Australian Censuses


Censuses are enormously valuable resources for family historians. They list the occupants of each household in varying levels of detail, and the buildings in every locality, whether occupied or not. When taken at regular intervals they can show changes in a locality and make it possible to trace the movement and upward economic mobility of individuals.

Most of the census records for the Australian colonies have been lost or destroyed, but those that remain can tell us about the composition of households and something of the living conditions of the people within. They are particularly valuable in the period before civil registration of births, deaths and marriages when people are harder to trace.

What is a census?

Counting the population has been an extremely important task of government from the very beginning of European settlement. It was, and is, important to know how many people there are so as to determine what resources and services are needed and where they are needed most. Early musters and censuses were additionally concerned with crops and livestock. The status of each person was recorded - bond, free, free by servitude, or born in the colony - and the ship by which they arrived.

Householder returns

The process of taking a census has changed little over time. The head of the household, or householder, fills in the census return, called a householder return, answering all the questions about all members of the household, including children, lodgers, servants and farm workers. In the early days the return would have been filled out by the police magistrate or census collector. The number of questions has increased over time, but even in the first census of 1828 there was considerable information recorded, especially in rural areas.

Collectors' Books

The returns were then collected and lists compiled of the results, known as Abstracts of Returns (1841) or Enumerators’ Sheets (SA 1841) or Collectors’ Books (1891, 1901). Lists were compiled manually and the results tabulated in columns. Running totals were made at the bottoms of the pages, and the end results were compiled into statistical returns for each district. Instructions for the collectors in the front of each book can be helpful if you aren’t sure what something means.

The process of compiling lists from the returns and then copying the lists themselves was open to errors, such as incorrectly changing the wife and children’s surname to that of the husband, and copying columns out of sync so that the wrong information appeared next to the names. It is therefore important to look at the original householder’s return if at all possible.

When the lists were compiled the government kept a copy and made another copy to send back to the Home Office in England. There are often differences between the two copies so it may be worthwhile to check both, just in case.

Statistical Returns

Statistical returns may not seem to be as immediately useful as householder returns or collectors’ books, but they can give you an idea of what the district was like in which your ancestor lived, answering questions of religion, numbers of children, what crops and livestock were most popular in the area, and whether the neighbours were more likely to be born in the colony, free settlers or freed convicts. For many censuses the statistical returns are all that survives. Statistical returns are often published in the government gazettes.

Search Australian Censuses

Where can I find my ancestor?

Initially the population was counted during ‘musters’ every year. Announcements were made about when and where to gather, and names and other information was recorded. Some of these musters still survive.

Few census records have survived. Householder returns are deliberately destroyed soon after tabulation, even today. All records of the censuses between 1841 and 1891 were most likely destroyed in the Garden Palace Fire in 1882.


The first census was taken in November 1828, after the governor realised that free settlers, who were becoming more numerous, couldn’t be compelled to attend musters. A District Constable and a clerk visited each household; the clerk filling out the form and the District Constable witnessing the householder’s signature or mark. In some cases the householder filled out the form himself.

The returns were summarised into two sets of volumes listing all persons in alphabetical order. One set was sent to London, now held by The National Archives (TNA), and the other set kept in Sydney, now held by State Records NSW (SRNSW). There are differences between the two and both should be checked if possible.

As well as recording name, status, arrival, religion, employment and residence the census includes acreage and numbers of livestock.


The next census to survive was taken by specially appointed collectors on or just after 2 March 1841. It includes Port Phillip (now Victoria) and Moreton Bay (now Queensland). Age groups and marital status were now included.

Householders returns (Form A) only survive for the Illawarra and Port Phillip Districts. Collectors recorded running totals on affidavit forms (Form B) attesting that they were a true statement of the numbers and quality of the people in the district. Abstracts of returns (Form C) were then compiled and bound into volumes; these exist for all districts.

A separate census was taken in the Colony of South Australia in January 1841. The householder returns no longer exist, but the Enumerator Sheets have survived, giving the householder’s name and the numbers of males and females in the different age groups.


The 1891 census was held on 5 April 1891. Only the NSW Collectors’ Books, summarising the household returns, survive. They list the name of the head of the household, the numbers of males and females in each age group, and the locality such as a street name. An entry in the ‘Remarks’ column can indicate whether a family member was away at the time of the census or comments about the household itself, such as ‘very stupid’ and ‘in a very dirty state’. Empty dwellings and buildings such as churches and schools are also listed.


The 1901 census was held on the 31 March. It was the last census to be taken by the colonies before Federation. Again, only the NSW Collectors’ Books survive, with the same information as in 1891.

Northern Territory

Censuses for the Northern Territory have survived for 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911 and 1921. Name and residence are given; and age, occupation, place of birth, religion and how long in the country may also be included.

Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia

The census records for all other states have been lost or destroyed, other than a few small fragments for Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. For the 1841 census Victoria and Queensland were part of New South Wales.

Few census records have survived. Householder returns are deliberately destroyed soon after tabulation, even today. All records of the censuses between 1841 and 1891 were most likely destroyed in the Garden Palace Fire in 1882.