Up the country

Carcoar NSW, photo by the author

I’ve just come back from a wonderful week in the sunny red centre of Australia – Alice Springs and Uluru. It was hot, being February, and there were an awful lot of flies wanting to be in my face all day. What amazed me the most, I think, was how much vegetation there is and how varied it is. Still, it is most unpleasant country if you don’t know where to go or where to find food and water, especially water, and it started me thinking about the early white European explorers.

My education was fairly typical in Australia at the time and I must admit that what I learnt about the early explorers was very dry and uninteresting. I learnt names and dates and what the person was famous for and it apparently made little impression because I don’t remember any of it now. What has brought the exploration of Australia to life was actually seeing the desert country they had to survive and struggle across.

So I bought a book at the exhorbitant Ayers Rock Resort rates – Tim Flannery’s The Explorers – so I could learn more on the plane trip back to Sydney. It is a marvellous compilation of extracts from the explorers’ own writings – from Abel Tasman and William Dampier and others almost up to the present day with Robyn Davidson, who travelled alone on camel-back from Alice Springs to Shark Bay in WA. These extracts bring the country alive – what it was like when first seen by white men and what they thought about it.

What has this got to do with genealogy, you ask? No, my ancestors do not come from Alice Springs, they come from western NSW, from the Albury-Wagga area and from Blayney. What my trip to Alice Springs emphasised was that you have to visit a place to understand the people who lived in it, and if you can find contemporary descriptions, or even paintings or photographs, then you even further ahead.

We all want to go back to England or Ireland or Scotland to see where our ancestors came from and get a sense of where we originated, but how many of us travel to the places in Australia where our more recent ancestors lived? Even in Sydney it is possible to learn much more about an area or suburb by visiting and doing some research.

Go to the local library and see what they have, or do a search in the catalogue of the State Library of NSW (SLNSW) at www.sl.nsw.gov.au or the National Library of Australia (NLA) at www.nla.gov.au. You may be able to get an inter-library loan of books about the town or area. And don’t forget pictures – the picture catalogues of both the SLNSW and NLA have many digitised images that can give you an idea of what the place looked like even if your ancestors do not appear in them. Newspapers can also show pictures and descriptions of the area, although harder to find.


The Society of Australian Genealogists’ new integrated library is now open. The library replaces the separate Australian and Overseas libraries they had been running and has much-improved computer access. There are still some kinks to work out, but it is much improved over the old 2-library system. Even the chairs are better. See www.sag.org.au for more details.

(Photo of Carcoar, NSW, taken 2008 by the author)

Five essential websites for NSW genealogy

Today I want to discuss websites that I find to be essential for researching family history in New South Wales. Genealogy has come a very long way in the last few years, with so many government repositories and others putting indexes, and even images of the actual records, online. Here are the websites that I use most often.

1. NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages Historical Index Search is a necessary first step for anyone starting on their family history. Starting with the people you know – your parents and their parents, you can then start putting the meat on the bones – the hard evidence of birth, death, and marriage registrations. The index allows searching for births from 1788 to 1906 by name and/or parents’ names; deaths from 1788 to 1976 by name or parents’ names; and marriages from 1788 to 1956 by either or both parties’ names. The upper search limit increases each year by one year. Once an entry is found the certificate can be ordered and paid for online. Current cost for a certificate is $25.00.

2. NSW State Records was previously names the Archives Office of NSW. Their indexes online has many useful indexes including some censuses; Colonial Secretary Correspondence; Convicts; Court, Police and Prison records such as civil and criminal cases, divorces, gaol photographs, police service records, and some early probate records; Deceased Estate files of the Stamp Duties Office; Education and Child Welfare; Immigration and Shipping; Indigenous Australians; Insolvencies; Land records and Naturalization. Additional records and series are added to as indexing progresses. The Convict and Immigration indexes are essential resources for finding out how your ancestor arrived in Australia. Some indexes are held on the websites of other organisations.

3. Society of Australian Genealogists is based in Sydney and is a marvelous resource for Australian research and NSW research in particular. Their research guides are enormously helpful – factual and very informative. Online databases include Convicts’ Tickets of Leave, Electoral districts for Sydney Streets, Soldiers and Marines from 1787 to 1830, and NSW Ships Musters 1816-1825. The catalogue shows what resources are available when you visit the library and is being added to all the time.

4. State Library of NSW has many resources that are also available in other repositories such as State Records NSW. I always check their catalogue to see if it is worthwhile to visit for records on microfilm or microfiche, both Australian and from the UK. They also have some records for other states. Mitchell Library and the William Dixson Library in particular specialise in Australian and New Zealand books and manuscripts. The State Library also has a vast collection of maps and plans, pictures, photographs and newspapers.

5. NSW Department of Lands is not an immediately obvious source for family history, and it does allow some limited property searches here. What I use it for most often is its Historical Parish Maps, which can be viewed in small sections from here. It may be useful before doing a map search to find the correct parish using the search at the Geographical Names Board. All the existing parish maps that have been superceded by more recent versions have been digitised and put online. Towns are included to the street level, and portions of land have the names of the original purchaser. Hours can be spent looking at these maps. CDs of the maps are also available from the Department.

6. I know I said there would be five websites, but I think the State Records NSW website must be mentioned again apart from its online indexes. This is the place to find out whether the records you want actually exist and have been archived. As the progressive indexing of their holding continues more and more records can be found by searching in Archives Investigator, their catalogue search facility. For example, probate files can be found by searching for the name and the word “death” as keywords (and using “All Words” not “Exact Phrase”). Their Archives in Brief series are very useful guides to the records they hold and are available online or in hardcopy in State Records Reading Rooms.

These are the NSW sites that I use most often in my research for myself and others. I would be very interested to hear from others if they disagree with anything on my list, or have others they would like to share.

What use are land records?

compass 300x220Land records are a much-neglected resource in family history. Land and property is an important part of most people’s lives, whether they are paying off the mortgage on the house they live in, or rent business premises, or own farmland. Land records can tell us much about our ancestors’ ownership of, and attitude to, their land and property; they can tell us about the history of a house or piece of land; they can tell us who owned the land before or after our ancestors did, or who they rented it from. Land records can help to fill in the details of an ancestor’s life that make him or her seem more like a real person than a file of birth, death and marriage certificates.

Why look for land records? Land records can tell us much about the financial standing of our ancestors. Purchases, mortgages and sales of property reflect the fortunes of the landowner, whether it was farmland, investment property such as houses or business premises. An initial investigation of my grandfather, Richard Eason, a farmer and grazier in the Central West of NSW, showed that he started off with very little land and a mortgage to the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) in the early 1920s before he married, and later sold many parcels of land in the 1950s before moving to another town, indicating the increasing prosperity of the family. His father, John Eason, owned one small neglected farm when he died in 1933 according to his Deceased Estate File (for the calculation of death duties) but a search of the land records showed he owned many parcels of land over his lifetime.

Land records can also show us the history of a house or property as nothing else can. Who built the house, who owned it before our ancestor did, who bought it afterwards, who built the extension, when was the sewage connected, what did it look like, how was it furnished – these questions may be able to be answered by searching for relevant records. The signature of our ancestors may appear on some documents, and some may have been wholly hand-written by the ancestor.

What do we mean by land records? Land records are those created for the recording of land transactions – grants, purchases and leases, and sales, including mortgages and transfers. These records are generally kept by the Land Titles Office, now the Department of Lands, although some have now been handed over the State Records NSW. Old System land transactions and Torrens Title deeds show purchases, mortgages, transfers and sales, often with maps and diagrams. Parish maps show the name of the original purchaser or grantee of the land and that of the neighbours. Primary applications to change Old System land over to Torrens Title can contain much information about the family where proof was required of transfer of ownership. Conditional purchase files may contain the original request for the land. There are many different types of records that cannot be covered here.

Although some of these records, such as primary applications and conditional purchases, have now been archived with State Records NSW they can only be identified using Land Titles Office reference numbers, so a search must always begin at the Department of Lands.

What other records are there? Related records were created by other government bodies, and are mostly now kept by State Records NSW. Deceased Estate files relate to the administration of death duties, which were payable from 1880 to 1958, and may contain certificates of Valuation of Property, schedules of furniture and other assets, and balance sheets of businesses. Local government records include development and building applications, rate and valuation records, and maps and plans showing water distribution, sewage and the location of public amenities such as schools, parks and shops.

Land records are time-consuming to find but can be of inestimable value in filling out our family history and knowledge of our ancestors. In a later blog I will discuss how to go about finding these records.


Land and Property Information NSW. A Guide to Searching New South Wales Land Title Records in the Queens Square Office of LPI NSW, March 2002 Edition. Sydney: Department of Information Technology and Management, 2002.

Regan, Des, and Press, Kate. How to Trace the History of Your House. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1990.

State Records New South Wales. Archives in Brief 29, 93, 106, 108Â and 109. Sydney: State Records NSW, 2006.

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