Posted by on August 5, 2016 in Australia

With Australia’s next census fast approaching we thought it might be worth revisiting the first census held in Australia way back in November 1828.

Prior to 1828 the colony’s population was originally counted through musters however these only focused on parts of the total population. Musters excluded military personnel, and free settlers could not be legally compelled to attend and this meant that the population was often greatly undercounted.

To gain an accurate count, an Act was passed on 29th of July 1828 to allow a census to be taken. The purpose being to record all inhabitants of the colony both convict and free. The 1828 Census recorded 36,598 residing in New South Wales. At the time it is estimated more than 630 were also living in what is now Queensland and 18,128 people resided in Tasmania.

Unlike modern censuses with their detailed questions the 1828 Census only recorded:

• name of inhabitant;
• age;
• free or bond
• ship name on which arrived;
• year arrived;
• sentence;
• religion;
• employment;
• residence;
• district;
• total number of acres;
• number of acres cleared;
• number of acres cultivated;
• number of horses;
• number of horned cattle;
• number of sheep.

The 1828 Census survived to modern times when subsequent censuses were destroyed because the original Australian copy (six volumes), which contains significantly fewer errors than the copy sent to England, was locked away and kept a tightly guarded secret. For fear of destruction, the census was not made available for general inspection until the mid 1970s. This secrecy may be explained by a perceived ‘convict stain’ as it was feared that the census would reveal the convict heritage of prominent Australians. You can search the Australian copy of the 1828 Census here and the British copy here.

Numerous people of note (both convict and free), or whose descendants have gone on to enjoy success or notoriety in Australia, are listed in the records, including:

• Famous explorers Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth, Hume and Hovell;
• Charles Louis Rumker – Australia’s First Government Astronomer;
• Ramdial – Australia’s first Hindu Stockman;
• Asson – the Pagan cook of Vineyard Cottage;
• Miles Lake – the Toll Taker at Parramatta;
• Thomas Hughes – the ex-convict turned Hangman;
• James Wood – Parramatta’s Town Cryer;
• Catherine Clarkson – listed as both a ‘Publican & Printer’.

A diverse range of religions were listed in the 1828 Census including:

• 25,248 (69%) Protestants and 11,236 (31%) Catholics;
• other more unusual religions included Quakers, Mohammedans, Hindus and Pagans.

Other interesting early colonial statistics to emerge include:

• sheep outnumbered people by 15 to 1;
• there were 2 acres of cultivated land per person in NSW (now there is about 6 acres per person);
• 63% of the population were or had been a convict.

So in the lead up to the 2016 Census why not take a moment to browse through the very first census for a fascinating snapshot of life 188 years ago.


  1. Liz

    Interesting reading. It appears that mohammedans etc aren’t new…grin I enjoyed the look back immensely Thanks

  2. Kate Van Dyck

    The old Census records have been a mine of information for me doing family research. Such detailed information that is not available elsewhere.

  3. Is your online census complete? I ask because a family historian (now dead) has listed convicts who apparently worked for my ancestress in her shop (she was an emancipist) but I can see no reference to them in your 1828 census.

  4. Geraldine O'Malley

    I particularly love shares like this one. They are relevant to me and very interesting. Thank you.

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