A Guide to early NSW Censuses and Musters

From fairly early in the history of the Colony of New South Wales there have been counts made of the number of people living in it. People were named individually, making censuses and musters useful to us when trying to find out where a person was living and what they were doing.

Here is a rather poor copy of a page from the 1837 Muster of Convicts:

Page from the 1837 Convict Muster

Page from the 1837 Convict Muster

In the early days of the colonies of Australia censuses involved nothing more than gathering every person together in one place and counting them. This was called a ‘muster’, and is similar to the process used to count sheep before herding them off to the stockyards.

The first census as we know it, where people were counted in their homes, was in New South Wales in 1828. It had been brought to the Governor’s attention that free settlers could not be forced to attend a muster…

As more information was required, more questions were asked. An important consideration in the beginning of the new colonies was whether there was enough food to go around, so the early musters indicate whether each person was dependent on government stores for food. Only heads of households were listed by name, with dependent wives, children and servants counted but not named. As the inhabitants started to grow their own food it was important to know what they were growing, so these questions were asked.

Here is a list of the early censuses and musters available for New South Wales with their availablity to researchers.

1800-1802

A muster was taken between Jul and August 1800, when Governor Philip Gidley King assumed control of the colony. Additional musters were taken at the same time of year in 1801 and 1802.

Baxter, Carol J. Musters and Lists, New South Wales and Norfolk Island, 1800-1802. Sydney: ABGR, 1988.

Governor King’s Lists 1801 can be found on PRO Reel 10 and the Norfolk Island Victualling Book 1802 on PRO Reel 14.

1805-6

A general muster of prisoners and freemen was taken on Tuesday 12th August 1806, with the landholders mustered on Thursday 14th August. The muster gives information on ‘how employed’ or ‘with whom lives (females)’, which is information that is available nowhere else. A Land and Stock Muster was collected on the same day, containing acreages of the different crops, numbers of horses, cattles, sheep, goats and hogs, numbers of bushels of wheat, maize and barley on hand, and the numbers of persons and whether victualled by the government, with remarks about residence.

These musters have been transcribed in:

Baxter, Carol J. Musters of New South Wales and Norfolk Island, 1805-1806. Sydney: ABGR, 1989.

The Norfolk Island Muster of 1805 has been transcribed in the same volume, as has Samuel Marsden’s Female Muster 1806. The Reverend Samuel Marsden collected information on the females of the colony, probably from the original 1806 muster. This muster classifies the women as ‘concubine’, ‘married’ or ‘wife’, and records, where possible, where the woman was married and numbers of legitimate and ‘natural’ children.

Images of the 1806 muster is available on PRO Reel 72 and on Ancestry. Marsden’s muster is at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

1811

The muster was taken between 5 February and 5 March 1811. Individuals are listed alphabetically within category – male convicts, female convicts, free men and free women. Information listed:

  • Name
  • Ship
  • When convicted
  • Where convicted
  • Sentence
  • Remarks

There is a transcription in:

Baxter, Carol J. General Muster of New South Wales, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land, 1811.Sydney: ABGR, 1987.

The NSW version of the 1811 census can be viewed on SRNSW Reel 1252, and the British version on PRO Reel 61 and on Ancestry.

1814

The 1814 muster was taken between 17 October and 16 November 1814, and gives a brief description of occupation and whether on or off the stores. A transcription is available in:

Baxter, Carol J. General Muster of New South Wales, 1814. Sydney: ABGR, 1987.

The original records can be viewed on SRNSW Reel 1252.

1819

A general muster taken in November 1819 can be viewed on SRNSW Reel 1252. There is no index or transcription.

1822

A general muster was taken on the 2-13 September 1822, and a Land and Stock muster taken around the same time. The General Muster gives:

  • Name
  • Age, including an indication the parents of children
  • Arrival Status
  • Present Status
  • Ship of Arrival
  • Colonial sentence
  • Sentence
  • Occupation
  • Employer
  • Where

The Land and Stock Muster gives:

  • Residence
  • Name
  • How land held
  • Whether resident on farm
  • Acres in wheat, maize, barley, oats, peas/beans, potatoes, garden or orchard
  • Numbers of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs
  • Bushels in hand of wheat and maize

Both the General Muster and the Land and Stock Muster have been transcribed:

Baxter, Carol J. General Muster and Land and Stock Muster of New South Wales, 1822. Sydney: ABGR, 1988.

Images of the General Muster is available on PRO Reel 72 and on Ancestry. The Land and Stock Muster is only available on SRNSW Reel 1252.

1823-25

In 1823 a General Muster was taken in September 1823, and a muster book compiled by the Colonial Secretary’s office. Subsequent musters in 1824 and 1825 were taken at the same time of year, but instead of compiling new lists the decision was made to update the 1823 list instead, resulting in a much more complete and more accurate list. Additional details were added up to 1832.

The muster includes:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Status
  • Ship of arrival
  • Ship year
  • Sentence
  • Occupation, Employer, etc

The 1825 muster was the last muster. Free settlers were increasingly unwilling to attend musters, and the government  realised it had no power to compel them.

A transcription can be found in:

Baxter, Carol J. General Muster List of New South Wales, 1823, 1824, 1825. Sydney: ABGR, 1999.

Ancestry has digitized images of the muster books, which are also available on PRO Reel 66.

1828

The 1828 Census was taken in November 1828, although returns straggled in early the next year. This was the first census to be taken in Australia and the only census to survive in its entirety to the present day. About a quarter of the householders’ returns survive.

Both colonial and British copies survive, as do most of the householders’ returns. There are differences in each, so it is important to check them all if possible.

Malcolm Sainty and Keith Johnson (editors) have compiled a database on CD 1828 Census Revised Edition which collects data from both the Australian and British versions of the census together with the returns of the householders themselves. This is the most complete list available, as there were many transcription errors in the compiling and copying of the lists, and some people were left out of the lists completely.

1837

The 1837 Convict Muster is more of a compilation than a traditional muster, and as such is more accurate. The new governor, Sir George Gipps, needed to establish an accurate count of the convicts in the colony as it was likely that transportation would soon cease.

The muster includes:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Ship
  • Year
  • Where Tried (often not filled in)
  • Master
  • District
  • Remarks (such as ‘Ticket of Leave’ or ‘Married’)

The muster has been transcribed:

Butlin, N.G., C.W. Cromwell and K.L. Suthern. General Return of Convicts in New South Wales, 1837.Sydney: ABGR, 1987.

Images are available on PRO Reels 71 and 72, and on Ancestry.

The 1841 and later censuses will be covered in  future post.

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