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Learning Centre


Beginners’ Questions for Australian Research
By Jeremy Palmer, Dip. Gen.


Can I have my family history?
Which family line should I trace?
How do I record my family history information?
How far back can I trace my family history?
Why is the surname spelt incorrectly?
Why can’t I find myself in your records?
You have the census records from the UK, where are the Australian ones?
Where can I get a birth, marriage or death certificate?
Why is Granddad’s age on his death certificate incorrect?

Starting research into your family history can be a bewildering process as it is easy to get lost or confused amongst the range of records available. We have put together a collection of answers to some of the most frequently asked questions to help get you started on the road to discovering more about your family history.

Can I have my family history?
Researching your family history is not as simple as pressing a button on your computer and having the details provided for you. You will need to undertake research in a variety of records building up your knowledge of each of your ancestors and confirm relationships between family members. By those means you can then progress back to earlier generations discovering details of your ancestors’ lives, their occupations, health and other important details.

Which family line should I trace?
You can trace any or as many family lines as you prefer. It may be easiest to begin by concentrating on the line of most interest to you – perhaps your surname line or that of your maiden name. Remember that at each generation the number of our ancestors effectively doubles - 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great great grandparents etc. By the time you reach your 8x great grandparents there may be over 1000 ancestors to find at that generation. Most people will find that distant cousins may have married which reduces the number of individual ancestors in a generation but even so there are many thousands of direct ancestors waiting to be discovered – along with all of their brothers and sisters too! By researching only one or two lines at a time you will find it easier to concentrate on the research and it will not be as confusing as investigating all the lines at once.

How do I record my family history information?
Some people record their family history information on paper or on index cards. The majority of people now use a computer to record their information and there are a variety of software programs, some of which are free, which can be used for this. Perhaps the simplest way would be to use the ‘Family Tree’ facility available on our website. This will allow you to record the information you discover about your ancestors. The data can be viewed either in a family tree format showing how your ancestors are related to each other, or as an individual profile for each ancestor which shows all of the details known about them. By allowing other ancestry members to view your family tree you may well discover that other people are researching the same family and they may have other information to share and swap with you.

How far back can I trace my family history?
This is one of genealogy’s eternal questions and likened to ‘How long is a piece of string?’ Most Australians with European ancestry should be able to trace back to their migrant ancestor. However, it then depends upon how accurately that person provided details about their birthplace as to whether research in the country of origin will be successful. Much will also depend upon the survival rate of the records of the country in question. For example, Irish records were notoriously badly kept and often only survive from the early 1800’s onwards. Those researchers with ancestry in other parts of the British Isles are more fortunate and it may be possible in a lot of cases to take the family line back beyond 1800. Parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial in England do, in some cases, extend back to the sixteenth century and other records, such as wills, predate these even.

Why is the surname is spelt incorrectly?
Until the more widespread introduction of elementary education at the end of the 19th century, the spelling of surnames was not fixed in any way. People who could not read and write relied on those who could to enter their names and details on records such as birth certificates. Those people recording the data wrote down the name in the way they thought it should be spelt. In a country like Australia, with its large immigrant population, a variety of accents would be spoken and the way in which a particular name might be recorded would depend upon the hearing and interpretation of the clerk. You therefore need to be imaginative in considering all of the different ways in which a surname could be spelt eg Jefferies, Jeffreys, Geoffreys etc This is especially important where the initial letter of the name can change. The search facilities on the website allow you to specify whether you wish the search to be limited to exact spellings or to include likely variants.

Why can’t I find myself in your records?
The majority of records that have been digitised relate to historical material and it would be very surprising if you were able to find yourself within these databases. None of the records were made specifically for the benefit of family historians but were compiled by the government who gave assurances of privacy for certain periods of time depending upon the record in question. It is these historical records which are now being made available and you will therefore need to know some details about the last two or three generations of your family in order to use the databases to the best advantage.

You have the census records from the UK, where are the Australian ones?
The first national census survey in Australia was taken in 1911. Unfortunately, the Australian government, once it had extracted all the statistical data required from the various censuses, destroyed the original returns and no census records survive for the period between 1911 and 1996. The records of the 2001 census will not be made available by the government until 7 August 2100. There are various population lists and surveys for parts of the country, usually arranged by state, that have survived from prior to 1911. Perhaps the best known of these is the 1828 Census of New South Wales which lists over 36,000 people resident in the colony at that time. The information from these records is available on this website.

Where can I get a birth, marriage or death certificate?
Birth, marriage and death certificates are available from the appropriate registry of each state. These are –

New South Wales Victoria
Queensland South Australia
Western Australia Tasmania
Northern Territory ACT

The fees required to purchase a certificate will vary from state to state.

Why is Granddad’s age on his death certificate incorrect?
Ages on certificates, especially death certificates can sometimes be unreliable. It should be remembered that the person most likely to know the age of the deceased, was the deceased himself and he was, of course, in no position to provide the information. Having said that, no one knows when and where they were born; we are simply told the facts by our parents or other relatives at a later date. The information recorded on any certificate is therefore only as accurate as the knowledge of the informant, the person who provided the details to the registrar. It is therefore not uncommon to find that ages on certificates can be incorrect by 1, 2 or even more years depending upon how well the informant knew the person in question.

Jeremy Palmer has been a full time professional genealogist since 1992. He was the Registrar at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury, England for many years before emigrating to Australia where he now runs his own research business which specialises in tracing the British origins of families in Australia and New Zealand. He also lectures on a wide variety of family history topics for the Society of Australian Genealogists.

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