Historical Records of Australia



Looking for online? Go to the bottom of this posting.

The Historical Records of Australia comprise three series of volumes. Within the series,  each separate volume is about 900 pages in length, containing transcriptions of the official documentation between the Colonial Office and the local governments in the different states.    Series I provides the Governor’s despatches to and from England, Series III contains documents related to the settlement of the states  (especially Tasmania)  while Series IV which has barely begun, features documents relating to the legal system.    Volume 8 of Series III only appeared in 2003, and Volume 9 in 2006.  Series II  never appeared at all.

The early volumes were collected and published by the Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament between 1914 and 1925.  James Frederick William Watson was the editor.  According to his ADB (Australian Dictionary of Biography) entry, he was a medical doctor and historian.  He was appointed a trustee, then acting principal librarian at the Public Library of New South Wales.  In this position, he inherited the responsibility for transcribing the official New South Wales documents and the papers held in London, a task commenced by F. M. Bladen and James Bonwick separately some  years earlier.  The Commonwealth agreed to finance the project in 1907 and the project was expanded and retitled as The Historical Records of Australia.

This national vision, in the years following Federation is important.  Until then, transcriptions of records had been undertaken on a state-by-state basis, largely by James Bonwick who had been contracted to make copies by the Queensland,  South Australian, Victorian and Tasmanian and later NSW governments separately, and by Barton and Bladen for the  NSW papers.  Indeed Bonwick’s entry in the ADB suggests that Watson used Bonwick’s work without acknowledgment in HRA .  The compilation of the Australian historical records was a task hemmed in by constraints. When Bonwick made his transcriptions in London, he was not allowed to include the minutes written on the papers by the Colonial Office bureaucrats (a fascinating counter-narrative that runs alongside the official stance).  Bonwick had included newspaper articles and engraved illustrations in his collection, but had left out other information in deference to the sensibilities of families who were  still sensitive about convict origins. There were no official archives at all at this stage- South Australia was the first state to establish its own state-based archive in 1919- and papers were distributed across several government departments (Chief Secretary’s office, the Supreme Court, Lands Office etc) as well as in private hands.

The vision for the project was broader than the eventual product.  Watson envisaged seven separate series, of which only three ever appeared (I, III, IV)

I Despatches of Governors To and From England

II Papers belonging to the general administration

III Settlements in the different states

IV Legal papers

V Explorations

VI Scientific

VIII Ecclesiastical, naval and military papers.

In 1917 the Library committee agreed that they would limit the scope of HRA to 1856, the beginnings of responsible government, with the states taking over their own publication programs for material after 1856.

Each volume of HRA commences with a commentary of the years and issues covered.  Watson’s ‘untutored prose’ was criticized and George Arnold Wood, the professor of History at the University of Sydney was appointed literary consultant.  Unfortunately he was unable to persuade Watson to provide evidence of the documents’ locations, although today it is sufficient to just cite ‘HRA vol xxiii’ etc.

Between 1914 and 1925, with a 2 year suspension during WWI,  Watson  collated, edited and supervised the publication of 33 v0lumes of documents covering the period 1786 to 1848.  Of course, he did not do this completely alone, and there are a string of assistants (many of whom were women) who remain largely invisible in the finished product.  By 1925 Watson’s relationship with the library committee had broken down resulting in legal proceedings and the collapse of the project. The project was recommenced in 1997 and the volumes produced since then in the ‘resumed series’ appear sporadically, published by Melbourne University Press and the University of Tasmania.

Most large libraries have the series, usually in the reference section but the older ones in particular are getting pretty tatty and worn and there’s a danger that they’ll be whisked off into some ‘rare books’ section where they’re no earthly use to anyone.

And so, I was absolutely delighted to find them online at a NSW government site (even though they were huge PDFs and took a long time to download). But then – oh, no! they disappeared.  Thank heavens that La Trobe University has since digitized them, and they’re available through their Research Repository. But you need to be a bit of a sleuth.  First go to their Research Repository at http://www.latrobe.edu.au/library/research-and-grant-support/research-online

Then type in “Historical Records of Australia” in inverted commas and -voila! They have been helpfully broken into smaller, dated PDF files as well as a larger file, so that if you know the date, you don’t need to download the whole thing.  There is an index at the end of each volume


Ann M. Mitchell (1982): Doctor Frederick Watson and historical records of Australia , Historical Studies, 20:79, 171-197  (She also wrote Watson’s ADB entry).

7 responses to “Historical Records of Australia

  1. What a find! Thankyou very much for this and for the background on these volumes which you have provided. This is on my list of things to check out this week.

  2. Sounds like a massive task and well worthwhile. I can imagine every historian in the nation will be grateful.

    The three areas you mentioned:
    a] Series I provides the Governor’s despatches to and from England
    b] Series III contains documents related to the settlement of the states (especially Tasmania)
    c] Series IV .. features documents relating to the legal system.

    Did every state agree to send a copy of its documents to Sydney, in the decades before Federation? If not, how do the Historical Records of Australia cover the other states and territories?

    • I’ve added to the post, as you can see. The states had mainly commissioned their own collection by Bonwick, and then these were incorporated (largely without attribution) into HRA. It’s hard to tell, because Watson doesn’t include details about where the sources are located. Series III is the one that has the most information about the other states- especially Tasmania and Port Phillip. It goes up to 1830 and I’m not sure if it includes the Swan River Colony in WA or not. But overall, it’s very NSW-focussed.

  3. Thank you for this information! What a resource.

  4. Pingback: ‘Along the Archival Grain’ by Ann Laura Stoler | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  5. Volume 10 of Series III appeared in 2013. All of Series I, Series III (volumes 1-6) and the Historical Records of New South Wales are available from Gould Genealogy either as single volumes or, more cost effectively, as single DVDs–often on sale so good value.

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