Finding family information in maritime records

Author: Barrie Paterson

Relatives who travelled to Australia by sea

The National Archives holds records about people travelling both to and from Australia by sea. Most maritime records date from 1901, but there are some exceptions. For example the National Archives office in Brisbane holds port records from 1852 and the National Archives office in Perth has maritime records dating from 1898. Most records of arrivals prior to 1901 are held in the archives of the relevant State government.

Passenger arrivals from outside Australia were usually recorded at the port at which the individual left the ship. However, after World War II, entire ships were processed in the Port of Fremantle, even when the passengers disembarked at other Australian ports further east. A person from England bound for Tasmania may be recorded as arriving at the Port of Melbourne. From there they would have transferred to Tasmania via an interstate ferry. The record of the ferry ride to Tasmania is not a Commonwealth record, only the record of their arrival into Port Melbourne.

The National Archives is currently undertaking indexing projects that will provide lists of individuals arriving in Australia. The passenger indexes completed recently cover the Port of Fremantle 1926-1930 and can be accessed through the passenger index link on the RecordSearch. Shipping reports, which give the name of the vessel, date of arrivals and departures, destinations, name of master and the number of crew are located in the National Archives collection and can also be accessed on the RecordSearch database.

Seafaring or maritime support

The second group of records of importance to family historians relate to maritime employment. People running lighthouses as well as those maintaining and supplying transfers and provisions to remote light stations are extensively documented in the National Archives collection. Lighthouse keepers, for instance, wrote daily logs of their observations and activities, recording visitors to the station and the identity or type of ships passing their isolated post. There are also correspondence files and photographs.

The Navy, both armed and merchant, employed significant numbers of men and women. Their personnel files are retained as public records and might include trade-related certificates of competency and certificates of discharge.

People employed as hydrographers and meteorological forecasters also created records for the Commonwealth, and these records can be found in the National Archives.

Ships and their owners

The settlement of the Australian population primarily on the coast meant shipping was important for transport and commercial trade. Prior to the Shipping Registration Act 1981, all Australian ship registrations were approved under British legislation in the Register of British Ships, which was maintained at various Australian ports. The National Archives website has a searchable index of microfilmed registers.

Records of individual ships also occur in ship registration files, docking books, Navigation Act surveys and boat license books.

The Commonwealth Government owned dockyard and engine construction facilities. Important dockyards include Cockatoo Island (NSW), Garden Island (NSW) and the HMA Naval Dockyard at Williamstown (VIC).

Researchers can locate family history information related to ship construction, ownership, registration and decommissioning. You may be surprised to discover the high numbers of family-owned small businesses based on a single trading or fishing vessel. Records also include information about shipping operations and cargo. There are records on the wartime shipbuilding activities and the sequestration and destruction of privately-owned vessels as part of the war effort.

More information

Several National Archives research guides provide some information on maritime records. These guides are available to buy or download for free from the National Archives online shop.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019