1301.6 - Tasmanian Year Book, 2000  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 13/09/2002   
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Feature Article - Census in Tasmania - then and now

From the time of the first settlement in Tasmania at Risdon Cove in 1803, the colonial government saw the necessity of maintaining records of both the convict and free settler population to plan for the needs of the colony. These events which were the precursor of the Census as we now know it, were termed ‘Musters’ and were not much more than head counts of the population.

While convict musters were conducted as often as weekly, general musters of the whole population (requiring assembly at an appointed place and time) were undertaken approximately every three months. The first true Census involving the distribution of an official form to every household and institution in Tasmania, took place on 1 January 1842. The nature of the information collected, the timing of the counts and the frequency have changed over time, yet the Census has always provided us with a snapshot of the community of the day.

The 1901 Census had 14 questions, compared with 37 topics recommended for the 2001 Census. This does not necessarily mean that less detail was collected at the turn of last century. Rather, it is a reflection of the progress made with the design of the Census form itself, the processing of the form and the use of standardised ways of measuring aspects of life.

The modern form requires little ‘writing’ on the part of the person filling in the form. Most responses are given by marking a box. As a result, more questions do not mean more time is required to fill in the form. It is evident that the Census has been and remains the only practical way to get information on how many people there are in Australia, what they do and how they live - information that is essential for the planning required to successfully meet the challenges of the 21st Century.


The 1901 Census Report prepared by the Government Statistician and Registrar-General, Robert M. Johnston, expressed concerns about Tasmanian population growth, similar to present day concerns.  Johnston noted Tasmanian fertility rates were declining and though death rates were also declining, the change was not enough to outweigh a reduction in the number of births, given that more people were leaving the state than were arriving. Immigration was not encouraged at that time; as a result the annual net increase in population for Tasmania in 1901 was 1.64%; it is currently -0.3%.

Within the state, it was noted there was a large movement of people from the East to the West of the state in response to the development there of rich silver and copper mining fields. Johnston also calculated that though 20% of the Tasmanian population had been born elsewhere, 91% of the population at that time was derived from British and Irish ancestry.


Statistics relating to the age of the population have long been collected. However, in 1881, special reference was made to the proportion of the male population aged 21 years and over, as only males aged 21 years and over had the right to vote.

For men, the years from 20-40 were referred to as the Soldier Years, as these were regarded as a man’s most ‘vigorous’ time of life; also, the years 20-65 were referred to as the Working Years. For women, the years from 15-45 years were considered the Fertile Years, a standard still employed by demographers today.


Rather than asking for Marital Status, the Census a hundred years ago asked after your ‘Conjugal Condition’. The descriptions regarding relationships between persons did not include de-facto relationships nor separations.

Men were considered marriageable from the age of 20 years, women from the age of 15 years. In 1901, there were 119.29  marriageable women in Tasmania for every 100 men.


The Tasmanian Census first recorded the occupation of all individuals in 1881. A  perusal of the tables of occupations from the early Censuses reveals that many aspects of work have changed over time. Some occupations have become less common or have disappeared, some have had a change of  name, while of course new ones have evolved. For example, we now refer to Pharmacists, while earlier, the same occupation was called Druggist and a person who was an Amanuensis is now more likely to be called a Secretary. The Ostler was the person who tethered the horses outside of the inn or tavern, and while working with tin and the finishing and polishing of metal goods is still an occupation, it is rarely described as being performed by a Whitesmith. Before the advent of septic tanks or sewerage systems, it was the Nightman who came and collected our waste, a practise that continued in some Australian cities into the 1960s.

Interestingly, we often think of Victorian times as being particularly conservative, yet in 1881, both prostitutes and opium sellers were counted as such in the Census alongside clergyman and soldiers, albeit in different categories. Opium sellers were placed in Sub-Order 3, Others Working and Dealing in Drink and Stimulants, while Prostitutes were assigned to the Criminal Class. Categories of occupations have developed and expanded over time and by 1901, the two principal divisions were Dependants: Non Breadwinners and Breadwinners.

The Census of today also asks us to nominate our income bracket, information not requested by the early Censuses.


In earlier Censuses such as the 1901 Census, questions were asked about the well-being of individuals, but in a way that would not be acceptable today. Such information came under the heading of Sickness and Infirmity. The descriptions used in this classification demonstrate not only that the meaning of words can change over time, but also how much more simple and blunt life was in those days. The descriptions were: Sick, Accident (suffering from), Deaf and Dumb, Blind, Insane, Idiotic, Epileptic, Crippled, Deformed, and Other Infirmities. Blindness was considered to be a normal consequence of old age.


Literacy standards improved quite markedly in Tasmania from 1881 to 1901. Johnston proudly writes that while Tasmania was behind the average of the seven Australasian States from 1881 to 1901, that rapid progress resulted in the State being ahead of the average by 1901. In 1881, three-quarters of the population aged five years and over could read and write. At the time of the 1901 Census, 88.1% of Tasmanians aged five years and over could read and write, while the national average was 87.1%. Also at this time, 80.5% of children aged 7-14 years were at school of some kind and 7.2% were educated at home.


In the same period as discussed above, the quality of housing, or Habitations, as they were called, also improved significantly. This quality was measured in terms of the number of inhabited houses together with the number of rooms and occupants. The other measure used was value, usually assessed by annual rental. To illustrate this point, Johnston compared Tasmanian housing to that of England and Wales, and also to Glasgow thus: the percentage of inhabited dwellings with an annual value of 20 pounds and over in 1886 was 15.35% for England and Wales and 33.50% for Tasmania in 1901 and the percentage of houses with five and more rooms in 1901 for Tasmania was 42.32%, while the equivalent for Glasgow in 1889 was 30.04%.