Government Gazettes and Police Gazettes

Government Gazettes and Police Gazettes are an enormously rich source of information for family historians. They can be useful for filling in some of the detail about the lives of our ancestors, and in many cases can solve mysteries.

NSW Government Gazettes

Government gazettes contained all the administrative detail that affected the lives of ordinary citizens going about their daily lives – such as laws and regulations, licenses, land auctions and sales, unclaimed mail, and much, much more. Records of convict assignments and absconding may appear nowhere else but here. Sailors who deserted their ships are listed, as are government employees. Court notices of probate and bankruptcies, livestock brands, and petitions.

Your ancestor should be in a government gazette if he or she:

  • leased, purchased, forfeited land
  • worked for the government
  • tendered for public works
  • died
  • went bankrupt or insolvent
  • had unclaimed mail
  • was a convict
  • was assigned a convict
  • had a livestock brand
  • had a license to run a pub, sell liquor, cut timber
  • signed a petition

Notices of this type were published in the local colonial newspaper until a regular government publication was established:

  • New South Wales – 1832
  • Tasmania – 1825
  • Victoria – 1843 (Port Phillip)
  • Queensland – 1859
  • South Australia – 1839
  • Western Australia – 1836
  • Northern Territory – 1927
  • Commonwealth – 1901

All are still published today, although mostly online rather than printed, and with much less of interest to family historians.

Police gazettes are where the juicy stuff was going on. They were published weekly and distributed to police stations for the information of the local constabulary in order to help them with their work – describing offenders, listing licensees, and so on. Later gazettes in the early-to-mid twentieth century contain lists of known offenders with photographs, for the information of police who may come across them.

In many States publication ceased in the 1980s, as methods of electronic distribution of information became available. Some States publish them to this day, but access is still restricted.

The contents of police gazettes vary slightly by state, but they contain most of the following:

  • Warrants for arrest and details of crimes
  • Arrests, convictions, discharged prisoners
  • Property stolen and recovered
  • Stolen cattle and horses, including brands
  • Escaped prisoners, ship’s deserters
  • Missing friends
  • Deaths reported to police
  • Police appointments, instructions, lists
  • Magistrates, Justices of the Peace
  • Licensed sellers of liquor, wine and tobacco
Police Gazettes were published in the following years:
  • New South Wales – 1862-1982
  • Tasmania – 1861-1933
  • Victoria – 1853-1994
  • Queensland – 1864-1982
  • South Australia – 1862-present
  • Western Australia – 1876-present (restricted)
  • Northern Territory – 1900-present (restricted)
  • Commonwealth – 1 January 1901-present?

It is important to look for your ancestor in other colonies/states, as people travelled over the borders as easily as we do today, particularly if they didn’t want to be found.

Photo of NSW Government Gazettes from the 1850s taken by the author at the Society of Australian Genealogists headquarters in Kent Street, Sydney.

Charles Johnson, prisoner and father

When the grandmother of one of my clients was born there was no father listed on the birth certificate. When she married she stated her father to be a Charles Johnson, but there was no other evidence of this, or indeed of any link between Charles and and the mother Isabella Staader.

At least there was a name to go on, and the place where the child was born. A search of the digitised newspapers on Trove had given a short account of a trial in which Charles was convicted in January 1887 of assault and sentenced to 12 months hard labour at Tamworth Gaol. The woman he assaulted was Isabella Staader.

SMH 18970201 p5 Johnson and Staader

Sydney Morning Herald 1st Feb 1897 p.5

Further searches revealed more information. The NSW Police Gazettes reported his arrest (without bail), sentence and release. He is the Return of Prisoners, showing his sentence:

Charles is about half way down. He was charged with “Wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm” on Isabella Staader. He was tried at Tamworth Quarter Sessions on 29th January 1897, and sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour at  Tamworth Gaol.

Later in the same year he appears in a list of Prisoners Discharged to Freedom. The printing is even smaller than in the page above so I haven’t posted an image. It describes not only his crime, sentence and date and place of trial, but some additional information – his native place was Tamworth, NSW; year of birth was 1862; height 5 feet 5 inches; fresh complexion; brown hair and eyes; regular nose, mouth and chin; and this was his first conviction.

The Index to Gaol Photographs on the State Records NSW website does not include those taken at Tamworth Gaol, but there is a full index at the Western Sydney Records Centre. There he was: Charles Johnston in Tamworth Gaol. The presence or absence of the T in the name was a minor inconvenience – if they didn’t always spell names the same way there is no reason for us to be pedantic about it.

SRNSW Gaol Photograph 1897 Charles Johnston

SRNSW: Department of Corrective Services, Photograph Description Book, Tamworth Gaol, 1894-1929.

The page is wrinkled where the photographs have been stuck on.  We now know quite a lot more about Charles Johnson, including some more accurate information, as I suspect the Description Book is more accurate than the Police Gazette. He had light brown hair and blue eyes, with a cut under his left eye. He weighed 130 pounds. He was Church of England and he could read and write.

We may not know exactly what was going on between Charles and Isabella, but we now have an idea of when it might have come to an end. Perhaps she took him back when he got out of gaol; certainly his child knew that he was her father.

Often the father of an illegitimate child can never be found. Sadly, if there was domestic violence, it may be possible to find out quite a bit about him.

The full citation for the page from the Description Book is :

State Records NSW: Department of Corrective Services, ‘Photograph Description Book, Tamworth Gaol, 1894-1929’, [3/5997]; item 49 for Charles Johnson.

The square brackets seem to interfere with the formatting in the picture caption.

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