In 1828 punishments for breaking the law in Britain included being sentenced to death, transportation, whipping, or the payment of a fine. Jails (gaols) existed to hold people prior to trial. There were few prisons (also known as bridewells or houses of correction), all with dreadful conditions. The forty-year-old settlement of New South Wales was the destination for thousands of people convicted of crimes back in Britain.
The authorities in New South Wales kept careful track of all inhabitants of the colony and also assessed its capacity to be self-sustaining. To do so the colonial administration regularly counted the population in total or in various groups (e.g. convicts, settlers) using a muster system. A muster was a physical reckoning, similar to the way regiments of the army or militia were brought together and counted. Soldiers and colonial officials and free citizens were usually recorded at the same time. However, in November of 1828 the count of the population was done, for the first time, by means of a census because it had been determined that free people could not be compelled to muster.
In preparation for this enumeration forms were issued to magistrates in every district and constables went round to each habitation, usually accompanied by a clerk. In some cases a household member would fill out the form. The work was carried out between November 1828 and January 1829. Military personnel were not enumerated at this time.
Transcriptions of the Forms
Within the next year or two the information in the household returns was transcribed into two sets of volumes; one set of seven volumes went to London in February of 1830 and the other set, six volumes, remained in Australia. The former is held by The National Archives (TNA) of the United Kingdom, and the latter by the State Records Authority of New South Wales (SRNSW). It is uncertain which of these versions was the earlier of the two.
The two versions remained more or less in obscurity until the twentieth century. Discovery and transcription by hand of the UK set of volumes occurred first, shortly before World War Two. The Australian volumes remained out of site in Sydney and did not become accessible to the public until the 1970s.
Comparisons between the two versions have revealed differences. The order of entries is not the same. In addition, the 1828 census at TNA has more duplicate entries and some additional information. It is these differences that make it necessary for genealogists to consult both versions. Ancestry now has indexes to the NSW listings, and both images and indexes to the TNA volumes.
A household census form recorded the name of the householder and others in the house–both family members and servants. For each person facts noted were the place of residence, age, condition, ship of arrival, year of arrival, sentence, employment, and religion. It also recorded whether someone had been born in the colony. The original census form, on the reverse, sought information about land cultivated, cattle, sheep and horses. Only a portion of the original forms survive. The volumes into which the information was transcribed contain about 35,000 names in all.
When you look at an image of the census volumes held at TNA you are actually looking at one of two things, the entries in alphabetical order, presented as ranges (Aâ€“B or M-R for example) or something called the General Muster, which lists the names again but with slightly less information. Not every name is in both lists, so for some you get one result and for others your search produces two.
It would be better to search one database at a time, the TNA version separate from the SRNSW version, otherwise you may have difficulty sorting out results for common names. The fuller entries have eleven columns across the page: number, name, age, free or bond, ship, year, sentence, religion, employment, residence, and district. Not all are filled in. At the start of the alphabet you also see a twelfth column–total number of acres–also mostly left blank.
If you want to experiment with a name that shows up in all three places; Australian dataset (transcript results only), The National Archivesâ€™ dataset alphabet range listings, and TNA dataset General Muster listings do a search for the name John Abbott. He arrived in 1819 and you can find all three types of entries for this name. For any search you will want to be aware of common abbreviations used; this information comes from the website of the SRNSW.
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.S. Colonial Sentence
G.S. Government (or Assigned) Servant
This is an important record because it is an early and extensive list of residents in New South Wales. If you search both versions you have the added advantage of a second opportunity to look for someone. It is also possible to browse the listings by doing searches by district (leave out any name) or by browsing parts of The National Archivesâ€™ version.
This census is also available on CD-ROM and in that format comes with an extensive introduction. It and other resources referred to for this article are listed below.
For more information on the justice system and transportation, here are some resources to help you get started.
1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (TNA Copy)
Click on the image at the top of this article to see a sample page.
Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore: A History of Transportation to Australia (1987).
Johnson, Keith and Malcolm R. Sainty. 1828 Census of New South Wales, Revised Edition with data from extant household returns. Sydney: Library of Australian History, 2008; on CD-ROM.
Genealogical Society of Victoria
Thanks to the staff for their assistance and responses to questions.
Sherry Irvine, CG, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the Course Director and co-owner of Pharos Teaching and Tutoring, a British company. Her books include Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998), Scottish Ancestry (2003) and Finding Your Canadian Ancestors (co-author, 2007) all published by Ancestry. Upcoming lecture locations include Ottawa, Kelowna, London, and Auckland.