This is a guide to using maps for family history. It focuses on using the SLV maps collection, and on researching Victorian family history, including immigration to Victoria.
This page suggests useful resources when researching the lives of your ancestors who spent time in central or suburban Melbourne.
2. MMBW plans
Please note: map bags are no longer available in the Heritage Collections Reading Room.
To find relevant maps in the catalogue, choose the Maps tab and the search with keywords relating to the area where your ancestor/s lived, such as the names of streets or suburbs.
From your search results, you can further narrow your search by choosing from the options on the left hand side of the page. For example, you can limit by creation date or subject.
Beginning in 1895, Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) produced several series of maps of Melbourne and suburbs, which provide a high level of detail for these areas. These maps provide a historical record of Melbourne streetscapes and environmental features, and are useful for identifying where people lived, street names and features which may have since changed. Garden layouts are sometimes featured, house names may be included, and building materials are sometimes revealed.
The Library holds an extensive collection of MMBW plans.
From 1895 until the mid 1950s, the MMBW surveyed the whole of metropolitan Melbourne. The maps drafted to record the survey findings, at a scale of 40 feet to 1 inch (1:480), are know as the MMBW detail plans.
The exact level of detail recorded varies during the decades of surveying reflecting varying financial constraints. For this reason, plans from different eras may present slightly different levels of detail.
It is important to be aware that most areas were only surveyed once. This means that if your house was built in the 1920s, but your suburb was surveyed in 1905, there will not be a record of your house in the detail plans.
Many of the MMBW detail plans in our collection have been scanned and are available via our catalogue, but be aware that although we have close to 3,000 plans, we do not hold every plan in the series.
Refer to the research guide on How to read the MMBW 40ft to the inch detail plans for more information.
Although these plans are at a larger scale (1:920), and therefore don't generally provide as much information as the detail plans, this series sometimes reveals the construction materials of buildings.
Other MMBW maps series: The State Library holds examples of several other map series drafted by the MMBW. All of the alternate series are at smaller scales than the "detail plans", so they generally provide less detailed information.
Find MMBW plans in the SLV catalogue: To find relevant maps in our catalogue, use the Maps tab, and combine the keyword MMBW with the names of local suburbs or streets. Using the names of two intersecting streets usually works well.
From the late 1800s through to the early 1900s land across Victoria, especially in the vicinity of Melbourne, was rapidly being sub-divided and developed, particularly at the height of the land boom of the 1880s. To promote sales of these sub-divisions, real estate companies produced bold posters and flyers featuring maps of the lots for sale at upcoming auctions. These are what we call "auction plans".
Auction plans can help you identify when your ancestors’ block of land was originally purchased. They can also highlight features of the area, such as train stations, significant landmarks and the surrounding landscape. Occasionally Auction plans may mark the name of a local mansion, or indicate who lived at a particular property. Sometimes buyers and prices may be pencilled onto a map
Most of the Library's auction plans were donated by real estate agencies from their own collections. Auction plans tend to feature suburban areas, (which were typically being developed as Melbourne's train and tram lines were extended), but we do have some auction plans of estates and blocks of land in rural Victoria. Generally the maps on the auction plans concentrate on a very small area, showing the location of the blocks of land that were to be sold, and highlighting some of the most desirable features, such as the local shops, train stations and public parks.
Many auction plans are very plain black and white posters, showing only the date and time of the auction, the terms and conditions, and a simple map of the subdivision. Others are highly decorative, featuring colourful illustrations, decorative fonts, cartoons and even verse. Buyers were frequently wooed with the promise of free train tickets and lunch under a marquee.
Be cautious when using the information presented on auction plans. They often feature exaggerated claims about the areas for sale, and the maps that illustrate them regularly distort distances to make the lots for sale appear to be closer to valued amenities such as shops or transport (look for any break in the lines - these means that a section of a street has been omitted). Sometimes auction plans even refer to railway stations or tramlines that were never opened.
To find auction plans in our catalogue: Choose the maps tab, in our catalogue, and search for auctions victoria along with the name of a suburb as a subject.
If your ancestors lived, worked or owned businesses in the CBD or South Melbourne, fire insurance plans can provide you with a high level of detail about the buildings they lived or worked in.
First issued in 1888, the Mahlstedt fire insurance plans were drafted by a fire insurance company to record detailed information about the form and construction of buildings in the city of Melbourne. The plans are rich in information, including the number of levels in a building, construction materials, location of fire-protected and unprotected openings, and the names of businesses. Between editions changes to buildings were recorded by pasting overlays over the original maps. In some cases the State Library of Victoria holds several copies of the same volume, each containing slightly differing overlays.
Central Melbourne Mahlstedt fire insurance plans: The Melbourne volumes of the Mahlstedt fire insurance plans cover the central grid of the city of Melbourne. The first series was produced in 1888 and covered the city grid bounded by Flinders, Lonsdale, Spencer and Spring Streets. Later series were split into two volumes, and covered streets as far north as Victoria Street. Anything south of Lonsdale St is known as 'Section 1', while anything north of Lonsdale St is known as 'Section 2'. Maps in 'Section 2' have an A in their map numbers i.e. 3A, 16A, 20A.
The Library also holds sets of Melbourne Mahlstedt plans from the 1920s, 1948 (southern volume only) and 1962 (northern volume only).
South Melbourne (Southbank) Mahlstedt fire insurance plans: The Library also holds several sets of South Melbourne Mahlstedt plans, which cover the area now known as Southbank as well as part of Port Melbourne. Sets are held dating from the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and 1960s.
Street directories can provide a snapshot of an area at a particular point in time. They can help you identify streets that have changed names or no longer exist.
You don't need a special appointment to view street directories. Simply request the items from the catalogue, before 5.30pm, and they will be delivered to the Information Centre for you to use.
The University of Melbourne has also digitised a selection of Melway street directories between 1966-1999.
The City of Melbourne has produced an online interactive map that includes information about properties, features and assets located within the City of Melbourne municipal area. The site includes an option to overlay the 1895 MMBW Detailed Plan for City of Melbourne, so that you can compare the city's properties and landmarks from 1895, to the City of Melbourne as it exists today. You can also opt to overlay the Compiled Crown Record Plan for the City of Melbourne.
To use the City of Melbourne's online interactive map:
To overlay historic maps of your chosen location:
For more handy tips on how to use the City of Melbourne's Interactive Map, click on the question mark in the blue toolbar at the top of the map.
Cityscope and the Unit Report are a regularly updated series of reports which provide information about properties. Entries are typically quite brief, and may include names of owners and occupants, dates of construction and refurbishments, sales histories, valuations, building names and addresses.
Cityscope covers commercial properties in the Melbourne CBD (from 1977-), St Kilda Road (from 1984-), Southbank (from 1991-). The Melbourne Cityscope unit report covers residential properties in the CBD (from 1994-).
A planning scheme is a statutory document setting out objectives, policies and provisions for the use, development and protection of land in the area to which it applies. It regulates the use and development of land through planning provisions to achieve those objectives and policies. Planning schemes include maps that show how the land is zoned and overlays affecting the land.
Current and historical planning scheme records are available online through the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning website.
The Department have also created an interactive map using data from planning schemes. The map allows searching by a property address, Melways reference or lot and plan number and the ability to view planning zones and overlays with the facility to customise your view of each planning scheme.
Planning scheme records from 1946-1997 are available at the Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV).
You can find a number of items relating to the suburban planning schemes by searching the Library's online catalogue. Use the name of the area followed by the words planning scheme for eg. Darebin planning scheme.
The precursor to today's telephone directories, directories listed the addresses of businesses and/or householders.
Well-known Victorian directories included the Sands & McDougall Victorian directories (1912-1974), the Sands & McDougall Melbourne directories (1862-1911) and the Sands & Kenny Melbourne directories (1857-1861). One in every five Sands & McDougall directories from 1860 to 1940 have been digitised. The University of Melbourne has digitised every year of the Sands & McDougall directories from 1857 to 1880.
The Victorian Post Office, Trade and Specialist Directories Collection is now available for viewing online on all PCs at the State Library of Victoria via the eresources menu. This is a collection of 76 Victorian directories, containing more than 15 million names. The biggest runs of directories are the Victorian Directory (Sands) 1904-1942 and the Melbourne directory (Sands) 1860-1911.
Less well known but also useful are Bailliere's Post Office directories (not published every year) and Wise's Victorian Post Office directories. The 1903-1916 directories be obtained by speaking to staff in the Information Centre on the ground floor of the library.
There were also many other Victorian directories, most of which have been microfiched and are available in the Family History and Newspapers Room here at the library.
Some directories included maps, either as part of the main volume, or as a separate sheet and some of these seperate sheet maps are held in the Maps Collection. For example, we hold several maps produced by Sands & McDougall.
Large scale maps show a small area in great detail.
1:480 (which is 40 feet to 1 inch) is an example of a fairly large scale. At this scale 1 cm represents 4.8 metres.
Small scale maps show a larger area in less detail.
1:100,000 is an example of a fairly small scale - at this scale 1 cm represents 10 kilometres.
An example of a Mahlstedt Fire Insurance plan page
The University of Melbourne has an extensive collection of historic aerial photographs covering Melbourne and Victoria, many of which have been digitised and are free to download. See the university's online research guide, Aerial photography resources for Melbourne and Victoria. Within the guide is an online application that compares Melbourne in 1945 to modern times.
Airspy is a collection of photographs taken from aeroplanes. The photographs cover parts of Melbourne from the 1920s to the 1960s. Search the catalogue using keyword 'airspy' and the area you are interested in, for example, airspy south melbourne.
Additional historic aerial photography is available for public viewing at the Land Use Victoria Aerial Photography Library.
As of June 15 2020 the Library is open with reduced spaces and services.
Our Ask A Librarian reference service is still available to assist with your research inquiries.