Victoria's early history, 1803-1851

A guide to researching the history of Victoria's foundation and early settlement based on published and digitised sources.

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are original documents which comprise first hand accounts or records relating to events and people in a particular time period. Primary source material can take many forms including official documents and reports, letters, diaries, newspaper reports, images and first person accounts.

Documents

Australian Joint Copying Project

The Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) was established to microfilm historical records in the United Kingdom relating to Australia and the Pacific. 10,419 reels were produced, two thirds comprising British official records, most notably those of the Colonial Office, ranging from 1740 to about 1955. The remaining reels contain copies of private records in repositories throughout Britain and Ireland.

The State Library of Victoria holds a complete set of the AJCP microfilm plus sets of the handbooks listing and describing the records filmed. The records of the Colonial Office include official correspondence, despatches, reports etc. relating to the colonisation of Australia- note that relevant documents for the Port Phillip District of New South Wales are listed under New South Wales in the handbook.

A number of guides to the various resources which comprise the AJCP have been produced.  They are extremely useful for finding a way into what can be an overwhelmingly large amount and variety of material.  These guides can be found by doing a subject search on our catalogue for Australian Joint Copying Project.

Historical records of Australia

Many of the official documents relating to the foundation of the Australian colonies have also been reproduced in the Historical records of Australia series. Series I and some of series III and IV are available online through La Trobe University.

The relevant volumes covering Port Phillip are:

There are two CD-ROM indexes to these documents. It is worth checking both indexes, which can be accessed on the ground floor of the Information Centre (open from 10am to 9pm daily):

Historical records of Port Phillip

A collection of documents relating to the 1803 Sorrento settlement, Historical records of Port Phillip: the first annals of the colony of Victoria was first published in 1879. The 1879 edition is available to read online.

Historical records of Victoria. Foundation series

The Foundation Series of Historical Records of Victoria, volumes 1-7, reproduces every available official document that survives from the vital first years of the Port Phillip District, 1835-1840. This vast treasury of documents was assembled by the editors from the collections of the Public Record Office of Victoria, the official state archives. Each volume of the series covers a different aspect of early colonial society and the arrangement of documents within each volume is thematic: 

Early Australian census records

The earliest systematic collection of information about Australia's residents occurred in 1788. The states and colonies regularly collected data in censuses or musters up until the first national census in 1911. The Library provides access to information from many earlier censuses recorded by the states or colonies. For some censuses, only statistical reports have survived (not records of people). Check our Early Australian census records research guide to find out what information is available, and how to access this material.

Correspondence

Newspapers

The Melbourne Advertiser, Port Phillip Volume 1 [No. 1?]The colony's first newspaper, The Melbourne Advertiser, published by John Pascoe Fawkner, appeared on 1 January 1838 and included news items, notices, advertisements and shipping intelligence. The first ten issues were handwritten. As it failed to conform to the Press Act administered from Sydney, Fawkner was obliged to close it after only 17 issues.

The legally produced Port Phillip Gazette began on 27 October 1838 and on 6 February 1839 Fawkner commenced the publication of the Port Phillip Patriot . In 1846 the Patriot, merged with the Port Phillip Gazetteer, begun in 1844, and in 1848 evolved into the Melbourne Daily News.

The Port Phillip Herald which eventually became the Melbourne evening newspaper, the Herald, commenced on 3 January 1840, whilst the long running Argus started on 2 June 1846, absorbing the Daily News (The Age did not begin until 1854).

Newspapers in a new colony were a daily necessity. They are also a rich source of contemporary information for the researcher. In addition to publishing news from home and abroad, they published shipping news, carried important advertisements that enabled the immigrants to find lodgings and buy equipment, printed information about the mails and published government notices as well as government and private tender notices.  

They also reported on government activities and parliamentary proceedings, public meetings and lectures, theatrical and musical performances, court cases and much more.

These early newspapers are available on microfilm from the State Library of Victoria's Family History & Newspaper Room. The Melbourne Advertiser and The Argus have also been digitised and are available for viewing online.

Further information on the Melbourne Advertiser can be found on the State Library's ergo website - Melbourne's first newspaper 

Port Phillip papers online

The various collections that together make up the Port Phillip papers are a major strength of the State Library of Victoria's collections. They include "foundation" documents relating to early European settlement in Victoria. Many of the items in these collections are now digitised, including:

John Batman's journal

John Helder Wedge's field book

Buckley's reminiscences

The first handwritten issues of the Melbourne Advertiser

Batman's Melbourne deed and Geelong deed

A full list of digitised material from the Port Phillip papers collection can be found online.

Parliamentary papers

Until 1851 Port Phillip was under the administration of New South Wales which, in turn, was answerable to the government in the United Kingdom.

It is therefore necessary to turn to the parliamentary publications of these two authorities for government reports and other material relating to the Port Phillip District.

Pages 302 - 303 of A history of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before separation have a list of Reports and Correspondence published in the Parliamentary Papers, United Kingdom, together with Reports of Select Committees published in the Votes and proceedings of the New South Wales Legislative Council. These provide a useful starting point for identifying relevant material.

The Votes and proceedings of the New South Wales Legislative Council are held on microfilm (from 1824) on the ground floor of the library in the Information Centre.

Victorian Government Gazette online

The Victoria Government Gazette is the government's method of notifying the general public of its decisions and activities.

It includes a wide range of information from land transactions, insolvency notices, impoundments and patent applications, to shipping and emigration notices, licences, contracts, proclamation of acts, government appointments, and more.

Government notices relating to the Port Phillip District were published initially in the New South Wales Government Gazette.

The Victorian Government Gazette Online Archive, 1836-1997 includes

  • New South Wales Government Gazette (NSW) 1836 - 1851
  • Port Phillip Government Notices (PP) January - 12 July 1843
  • Port Phillip Government Gazette (PP) January 1844 - July 1851

Note: the search function on the Victoria Government Gazette site only accesses information in the Gazette indexes. It does not search for information on individual pages, but you can search the full text of the Gazettes through the AUSTLII website. The Help section for the Online archive contains a link to AUSTLII along with some instructions for searching the full text.  

Eresources

Early experiences in Australasia: primary sources & personal narratives 1788-1901 Offering first-person accounts, including letters and diaries, narratives, and other primary source materials, this database provides a unique and personal view of events in the region from the arrival of the first settlers through to Australian Federation at the close of the nineteenth century.

Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement & Colonial Encounters This digital collection of primary source documents helps us to understand existence on the edges of the anglophone world from 1650-1920.The beginnings of European Australia and New Zealand are covered by British government documents, starting with Arthur Phillip and the penal colony at Sydney. The frontiers of other parts of Australia are also covered by documents from the UK National Archives and some material from Australian Archives.

Access to these database is freely available in the library. Victorian residents who are state library members can also access these eresources from home.