Place in focus: Australia

Place in focus: Australia

If some of your ancestors vanished from Britain, they may have gone to Australia - either willingly or otherwise. Australian genealogist Shauna Hicks explains what they might have faced and how

Header Image: King William Street, Adelaide from TheGenealogist's Image Archive

Shauna Hicks, professional genealogist

Shauna Hicks

professional genealogist

Australia and the United Kingdom have similar cultures and family historians in both countries may share the same ancestral lines. If someone disappeared from the UK then it’s a possibility that they went ‘down under’ in the 18th or 19th centuries as convicts, military personnel or free settlers, or were lured by gold fever.

Hightville cemetery
Hightville cemetery, Queensland (George Humphrey)

Researching Australian ancestry is distinct for a number of reasons. Firstly Australia is huge; it is not just a country but an entire continent. The far north is tropical, with its wet season, while the south is temperate with snow fields in winter and in the middle are deserts. Most of the 22.7 million people today live around the coastline, and lifestyles reflect where people live.

Secondly, Australia as a Commonwealth nation only came into existence in 1901 and its capital Canberra was established in 1913. Before then the Australian continent was a collection of colonies with their own governments and legislation. To complicate things even further, there have been border changes too. The table gives key dates for each of the colonies.

Name of Colony/State Year of Self Government Civil Registration BDMs
New South Wales (NSW) 1788 1856
Van Diemen’s Land (VDL)(Tasmania from 1855) (Tas) * 1825 1838
Swan River Colony established 1829, Western Australia (WA) 1890 1841
South Australia (SA) (included Northern Territory to 1901) (NT) * 1836 1840
Victoria (Vic) * 1851 1853
Queensland (Qld) * 1859 1856
Northern Territory (NT) 1978 1870
Australian Capital Territory (ACT) 1989 1930
Commonwealth of Australia (included the Northern Territory until 1978) 1901 na
* Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland were all part of New South Wales until self government.
Map of Australia 1858
Map of Australia 1858 – note Queensland not named until 1859 (Archive Digital Books Australasia)

Even after the Commonwealth of Australia was established, the states maintained their separate governments and legislation and this is perhaps the primary fact to remember about researching family history in Australia. You need to know what colony/state your ancestors came to or be prepared to search in all colonies/states, as there is no overall national system for civil registration, land, wills and probate, education, police, prisons and so on.

Australia’s history is relatively short in that European settlement only started with the First Fleet in 1788 so between then and Federation was only 112 years. But in that short time there was much change and the time taken to reach Australia shortened with improvements in shipping and the introduction of powered steam ships.

What type of lifestyle your Australian ancestor had depends very much on when and where they lived. In the early years there were few free settlers – most were convicts and their military guards. Convict transportation officially ended in 1840 in the eastern colonies but continued until 1868 in Western Australia. Many convicts went on to lead very successful lives and their children married into both convict and free settler families.

Store Drays camped on road to Ballaart 1853
Store Drays camped on road to Ballaart 1853 (Archive Digital Books Australasia)

After 1840 the arrival of free settlers was more frequent, with each of the colonies offering various immigration schemes to entice settlers to their colony. Squatters early on had control of vast tracks of land but gradually the land was opened up to free settlers for farming and grazing. In remote areas huge pastoral stations were more common.

The indigenous people in all colonies were gradually displaced by European settlers who took over their lands for farming and mining. The settlers also introduced diseases which further impacted on the lives of indigenous Australians and their numbers decreased.

Charters Towers in 1873
The Goldfields of Queensland 1858-1889 by William Lees (courtesy Archive Digital Books Australasia)

The discovery of gold in the 1850s led to a massive population increase especially in Victoria and New South Wales. The Queensland gold rushes started in Gympie in 1867 and then further north at Charters Towers in 1872 and 1892 in Coolgardie, Western Australia. The discovery of copper lured Cornish miners to South Australia from the 1840s and they went on to other mining areas. The life of a miner, and his family, was a hard one as they often moved from one mining field to another.

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The lack of transportation was a major factor influencing where people lived. With the establishment of Cobb and Co in 1853, coach travel became possible plus more regular food and mail deliveries. Coastal steamers were an important means of travel as were paddle steamers on the inland rivers. The building of railways also made transportation easier as the 19th century progressed but the decision by the colonies to use different rail gauges meant that inter-colonial travellers had to change trains at the borders.

Cooking facilitiesInterior view of an 1880s slab hut
Cooking facilities & Interior view of an 1880s slab hut, Fairfield City Museum & Gallery, Sydney

Although there was little more than a century between European settlement and federation, there were vast changes in how and where people lived and what their working lives were like. The secret to successful research in Australia is to know its geography and history and place your ancestors within that context.

Timeline: Australia

First Fleet arrived, start of European settlement
Farsighted Governor Macquarie arrived – provided transport for families of convict men
Official end of convict transportation to NSW, increased free settlement
Western Australia accepted convicts
Large scale gold discoveries in Victoria, rapid increase in population
Goldfield grievances led to Eureka Stockade, most significant battle in Australia
Official end of convict transportation to Westermn Australia
Major strikes led to establishment of first Labor Party in NSW in 1891
Colonial regiments went to the South African War
Colonial regiments went to the South African War

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