Council rates assessment books for the City of Sydney and Newtown

Rates assessments can tell you a lot about the owners and renters of land. The content varies between councils and over time but at the very least you can see who is living in the property, the type of building, and the value of the land and improvements. You can check subsequent books to trace changes in ownership and tenancy over time.

This information is particularly useful for the early 1800s if your ancestors were not eligible to be enrolled to vote, either for property or gender requirements, or the early electoral rolls have been lost. They can also help in tracing land ownership for pre-Torrens Title land where Old System deeds have to be found one at a time.

CSA027377 p56 1848 Sydney Place

Sydney City Council Archives, CSA027377 p56, 1848 Sydney Place

The image above has been taken from the City of Sydney Council Rates Assessment books 1845-1948. These books have been transcribed and indexed, so that you can search for a surname or street name, and bring up a list of results. When you click on a result you get a transcription of the page, and if you scroll further down the page you can see an image of the original page. The little square in the middle of the page is the magnifying glass that hadn’t yet opened.

SCCA CSA027377 p56 1848 Sydney Place transcription

Even back then in 1848 we could see the name of the resident and the name of the owner. In those days the occupier was responsible for paying council rates, and so both are listed. We can see the type of building; what it was made of; what the roof was made of; and the number of floors and the number of rooms.

City of Sydney Council Rates Assessment books 1845-1948 transcriptions and images are here –> http://www3.photosau.com/CosRates/scripts/home.asp

Newtown Rates and Assessments 1863-1892 (transcriptions only) are here –> http://www.sydneyarchives.info/rate-books

For the Newtown books you need to know which Ward your street was in. There are maps to help you identify the Ward. You can then select the book for the Ward and the year you want and search the PDF yourself.

Some tricks to be aware of:

  • House numbers Most properties did not have house numbers in the 1800s. The house number column in the assessment books refers to the number of the house in the book, not in the street.
  • Street names may have changed since the books were compiled, particularly in the inner cities.
  • Surnames may be spelled differently from one year to the next, and given names may not always be shown. Tenants’ names may be less than informative, with names such as ‘Bob the Jew’.

Most local councils have kept their rates assessment books, although they probably don’t go back as far as this. They may have been microfilmed and made available at your local library, or they may have been deposited with State Records NSW. If State Records or the local library doesn’t have them check with the council.

Image: Sydney City Council Archives, CSA027377-056, 1848 Sydney Place.

Land Ownership Timeline in New South Wales

Researching New South Wales land ownership is complicated by the changing regulations and historical events of the time, and it pays to know what regulations were in force at the time of purchase or transfer of ownership.

Here is a brief timeline of the land regulations and events that affected land holders at the time.

1788 – First settlers arrived in Sydney Cove. Governor Phillip was empowered to grant 30 acres of land to freed convicts, with an additional 20 acres if married and 10 acres per child.

1789 – Non-commissioned officers and privates were entitled to receive an additional 50 acres to encourage them to settle.

1792 – First free grants of land were made.

1810 - Many land grants had been made before Governor Macquarie’s arrival to replace the deposed Governor Bligh. Macquarie revoked many of these, although most were reinstated.

1825 – Orders received for a general survey of the 19 Counties of the Colony. Introduction of fees for large grants of land.

1826 – Land could only be taken up within the ‘limits of location’ within the 19 Counties.

1831 – Free grants abolished; land had to be purchased through public auction.

1833The Encroachment Act allowed for the appointment of 13 Commissioners of Crown Lands in an attempt to curb the settlement of Crown land (squatting) outside the 19 Counties.

1834 – Survey of the 19 Counties completed.

1836 – First act passed to formalise grazing rights beyond the 19 Counties for leases of £10 per year.

1847 – Colony was divided into Settled, Intermediate and Unsettled categories, with leases available for one, eight and fourteen years respectively.

1856 – Responsible Government granted to the Colony of New South Wales. Requests for land dealt with by Surveyor General rather than the Colonial Secretary.

1859 – Lands Department established under John Robertson.

1861Crown Lands Alienation Act introduced ‘free selection before survey’, or Conditional Purchases. The Crown Lands Occupation Act allowed all Crown land to be selected for purchase, including the pastoral leases of others.

1862Real Property Act introduced Torrens Title, a centralised, government-guaranteed, system of land title to replace the British Common Law system.

1884Crown Lands Act set out a comprehensive system of land tenures, including conditional leases for land adjoining conditional purchases, occupation licenses, homestead leases, and special purpose leases. Land districts were established and superceded the local land agents.

1900Real Property Act consolidated previous acts. Still in force today.

1907 - Closer Settlement Act allowed for land to be purchased by the government within 15 miles of a proposed railway line for division into small lots for farming purposes. Later acts followed.

1916Returned Soldiers Settlement Act relaxed the restrictions on the type of land resumed and allowed returned soldiers to settle on it.

1919 - Conveyancing Act established ‘good root of title’ for Old System land, requiring only a thirty year chain of title instead of all the way back to the first land grant.

1941 - War Service Settlement Act allowed for land to be set aside specifically for servicemen or ex-servicemen. A training certificate had to be obtained before land was allocated.

1961 – Strata titles commenced with the  Conveyancing (Strata Titles) Act.

1975 - government reorganisation brought the Torrens Title (Land Titles), the Deeds Registration, and the Crown Titles Branches into the Department of Lands when the Registrar-General’s Office was transferred. The name of the Land Titless Office has been changing ever since.

Sources and Bibliography

Hepburn, S. Real Property Law, 3rd edition. Pyrmont, NSW: Thomson Legal and Regulatory Australia, 2008.

NSW Department of Lands, A Guide to Searching New South Wales Land Title Records in the Queens Square Office of Land and Property Information Department of Lands – User Guide – Searching the Records of the Registrar General. Sydney: Department of Lands, 2008.

NSW Department of Lands, From Crow Quill to Scribbling, History of Pre Computer Mapping, Lands Department New South Wales. Sydney: Department of Lands, 2005.

Ryan, R.J. (editor). Land Grants 1788-1809, A record or registered grants and leases in New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Norfolk Island. Five Dock, NSW: Australian Documents Library, 1981. First published by Keith A. Johnson and Malcom R. Sainty, 1974.

State Records NSW. Archives in Brief 93 - Background to conditional purchase of Crown land.

State Records NSW. Short Guide 8 – Land Grants, 1788-1856.

Atlas of New South Wales

NSW Lands Atlas ExplorerI remember the old Reader’s Digest Atlas of Australia that my mother had when I was young. Half of it had detailed maps of the country, but the first half showed New South Wales with different overlays to show the distribution of different things – people, minerals, spoken languages, and so on.

Now there is a similar atlas online, and it’s absolutely marvellous!

NSW Land and Property Information, or the NSW Lands Department as we know them, have set of maps online for historians and other researchers to play with. It’s called the Atlas of New South Wales.

There is quite a bit of contextual information on the site. The most important part, though, and the most fun, is the Atlas Explorer. This  allows you to view, in map or satellite image form, the State of New South Wales or Australia as a whole. For example, you can look at the Changing State Borders map and move the slider along the timeline to see when the different colonies were established and the borders of New South Wales changed as a result.

NSW Lands Atlas borders 1851

You can zoom in and out, choose different types of information within each map, and for some maps you can slide along a timeline to see how things have changed over time. Here is a list of the broad categories of maps available:

  • People
    • Populations
    • Health
    • Housing
    • Religion
    • Indigenous Population
    • Social Inclusion
    • Crime
  • Economy
    • Labour Force
    • Labour Underutilisation
    • Economic Sectors
    • taxation and Revenue
    • Agriculture
    • Forestry
    • Fruit and Vegetables
    • Oils and Grains
    • Livestock
  • History
    • Heritage Properties
    • European Settlement
    • Changing State Borders
    • Goldrush
    • Elections
  • Environment
    • Geology
    • Soils
    • Vegetation
    • National Parks
  • Census 2006
    • Populations Distribution
    • Indigenous Population
    • Housing Costs
    • Income
    • Dwellings
    • Religion
    • Languages

In the examples below I have looked at the maps for European settlement and moved along the timeline from 1820 to 1830. This maps shows how far Europeans settlement had spread in 1820:

NSW Lands Atlas European settlement 1820

This map shows the spread in 1830:

NSW Lands Atlas European settlement 1830

You can see how far Europeans had spread in ten short years. It had already overrun the Nineteen Counties and the Limits of Location. Port Macquarie had been established, and the spaces in between were being filled in. Compare this map with the Map of the Nineteen Counties on the State Records NSW website.

There is much, much more in the Atlas than I can describe here. Have a look around and let us know what you find.

Other resources:

Archives in Brief No. 22 Occupation of Crown Land Prior to 1856

Map of the Nineteen Counties

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