Australian colonial forces and family history

A guide to researching Australian military personnel serving in Australia and overseas between 1788 and 1902

Imperial Forces 1788-1870

Essential information about the various regiments that were sent to and were operational in the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1870 and how to research them can be found in: How to trace your military ancestors and A soldier in the family. The British Army in Australia 1788-1870: index of personnel (and its guide). These publications are excellent starting points. The book, Military bibliography for family historians: British units in Australasia contains references to various regiments sent to Australia.

Royal Navy Marines (First Fleet) 1788-1792

The first long-term European military presence in Australia was established with the arrival of the British Royal Navy Marines as part of the First Fleet in 1788. The Marines were deployed at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island from 1788 to 1792. This group of Marines were formed using volunteers as part of the Royal Navy to provide soldiers who were able to fight at sea and on land and assist with shipboard duties. Those who served in Australia signed up for three years after their arrival in the colony. Lists of names can be found online. Wives and children accompanied a number of the Marines.

The following books contain names of Marines and family members and are essential reading: The founders of Australia, The First Fleet Marines 1786-1792, The 1787-88 First Fleet Marines at Port Jackson, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land and a comprehensive listing of Marines and their wives and children appears in The First Fleeters. Reproductions of the original records for the First Fleet Marines can be found on the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) microfilm reel 412 (ADM 1/3824. 1787-1792) and reproduced in the Historical Records of New South Wales and Historical Records of Australia. The Marines were administered by the British Navy and the Admiralty Department.

Original records relating to the Marines are held at The National Archives in the UK. After their service in the colony, a number of Marines returned to England, some remained in the colonies as settlers while some of those who stayed joined the New South Wales Corps after the Corps arrival as part of the Second Fleet in June 1790.

New South Wales Corps 1790-1810

The Corps, the first unit of British army personnel arrived at Australia with the Second Fleet and gradually replaced the Royal Marines between 1790 and 1792. A 1789 list of Officers and recruited Privates of the NSW Corps to be sent to the Colony is published in the Historical records of New South Wales (Vol. 2. pp. 433-435). The NSW Corps was a British army unit especially raised for service in New South Wales. Members were recruited in London and Chatham. Some members of the Marines in Australia tranferred over to the NSW Corps.

The book, The 1787-88 First Fleet Marines at Port Jackson, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land shows names of First Fleet Marines who enlisted in the NSW Corps. Sons of serving members and many ex-convicts enlisted and some civilians joined the ranks over time, therefore, colonial records may be used to find information prior to colonial enlistment. The 'Muster Books and Pay Lists' for the NSW Corps for the years 1789-1796 can be found in AJCP reel 417 (WO12/11028). The source book, A colonial regiment: New sources relating to the New South Wales Corps, 1789-1810 provides a biographical register of every soldier who served in the NSW Corps during its twenty year term of duty. This book is recommended also for the historical and contextual information it contains.

Surnames of the New South Wales Corps contains names and details about soldiers who stayed in Australia. C.J. Smee's book, New South Wales Corps: description and succession book contains a biographical listing of every soldier who served in the NSW Corps from 1808 to 1810.  The Marines of the First Fleet handed over their duties to the NSW Corps in early 1792.

For research purposes, it is important to remember that some members of the NSW Corps will be recorded in British records (serving British soldiers on arrival) while some had previously arrived in a non-military capacity (free settlers, convicts) and should be recorded in colonial records prior to joining the Corps.

In 1809 the NSW Corps became the 102nd Regiment of Foot. The Description Book that covers the NSW Corps and the 102nd Regiment can be found on AJCP microfilm reel 1302 (WO 25/642-3. 1808-1816) and the Muster Books and Pay Lists can be found on AJCP reels 412-416 (WO 12/9899-9906.1798-1815). The Corps was returned to England in 1810 after its involvement in the 1808 rebellion although many members stayed in Australia and received land grants, a number of whom became prominent citizens and wealthy land owners.

Royal Marines

In 1804 a detachment of the Royal Marines arrived at Hobart where it remained until 1812. In 1824 a party of Royal Marines was stationed at Melville Island until 1829 and in 1844 a detachment was stationed at Port Essington until 1849. In 1862, Marines were stationed at Cape York. Royal Marine privates were withdrawn in 1870. Some records for the Royal Marines in Australia can be found on AJCP microfilm reel 412 (ADM96/466.1803-1809).

Biographical details for Royal Marine members can be found in The Royal Marines at Port Phillip, New South Wales and Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land 1803-1812. Surnames of Royal Marines who stayed is a website that provides biographical details.

British Regiments

After 1810, the NSW Corps were replaced by a succession of regular British infantry regiments beginning with the 73rd Regiment (1810-1815) until the last of the regiments (18th Regiment, Royal Irish) were withdrawn in 1870. Entries in the book, A colonial regiment provide references to members of the NSW Corps who transferred to the 73rd Regiment in 1810. References to personnel in these units can be found in the War Office's Musters and Pay Lists held by The National Archives (UK) and microfilmed as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP). Record series WO 10 (Musters and pay lists-artillery) and WO 12 (Musters and pay lists-general) provide information about each military personnel member.

It is recommended to use the AJCP War Office handbook as it provides a a breakdown of the contents of the microfilm reels by regiment name. Records for the New South Wales Veteran Company for 1810 to 1823 can be found in the AJCP reels 417-418. References to Officers can be found in the annually published Army Lists. The books, How to trace your military ancestors by R.H. Montague and A soldier in the family by Allan Box are highly recommended reading. The Australia's Redcoat settlers website contains names and details of solders attached to various colonial reginents who stayed in Australia.

Lists of deserters from the early NSW Regiments can be found in the English Hue and cry and the Police gazette. The Army deserters from HM Service series covers the years 1853 to 1870.

Additional resources

Printed Annual Army Lists were official lists of names of officers published by the War Office between 1754 and 1879 and are available online for viewing through The National Archives' website.

The army in Australia, 1840-50.

In search of the 'forlorn hope': a comprehensive guide to locating British regiments and their records 1640-WW1.

Records of the Royal Marines. Public Record Office (UK) Readers' Guide No. 10.