Researching your ancestors' occupations

How to identify your ancestors' occupations and find more information their employment history.

State Library Victoria

Library catalogue

Search the Library catalogue for items relating to individuals, ships, voyages and events. You may find biographies, histories, images or personal papers - such as ships logs or diaries.

In our collection you can also find Australian and international shipping registers which can help you to trace the movement of ships and crew. Information on these registers can be found on the Identification page of our Ships and Shipping research guide.


The following crew and shipping indexes are available in the State Library's Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms -

View on board a sailing ship docked at a railway pier, showing six crew with a model ship. H81.111


The following resources are available online.

Public Record Office Victoria

Employment records

The Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) holds many records relating to ports and shipping. Records include employee registers or personal summaries, wages or earnings books and accreditation/licencing records.

Records were created by the following departments.

Department of Trade and Customs, 1851-1901 (VA 606)
Port Phillip Sea Pilots (Port Phillip Pilot Service), 1854-cont. (VA 4180)
Public Works Department, 1855-1987 (VA 669)
Melbourne Harbor Trust Commissioners, 1877-1978 (VA 2799)
Port of Geelong Authority, 1905-1997 (VA 1425)
Port of Melbourne Authority, 1978-1996 (VA 1426)

On the PROV Ports and ships - employment records website you can search for keywords, such as the name of a department or place. On the results page you can limit your results further by date, agency etc. Records can then be ordered for viewing at the PROV Reading Room. Some records have been digitised and can be accessed online.

Discharge and desertion of crew

PROV also holds several collections of record relating to the discharge or desertion of crew members. Records include - release books, seamen's discharge certificates, register of Seamen Prisoners, registers of deserters and discharged seamen.

The Register of Seamen Prisoners [1853–1856, 1869–1885] and the Register of Deserters and Discharged Ships' Crew,  [1852–1925] have been digitised and can be accessed through the Ancestry database (see below).

Image of seven officers, seating and standing on the deck of a ship.

Officers on board a ship. H2012.59/17

Index to Employee Register (Ports and Harbours) 1892-1921

On the Archival Access Australia website you can access an online index to the Record of Employees (Ports and Harbours Branch) Record of Employees (Ports and Harbours Branch) VPRS 10979 . The index lists the relevant page number for the full staff record - held at PROV.

Individuals employed within the Ports and Harbour Branch. include Departmental staff, lighthouse keepers, Williamstown dockyard staff, Marine Survey boatmen, Mercantile Marine Office staff, harbour pilots, pilot masters and the crew of vessels under the control of the Department such as pilot vessels and dredgers.

Ships and shipping

Please consult our Ships and shipping research guide for technical information, ships logs, registers and pictures of ships and histories of passenger, merchant and navel vessels.

Immigration to Victoria

 In some cases, crew members (particularly captains) are recorded on early ships' passenger lists.

Online indexes and copies of assisted, unassisted, coastal and outward passenger lists are available on the Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) Passenger records and immigration website.

Detailed information on passenger lists and immigration can be found on our Victorian immigration and emigration research guide.

Australian Merchant Navy

Public Record Office Victoria

The Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) holds a range of records from 1852 – 1922 on merchant ships' crews, some of which have been digitised.

Records are not searchable by name but can be searched by subject area, such as salaries. If you are researching an individual, collect as much information as possible before you start, such as dates of travel, ports of departure and arrival and the name of the ship they served on.

Records can be searched using PROV's Ships crew search form.

National Archives of Australia

Employment records for Australian seamen who served on Australian merchant vessels are held on microfilm at the National Archives of Australia. Records including brief personal information, names of ships and dates of service.

For assistance with accessing these records please contact the NAA using their ask us a question service.

On board the NZ Shipping Company's new-type, English-built merchantman. 1943. H98.101/701

Newspaper articles

Newspapers can be a great source of information on mariners and shipping. You may find biographical information, news relating to ships voyages, shipwrecks, crew, deserters etc..

The Trove Digitised Newspaper database provides full text access to a range of Victorian newspapers, published between 1803-1954. It includes the Melbourne newspaper Maritime worker, which ran between the years of 1938-1954.

Try searching Trove for a name, a name and a ship or an event i.e. Warrnambool shipwreck.
Use quotation marks around keywords to search as an exact phrase, i.e. "Captain William Smith" and try ending a word with an asterisk to search for all variations of a word. i.e. ship* will retrieve ship, ships, shipping and shipwreck. 

Forty Years on the Bay. The Herald,
16 March 1920, p. 6.


If the newspaper isn't on Trove you may need to explore the collections held in the State Library's Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms.

Newspaper databases

Our Library subscribes to a wide range of current and historic Australian and international newspapers databases. They are available in the Library and many can be accessed offsite by Victorian residents who are registered State Library members.

More information can be found in our Newspapers research guides.