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Research Guides

Commonwealth Government Records about Tasmania


Among the earliest records and greatest treasures of the National Archives' Hobart collection is a series of meteorological and tidal observations recorded from the late 1830s by TJ Lempriere, a Deputy Assistant Commissary General within the Colonial Secretary's Office (NAA: P2472, 1). The observations are not a custodial mistake. The records gained a new owner as they followed the transfer of a former colonial function – meteorology – to the new Commonwealth.

A second transferred function which explains a concentration of pre-20th century records concerns lighthouses. For most of the second half of the 19th century the Marine Board of Hobart administered a network of lighthouses, which included structures at Low Head (from 1833; CA 2538), Cape Bruny (from 1838; CA 2539), Swan Island (from 1845; CA 2540), Deal Island (from 1846; CA 2542), Goose Island (from 1846; CA 2541), Cape Wickham (from 1861; CA 8014), Currie Harbour, King Island (from 1880; CA 2543), Eddystone Point (from 1889; CA 2544), Maatsuyker Island (from 1891; CA 2547) and Cape Sorell (from 1899; CA 2545). At Federation, the Commonwealth Parliament was authorised to make laws, as the Constitution phrased it, 'with respect to … lighthouses, lightships, beacons and buoys'. As explained later in this chapter (and in Chapter 5), these eventually came under Commonwealth ownership and operation.

Without denying the importance of defence or the men Tasmania sent to the war in South Africa in 1899 and 1900, the most significant functions it lost to the Commonwealth were trade (including customs and excise), and posts and telegraph. Acknowledging their prehistory helps make sense of Commonwealth record series which date from before Federation. For one thing, customs and post offices operated throughout the colony. The Tasmanian Customs Department, for example, was represented in Hobart, Launceston, Devonport, Burnie, Strahan, Ulverstone, Forth, Penguin and Stanley. There were also officers stationed either full or half time at, for example, Port Sorell, Duck River, King Island, Beauty Point, Hospital Bay, Bruny Island, Dover, Georges Bay and Straights Island. The Commonwealth's beginning was in many ways inevitably tentative. Yet with inherited functions it gained established bureaucratic structures, staff and, as we are bound to note, their files. In Michael Roe's multilayered comment, 'Federation had to mean administrative process'.

To the new state of Tasmania from 1901, the original inhabitants as a distinct people barely continued to exist. It saw the deaths of William Lanney in 1869, Truganini in 1876 and Fanny Cochrane Smith in 1905 as Tasmania's last Indigenous representatives.


Chapter 1
The Commonwealth and Tasmania, 1901–2000