People first started arriving in Australia about 50,000 years ago when the ancestors of the Aborigines migrated to the continent. There were perhaps as many as 750,000 of them living off the land in the days when Europeans first heard rumours of a great landmass in the southern oceans. Exploration and settlement of Australia began in the early 17th century and the country has been changing ever since. Made up of six original colonies, it became the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
The one thing every UK genealogist knows about Australia is that it was the location of huge penal colonies – the place where criminals were sent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you believe someone in your family tree was sent there, you should search the Australian Convict Collection, which includes 15 record sets covering everything from conviction in the English and Welsh courts, convict ships’ manifests, and even records of convict pardons and deaths. These records cover 1787 to 1889.
Ironically, while over 80,000 convicts were sent to do hard labour in the baking heat, many more people travelled to Australia by choice. Like the United States and Canada, Australia represented a new frontier where English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh people could settle and find their fortunes. Concerned with poverty and population growth in many of the UK’s industrial slums, the government and charitable agencies set up assistance schemes, paying for people to move to Australia. After World War II, the Australian government initiated similar schemes as well.
Ancestry.co.uk’s World Membership includes access to a total of 10 million records documenting arrivals in Australia. You’ll find these in the New South Wales Unassisted Immigrant Passenger Lists 1826-1922; and the Victoria Assisted and Unassisted Passenger Lists 1839-1923 sets. You can discover the name of the passenger, rough age, the port of departure, port of arrival, name of the vessel and the date they landed in Australia. You may also find any family members they were travelling with in the lists. Both crew and passengers of ships were recorded, making this a great set for people with maritime ancestors as well.
Whether or not you can establish when and how branches of your family got to Australia, we have many other records that can give you details about their lives there. You can search nearly 15 million names in the Australian Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes. Civil registration worked largely in the same way as it did in the UK in 19th-century Australia, although each state instituted it on different dates. Nevertheless, if you can find an index entry that you believe belongs to your forebear, you can use the information when ordering a birth, marriage or death certificate. To order one, you’ll need to approach the registrar’s office in the state (New South Wales, Queensland, etc) where the event took place.
The indexes date as far back as 1787 because, after civil registration was implemented in 1837, the registrars of some states sought out and added church records of births, marriages and deaths to their registers. It’s almost as though they were thinking ahead on behalf of family historians!
Then there’s the Australian Electoral Rolls 1903-1954, a collection that includes over 30 million names. British subjects were entitled to vote in Australian elections. Other white people were granted the vote in 1940, and Aborigines in 1949. Not every roll for every state in every year is present in this collection, but it does contain vast amounts of information. If you find the person you’re looking for you can discover their voter number, gender, address and occupation. The rolls are extremely useful for tracking down 20th-century family in Australia.