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Research Guides

Commonwealth Government Records about Tasmania


National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia preserves and cares for a diverse archival collection documenting the myriad topics arising from the Commonwealth Government's relationship with, and representation of, the Australian people. It is a remarkably rich resource for the study of Australian history, society and people. The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history, but its main focus is documenting federal government activities since Federation in 1901. The National Archives also has significant holdings of 19th-century records about functions transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth at the time of, and subsequent to, Federation.

A guide to Commonwealth records about Tasmania regardless of physical location

The words in the title of this guide have been very carefully chosen. In particular, the word 'guide' and the phrase 'about Tasmania' are absolutely crucial.

The point behind 'about Tasmania' concerns the fact that the coverage of the guide is decidedly not confined to just those Commonwealth records which are in the custody of the National Archives' Hobart Office. The coverage of the guide is Commonwealth records about Tasmania which are located in practically all the National Archives' offices around Australia. There are large concentrations of material held in, for instance, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

The scope of the guide embraces records with a connection to Tasmania and, by extension, the Tasmanian people. These include, but by no means are confined to, records documenting:

  • policy developed in head offices (almost all in Melbourne, then increasingly from the 1930s in Canberra) relating directly to Tasmania or to all states including Tasmania
  • decisions made by Cabinet or a minister about or affecting Tasmania
  • individual Tasmanians active in Commonwealth politics and administration
  • individual Tasmanians in their roles as recipients of benefits/entitlements, people under surveillance, applicants of some kind, for example to migrate, Commonwealth employees and members of armed services
  • Commonwealth activities carried out in Tasmania (e.g. lighthouses, post offices)
  • inquiries specifically about a Tasmanian matter and information collected.

The chapters referring to such records are a guide, nothing more. This is not a research equivalent of a global positioning system; it is not a definitive or exhaustive listing. Even if it was, you can be certain there are more Tasmanian-related records already held by the National Archives which will, in due course, see the light of day as more series are access examined, listed, digitised and loaded to the Archives' collection database, RecordSearch. There are also records about Tasmania still held by government departments earmarked for eventual transfer to the National Archives. This publication is just a guide, intended to point the way and whet the appetite.

Sources and chapters

This guide resulted from a matching of my reading of 20th-century Tasmanian–Commonwealth history with a survey of particular concentrations of Commonwealth archives held by the National Archives using RecordSearch and occasionally inspecting actual documents. In the latter cases the series item and 'page' number of the particular scan are immediately added. The more numerous secondary sources I directly quote from in the chapters and used as background reading are listed at the end of each chapter. Finally, where it seemed especially appropriate, I have noted in general terms the existence of material at the Australian War Memorial, National Library of Australia and Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office (TAHO).

A different author would probably have responded to a different pattern of Tasmanian events, activities and documentation. What struck me led to chapters focusing on specific themes in Tasmania's history and its relationship with the Commonwealth: the environment, disasters, federal–state financial relations, lighthouses and so on. Other chapters are about people within specific groups: Tasmanian Aboriginal people, people for whom the National Archives holds collections of personal papers, and ordinary Tasmanians who were caught in the Commonwealth's files for one reason or another. To help give these chapters historical context, there is also a preceding chapter called 'The Commonwealth and Tasmania, 1901–2000'. Each of the theme chapters also includes some scene-setting material, drawing out relevant detail from the story of Commonwealth administration and from Tasmanian history. Some of the appendixes too are intended to help in this way.

Think of the guide as something akin to a food outlet such as a sandwich bar. The theme chapters are like pre-prepared combinations of particular bread, fillings and sauces. We think they'll be popular, based on past consumer behaviour, yet at the same time we know they will not tempt everyone. In truth, to try to satisfy all tastes in one guide – in a one-stop shop – is foolhardy. In some businesses, rather than pre-preparing everything, the basic ingredients are kept ready to enable people to mix and match. This is what the National Archives' online catalogue and its other finding aids, lists and indexes enable. The final chapter, 'From Alcorso to Zeehan', illustrates different combinations, different micro topics which can be pursued using the collection.

The research importance of Commonwealth records about Tasmania

Some records are virtually born archivally significant; they automatically self-select as being of the highest importance. By their very nature, the documents in the National Archives' Federation Gallery, such as the original Constitution Act passed by the British Parliament and the Royal Commission of Assent signed by Queen Victoria on 9 July 1900, have an intrinsic status and are of indisputable cultural heritage value. Other records are set to one side indefinitely to act as evidential insurance because they underpin individual rights and entitlements, and after their initial administrative life, may rarely be consulted again. Through the archival function of appraisal, judgements are made about which government activities are likely to produce important records, which records need to be retained, and for how long.

The agencies which produced or are responsible for the records, the public and other user groups are among the stakeholders consulted in such appraisal processes. When records initially judged to have archival weight and are set aside for continuing retention are reviewed again, as happened before the National Archives' Hobart move in 2012 to co-locate with TAHO at the State Library, this consultation is repeated.

In short, the National Archives' informed view is that the records addressed in this guide are both significant and potentially valuable research resources. The voracious use of archives by family historians aside, the point is readily illustrated by citing two instances of relatively recent scholarship – AJ Richardson's doctoral thesis 'The long road home: repatriation in Tasmania, 1916–1929' (University of Tasmania, 2005) and Marina Ladaniwskyj's honours thesis 'Displaced persons in Tasmania c.1948–1952: negotiating economic structures in a humanitarian context' (University of Tasmania, 2008). Unavoidably, however, to many observers it is repeated use which is seen to validate the value of archival resources. It certainly strengthens the case for their continued retention. And it is here that it is essential to acknowledge the prevailing pattern of research nourished by Tasmanian archives. The intensity of past and existing interest seems to be unevenly spread, and seems to show a clear preference for earlier times and for the archival collections known from past repeated use to support their study.

As this guide was being researched, two eminent Australian historians published two wonderful studies which happen to perfectly illustrate what I mean.

Henry Reynolds faced a difficult challenge of condensation and topic selection for his concise work A History of Tasmania (Cambridge University Press, 2012). He explains in his Introduction that religion, education and high culture had to give way to themes like political development and economic and social change. Perhaps because of this, the first nine of his 13 chapters take Tasmania's story up to Federation, leaving only three final chapters for his race through the 20th century and on to the bicentenary in 2004. The skewed pattern of his archival sources is even more marked, with the Mitchell Library and TAHO appearing repeatedly in his list of sources and the National Archives nowhere. Lyndall Ryan's Tasmanian Aborigines: a history since 1803 (Allen & Unwin, 2012), an invaluable source for Chapter 6 of this guide, reveals similar ratios. Her first 17 chapters take the story to 1902 and the last four to 2010. The book draws heavily on archival sources yet none are Commonwealth archives; nothing listed in Chapter 6 of this guide is there. Earlier equally invaluable texts (Lloyd Robson's two-volume A History of Tasmania and his and Michael Roe's A Short History of Tasmania) show similar archival preferences.

Why archival collections are or are not used, in general and in the case of a particular study or author, is a complex issue. And the absence from a bibliography of a source can be easily misread. Here the span of user motives is relevant too: family history, school essay, doctoral research, documentary producer, official inquiry … the endless list challenges safe generalisation. Yet two points are undeniable. Firstly, there is a direct link between the ease with which archives are discovered and accessed on the one hand and frequency of use of archives on the other. Secondly, cited use tends to generate repeat use. To claim the high moral ground, archives must have explored every last means of enticing and facilitating use of their collections.

The final chapter of this guide illustrates why I am confident the National Archives' holdings about Tasmania held in Hobart and elsewhere can support investigation into hundreds of new questions. There could easily have been more stories. The riches in two large Hobart correspondence series alone (P234 and P437) would sustain a number of doctoral theses. As one final example, take the following words of Lloyd Robson in his and Roe's A Short History of Tasmania about politicians' sense of difference and attachment to the island state:

Federal members of parliament also stressed their common Tasmanianism over and above the interests of party from time to time. Differences based on ideology could be submerged in order to promote Tasmania's interests. No mainland members of federal parliament took so much trouble to represent their state and make a point of being reported at home.

Thorough investigation of this telling insight would require not just access to Tasmanian newspapers but also to the waiting Commonwealth record.

Access to records

Archival access can mean many things, best explained as questions:

  1. Are the means available to discover the existence and location of a record relevant to your research interest?
  2. Having confirmed a relevant record exists and its location, are you personally able to see it (or hear it)?
  3. Are you allowed to see/hear it in light of its content and nature, and its physical state?

Access to records held by the National Archives in all three senses is regulated by the Archives Act 1983. The most important is the third question concerning permission to access records. Under the Act, records in the open access period are generally available to any member of the public. A change to the public access provisions of the Act implemented on 1 January 2011 saw the open period commence after 20 years – a 10-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 the Archives Act, available at

Under the Archives Act, there is also provision to delegate access-related decision making to a particular agency and to withhold records from public access for a longer period of time if they are still considered sensitive. Typically, however, records falling within the open period that are withheld from public access fall into two broad areas: those containing sensitive personal information and those containing 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 where the records are located.

Some of the records held by the National Archives, growing daily, are available as digital copies on the National Archives' website. Online research 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 relevant institution.

Using this guide

The aim of this guide is to make it easier for those with an interest in researching Tasmanian-related subjects to locate and use Commonwealth records about the state.

At the end of each major section is a table listing a selection of the 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.

[1] Selected series and items relating to the 40th Battalion, world war I
[2] Australian War Memorial
[3] Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914–18 war [4] AWM4
National Archives, Melbourne
[5] 40th Battalion to be raised in 6th MD, 1916 [6] B536, AIF264/1/152


  1. Table title – describes the subject area of records listed in the table.
  2. Location sub-heading – used to indicate the office of the National Archives or name of the institution in which the records are located.
  3. Series title – a series is the organisational arrangement used by the 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. Occasionally in this guide, a brief description of the item contents is provided.
  6. Series number and item control symbol – the combination of the 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. If, at the time of publication of this guide an item is digitised, this is indicated immediately below the series number and item control symbol.

When 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 from 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 will also help other researchers to find that material.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives 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, 1903/1181

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' collection 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.