subject groups round the other walls.

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:

'... which it would be very desirable to have examined and arranged with a view to their better preservation as documents of public interest and importance.' (35)

Already frequent enquiries were received which involved reference to these documents. 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, as the paper on which the register was written is watermarked 1842. (36) Only the letters A and B are covered so it was obviously left unfinished.

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 ([5/2331]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6036) 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*.

The scheme adopted appears to be as follows:

1. Bundles 1-3, 1788-1809 (SRNSW Items: [4/1719-22]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6041)
These are in chronological order but there are many gaps.
2. Bundles 4-14, 1810-1820 (SRNSW Items: [4/1723-47]; microfilm copy SR Reels 6042-6050)
From Bundle 4 on, there is a bundle for each year. First come the documents which apparently were considered to be important when they were bundled in 1888-90. They are in chronological order. When a file contains papers of various dates, it is filed under the date of the first paper. Papers dated only by year are filed either at the beginning or the end of the bundle.
The second part of the bundle includes the group called in the Summary, 'Unimportant and miscellaneous' which contains letters from officials and individuals as well as memorials and petitions. These are in chronological order, undated items being filed at the end.
3. Bundle 15, 1821 (SRNSW Items: [4/1748-51]; microfilm copy SR Reels 6051-6052)
This includes papers of the year 1821 up to the end of Macquarie's governorship. First come the papers considered to be important arranged in chronological order by the date of either the individual documents or, in the case of groups of papers from departments or on specific subjects, by the date of the first paper in the group. These are followed by the papers considered to be 'Miscellaneous and unimportant'. Last come the papers from the Lunatic Asylum at Castle Hill.
4. Bundles 16-27, 1821-5 (SRNSW Items: [4/1752-89]; microfilm copy SR Reels 6052-6064)
These begin with Brisbane's administration and there are three bundles for each year. Each of these three bundles contains records of a certain type. These are:
(a) records considered important when arranged, filed in chronological order;
(b) departmental correspondence: all the letters from a department or office are filed together but there is no apparent order in the grouping of the departments;
(c) unimportant and miscellaneous correspondence in chronological order with undated correspondence at the end.
The compartments are not watertight as correspondence from departments may be found in both (a) and (c).






Important records

Bundle 16

Bundle 19

Bundle 22

Bundle 25


Departmental records

Bundle 17

Bundle 20

Bundle 23

Bundle 26


Unimportant records

Bundle 18

Bundle 21

Bundle 24

Bundle 27

5 Bundles 28-29, 1826 (SRNSW Items: [4/1790-94]; microfilm copies SR Reels 890, 702, 2183)

To achieve this arrangement many files were broken up and distributed between the three categories.

Apart from the papers arranged in Bundles as described in 1-5 above, there are also separate annual bundles of Memorials and Petitions from 1810, arranged alphabetically, and other Special Bundles.

In 1934 the Papers were transferred from the Chief Secretary's Office to the Mitchell Library, then the official custodian of the State's archives.

The records underwent further re-arrangement**. Quite a number of papers and volumes were extracted from these bundles in 1935 when they were being bound and filed separately. With the exception of items removed from the 'Miscellaneous' parts a note has usually been made of these extractions in the Summary of Colonial Records in the Colonial Secretary's Office 1788-1826 ([5/2331]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6036).

Most of the records written in, or relating to, the various settlements, whether from officials or individuals, have been bound in separate volumes, together with later papers. Certain papers written by, or relating to, well known individuals were also removed and bound. Papers of Oxley, Michael Robinson, Greenway and Throsby are known to have been removed. Other items were extracted and filed separately either because of their value, interest or size. Usually these were shelved with Mitchell Library Manuscripts and entries made in the Library's Manuscript Catalogue. Subsequently, most of these records were transferred to the Archives Office when it was established in 1961. However, some papers were bound with items which formed part of David Scott Mitchell's original bequest or which for some other reason could not be transferred. Whenever such papers have been identified they have been microfilmed and indexed in the publication The Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825 and recorded in this guide.

There are also three items which, though they have been removed from the correct place in the bundles, are shelved immediately following the bundle from which they have been removed. They are: Proceedings in the High Court of Appeals, 10 April 1810 - 27 May 1816 ([4/1724]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6042); Papers relating to the transport 'Surry' 1814 ([4/1731]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6044); and Charges against Major Druitt 1822-24 ([4/1754-55]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6053).

Items noted as withdrawn and bound have been found unbound but usually the intention to bind the records was carried out.

Papers which were not sorted into bundles mostly appear in the List of Special Bundles.

State Records has not attempted to place another order on these papers or to restore the original order. The arrangement remains substantially that adopted by the Mitchell Library.

* A second copy of the 'Summary' made by Watson when editing Historical Records of Australia has also survived and includes his notes and also a notation of the printing of the various documents in that publication. This is in two volumes [5/2334-35].

** The papers are also reputed to have suffered disarray during the actual transfer. Whole bundles are said to have fallen off the lorry while it was turning from Shakespeare Place into the rear of the Library and the reassembling of burst bundles caused many problems.

The Out-letter Books, 1808-25

Letters sent were copied into out-letter books. Regular series of books exist from the arrival of Governor Macquarie, with two earlier letter books of Lieutenant Governors Foveaux (NRS 933, [SZ760]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6001) and Paterson (NRS 934, [SZ757]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6001).

The earliest letter books form two series. Letters to persons around Sydney and overseas are together (NRS 935, [4/3490B-3491]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6002) as are letters to the distant settlements, Newcastle, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land (NRS 936, [4/3490A, 4/3492]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6003).

In 1814 these divisions were recast and all letters sent to persons within the colony including its 'dependencies' were together in one series (NRS 937, [4/3493-516]; microfilm copy SR Reels 6004-6016) while letters to 'foreign parts', including England and other colonies were in another (NRS 939, [4/3521-22]; microfilm copy SR Reels 6018-6019). Letters to Van Diemen's Land are with the local letters until 30 December 1823 from which date they are with the foreign.

Separate books were opened for letters to Port Macquarie (NRS 992, [4/3864-65]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6019) in June 1822, Melville Island (NRS 981, [4/3792]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6019) and Moreton Bay (NRS 983, [4/3794]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6019) in August 1824, and Norfolk Island (NRS 988, [4/3821]; microfilm copy SR Reel 6019) in May 1825. These volumes also contain lists of convicts transported to the settlements.

The Publication of the Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825

To mark the Bicentenary of European settlement in 1988, State Records (then the Archives Authority of New South Wales) published these records in microform, together with a comprehensive index. The microfilming and indexing are described in detail in the Introduction to the Handbook which accompanies the Index (Guide No. 30).

The microfilmed Papers, the Handbook and the Index to the Papers are now part of the Archives Resources Kit (*ARK) which is available at various community access points throughout New South Wales.

The Letters Received, 1826-1982

In 1826, at the instigation of Governor Darling and the Colonial Secretary, Alexander Mcleay, a carefully conceived correspondence system was introduced (37). Letters received from each Department were filed in separate 'pigeon holes' in a large press, while letters of a miscellaneous nature (that is letters from private persons) were filed together alphabetically by name of writer in a separate compartment. 'With a view to facility' each letter was 'numbered as received, the date of receipt noted upon it, and the particulars of its number, date, date of receipt, subject, to whom and when referred, and when and how acted upon' entered in a register, and the registers indexed.

The registers seem to have been used in the Colonial Secretary's Office primarily as an indication that a letter on a particular subject had been received, rather than as an aid to actually finding it. The in-letters, after being assigned annual single numbers, were filed by provenance in separate 'pigeon holes' of the press (eg. separate 'pigeon holes' were kept for letters received from Police, the Principal Superintendent of Convicts, the Commissariat and so on). The indexes to the registers merely recorded the registered numbers of letters from officers without giving any indication of the subject. Thus, in the case of a department such as the Surveyor General from whom many letters were received in the course of a year, to find a particular letter might require that upwards of a hundred registered numbers be checked from the index to the register. In practice, the filing clerks probably thumbed through the bundle of letters received from the department concerned until the required letter was found. The registers might have been checked in cases where various persons wrote on the same subject to find out who was the last officer or person who wrote - the file would then have been located in that pigeon hole.

The correspondence was later re-arranged. In November 1919 the Royal Australian Historical Society requested the Chief Secretary to appoint a Research Officer to investigate and classify the old records in his department to facilitate historical research. A similar arrangement had been made with the Lands Department in 1917. The suggestion was refused as impracticable at that time.

... but that when the staff resumes its normal proportions upon the return of officers from active service abroad, the proposition will receive further consideration.

In October 1920, Mr Young of the Records Office, Chief Secretary's Department, was appointed to investigate the records relating to Tasmania before separation with the view to handing these over to that government. He then continued to work on the early records of New South Wales. He re-arranged the letters received from 1826 to 1832 into registered number order (38). Previously the arrangement has been similar to that for the period 1833-49 (ie. by provenance). This re-arrangement was most unfortunate due to the lack of subject indexing in the indexes to the registers.

In addition to reorganising the correspondence system Governor Darling instituted a system of conveying official instructions to the Colonial Secretary through the media of minutes and memoranda. The difference between minutes and memoranda is not clear, although on the whole the latter were brief administrative instructions on minor matters, while the former were fairly comprehensive and dealt more with policy, with detailed plans and proposals of the Governor and with the more important matters of government.

With the governorship of Sir George Gipps (1838) minutes ceased to be written out in full. Increasingly the Governor conveyed his instructions by notation on the in-letters referred to him for decision. From 1838 the minutes from the Governor to the Colonial Secretary consist chiefly of summaries from the Minutes of the Executive Council conveying its decisions noted with the Governor's approval, originals or copies of despatches from the Secretary of State for the information or action of the Colonial Secretary, relevant letters from the Colonial Agent in London, and letters passed on from other offices in London eg. the Transport Office of the Admiralty and the Emigration Commissioners. These papers are occasionally included before 1838 but more often the Governor sent separate instructions. Later too are transmitted Acts passed by the Legislative Council (established 1843) with the Governor's instructions.

Minutes and memoranda and the Colonial Secretary's registered correspondence were linked together as administrative convenience dictated throughout the entire period under review, and to find a particular letter or minute it is often necessary to consult both registers of letters received and registers of minutes and memoranda (see Minutes and Memoranda).

By 1840, the growth of inwards correspondence allied with the imperfections of a system arranged by subject and/or by source meant that searches for papers became more laborious and time-consuming and the deficiencies in indexing procedure became more noticeable. At the end of 1842 the first tentative steps towards providing a summary of the contents of some inter-departmental letters were taken, and the following year this became uniform.

By the end of 1849 it must have become obvious that most papers would be found more directly from an index and register than by a direct reference to the records themselves. The following year the system was changed, the inwards correspondence being arranged hence primarily in annual single number order within each year. The system of creating 'special bundles' (ie. by subject) was, however, retained with papers relating to matters of continuing interest, or papers referred to at regular intervals, being placed together. In most cases the connections between papers placed together in 'special bundles' were not noted in the relevant registers.

Prior to responsible government papers to be tabled before the Executive Council were transmitted to the Clerk of the Council by the Colonial Secretary, who in turn had received them from the appropriate department or government official. Before 1846 all documents tabled were copied up in full in Appendices to Minutes but the labour involved (in some cases, up to thirty documents – in addition to annexures to some of these documents – had to be copied up for one paragraph of one minute) led to the supercession of this series by Registers of minute papers laid before the Executive Council. Before 1856 all papers for the Council were transmitted through the Colonial Secretary, and only the Colonial Secretary's in-letter registration numbers of documents tabled and returned to the Colonial Secretary were entered in this register.

From 1856 the several ministerial departments (Colonial Secretary, Treasury, Lands and Works, etc) handled the preparation of Minutes for the Executive Council, minute papers being sent direct to the Clerk of the Council; and after this date the in-letter registration numbers shown in the Registers of papers tabled are those of the respective ministerial departments.

The 'blank cover' system of correspondence became a widely used method of expediting inter-departmental correspondence. The system involved the passing on of a letter received by one department to another department for a report on a matter raised therein. This method saved the need to make a copy of the original letter and the writing of a covering letter — hence 'blank cover'. Such 'blank cover' letters, for example, if sent by the Colonial Secretary to the Surveyor General would first be entered in the Colonial Secretary's register of blank cover letters sent, being given a 'blank cover' annual single number. The original letter, minuted 'the Surveyor General is requested to report' would be forwarded to the Surveyor General with the lower right hand corner turned up for the required report to be written thereon. Upon receipt by the Survey Department the letter would be registered in the register of blank covers received from the Colonial Secretary, the Surveyor General's report would be written on the upturned corner of the letter or on the verso if the report was a long one. A copy of the Colonial Secretary's minute requesting the report, and a copy of the Surveyor General's report in reply would be inserted in the blank cover letter book. The Surveyor General assigned his own annual single number to his replies to the Colonial Secretary's blank covers, which were recorded in the letter book (39).

In 1907 the Colonial Secretary's Department adopted an index-register system. At the beginning of the year blocks of numbers were assigned to letters which the department expected to receive concerning a particular subject, or from a department or private person. Thus, for example, the Colonial Secretary would allocate a block of registration numbers, say 6000-6700, for leave applications from staff. Should the number of leave applications exceed the pre-assigned 'quota' or allotment further numbers would be assigned from those allocated to a department or subject where less correspondence had been received than had been expected.

Each year the Colonial Secretary's Office marked up two volumes of index-registers — one for entries A-L, the other for entries M-Z. The use of index-registers in this way had several advantages. It eliminated the necessity for separate indexing (by making the system self-indexing), and allowed papers of an ephemeral nature to be destroyed en bloc after a cursory examination of subject headings in the index-registers.

In 1922 another major change took place in the registration of the in-letters. The new system was based on self-indexing cards and the volumes were used only to record file movements. The cards were filed within broad classifications and subdivided within this:



Boat, Albury

Boat, Ballina, etc.


Boatshed. Albury

Boatshed. Ballina, etc.

The guide cards record the subdivisions. Preceding the main index is a reference index with blue cards recording personal cross-references and orange cards subject cross-references. The registration numbers were divided into two sequences, A and B. The A sequence includes all letters registered in the card index A-L, the B sequence those registered M-Z.

Out-letter Systems, 1826-1915

From 1810 to 1825 separate out-letter books in the Secretary's Office had been kept for letters addressed within the Colony, letters sent outside the Colony, and letters to Military Stations. These out-letter books contained manuscript copies of letters sent; no outwards registration system was adopted. With the reorganization of the Colonial Secretary's inwards correspondence in 1826 there was a corresponding reorganization of the out-letter books along similar lines to the 'pigeon hole' system of keeping correspondence in the Colonial Secretary's press. Copies of all letters sent were entered 'in the 26 books (ie. out-letter books) now kept for the purpose', a process 'so methodical and complete as scarcely to admit of improvement' (37). Indeed, the system remained basically unaltered until 1915 when, like so many other long-established institutions, it became a casualty of the First World War.

The letterbooks were resorted during the 1888-90 rearrangement of the early records previously mentioned. However being bound volumes the order of individual documents was safe from too much interference, and although more specific series have since been recognized there was no difficulty in restoring the proper sequence.

During the nineteenth century a number of technological changes had taken place in the method of making a record of letters sent. Letter-press copying of out-letters was begun in the Colonial Secretary's Office in 1873, replacing manuscript copies from drafts. The introduction of the typewriter led to the creation of carbon copies of letters sent. It did not become normal practice among government departments to attach carbon copies of letters sent to inwards correspondence until about 1906 because if the practice of keeping a letter-press copy of the original letter had been discontinued, the situation would have arisen in which there was no complete record of all letters sent, particularly when the department concerned had originated action. To have registered outwards correspondence together with inwards correspondence would doubtless have aggravated the problem of coping with the registration of the ever-increasing volume of inwards correspondence, the symptoms of which can already be discerned in the different attempts to handle this material. Finally, there was the added convenience that the letter-press copy was made in a book which was already bound and which could be indexed at any time.

The out-letter system was simplified in 1913. The following system was proposed by J B Hagarty, a clerk in the Chief Secretary's Office, and adopted:

I beg to report that there are no less than 31 separate letter books which are being used in this Branch for copying the Departmental correspondence; and, with a view of improving and simplifying the system at present obtaining, I suggest that the following books be abolished:

Treasury; Justice; Public Works; Lands; Mines; Agriculture; Public Instruction; Miscellaneous book; Police Districts book; Town Clerk (Sydney) book; Medical book; and the Auditor General's book.

If this course were adopted, 10 books would be abolished, and as an alternative, I propose that all letters to the various Ministerial Departments be copied in the one letter book: Police Districts, in the Inspector General of Police's Book; and letters to the Town Clerk, Sydney, to be copied in the book known as the Municipalities Book. Communications addressed to the Auditor General, the Inspector General of the Insane, etc., could, under the new system, be copied in a book to be set apart for letters addressed to Heads of Sub-Departments. The following is a complete list of the books:

1. Treasury. )
2. Justice. )
3. Public Works. )One Book to be known as Ministerial Departments.
4. Lands. )
5. Mines. )
6. Agriculture. )
7. Public Instruction. )
8. Miscellaneous. )
9. Auditor General. )One Book to be known as Heads of Sub-Departments.
10. Medical. )
11. Police Districts. To be copied in Inspector General of Police Book.
12. Town Clerk (Sydney) Book. To be copied in Municipalities Book.
13. Theatres and Public Halls Book. )
14. Gaming and Betting Book. )
15. Charities Book. )
16. Electoral Book. )
17. Unofficial Book (this book to be used for letters re appointment of Js. P.; Holiday matters; Railway passes; etc.) )
18. Telegram Book. )
19. Lord Howe Island Book. ) TO STAND.
20. Fire Brigades Book. )
21. Public Service Board Book. )
22. Inspector General of Police Book. )
23. Municipalities Book. )
24. Agent General's Book. )
25. Foreign Book. )
26. Letters of Introduction Book. )
27. Federal Book. )
28. Clerical Book (this book to be now used for Clerical matters only). )
29. Parliament Book. )
30. Governor's Book. )
31. Public Functions Book. ) '(40)

The practice had developed of placing a carbon copy of an out-letter with the previous papers, and it was recognized after some years that for most purposes access through the registers of in-letters provided adequate means of reference to replies. In a memorandum from H Deering (Chief Clerk) to the Under Secretary of the Colonial Secretary's Department, dated 6 September 1915, it is stated:

'A great saving of time and labour, however, would be effected if the Under Secretary were to agree to the discontinuance of the present practice of the press-copying and indexing ... of practically every typewritten letter in the Office. ... there is always the carbon copy with the papers to refer to. I have made enquiries at the Works Department and at the Railways Department (our nearest neighbours) and find that, in the Works Department, only letters on very important subjects are press-copied, whilst in the Railways Department the system of press-copying has been abandoned altogether.' (41)

The junior clerk responsible for entering and indexing letters sent in the letter-press books having enlisted for active service abroad the Under-Secretary agreed that 'only letters of importance [were] to be copied in future - officers will be held responsible for placing with files carbon copies of all letters [sent]'.

Later, separate registries were set up in the Chief Secretary's office for a variety of functions, including the State Trawling Industry, the State Fisheries Branch, the Lord Howe Island Board of Control, the Unemployment Relief Council, the Birds and Animals Protection Branch, and the Bush Fires Advisory Committee.


1. Melbourne, A C V: Early Constitutional Development in Australia. University of Queensland Press, 1963. p.11

2. Richardson, G D: The Early Archives of New South Wales; Notes on their Creation and their Keepers. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, June 1973. Vol 59 Pt 2 pp.86-87. (This paper has been used substantially in the preparation of the Introduction together with Mr Richardson's unpublished thesis The Archives of the Colonial Secretary's Department, 1788-1856, which was submitted to the University of Sydney for the degree of Master of Arts, February 1951. Copy in the Mitchell Library at ML [MSS.832])

3. Private letter from Major Ross to Under Secretary Nepean, 16 November 1788. Historical Records of New South Wales Vol 1, Part 2 p.212

4. Richardson p.87

5. Governor Hunter to the Duke of Portland, 21 February 1799. Historical Records of Australia (hereafter HRA) 1.2. 244-45

6. General Order, 29 September 1800. HRA 1.2.621

7. 'Statement of the duties of the respective officers on the Civil Establishment of His Majesty's Colony in New South Wales', 1 March 1804. HRA 1.4.538

8. As above

9. Richardson pp.89-90

10. Major Johnston to Viscount Castlereagh, 11 April 1808. HRA 1.6.219

11. Richardson pp.90-91

12. General Order, 9 July 1813. HRA 1.7.784

13. Commission of Frederick Goulburn as Colonial Secretary. HRA 1.10.664. Swearing in and commencement of duties as Colonial Secretary. HRA 1.10.380

14. Liston, C A: New South Wales under Governor Brisbane, 1821-25 pp.71-86. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History, University of Sydney, 1980

15. Sir Thomas Brisbane to Earl Bathurst, 1 May 1824. HRA 1.11.256-58

16. 'Memorandum of the Papers handed over from the Private to the Colonial Secretary at the end of the year 1825' (NRS 903, [5/2333.3])

17. Sydney Gazette, 29 May 1823 p.1a

18. Liston pp.76-77

19. Secretary Goulburn to Governor Brisbane, 19 April 1824. HRA 1.11.258. Reply, 26 April 1824. HRA 1.11.260

20. Liston p.80

21. Earl Bathurst to Governor Darling, 14 July 1825. HRA 1.12.18

22. General Order, 5 January 1826. HRA 1.12.152

23. Sydney Gazette, 5 September 1829 p.1b

24. Commissary Palmer to Lieutenant Governor Grose, 29 August 1794. HRA 1.1.483

25. Colonial Secretary: Main series of letters received, 1816 (NRS 897, [4/1736 p.171])

26. Johnson, G: Proceedings of a General Court Martial ... for the trial of Lieut. Col. George Johnston, p.25. London 1811

27. Governor Bligh to Viscount Castlereagh, 30 April 1808. HRA 1.6.436  
28. Richardson, G D: The Archives of the Colonial Secretary's Department, 1788-1856 p.6 [Mitchell Library]

29. 'List of Papers retained by Lieut.-Governor Paterson'. Enclosure to despatch from Lieutenant Governor Paterson to Viscount Castlereagh, 23 March 1809. HRA 1.7.62 
30. Lieutenant Governor Paterson to Lieutenant Colonel Johnston, 17 March 1809. Enclosure as above. HRA 1.7.64 
31. Governor Macquarie to Viscount Castlereagh, 8 March 1810. HRA 1.7.219
32. Circular despatch from Earl Bathurst to Sir Thomas Brisbane, 30 April 1822. HRA 1.10.800-01
33. 'Nominal lists of Letters, Memorials, etc. received', recording name, date, subject and persons referred to in same.

  • 1821 A-Y (watermark 1823) (NRS 897, [4/1749 pp.179-251]). A-W Supplementary
  • 1822 A-W (watermark 1823) (NRS 903, [5/2333.1]). A-W Supplementary
  • 1823 F-W (watermark 1820) (NRS 903, [5/2333.2])
  • 1824 A-W (watermark 1820) (NRS 903, [5/2333.3])

34. Colonial Secretary: Special bundle on administrative arrangements, 1826-61 (NRS 906, [2/1844])

35. Minute M14127 dated 22 October 1857 (NRS 909, [4/1060])
36. 'List of Letters, Memorials etc. received in the Year 1824' A-B (watermark 1842) (NRS 903, [5/2333.3])

37. Report on the Present Establishment of the Colonial Secretary's Office. Enclosure No.2 to Governor's Despatch No. 110 of 27 October 1827. Mitchell Library [A1267-11 pp.450-455]
Additional papers. Colonial Secretary: Special bundle on administrativearrangements, 1826-61 (NRS 906, [2/1844])

38. File No. A25/496 in NRS 905, [9/162]

39. Hutchins, A J and Stuckey, B J: The Development of Correspondence Registration and Record-Keeping Systems in New South Wales Government Departments, 1788-1910. Library Association of Australia, 13th Biennial Conference. Papers Vol. 2 pp.323-42

40. Report re Copying of Departmental Correspondence. CSIL 13/5473, 5 April 1913. With CSIL 15/5002 in NRS 905, [5/7332]

41. Recommendation that the present system in this Office of press-copying be abolished, and that letters on important subjects only, be press-copied. CSIL 15/5002, 6 September 1915 in NRS 905, [5/7332]