In the absence of census records in Australia?

Unlike countries such as England, Scotland, Wales and the United States, genealogists researching their Australian ancestors are not privileged in having access to the wealth of information that a census provides.  Many genealogists have utilised the data collected through the census collections of the 1800’s and up to 1911, to find ancestors and to learn more about their families.  Reviewing data sheets for each census in your families life span enables the genealogist to build a picture of family composition, place of residence, occupations, year of birth and location of birth.  In 1911, additional information was added, including years married, number of children, those children still living, those that had passed away, whether the individual was deaf, blind, a lunatic (a term used for a range of illnesses), were an imbecile or of feeble-mind.

On the 2 April 1911, Australia held its first census night, and the decades following.  Then in 1961 the five yearly census was introduced.  Despite the rich data that the Australian census could provide to researchers, the Census and Statistics Act 1905 and the Privacy Act 1988 guaranteed that no personally-identifiable data could be released.  As such, as far back as the first census in 1911, all record sheets have been destroyed.  In good news for future genealogists in 2001 the option to preserve personal data and held by the National Archives of Australia.  The bad news is that data is not available until well after the current generation has long gone, 99 years after the census occurred.

It is not all bad, in the absence of the census, the government’s electoral roll is available to the public and datasets accessible by numerous online platforms, including  From 1903 various forms of electoral rolls were created by the collection of data for those eligible to vote in Federal, State and Local Government elections.  Details included in the roll and accessible by genealogists include full name, address and occupation (excluded as of 1983) in alphabetical order and sub-division (a geographical area). Importantly the electoral roll not only tells us where our ancestors lived from 1903 onwards but also allows the researcher to following their residential location over time and trace any other adults in the household.

In some states prior to 1903, for example parts of New South Wales, had muster rolls, which documented those living in particular colonies.  However, many muster rolls have been lost or destroyed over time but some are still available in libraries and private collections.

For the family researcher, tracing the first locations of your ancestors on arrival into Australia prior to 1903 is not easy.  However, the availability of vital records has provided small pieces of the puzzle and with more datasets being made available, genealogists are creating a bigger picture of life before Federation.

A Prospector, A Genealogist, and A Daughter

Charles William Robinson was born in Mildura on 22 February 1917, the son of George Frederick Robinson and Elizabeth Cramp.  After growing up in Mildura, Charles enlisted into the Australian Imperial Force and stationed at Balcombe Military Camp in Mornington, Victoria where he trained before being deployed overseas.  At the same time, Charles met his future wife, and they married at St. Peter’s Church in Mornington on 20 October 1940.

Charles started his operational service deployed to New Guinea on 24 April 1944, and the Solomon Islands on 18 April 1945 as part of the 7th Australian Infantry Battalion.  After serving his country for some 1,448 days, Private Charles William Robinson was discharged from service on 4 December 1945.  In recognition for his operational service, Charles was awarded the 1939/45 Star Medal, the Pacific Star Medal, the War medal, and the Defence Medal.

Years later, on the 28 February 1953, the Australian Military Board received a letter from Charles stating that while moving his wife and daughter from Mildura to Adelaide his war medals were lost.  He writes that “during their trip to Adelaide his suitcase came off his car and burst open ,and this he said, his medals were lost”.

Letter written by Charles Robinson, Service Records

During World War II, Camp Pell in Parkville, Melbourne was filled with tents for returning Soldiers to live while in transit between their discharge from the Military and returning to their family homes.  Camp Pell was said to be wet and cold with mess facilities that were poorly organised.  Upon discharge, Charles spent some time at Camp Pell before heading home to Mildura.

Image of Camp Pell

PHOTO: Argus Collection, State Library of Victoria

Fast forward to May 2018 and The Prospector…..

Prospector, Andrew Lawless, searching for war relics with a metal detector in Gowanbrae Park near the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, unearths a World War II, 1939-1945 Star Medal inscribed with C W Robinson VX137169.  The Prospector and his wife wished to return the medal back to any living relatives of Charles and used both social media and print media, particularly in Mildura where he was born, in the hope of tracking down Charles’s family.

With the popularity of social media, the posts were shared widely to a range of Facebook groups and individuals.  A member of the genealogy website,, found the post and after completing a search on Ancestry found records of Charles William Robinson attached to my Robinson family tree.

In steps The Genealogist……

Charles William Robinson was my grandfather’s oldest brother.  Not a lot was known about my great Uncle’s life, who I never met, and after contacting my relatives to find out if they knew of his family and any children, I found myself at a brick wall.  While family members could remember meeting Charles, they could not recall if he had a wife and children. Putting my genealogy hat on I started a mission to find any relatives that may be related to Charles.

Going through Charles’s military file, found in the National Archives of Australia, I discovered, in addition to Charles’s letter written 28 February 1953 requesting replacements of his lost medals, the name of his wife, along with a few different addresses, and his date of death, 11 July 1989 in Townsville, Queensland.  Using the electoral roll I traced Charles from Mildura through to Adelaide, and onto Townsville where I found his grave in the Woongarra Crematorium.

First stop, the War Memorial of Australia in the hope they would have additional records.  Unfortunately they do not keep or maintain records beyond Soldiers service history. With the Military insignia on Charles’s headstone I made contact with the War Graves office who approve the use of the insignia but they too, had no record of anyone contacting them.  After having no success with anybody attached to the military, I headed to the cemetery in the hope they could help.  The cemetery looked up Charles’ file and found the name of the funeral director and they became my next port of call.

I spoke to a lovely lady at the funeral directors who was moved by the story and why I was trying to track down any next of kin, and said they had kept all the records of past funerals and would dig into the archives to see what information she could find.  I learnt that a R.S.L Chaplain conducted the service and, more importantly, she was able to tell me a name on the file who had arranged the funeral, let’s call her “Mary”.  To my disappointment the telephone number written in the file was missing a number so i started thinking that maybe I was at another brick wall and that I may have to apply for the death certificate which should list any children.

Never to give up on a mission such as this, I took to the internet and social media to see if I could find Mary.  After typing Mary’s name into Facebook I came across one name matching Mary’s.  Could it possibly be that simple to find her?  Just by typing a name into Facebook, surely not!  Looking through her friends our found a friend with the surname of Robinson. I messaged Mary, and let’s call her “Elizabeth”, to see if they were related to Charles.  I wrote….Hi “Mary”, I hope you don’t mind me tracking you down like this, as my mind was thinking am I actually a stalker, but I am looking for the children of my Great Uncle, Charles William Robinson who died on 6 July, 1989.  Through my family tree on Ancestry, I was contacted by several people who saw postings about someone finding a lost war medal.  I am wondering if you may be his daughter?……

First Elizabeth wrote back that night and then her sister Mary, who wrote telling me that Charles was her Dad!  Yes, it was as simple as typing a name into Facebook, who would have thought?  This story is not just about a Prospector finding a war medal nor is it about a Genealogist on a mission to find living relatives.  This is also a story about a Daughter who knew very little about her Dad’s family and being tracked down by her first cousin, the Genealogist.  This is a story reuniting a war medal with next of kin and cousins getting in contact for the first time.  Who would have thought a war medal lost in 1951 could bring cousins together for the first time in 2018?

There have been tears and goosebumps, photos and stories shared and after meeting in person, we now have a bond that only cousins share!

Camp Pell, Melbourne Formally Royal Park During WW2.; accessed 23 July 2018.

Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed 23 July 2018), memorial page for PVT Charles William Robinson (22 Feb 1917–6 Jul 1989), Find A Grave Memorial no. 180165398, citing Woongarra Crematorium, Townsville, Townsville City, Queensland, Australia.

National Archives of Australia: Second Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1939-1947; B883, Army Personnel Files 1939 – 1948; B2458 for item number VX137169.  16 January 2008.

Marriage Index. Australia. Victoria. 1940.  ROBINSON, Charles William. 18199/1940. The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; Victoria, Australia, Marriage Records.

Soldiers World War II medal lost from a flapping suitcase in the 1950s found by prospector in park.; accessed 23 Jul 2018.

Tracing ancestors through the census

The immigration of ancestors across the globe during the 1800’s and 1900’s meant descendants, in some cases, had little information about the families they left behind in their country of birth. While this adds an element of complexity to tracing your ancestors families, there is a wealth of information available to assist you in uncovering who your ancestors family were.

The census is one such research tool available to the keen genealogist to explore and track down their elusive ancestors.

The first census to be taken in England was at the time of William the Conqueror who in 1086 wanted a record of land ownership and livestock numbers. These early records can be found through History Magazine and is known as the Doomsday Book.

In 1801, the English government, unlike other governments across the United Kingdom, introduced the census for statistical purposes for the Overseers of the Poor and the Clergy. Every ten years following 1801 the census was undertaken and each time recorded more information on household composition.

In 1841, the information sought on households have gone onto provide genealogists with a goldmine of information to trace ancestors and their families across the United Kingdom. With a record of names, ages, gender, occupation, place of birth, and year of birth (often rounded up) in each household genealogists now have the ability to track down that elusive ancestor and gain greater knowledge of families and the lives they led.

By 1911 further details were recorded in the census, including how many children were born, how many were living or deceased at the time of the census and whether if any residents had a disability.

In this blog, Ancestor Detective, will go back to 1861 to trace the ancestors of Harold Downes. This exploration of census records will highlight the significance of these records and how much you can learn about your families and the lives they led.

Using the English Census to trace your ancestors

Harold Downes was born in 1894 in England and immigrated to and arrived in Australia on 18 March 1913 on board the ship “Orama”. After his early discharge from the Australian Imperial Force on 19 January 1916, Harold moved to Ouyen in the Victorian Mallee where he married Jean Fleming on 23 July 1924. After farming in the Mallee for some time and owning a dairy in Mildura, Harold and Jean moved to Dandenong where he became a poultry farmer. Harold died on 11 November 1963.

While Harold’s brothers also immigrated to Australia and outlived him, little was known about their family back in England. Using census records Ancestor Detective goes on a genealogy journey to trace Harold’s family in England.

The registration of Harold’s birth reveals that he was born on 12 December 1894 at Albion Street in Tamworth, Stafford to Daniel Downes and Eliza Roe. Using the names of Harold’s parents we searched for the English census to trace Harold’s father, Daniel Downes, until his death in 1901.

We located the registration of Daniel’s birth at the UK General Registers Office, showing us that he was born on 11 July 1854 in Stafford, England to Abraham Downes, a shoemaker, and Mary Goodwin. In 1861 the English census was undertaken when Daniel would have been seven years of age. However, while his parents Abraham and Mary are recorded as living in Middlehills Street, Heathy Lee in Staffordshire. At the time of this census, Daniel was one of five children, yet on the day the census was recorded only Daniel’s younger brother, William was present. No record of Daniel’s whereabouts or his siblings on the day of the census has yet been found.

Ten years on in 1871, aged 17 years old, Daniel appears in the 1871 English census working as a farm laborer/servant in the Robinson family at Buck Bank farm in the township of Henbury in England.

By 1881, Daniel, aged 25 years, is married to his first wife, Eliza Foukes, and living at Hyde Hall in Lancashire. As a farm laborer, Daniel and Eliza have three children Ann Foukes (aged 5 years), Mary Jane (aged 3 years), and James William (aged 3 months). Six years later Eliza dies, aged 33 years, leaving Daniel to raise their three children alone.

By 1891, Daniel has remarried to Eliza Roe aged 22 years and they are living in Stonnall, Staffordshire with James William (aged 10 years) from his first marriage and Fred (aged 6 months). Daniel and Eliza would go on to have another four children by the 1901 census living at Cork Hall in Austrey. Employed as a banksman at a coal mine, Daniel, aged 47 years shortly after the 1901 census was recorded leaving Eliza, aged 33 years old, with five children aged under 10 years.

With five young children and no husband to support them by 1911 the children of Daniel and Eliza are split up. According to the 1911 census, both Fred (aged 20 years) and Edith (aged 10 years) are living with their older step brother James William in Staffordshire. Herbert then aged 18 years is living as a boarder while working in the coal mines in Burton Upon Trent in Derbyshire. Finding Harold and Arthur then aged 17 and 10 years in 1911 was more difficult and where they are living in 1911 is still a mystery to solve.

At the same time their mother, Eliza, has also disappeared from the census records of 1911 and it is not until her death in February 1923 in Staffordshire that she reappears.

In the years that follow 1911, all but younger Edith, immigrates to Australia where they live until their deaths.

Registration of Birth for Harold Downes, 20 December 1894, Reg. No. 1895/266, United Kingdom General Register Office. Certified copy in possession of author.

SRO of Western Australia; Freemantle Outwards Sep 1900 – Dec 1915; Accession: 457; Item: 61; Roll: 157

Australia, WWI Service Records for Harold Downes, 1914-1920, Series B2455

Certificate of Marriage for Harold Downes and Jean Fleming, 23 July 1924, Reg. No. 8882, The Victorian Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Certified copy in possession of author.

Certificate of Death for Harold Downes, 11 November 1963, Reg. No. 23493/1963, The Victorian Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Certified copy in possession of author.

Registration of Birth for Daniel Downes, 11 July 1854, Reg. No. 1854/82, United Kingdom General Register Office. Certified copy in possession of author.

1851 England Census, Heathy Lee Township, Staffordshire County, England; p. 3, family 17; Class: RG 9; Piece: 1949; Folio: 55; Page: 3; GSU roll: 542892

1871 England Census, Cheshire Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG10; Piece: 3678; Folio: 98; Page: 4; GSU roll: 841869

1881 England Census, Lancanshire Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG11; Piece: 4045; Folio: 21; Page: 36; GSU roll: 1341967

Registration of Death for Eliza Downes, 1887, England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915, Vol. 8a

1891 England Census, Stonnall Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG12; Piece: 2214; Folio: 114; Page: 9; GSU roll: 6097324

1901 England Census, Austrey Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG13; Piece: 2650; Folio: 100; Page: 12

Registration of Death for Daniel Downes, 20 December 1901, Reg. No. 1901/120, United Kingdom General Register Office. Certified copy in possession of author.

1911 England Census, Tamworth Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG14; Piece: 16835; Schedule Number: 21

1911 England Census, Castle Gresley Township, Derbyshire County, England; Class: RG14; Piece: 16770; Schedule Number: 71

Registration of Death for Eliza Downes, 25 February 1923, Reg. No. 1923/221, United Kingdom General Register Office. Certified copy in possession of author.

Finding Jean Fleming

I was at the start of my genealogy journey to uncover my Nana Jean’s ancestors.  Not a lot was known about my Nana’s family and I was too little when she was alive to ask her questions about her life.  Our family knew that Nana was born in 1893 in Bathgate, Scotland and was the second eldest of 16 children, although I didn’t know how many siblings there were at the time.  One thing my family remembers was my Nana always said she was a descendant of Mary Queen of Scots, whether that is true or not I am yet to discover.

I didn’t know what to expect during this genealogy journey but I was keen to find out…..

I located Nana’s birth date, 9 September 1893, on her grave record at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery and her parent’s names, Andrew Fleming and Rachel Brown, from her record of death.  So, with my Nana’s birth date and the names of her parents in hand I headed to Scotland, in cyber world, to find out who my Nana’s family were. 

My initial search began when I entered Nana’s name and her parent’s names into a family tree I started on  These details triggered a range of hints of information available on both my Nana and her parents.  Ancestry took me to the 1901 Scotland Census (you can learn more about the census here) for the household of Andrew and Rachel Fleming and their six children (Rachel aged 9, Jane aged 7, Andrew aged 5, Christina aged 3, Mary aged 1, and Elizabeth aged one month). No Jean! Maybe it was the wrong Fleming family?

Searches through other census records for 1901 and West Lothian did not uncover another Fleming family headed by Andrew and Rachel Fleming.

My next port of call was ScotlandsPeople (find out more on ScotlandsPeople in future posts) for a registration of birth for my Nana Jean.  The initial search using year of birth and Nana’s name found no records and an advanced search revealed no records.  How was this possible?

Searching the Fleming line for more information I found a photograph that identified possible ancestors of Andrew Fleming, so I contacted the owner of that family tree on  I asked about the photograph and the people in it, to see if they were possibly my Nana’s ancestors.  After some initial emails I learnt about naming traditions in Scotland and the use of alternative given names.  I was told that those named Jean were also called Jane, just to add to the confusion!

This was to be my first genealogy lesson and here lay my first challenge in finding both Nana’s birth certificate and her family through the Scotland Census!

Back to the census record I found from 1901. I noted that one of the children in the Fleming household was a daughter, Jane aged 7 years, born about 1894…..maybe this was my Nana Jean?

I headed back to ScotlandsPeople, searching, for Jane Fleming, born about 1893 in Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland and there she was born Jane. Her registration of birth recorded her birth as 10 September 1983, to Andrew Fleming and Rachel Fleming “Mrs Brown” (you will learn more about Scottish name conventions in a future post).  I noted that her birth date recorded on her registration of birth was different to the date on her cemetery record – one day out.

Lessons you can take from this research:

  1. A given name for an ancestor used in their lifetime is not necessarily the name given to them at birth – look for alternative names and spelling;
  2. Years of birth recorded on non-vital records such as registrations of birth and death, may not be accurate, such as Nana’s cemetery record – always source the vital record to verify;
  3. Census records only record the approximate year of birth and age and may not be accurate – vital records are important to verify this information; and
  4. Names recorded and the spelling of the same, may not be accurate, as often in the 1800 and 1900’s phonetic spelling was used or sometimes the person the census recorder asked did not know the details of all family members.

Records to check for you Scottish ancestors used for this post:

  1. ScotlandsPeople found at
  2. – 1901 Scotland Census (also found in ScotlandsPeople)
  3. Cemetery records, if you know where they died or were buried, otherwise Find A Grave is a great source

Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, accessed on 23 November 2019 at

Death Certificate for Jean Downes, Registration No. 14030/1987, The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, Victoria, Australia.  Certified copy in possession of author.

1901 Scotland Census, Bathgate Township, West Lothian, Scotland, ED. 4, p. 3, line, 19, Roll. CSSCT1901_354, Registration No. 662/1.  Certified copy in possession of author.

Index of Death, Downes J, 1987, BDM Victoria, Reg #14030. Certified copy in possession of author.

The face behind Ancestor Detective….

I am the conclusion of my ancestors story.

The prologue of my descendants’ story.


Hi everyone,

My name is Deb and I am the face behind Ancestor Detective.

I am a 40 something old Mum of an 18 year old son and a cute puppy. I have been working in government for my career in the field of emergency management. I specialise in research and evaluation, planning and policy, and a range of other areas.

Academically I have completed a Bachelor of Social Science – Emergency Management and a Master of Emergency Management.

Where Ancestor Detective began……

Ancestor Detective’s journey started when I was asked to look up how many people in Australia had a particular surname. From there my passion for uncovering ancestors, building family trees, searching for records, and writing about particular ancestors grew.

My first journey into my ancestors started with my Nana Jean who immigrated to Australia from Scotland. Little was known about my Nana’s family. The family knew she was born in Bathgate, Scotland in 1893 and was one of 16 children born. My Mum had recollections of Nana’s brother, Andrew, visiting Australia along with a grand daughter from one of Nana’s siblings. Nana told the family often that she was a descendant of Mary Queen of Scot’s but whether this was true or not it, was as far as talking about her ancestors as it got.

My second journey into my ancestors started with Nana’s husband, Harold, who immigrated from England. Like Nana, little was known about who Harold’s family was and where he was born. Harold died when my Mum was quite young and any recollection of Harold’s childhood has been forgotten or was never told.

As I gradually built these family trees and uncovered my great grandparents families, their vital records and details of their lives, my passion and interest grew and Ancestor Detective was born.

Recognising that genealogy in the modern world of technology and the internet can be overwhelming and often just knowing where and how to start your family history can be a daunting task. With a passion for research and writing I have chosen to share my genealogy journey by providing ancestor stories, along with tips and resources to help you build your families history.

As well as sharing stories of my ancestors and those I have researched for clients, Ancestor Detective, will provide posts that will assist in breaking down those brick walls, where going further back into your family history seems impossible. I will provide information on how to find different records as well as providing advice on the best ways to ensure that the ancestor you have found is in fact yours.

I welcome you to Ancestor Detective and hope you enjoy our blogs and all that we can provide to assist you on your journey to uncover your past. You never know who and what you will find…..

Please feel free to share our posts far and wide, provide comments on our posts and please get in contact if you have questions or would like to employ Ancestor Detective to uncover your families history.