History of the Census

How the Australian Census has changed over the years

The first population counts in Australia were made as early as 1788.

From 1795 to 1825, ‘musters’ were held regularly where all members of the community gathered at specified locations to be counted.

In 1828, the first colonial Census was conducted in New South Wales, with Tasmania in 1841, South Australia in 1844, Western Australia in 1848, and Victoria in 1854.

In 1881, the first simultaneous Censuses of all the Australian colonies was conducted.

First ABS Census

In 1911, the first national Census was conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Around 7,300 people were appointed for the collection work.

Field Officers travelled by horse, cart and bicycle to collect forms across the country and the information gathered was tabulated by hand.

A Census collector on horseback

A census collector ready for the road.
Reference: 2071.0 - Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census, July 2011  
Original source: The Brisbane Courier 1 April 1911 p.13

Evolution of the Census

The Census was repeated in 1921, 1933, 1947, 1954, 1961, 1966 and from then on, every five years.

In 1921, Census information was tabulated using mechanical machine equipment. 

The machines used in 1961 were so large that when delivered they could not fit through the door of the Census office in Canberra. A large hole had to be cut in the side of the wooden building to install them. The 1961 Census was the last to use tabulating machines.

In 1954, women were hired to process and code data for the first time. The 1967 Referendum mandated all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples be counted in the Australian Census.  

Computer technology was first used to process Census information in 1966 and people were provided with the option to complete their Census online in 2006.

‘Census Trio’ machines being unpacked from their crates in front of the Census Office in the Jolimont Building in Civic.

A hole was cut in the wall of the Census Office to fit the ‘Census Trio’ machines.
Reference: Informing a Nation, The evolution of The Australian Bureau of Statistics 1905-2005

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