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Expert tips & tricks for tracing Australian ancestors

6-7 minute read

By Niall Cullen

21 July 2022
Tips for tracing Australian ancestors

Experienced Australian genealogist and blogger Shauna Hicks shares her advice on discovering your relatives' records down under.

Researching family history in Australia is not straight forward as each state and territory has separate record systems with few Australia-wide resources. That is why using Findmypast is a good idea as you can search across all of the Australian resources using a person's name.

If you want to search just a particular state, then you can use the name of the state as a keyword when searching the catalogue to see what records are available for that state.

There are some basic things you must know to research family history in Australia.

History and geography

This is probably true of any place that we want to search for ancestors, but while Australia is a single country it is made up of individual states and territories.

These states and territories, with the exception of Western Australia, were originally part of New South Wales. Early Queensland records, for example, will be in the State Archives and Records of New South Wales prior to 1859 when Queensland was established. There may be some overlap so also check early records held by Queensland State Archives. All original government records for Western Australia will be with the State Records Office of Western Australia.

State and Territory boundaries have also changed over time especially for South Australia, and responsibility for the Northern Territory moved between South Australia and the Commonwealth after Federation in 1900.

How Findmypast can help

There are a number of digitised early histories such as Fox's History of Queensland (3 volumes), Aldine Histories and Cyclopedias for a number of states such as Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia. These large histories are not usually indexed names, but by using Findmypast's intuitive full text search feature, you can find a reference to someone very quickly. One of our relatives, Thomas Stephen Burstow has a full-page biography in the History of Queensland directory, and it even includes a photo of him and his house in Toowoomba.

History of Queensland includes photos

Thomas Stephen Burstow in the Fox's History of Queensland directory. View the full record here.

These digitised publications can also be keyword searched for a place name. Another family were in Copperfield in Queensland so, from Findmypast's full list of records, I filtered my search using the place filter and selected Queensland to see what was available. From there, I chose the Aldine History of Queensland (published in 1888) and then searched for Copperfield.

The main article was in Chapter XXXVIII on the Leichhardt District. There are only four lines devoted to Copperfield:

"

"Copperfield is about four miles distant from Clermont, the number of inhabitants being about 200. At one time it was one of the most flourishing of mining townships, but since the value of copper declined it also has retrograded."

"

While not a lot of information, it does tell me why my ancestors probably moved there; it had reached its peak before 1888 and it explains why my family moved on to the goldfields of Charters Towers. Mining ancestors can be hard to trace so knowing background history can be crucial to the rest of my research.

Civil registration dates

Civil registration started at different times in the states/territories. Before those dates, there may be church records to fill the gaps. Also, the information contained on birth, marriage and death certificates varies from state to state and at different times. For example, on Western Australian birth certificates, the parents' ages, place of birth and marriage details are only included after 1896 which is quite different from the eastern states.

How Findmypast can help

If you're looking at states across New South Wales, then Findmypast have births, marriages and deaths spanning between 1788-1945. These comprise nearly six million records in total, making this the perfect start to your research. Alternatively, they have Western Australian births, marriages and deaths, as well as electoral registers across Western Australia, New South Wales, and the wider country itself. Life events can help you glean the basic information about your ancestor, while electoral registers can help you pinpoint your ancestor at a specific date and place.

They also have various census across Australia, including the New South Wales censuses of 1828, 1841, 1891 and 1901.

A return from the 1901 Census of New South Wales.

A return from the 1901 Census of New South Wales. View this record here.

If you have no idea what state a person was born, married or died in, then a person search may help to narrow down what you're looking for. My great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Trevaskis nee Rosewarne married in Copperfield. A search in Findmypast's marriage records shows that she married George Guy on 25 November 1873. I can then search for any children from the marriage and also look for any deaths. In this way, you can build a brief family tree that you can add to as you discover more information.

State archives and libraries

The individual state archives and state libraries all have wonderful resources for tracing your family history in that state. Look for an online guide to family history which will have links to key resources and other useful information. There may be online indexes and digitised records. What is available varies from state to state.

How Findmypast can help

Some records held by archives and libraries are searchable on Findmypast including convict records, immigration lists, naturalisations, directories, electoral rolls, blue books, government gazettes, education gazettes, police gazettes, brands directories, intestacies and wills, land records and other resources.

My great grandfather Herbert White came out to Queensland on board the Chyebassa in 1883. I found his record in the Australia Inward, Outward, and Coastal Passenger Lists and the entry states that he was contracted to land at Townsville. It also told me that he was English, born in 1865 and a farmer.

Australian immigration records

Herbert White's migration record. View the full record here.

Some of these records are digitised copies and you can see all information available, while others are indexes. You'll need to go to the original record to see any additional information.

Australia-wide resources

Perhaps the four best known websites are as follows:

  • Australian War Memorial - a central database to military records from colonial times to more recently.
  • National Archives of Australia - immigration post-1900, naturalisations, military dossiers for World War One and lots of other indexed records through the online catalogue ArchivesSearch.
  • National Library of Australia - with a Library e-resources card you can have access to online resources at home including British and Irish digitised newspapers.
  • Trove - a central resources for digitised newspapers, photographs, maps, books and other resources.

How Findmypast can help

There are a number of Australian military collections for World War 1, World War 2, and other great conflicts - you can find everything from nominal rolls, commemorative rolls of honour, and even historical portraits of military personnel. Once you have some basic references you may be able to find additional information in digitised collections of war diaries at the Australian War Memorial.

A snippet from Findmypast's Australian Commemorative Roll of Honour

A snippet from Findmypast's Australian Commemorative Roll of Honour. View this record here.

Similarly, you can use the information you've found on Findmypast to search Trove's digitised newspapers. This can help you find out if there is any report on the event in a local newspaper. Having learnt that George Guy died in 1894, a search for a death or funeral notice in Trove was successful with this simple account - GUY, at his residence, Wellington, on 24 December, George Guy, aged 55 years (The Northern Miner, 28 Dec 1894, page 3).

However, Trove isn't the only newspaper resource out there. Findmypast have a focused collection of Australian and New Zealand newspapers that you won't find anywhere else. These include titles such as:

This title aimed to ‘provide for the use of the merchant, the shipper, and the intending emigrant, a permanent record of all the events of importance passing in the whole of the Australian settlements as well as in New Zealand.’ It focused on the latest news across Australia and New Zealand, with a particular emphasis on colonial issues, shipping and trade.

The Australia and New Zealand Gazette title page, 1882.

The British Australasian termed itself a 'newspaper for Merchants, Shareholders, Land Selectors and Emigrants, and All Interested in the Magnitude and Growth of British Interest in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and the Western Pacific', and contains fascinating insights into the emigration between Commonwealth settlements.

The British Australasian title page, 1890.

The British Australasian title page, 1890.

This title featured ‘the most authentic intelligence’ in Australia, and was particularly concerned with the 'progress of gold discoveries' as well as emigration to the area. It featured letters from tradesmen, farmers, and surgeons, as well as offering advice to those looking to move to the southern hemisphere.

McPhun's Australian News title page

McPhun's Australian News title page, 1854.

You won't find any of these titles on Trove, so make sure to have a browse and discover all you can about your Australian ancestors.

Finally, remember...

These four must-know topics will help you research your family history in Australia and Findmypast can provide lots of clues for individual ancestors. Make sure you look for places as a knowledge of where your family were living and working also helps you to understand what their life was really like. Use Findmypast's full list of record sets to search specific records for individual states. This can be quite useful especially if you have common surnames. The more information we have about our ancestors, the more we really know them and the community in which they lived.

About the author

Shauna Hicks has been tracing her own family history since 1977 and is the author of a number of genealogy self-help guides. She is a fellow of the Queensland Family History Society, a recipient of the Australian Society of Archivists Distinguished Achievement Award and the Australasian Federation of Family History Organisations' Services to Family History Award. Find out more about Shauna and her work on shaunahicks.com.au and diaryofanaustraliangenealogist.blogspot.com.au.