Biographical Database of Australia

Musters & Census

The Musters and Lists included in the Biographical Database of Australia are:


Musters & Lists NSW & Norfolk Island 1800-1802

Musters of NSW & Norfolk Island 1805-1806

General Muster of NSW, Norfolk Island & Van Diemen’s Land 1811

General Muster of New South Wales 1814

General Muster & Land & Stock Muster of NSW 1822

General Muster List of NSW 1823, 1824, 1825

Census of New South Wales November 1828

Census of New South Wales (Deaths List) November 1828

Census of New South Wales (Land & Stock) 1828 *

General Return of Convicts 1837


A muster is an early version of what we know today as a census. The difference, as the word muster infers, is that the population assembled at different places, on appointed days, to be counted, in contrast to a census, where an enumerator visits households to collect data on residents.

Musters were used to count people and to note whether they were victualled [fed and clothed] or not from the public stores. Musters were intended for the information of the Commissary and the Provost-Marshal, to enable them to discharge the functions of their respective departments and to assess the possibility of the colonists being able to maintain themselves without assistance from the public stores. In a penal colony they also played an important security role in keeping track of convicts, their identities and sentences.


Exactly one month after the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove Commissary Andrew Miller drew up a document titled  “A List of Persons who have been Victualled from His Majesty’s Stores, commencing the 26th day of February 1788, with the Births, Deaths and Discharges to the 17th November 1788”.


The list did not include:

  • The small contingent of 23 settlers (seamen, marines, convicts and two surgeons), despatched to settle Norfolk Island earlier in February.
  • The crews who remained on the fleet’s naval and merchant ships anchored in Port Jackson (the crews were victualled separately from their own ships’ stores).
  • Some male convicts and one female convict who absconded into the bush almost immediately after landing. Several probably sailed with La Perouse’s French ships. The rest died in the bush, with the exception of John Wilson, who learned survival skills from the Aboriginal population and was accepted by them.


But the list was in effect the first complete muster of the population, comprising more than 1,000 officials, marines, convicts, wives and children who were to remain in the colony. The document allowed the commissary to account for public expenditure on rations, clothing, utensils and other store items distributed to the people from temporary storehouses near the shores of Sydney Cove. Each individual was allocated to a mess of six persons who collected the rations and clothing on behalf of the others in an orderly roster similar to routines followed on the ships. Cooking was done at communal kitchens. [see Victualling Lists]


Between 1788 and 1795 returns of the civil establishment were compiled and in November 1791 a return, signed by Commissary John Palmer, was sent to England giving a population count at Sydney and Norfolk Island. It gave the numbers of the military, civil establishment, settlers, convicts and other people on rations – either fully or in part dependent [Ref: HRA, (I) I, p.298]. Similar returns were made in 1792, 1793 and 1794.


The next systematic check of the population of the New South Wales settlement was made in 1795 when the Governor, Captain John Hunter, called a muster.


General musters which included all the inhabitants of the colony appear to have been held annually. Smaller musters of specific groups of people were taken more frequently at other times. These included settlers’ musters (recording details of land cultivated and stock), musters of convicts or those specifically designed to include only males, females or children or sometimes, in the early period convicts by a certain ship [Ref: HRA, (I) 1, p.694 and (I) II, p.69]. A forthcoming muster was announced by the means of a Government and General Order. The 1795 muster was announced thus:


A GENERAL MUSTER will be held on Saturday next, the 26th instant, at Sydney; on Thursday, the 1st of October, at Parramatta and Toongabbie; and on Saturday, the 3rd of October, at the settlement at the Hawkesbury, at which places the Commissary will attend for the purpose of obtaining a correct account of the numbers and distribution of all persons (the military excepted) in the different afore-mentioned settlements, whether victualled or not victualled from the publick [sic] stores.


Notice is hereby given to all persons concerned to attend, that every man may be accounted for; and such as neglect complying with this order will be sought after and be either confined in the cells, put to hard labor, or corporally punished.


The sick will be accounted for by the Principal Surgeon, and officers’ servants by their masters [Ref: HRA, (I) I, p.678].


A Victualling List has survived for the years 1792-1796 for Norfolk Island. It listed convicts, military, settlers, free persons, civil officers and all children [Ref: Norfolk Island Victualling List, Manuscripts, Mitchell Library].


In 1797 Hunter reported that the practice of holding musters at different stations on different days gave the opportunity to ‘impostors and other villains to practise their tricks and ingenuity’ by appearing at more than one muster station and receiving double rations. It was decided that henceforth musters in the three districts (Sydney, Parramatta and the Hawkesbury) would be held on the same day [Ref: HRA, (I) II, p.17].


Captain David Collins reported that when Governor Hunter attended the 1798 muster, it provided the opportunity for discussion of settlers’ problems:


A general muster took place on the 14th [February, 1798] in every district of the colony at which every labouring man, whether free or convict was obliged to appear. On the following morning the settlers were called over, previous to which, the Governor, who was present informed them that he had heard of much discontent prevailing among them in consequence of certain heavy grievances which they said they laboured under. . . Before they were dismissed he gave them much good advice; and assured them, that he had already from his own ideas, offered a plan to the Secretary of State for their benefit, which he hoped would in due time be attended to. [Ref: Collins, D. Account of the English Colony in New South Wales. (London, 1802) Vol. II, p.92].


In May 1799 the district constables were asked to collect a list of names of all people who lived within their respective districts and to transmit them to the magistrate from whom they received their provisions. [Ref: HRA, (I) 11, p.366].


The power of the governor in enforcing attendance at musters was considerable. Most of the General Orders had a penalty clause for failure to attend the muster or supplying inaccurate information. In 1802 it was announced that:


All persons not appearing at these musters will be taken up as Vagrants and punished to the utmost extent of the Law, if free; and if prisoners they will be sentenced to twelve months confinement in the Gaol-Gang. Attempts to impose false accounts of any person absent or present will be punished with the utmost severity. [Ref: HRA, (I) III, p.630].


Despite the Governor’s direction and the threat of punishment, most general orders issuing notice of a muster lamented the inaccuracy of the latest returns. Governor Hunter attended the 1799 Muster with a view to transmitting in his next despatch an account of the people in the colony, feeling that by his attendance such an account ‘may be depended upon.’


When he succeeded Hunter in 1800 King alleged his predecessor’s staff had forged documents to allow convicts to leave the colony illegally. In a despatch to London dated 10 March 1801, Acting Governor P. G. King reported:


Since the departure of Gov. Hunter, I have used every means to ascertain the numbers of every description of persons in the colony, which has not been done without much difficulty, owing to the scattered state they were in, the numbers who had obtained false certificates of their times being expired, and there being no general list whatever of the inhabitants; but I am happy to say that those necessary books are now being compleated. [sic] [Ref: HRA, (I) III, p.8].


On 1 March 1802 Governor King despatched the various lists to London. [Ref: HRA, (I) III, p.413]. See King’s Lists in the Musters and Lists New South Wales and Norfolk Island 1800-1802.


Important early musters that have survived were taken on 12 August 1806, the day Captain William Bligh assumed office as Governor of New South Wales, and in 1811 and 1814, during the early years of Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s administration. Musters collected different information as explained in their specific information pages.


There were irregularities in the frequency of returns being sent to England. In 1810 Lord Liverpool, Secretary of State for the Colonies, wrote to Governor Macquarie that no returns of either convicts or settlers had been received since 1806; he directed that a General Muster of all the convicts be made immediately and subsequently twice a year, or as often as could be conveniently done.


The record extant for the 1811 Muster lists: name, by what ship arrived, when and where convicted, sentence and remarks. The volume is alphabetically arranged within four groups: Male convicts, Female convicts, Free men and Free women. Two versions survive, one in London, the other in Sydney. Both are included in the database.


The 1814 Muster is arranged by district (Windsor, Richmond and Castlereagh, Parramatta, Liverpool, and Sydney) and distinguishes between free and convict, men and women. It records name, ship, free or convict, on or off stores and children on or off stores, (i.e. rations supplied by the government) with remarks usually referring to employment. The contents of each muster are fully explained in their specific information pages.


A general muster was usually supervised by the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor and always an officer of the Commissary who was responsible for the collection of land and stock returns. Between 1814-19 the governor personally supervised the taking of musters and returns which were then written up in his office. In 1820 the procedure was changed and, in the hope of greater accuracy in the returns, the magistrates were instructed to supervise and receive the returns for their respective districts:


His EXCELLENCY the GOVERNOR, with a View to relieving those Settlers residing in the remote Districts from the Inconvenience and Expense to which they are exposed in attending the Annual GENERAL MUSTER of the Inhabitants at the Stations hitherto assigned for the taking them; and with the Hope that such MUSTERS may be more accurately made under the Superintendence of the MAGISTRATES residing in or near to the respective Districts, than can be expected from the previous Arrangements which were framed for, and adapted to a very circumscribed Population, when compared with that which the Colony now possesses; has deemed it expedient to devolve on the MAGISTRATES that important Duty, hitherto performed by Himself, personally, assisted by the DEPUTY COMMISSARY GENERAL:- It is therefore ordered and directed, that the ANNUAL MUSTERS of the Inhabitants shall henceforth be taken by the MAGISTRATES residing in the several Districts, so far forth as circumstances will admit; and as no Officer of the Commissariat will in future be required to attend the Musters, the respective Magistrates are directed to take the Account of Land and Stock in Possession of the several Settlers, according to the prescribed Form with which they will be furnished previous to the approaching MUSTER. [Ref: Report from the Select Committee on Transportation. (House of Commons, London, 1812) Appendix 6, p.86].


The 1820 Muster was found to be very inaccurate in respect of the population and Governor Macquarie in his despatch of 21 July 1821 stated that the returns were too inaccurate to send to England. The muster books were returned to the magistrates with instructions for the revisions of the books and the taking of a fresh muster of inhabitants.


However, in 1821 the governor again took the muster and it seems likely that it was an attempt to instil some accuracy into the returns. In a proclamation of 15 August 1822 the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, ordered that the magistrates again supervise the muster. Immediately before the muster, each district constable had to go through his district, to every house and farm, and take a note of the inhabitants and their children and any other information which was required. These returns provided a check for the actual muster taken in early September 1822 and titled The General Muster and Land & Stock Muster of New South Wales.


Musters were taken according to the civil condition of the population at the different stations, but in 1823 this was changed and people were mustered according to the initial letters of their family name. Persons whose names began with certain letters were instructed to muster on a particular day. [Ref: Sydney Gazette, 21 August 1823].


General musters were taken of all the inhabitants of New South Wales (with the exception of the military) for the years 1823, 1824 and 1825. These have been combined into the publication General Muster List of New South Wales, 1823, 1824, 1825 .


All of these musters were published between 1987 and 1999 under the editorship of Carol J. Baxter by the Australian Biographical and Genealogical Record in association with the Society of Australian Genealogists.


By 1828  it had been established that free inhabitants could not legally be compelled to attend General Musters.


On the 29 July 1828 the Governor, Sir Ralph Darling, transmitted to the Rt. Hon. William Huskisson, Secretary of State for the Colonies, for the King’s approval, an Act (9 Geo. IV, No.4) which had been passed by the Legislative Council of New South Wales, viz.,


An Act for ascertaining the Number, names and conditions of the Inhabitants of the Colony of New South Wales, and also the Number of Cattle and the quantity of located, cleared and cultivated land within the said Colony. [Ref: HRA, (I) XIV, p.258].


This was the first Act for taking a census of New South Wales. For full details see 1828 Census



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This Information page compiled by Malcolm Sainty and Michael Flynn August 2013.



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