Unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Services 

 Search  &  Help Recruits Military History Hall of Heroes Indigenous Slouch hat + ARMY Today Uniforms Badges

 Colours & Flags Weapons Food Equipment Assorted Medals Armour Navy Air Power 

Nurses - Medical Tributes Poetry - Music Posters & Signs Leaders The Enemy Humour Links Killing Anzac

Click to escape. Subject to Crown Copyright
Category: FAQ

Click to go up one level

Family history and the British Army in Australia

by Peter Stanley: from his book, The Remote Garrison, The British Army In Aust. ISBN 0-86417-091-2

The recent welcome 'boom' in family history in Australia, while at times seeming to overwhelm hard-pressed archivists and librarians, has had a number of positive consequences for the study of Australian history as a whole. Genealogists have stimulated interest in several aspects of Australia's early history, such as emigration or land settlement, or the role of the military in the Australian colonies. 

Those tracing ancestors with military connections must become conversant with some specialised points of information, such as learning to distinguish between regiments or types of soldiers, distinctions which are liable to mislead unwary researchers. But because members of the nineteenth century British army were organised into distinct units, which they rarely left between enlistment and discharge, researching them may be more straightforward than for purely civilian ancestors.

The most important point to grasp at the very beginning is that virtually all the relevant documentation is organised by regiment. If you do not know the regiment in which your ancestor served you may have a difficult task locating it. On the other hand there are several short-cuts. if, for example, you know that your ancestor took his discharge around the 1840s you can narrow the search d -own to the 28th, 80th, 51st, 96th, 99th, 58th, 11th or 65th Regiments. If you know that he was discharged in Van Diemen's Land, then it is unlikely that he was a member of the 28th, 80th or 58th because they did not serve in Tasmania.

As with other kinds of genealogical research, family historians attempting to trace British military forbears should do three things before attempting to research primary sources. Firstly, you should join your state or local genealogical society, which can provide information, reference material and guidance which can save much unnecessary work: you are likely to meet someone who has attempted to solve the same problem as you, but who has found an answer the hard way! 

Secondly, you should begin research working from what can be gleaned from family sources-if you are lucky you may locate a parchment discharge certificate, or an old photograph showing that great-great grand father was a gunner, or you may come across a fragment of family folklore to the effect that he had been a fusilier or a trooper.

Your next step should be to consult published sources. It is unlikely that any published source will name many private soldiers or non-commissioned officers, but you should try to locate regimental histories or other works which relate to the British army in colonial Australia.

Though many regimental histories are very patchy on peacetime colonial garrison duty, they may give an outline of a regiment's service, revealing, for example, lists of stations to which detachments were posted, which may help you in deciphering hand-written records to which you will later refer. Sources such as the volumes of the Historical Records of Australia or New South Wales should not be neglected if you are researching Marines or members of the New South Wales Corps.

Having completed this necessary preparation, you can search for primary sources. A relatively limited range of official records exists describing nineteenth century soldiers, and unfortunately most of it is accessible only in the Public Record Office in London. The few military records in Australia are accessible only on microfilm. The basic sources are the British records available under the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), a massive undertaking aiming to microfilm large quantities of British records relevant to Australian history. Relatively few military records of genealogical interest have been copied, however, except those pertaining to the New South Wales Corps, and the W012 series.

War office records are listed in Part 4 of the AJCP Handbook, which is available in all state libraries and through many genealogical societies. Most state libraries hold AJCP material and it may be possible to obtain reels through your local library on inter-library loan. The most important series of War Office documents of genealogical interest are:

  • W012, Muster Books and Pay Lists

The AJCP reels of W012 are the essential starting point for military genealogical research in Australia. These lists were compiled quarterly and are arranged by regiment annually. Separate lists may be found for large detachments 'on command', such as those on Norfolk Island. Muster rolls can provide the names and locations of officers, the names of non-commissioned officers and musicians (arranged alphabetically by company), the names of privates, including their individual regimental numbers, the names of men detached to extra-regimental duties such as the Mounted Police, and the details of soldiers in confinement. The rolls also list returns of men who died, deserted or were discharged, which contain information such as place of birth, trade on enlistment and date of enlistment.

  • W025, Registers-Regimental Description and Succession Books

The description and succession books maintained for each regiment provide a soldier's name, date and place of birth, occupation before enlistment, military service and physical description. Records such as these give more details than are available from muster rolls. W025 also includes Casualty Returns which gave the names and dates of each casualty, and are also arranged by regiment. 'Casualty' is misleading; the returns include men who were discharged as well as those who died, and are therefore useful to confirm when men left the army. Except for the New South Wales Corps and the Veteran companies, W025 is held almost entirely in the Public Record Office and is also incomplete, some regiments' books having been lost.

  • W097, Soldiers' Documents 1760-1900

This massive series, also organised by regiment, contains soldiers' service documents. It repeats some material found in the Muster Rolls and Description and Succession Books, but provides in addition information about men's military career (including whether decorations were awarded) and reasons for discharge or pension. It has not been filmed for the AJCP but is held in the Public Record Office in London and can best be consulted using a search agent.

  • Other Sources

Tracing officers is, as would be expected, relatively simple. Not only are they mentioned by name in many regimental histories, but they were also named in the series W017, Monthly Returns, which are primarily statistical summaries of regimental strengths. A series of army lists, published under several titles, of which Hart's Annual Army List is the most common, give the officers of every regiment year by year with the dates of their various promotions. You should, however, be aware that former officers often migrated to Australia after retiring in Britain (or indeed in any colony), and may not have served in any regiment posted to Australia. This is particularly the case in the decade or so after the end of the Napoleonic wars, when many redundant officers left to try their luck in the colonies.

There is, of course, the possibility that the ancestor whom you seek was a former soldier and did come to Australia, but was a military pensioner. This is particularly so in the case of Western Australia, which employed many Enrolled Pensioners as convict guards from 1850. Pensioners can often be traced readily because, of necessity, they leave financial records, but, because they were dispersed, present other difficulties not faced by those researching serving soldiers. The AJCP series W022, Out Pensioner Records, may assist, as it contains periodic returns of pensioners arranged by regiment and location. It is, however, incomplete. Those investigating pensioners should be careful; it may be, for example, that a man did serve in Australia, but was discharged in India or Britain and then migrated as a pensioner.

For members of more obscure units, such as the Royal Sappers and Miners or the Royal Staff Corps, it may be advisable to seek the guidance of officers or fellow members of your genealogical society. It will probably be necessary to consult original material in the Public Record Office in Britain, in which case a search agent can be engaged. The PRO can provide a list of qualified search agents. Relevant original material may also be held in the manuscript collections of major Australian libraries; the Manuscript Section of the National Library of Australia, for example, holds Ms 3221, the Troop Order Book of the Mounted Police in New South Wales, 1832-38. 

Contained in large ledgers and recorded in flowing handwriting are not only details of the Mounted Police's duties, but also many references to individual troopers. The order book notes in September 1832, for example that a Trooper Gleeson 6 received an unjust reprimand from a Civil Magistrate. Such details, though requiring much effort to locate, can make genealogical research more than a
matter of dates of births, arrivals or deaths. In seeking to use such original manuscript material, however, you should be careful not to look through it , just in case': such records are too fragile to bear unnecessary use by casual browsers.

Before going very far in your genealogical research you will have to correspond with institutions or organisations which may hold material relevant to your work. Most libraries, archives or museums are pleased to receive such letters, but reference staff are busy people, and you should be sure to let them know exactly what you require and approximately how much you already know: it is frustrating to wait for a reply for several months only to receive a reference to a regimental history which you consulted when you began.

Regimental museums in Britain can help family historians-some hold regimental records of great value-but they are not equipped to deal with many genealogical queries and you would be fortunate to obtain much information about individual soldiers. On the other hand they are always worth approaching, and a list of their addresses can be found in Roll Call!: a guide to genealogical sources in the Australian War Memorial. 

In corresponding with regimental museums you should be sure to use the regiment's correct title-they have altered a great deal since the last century due to successive reorganisations of the British army-and you may wish to make a donation to museum funds to acknowledge their work, particularly if you obtain worthwhile information.

Using only AJCP material, diligent family historians can locate a great deal of information. Mrs Norma Gow of Fairfield, New South Wales, for example, found using microfilmed material her great-great grandfather in Private Thomas Williams, regimental number 455, of the 80th Regiment. Private Williams, formerly a labourer, had enlisted in Stone-on-Trent in Staffordshire (the 80th was the Staffordshire Volunteers) and embarked for Australia aboard the Bengal Merchant at Gravesend in August 1836, arriving in Sydney in December. 

He and 28 other soldiers guarded 269 convicts aboard the ship, under Lieutenant Christie. On arrival in New South Wales Private Williams was posted to Windsor and was detached to serve at Springwood, Weatherboard Hut and 17 Mile Hollow, all stations on the Bathurst road. He transferred to the Mounted Police and, after eleven months' furlough, was discharged in February 1840.

It is here, with the location of the outlines of a man's military career, that family history-if it is to be more than what non-genealogists disparagingly refer to as 'head-hunting-'Must embrace the wider history of a society. For having painstakingly found the bare bones of an individual's story, the family historian should set about putting flesh on the bones by enquiring about the context of that person's life. 

In Private Williams' case, for example, we could consult Ensign Best's published diary of his voyage to New South Wales aboard another convict ship in the late 1830s. Because public order was such an issue at the time, contemporary newspapers often mention conditions in the colony's iron gang stockades and military posts, while the Troop Order Book held in the National Library could indicate the sorts of duties Private Williams was called upon to perform and the sorts of pressures to which he and his comrades were subject. 

We would also be able to use knowledge of the army of the time to interpret the few facts we had obtained about Private Williams. He was likely to have been a reliable old soldier-in March 1837 all regiments were asked to select 'none but the most sober and well conducted men in the garrison' for transfer to the Mounted Police. Though not all Mounted Police troopers lived up to these criteria, the fact that" Private Williams was trusted to take leave suggests that he was such a man. In this way we could begin to appreciate what Private Williams' experience of military service in Australia might have been like, and perhaps come to understand why he might have grasped the opportunity, after sixteen years' service, to take his discharge.

Some useful sources for tracing ancestors who may have served with the British army in Australia.
B.R. Blaze (ed.), M.E. Runting (comp.), Ancestors for Australians, Genealogical Society of Victoria, Melbourne, 1978

B.R. Blaze (ed.), Genealogy in a Changing Society: proceedings of the first Australian Conference on Genealogy and Heraldry, Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies, Oakleigh, Vic., 1980*

Joyce Bradley (and others), Roll Call!: a guide to genealogical sources in the Australian War Memorial, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1986

Frances Brown, Dom Meadley & Marjorie Morgan, Family and Local History Sources in Victoria, Custodians of Records, Blackburn, Vic., 1984

Nancy Gray, Compiling Your Family History: A guide to procedure, 15th ed., Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney, 1984

Errol Lea-Scarlett, Roots and Branches: Ancestry for Australians, Collins, Sydney, 1979

Lillyan MacDonald, 'Genealogical Research in Australia', Descent, vol. 13, pt 3, September 1983, pp. 118-33

A.G. Puttock, Tracing Your Family Tree, Lothian, Melbourne, 1979

Grahame Thom, 'Chelsea Pensioners in Nineteenth Century Australia', in Bridging the Generations: Fourth Australasian Congress on Geneology and Heraldry, Canberra, 1986

Nick Vine Hall, Tracing Your Family History in Australia, Rigby, Adelaide, 1985

*This source contains a most useful paper by the late Brigadier 'Bunny' Austin on colonial military records.

Genealogical societies in Australia

  • The Society of Australian Genealogists
    • Richmond Villa
    • 120 Kent Street
    • Observatory Hill
    • Sydney NSW 2000
  • The Genealogical Society of Victoria
    • Room 1, 1st Floor
    • 98 Elizabeth Street
    • Melbourne Vic 3000
  • Australian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents 
    • PO Box 211 Ashburton 
    • Vic 3147
  • Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies 
    • PO Box 68 Oakleigh 
    • Vic 3166
  • The Queensland Family History Society
    • PO Box 171
    • Indooroopilly Qld 4068
  • Genealogical Society of Queensland
    • 2nd Floor
    • 329 Logan Road
    • Stones Corner Qld 4120
  • Genealogical Society of South Australia
    • 7 Maple Avenue
    • Forestville SA 5035
  • Western Australian Genealogical Society
    • PO Box 7
    • West Perth WA 6005
  • The Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra
    • GPO Box 585
    • Canberra ACT 2601
  • Genealogical Society of the Northern Territory
    • PO Box 37212
    • Winnellie NT 5789

Statistics : Over 35 million page visitors since  11 Nov 2002  



 Search   Help     Guestbook   Get Updates   Last Post    The Ode      FAQ     Digger Forum

Click for news

Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces