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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory


National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia preserves and cares for a diverse archival collection documenting the relationship between the Australian Government and the Australian people – a rich resource for the study of Australian history, society and people.

The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history. Its main focus is material documenting federal government activities since Federation in 1901. The Archives has significant holdings of 19th century records about functions transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth Government at the time of Federation and subsequently.

Archival resources about the Northern Territory

This guide has been produced to commemorate the centenary of the Commonwealth Government's acquisition of the Northern Territory from South Australia. The Commonwealth assumed responsibility for the administration of the Northern Territory from 1 January 1911. Its administration ended with the granting of self-government on 1 July 1978, although, for particular functions, the Commonwealth still maintains a strong presence in the Territory.

The guide's prime focus is the Commonwealth's period of administration (often referred to as 'the Commonwealth era'), although it does begin with a chapter on the South Australian period from 1863 to 1911 (see chapter 1), and there is selected coverage of Territory issues and events after 1978.

The chapters in the guide focus on specific periods and events during the Commonwealth era and use them as a means to present and describe the key archival collections that are available. The guide does not claim to be exhaustive: it does not seek to include every record associated with the Northern Territory. Importantly, it does aim to educate and inform, and to highlight many areas of further research.

The majority of records listed in the guide are in the custody of the National Archives of Australia – mainly held by the Canberra and Darwin offices. Also listed in this guide are records in the Northern Territory Archives Service, located in Darwin, and some in other institutions, including State Records of South Australia, the archival authority for the South Australian Government; the National Library of Australia; and the Australian War Memorial.

After the Northern Territory achieved self-government in 1978, a number of administrative functions – including local services, lands and mining – passed from the Commonwealth to the Northern Territory Government. The records dealing with those functions, which had previously been in the custody of the National Archives, were transferred to the Northern Territory Archives Service. This occurred in accordance with the fundamental archival principle that 'records follow function', that is, if a particular administrative function moves from one level of government to another, the records dealing with that function are also relocated.

Archives of the Northern Territory are sometimes fragmentary. There are several reasons for this – first, the harshness of the tropical climate, which has been a distinct deterrence to long-term preservation of records. Second, the bombing of Darwin in February 1942, with the subsequent evacuation of civilian administration to Alice Springs and the imposition of Australian military administration in the 'Top End' for the duration of World War II. Third, there was the destruction of Darwin caused by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Nevertheless, substantial quantities of records are available for research, both in Darwin and Canberra.

Commonwealth administration of the Northern Territory

Effectively, the Commonwealth's administration of the Northern Territory encompassed three levels. Each level of administration established its own recordkeeping systems, and each of these systems requires research in order to provide a composite picture of the period.

Administration from the National Capital

The first level of administration came from the Commonwealth Government, based in Canberra from 1927 (and in Melbourne between 1901 and 1927). Most important was the Central Office of whichever Department administered the Northern Territory at a particular time. Administration of the Northern Territory was also reliant on the deliberations and decisions of the Parliament and the Cabinet.

Departmental policy and administrative records

The Central Office of whichever Department administered the Northern Territory at a particular time produced policy and administrative records, which are now held by the National Archives of Australia in Canberra. The principal record series are:

A1correspondence files created by the Departments of External Affairs/Home and Territories/Interior from 1901 to 1938
A3correspondence files created by the Departments of External Affairs/Home and Territories from 1912 to 1925
A659correspondence files created by the Departments of Interior/Immigration from 1939 to1950
A431correspondence created by the Departments of Interior/Territories commencing from 1946
A452correspondence files created by the Departments of Territories/Interior/Northern Territory from 1951 to 1975
A1734correspondence files created by the Departments of Interior/Northern Territory/Northern Australia from 1968 to 1978.

Cabinet submissions and decisions

Cabinet is the formal policy and decision-making arm of the Australian Government. The two major records of Cabinet are submissions (sometimes referred to as 'agenda') which contain the information presented to Cabinet, and decisions, which are the formal result of Cabinet's deliberations. The beginnings of an organised Cabinet recordkeeping system did not occur until 1919 during the prime ministership of William Morris (Billy) Hughes. In subsequent years the systems were improved, and the records became better organised and more extensive. All records of Cabinet are held by the National Archives in Canberra.

Parliamentary Papers

Many reports of government agencies as well as those of specific government inquiries are printed as Parliamentary Papers. These include, for example, the annual report of the Northern Territory Administrator. Bound copies of Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers dating from 1901 are held by the National Library of Australia, as well as most State and Territory libraries, and the libraries of Australia's larger universities.

Administrator of the Northern Territory

The second level of administration was the Administrator of the Northern Territory, located in Darwin. It was with the office of the Administrator that Departments in Melbourne or Canberra, and respective Ministers and Departmental Secretaries, principally dealt. The Administrator's records are held by the National Archives of Australia in Darwin. The principal record series are:

F1main correspondence files from 1915 to 1978
F423classified (confidential) correspondence files from 1946 to 1978
F425classified (secret) correspondence files from 1946 to 1978

Northern Territory administration

At a third level was the Northern Territory Administration, which consisted of various branches, for example, Lands and Survey, Mining and Police, responsible for providing services within the Territory. It was from the branches that the Administrator would seek advice when corresponding with Commonwealth Departments or the Minister. Most branch records are held by the Northern Territory Archives Service in Darwin.

Access to records

Access to records held by the National Archives is regulated by the Archives Act 1983. Under the Act, records in the open access period are generally available for public access. A change to the public access provisions of the Act implemented on 1 January 2011 will see the open access period commence after 20 years – a ten year reduction from the previous 30 years. This change is being phased in between 2011 and 2020, with the closed period reducing by a year each 1 January. More information on accessing records is available in Fact Sheet 10 – Access to records under theArchives Act.

Under the Archives Act 1983, there is also provision to withhold information from public access for a longer period of time if it is still considered sensitive. The information withheld from public access falls into two broad areas: sensitive personal information and information about the security of the Commonwealth and its residents.

To view original records listed in this guide, a researcher will need to visit the institution in which they are held. In the case of records held by the National Archives, it is necessary to visit the reading room of the particular office of the organisation where the records are shown as being located.

Many of the records held by the National Archives are available as digital copies on the National Archives website, Preliminary research online using the RecordSearch database will identify digitised records.

Inquiries about gaining access to records listed in this guide held by institutions other than the National Archives should be directed to the institution concerned.

Using this guide

The aim of this guide is to make it easier for those with an interest in researching Northern Territory history to locate and use Commonwealth records about the administration of the Territory.

At the end of each major section in the text is a table listing the selected most relevant records relating to the subject covered. Records are listed as record series, or as record items, and are arranged by the institution in which they are located. A sample table, with an explanation of each of its elements is provided below:

1Selected records relating to the Lands and Survey functions
3National Archives, Darwin
4Correspondence files – 'L' (Lands) prefix, 1975–795E236
Northern Territory Archives Service
Correspondence files relating to land sales, reservations, and townships, 1887–1949NTRS3345
Correspondence files – 'L' (Lands) prefix, 1924–90NTRS2500
National Archives, Canberra
6Minutes of meetings – Northern Territory Land Board, 1931–387A1, 1938/1181
Northern Territory Archives Service
Land Classification Board – Minute book, 1912–24NTRS2821
Land Board [I] Minute book, 1924–27F26


1 Table title – describes the subject area of records listed in the table.

2 Subject sub-heading – indicates significant subject areas – where there is more than one – of records listed in the table.

3 Location sub-heading – used to indicate the office of the National Archives or name of the institution in which records are located.

4 Title of record series – a series is the organisational arrangement used by creators of records to control and manage records. It may contain one or more record items. Some series may contain hundreds or thousands of items. The date range of the series contents is included at the end of the title.

5 Series number – the archives control number applied to the series. This number is necessary to identify records for storage and retrieval purposes. In cases where the series consists of a single item the series number will be sufficient information to allow for its retrieval.

6 Item title – A record item is usually a file or volume (it may also be a photograph, map or other format). The title is usually applied by the person or agency creating the record. The date range of the item contents is included at the end of the title.

7 Series number and item control symbol – The combination of series number and item control symbol identifies a record item and allows for its storage and retrieval. This information about an item is almost always required for it to be retrieved from storage.

Wherever there are references to series in this guide, it is very likely that a researcher wishing to find relevant records will need to conduct further research to identify the record items in the series that are of greatest interest. This further research can be conducted either online using RecordSearch or by checking paper indexes (also known as finding aids) in National Archives reading rooms.

Citing records

The correct citation of archival records in the National Archives and other collections is important, both when requesting the records and when referring to them in written or published works. Using proper citations will not only help staff locate records more readily but also help other researchers to find that material.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives of Australia is expressed as follows: the name National Archives of Australia followed by a colon, the series number followed by a comma, and then the item control symbol. An example is:

National Archives of Australia: A1, 1938/1181

The name National Archives of Australia may be abbreviated to 'NAA', provided the full name has been used in the first citation. Further details about correctly citing records from the National Archives collections are available in Fact Sheet 7 – Citing archival records online at

For other institutions referred to in this guide, the citation should provide the name of the institution followed by the reference or call number of the collection. An example is:

Northern Territory Archives Service: NTRS2821

Terminology for currency and measures used in this guide

In 1966 Australia introduced a system of currency based on dollars and cents to replace the system of pounds, shillings and pence used previously, and from the early 1970s began phasing in the metric system of weights and measures to replace the imperial system.

Information provided in the text of this guide makes reference to both imperial and metric units of currency and measures according to how it has been used in the sources cited. No attempt has been made to convert those units expressed in imperial terms.

For those interested in making comparisons and conversions the following conversion scales may be applied:


One pound (£1) = Two dollars ($2.00)

One shilling (1/-) (or 12 pence) = 10 cents (10c)

Distance and area

One mile = 1.6 kilometres

One acre = 0.40 hectares

One square mile = 259 hectares