The Colonial Office was responsible for much of the administration and development of policy for the colonies until the 1850s when the colonies own government structures started to assume responsibilities. The material in this collection covers all aspects of colonial life for the period 1851-1900. The enclosures included in the despatches include statistical returns, reports, letters and petitions from private individuals and printed material, occasionally annotated by government officials.
The records cover activities between the United Kingdom and the six Australian colonies (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania), plus, New Zealand, New Guinea and Fiji.
The collection is sorted into colony, type of transaction, and grouped by years. Individual names are not indexed in this digitised collection. To use this collection, you could use passenger lists to identify the arrival of your ancestor - and then go to the index or register (if available) for the series to see if there is relevant material.
There are several types of records relating to immigration. The common series per colony are:
Selected Colonial Office records are also included in Historical records of Australia, (1788-1842) and Historical records of New South Wales (1762-1811). Both these series are indexed. You can then go to the Colonial Office records for further material.
You can use either the Handbook - a digitised version of the hardcopy is available online from the link on the right hand side of this page, or use the finding aid to search and browse the collection online.
See the Finding records page in this guide for more information on searching the collection.
The Handbook provides piece level information, with a date range and description of the subject or responsible body for the documents.
To get to the online collection from the Handbook, search on the series number - CO 309, for example, and browse to the item of interest.
The online finding aid lists the various series of records and direct links to individual items in their hierarchical structure.
You can browse this collection to see the full list of records at the various levels and date ranges:
Guide to the Records of the Colonial Office (as filmed by the AJCP)
Correspondence of the Colonial Office consisting of despatches and their enclosures, reports from governors and from the Land Board and Gold Fields' Commissioners, letters from British Government agencies, and letters from individuals and organisations in Great Britain and Victoria. See CO 374 for the related register.
Arranged chronologically within the following categories. Each volume includes a contents list, or precis of each letter giving name of correspondent, date of letter and subject matter:
Executive Council papers, 1851-1856 and Legislative Council papers with appendices, 1852-1856.
Includes the Blue book of statistics (1851-1856)
Chronological list of correspondence received by the Colonial Office relating to Victoria. It includes a precis of subject matter and a record of action taken. For correspondence to which the registers refer see Victoria: Original Correspondence [CO 309]
Established in 1840, by combining the Colonisation Commissioners for South Australia and the Agent General for Emigration - this body was responsible for the management of land sales in the British Colonies, and using some of the proceeds to promote and regulate emigration to the colonies. It was abolished in 1878.
Original correspondence, entry books and registers of the Agent General for Emigration, the South Australian Commissioners and the Land and Emigration Commission. The correspondence comments on themes of colonisation and emigration, work opportunities and wages in Australia, employment of surgeons and land purchase, expenses of the emigration office.
Register of births and deaths at sea 1847-1854 CO386/170
Register of deaths at sea 1855-1860 CO386/171
Register of deaths at sea 1861-1869 CO386/172 Arranged under name of ship and year.
List of ships chartered, 1858 - 1864 (File 182)
List of ships chartered, 1865 - 1869 (File 183)
List of ships chartered, 1855 - 1864 (File 184)
List of ships chartered, 1865 - 1867 (File 185)
Alphabetical list of applications for passage and embarkation orders - this is the index to Register of emigrants: labourers applications for a free passage. (Files 272, 273, 1839-1850). The petitions document requests and correspondence for family members to join settlers in the colonies.
Copies of despatches and letters written by the Colonial Office relating to Victoria.
Journals kept by surgeons on convict ships, travelling to Australia, 1816-1856, emigrant ships bound for Australia and New Zealand, 1825-1853, and selected journals from naval vessels. The journals may contain an account of the treatment of medical and surgical cases, and usually a copy of the daily sick list, statistical abstracts of the incidence of diseases, and general comments on the health and activities of the ship's company.
Mathilde.E. Deane worked at the then Public Record Office in London 1929-1930 and compiled a range of lists, guides and indexes to Colonial Office records relevant to the Australian colonies.
State Library holdings include the "Settler's Letters index" an index to letters, by or about individuals in Colonial Office Records.
Portrait of M.E.Deane, Judith Fletcher, Sydney. National Library of Australia
Understanding the terminology and record hierarchy can help with identifying what you will find where, and with deciphering your results.
Fonds - a group of documents that share the same origin and that have occurred naturally as an outgrowth of the daily workings of an agency, individual, or organization. e.g. General records of the War Office and predecessors and successors 1789-1858.
Series - the main grouping of records with a common function or subject, e.g. registers, unnumbered papers, correspondence.
Sub-series - a further grouping under series level.
Piece - a folder, file, volume or box of documents.
Item - can be a page or a bundle, stored within a piece.
Child - an item, or group of items at the next level below.
More here: National Archives - Glossary for discovery
Amanda Bevan. Tracing your ancestors in the National Archives