Empire Emigrants: Australia

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium

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From the early 1600s until well into the 1900s, Great Britain reigned over a worldwide empire, stretching from Asia to the Americas to Africa. Maritime trade, colonization and conquest made the crown (and many of its privileged subjects) enormously wealthy and powerful. At its height, the British Empire ruled a quarter of the world.

Millions of subjects of the crown shipped off to far-flung areas of the empire. Some sought better fortunes abroad; even more went under the employ of the government. Others were forcibly exiled in penal colonies.

You may discover ties to these “empire emigrants” in your own family tree — an ancestor’s sibling who went to the Cape of Africa with a British army regiment, or a cousin who was shipped to Tasmania in chains. Start uncovering those connections with our guide to genealogical research in Australia.

Dutch explorers encountered the Land Down Under in the early 1600s, but European merchants failed to put down roots — “New Holland” was just too dry and inhospitable. Finally, desperate for a new place to ship convicts after losing the North American colonies, the British established New South Wales as a penal colony. In 1788, nine ships of convicts along with two military escort ships (known as the First Fleet) settled what’s now Sydney, Australia. Descendants of the First Fleet’s convict passengers are as proud as the Society of Mayflower Descendants. The First Fleet Fellowship is a lineage society; First Fleet Online offers more information on these settlers.

By the 1850s, nearly 160,000 English convicts had landed in Australia, along with free settlers, who began arriving in 1793. New South Wales gradually expanded: Victoria broke off in 1834, and Queensland in 1859. With the gold rush of 1851 spurring overland migration, it wasn’t long until the Brits had settled in all parts of Australia.

By 1900, more than a million people had gone Down Under, mostly from the British Isles. Each colony maintained a distinct identity until 1901, when Australia became a federation of states and territories (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory). Today, Australia is a sovereign nation but still a member of the British Commonwealth.

Europeans have been in Australia for less than 250 years; even the oldest records generally still exist. Colonies kept their own books because no central government existed until 1901. Some unusual and useful records are described below. If you need local help, try the Australasian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents

  • Convict records: These offer a fascinating window into early Aussie history. The British government didn’t simply ship convicts abroad and then forget about them — soldiers kept guard and created detailed records, such as:
    1. Shipping registers: Lists of prisoners arriving in Australia are also called convict indents.
    2. Court records: Before 1828, convicts applied to magistrates for permission to marry.
    3. Jail and penal colony records: These include musters of prisoners, entrance logs, registers of sentences and conduct, and petitions for mitigation of sentences.
    4. Tickets of leave: Issued to well-behaved convicts, these allowed privileges such as employment and limited travel.
    5. Certificates of freedom: The ex-prisoner received the certificate when he was released, and the government retained a stub with matching information.
    6. Pardons: Conditional or unconditional pardons were sometimes issued to those with life sentences. A conditional pardon imposed restrictions, such as permanent exile from the British Isles.
  • Immigration records: During the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of free immigrants made their way to Australia. Paying passengers arrived on their own terms and left scant paper trails. But “assisted immigration” schemes brought the majority of passengers — who left plenty of paperwork behind. Assisted or bounty immigration started around the 1830s to bring certain skilled workers to the fledgling colonies. The government paid (or lent) passage money to those emigrating. Alternately, colonists in Australia could recruit workers, pay their passage and claim the bounty money as reimbursement. Over the years — even in the 20th century — the British government, private organizations and wealthy individuals assisted the immigration of working-class people. You’ll find many resources for Australian immigration records at
  • Church and civil records: Australia closely guards its citizens’ personal information, which can make research on recently deceased relatives difficult. But birth, marriage and death data on long-deceased Aussies are accessible online, on Family History Library microfilm (which you can rent at local FamilySearch Centers) or by mail from state civil registration offices or archives. Australian churches kept the earliest vital records. The Church of England was the state religion until 1836 and remains the dominant faith Down Under. Irish immigrants brought Roman Catholicism and Presbyterianism; by 1828, a third of the population was Catholic. Church records were kept locally, and the best way to track them down is by contacting local parishes.

    In the early 1800s, the government required churches to make civil transcriptions of church records. By about 1856, each colony began keeping its own birth, marriage and death records. Each state has issued indexes to its older civil registration data; see the chart at left for details.

  • Gazetteers: Because Australian colonies changed so rapidly over their 200-year history, you may need a gazetteer to locate place names that no longer exist. The Cambridge Dictionary of Australian Places by Richard and Barbara Appleton is available at many large libraries. Find William Henry Wells’ 1848 A Geographic Dictionary or Gazetteer of the Australian Colonies in our Google Library at

Tracking Natives
British colonists, of course, weren’t arriving in unpopulated places. Genealogical resources on people native to the colonies depend on their record-keeping traditions. European inclusion of indigenous people in colonial records is spotty, especially in earlier years. Here are some places to start researching natives:


Get more details in Records at a Glance: Australia.

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From the March 2011 Family Tree Magazine.