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Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Guide to Sydney ancestry, family history and genealogy: birth records, marriage records, death records, census records, parish registers, and military records.

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Sydney is the state capital city of New South Wales and the largest city in Australia.

In 1770 the great harbour was discovered but not explored by Captain James Cook who named it Port Jackson. A penal convict colony was planned by the British authorities at Botany Bay but, on arrival in 1788, Captain (later Vice Admiral) Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales decided on starting the settlement at Port Jackson. He named the site Sydney Cove after Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney, the British home secretary. After time, the word Cove was dropped from the placename.[1] The traditional owners and custodians of the area are known as the Gadigal people; their name for Sydney Cove was Warrane.[2]

The modern built environment of metropolitan Sydney is bound by great National Parks: in the north, Ku-ring-gai Chase and Broken Bay; in the south, the Royal National Park and Port Hacking. The extensive harbours formed by drowned river valleys: Pitt Water, North Harbour, Middle Harbour, Sydney Harbour (Port Jackson and the Parramatta River), Botany Bay and the Georges River, and Port Hacking. Sydney sits on an enormous coal basin with vast Northern, Western and Southern Coalfields first stumbled upon in the south in 1797 by shipwreck survivors then confirmed by Bass at Solander Point and first worked in the same year at the seam at Coal River (now the Hunter River at Newcastle) which began a mining industry whose need for free immigrant labour soon outstripped the resources of convict labour.


Sydney's history can be divided into the period of Aboriginal occupation, the convict period (1788 - 1850), the later colonial period beginning with the Gold Rush (1850s-1900), the early 20th century period of Federation, Great War and Great Depression (1900-1930s), World War II, the post-war period and the current period of the Olympic City and the new millennium.

Getting Started

Many records relating to family history have been created at the colonial / state level and are held by the state of New South Wales. For example, the early church records and, from 1856, the civil registrations of births, deaths and marriages for the Sydney area are held by the New South Wales Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. For help on getting started with these records see New South Wales, Australia Genealogy.


The early colonial authorities borrowing English geographical divisions some of which proved less appropriate and adapted to Australian conditions than others.

Most of modern greater Sydney falls into the county of Cumberland, one of 141 counties into which New South Wales was divided for surveying and land registration purposes. The name will be found on early maps and in title deeds but the county formed no significant administrative role in New South Wales history.

In 1835, the County of Cumberland was subdivided into 57 parishes. Certificates issued from early church records will refer to an event occurring in "The Parish of St James, County of Cumberland": care needs to be taken in reading these records noting the reference is to the civil parish of St James not the parish church of St James.

Archives and Libraries

The principal archival collection is held by State Records Authority of New South Wales. The reading room is located at the Western Sydney Records Centre, 143 O'Connell Street, Kingswood, NSW 2747.

The National Archives of Australia maintains a Sydney office at 120 Miller Road, Chester Hill, NSW 2162.

Local Government Authorities

In 1842 the first local government areas were incorporated in New South Wales and many councils hold records dating back to then. After 1858 these bodies were given wider powers which included the provision of roads, bridges, ferries, wharves, cemeteries, water supply, sewerage, public hospitals, gardens and libraries. These activities were funded by the levying of rates on residents, the imposition of tolls and borrowing. Voting rights were generally restricted to ratepayers.

Typical records held by local government archives are:

  • Council Minute Books
records of the administrative decisions made by the council. They can include names of council members; reports by council officers; details of council programmes and discussion of significant local affairs.
  • Rate and Valuation records
the names of owners and occupiers of dwellings and businesses; property descriptions and valuations.
  • Registers of Licenses, Buildings, Equipment, Burials/Interments etc
Council Registers may be simple lists or quite detailed, itemised records.
  • Maps and plans
town planning, water storage, sewerage, location of public amenities such as parks, pools etc.
  • Development Applications (DAs) and Building Applications (BAs)
DAs and BAs provide in varying degrees of detail evidence of urban development; they usually contain written design specifications as well as maps and plans relating to proposed property developments, including building demolitions.
  • Other records
Letters and Correspondence Books recording incoming and outgoing mail; Cash and Revenue Books, Financial statements; Officers' Reports on specific activities or interests.

Abolished and Amalgamated Councils

In some cases, records passed to the successor council but in others the records are held by the State Archive Authority. For details see: Archives In Brief 106.

Council of the City of Sydney

The story of Sydney's growth is sketched in an article on Planning (or lack thereof) at the Dictionary of Sydney.

The City of Sydney Archives is headquartered at Town Hall House, Level 21, 456 Kent St, Sydney NSW 2000. However, many of its records of interest to family historians have been digitised and are freely available on the internet using a variety of online search tools.

Records include:


Sydney's first cemetery was at Church Hill, Dawes Point. What is thought to be Sydney's oldest extant cemetery is to be found at St John's Cemetery, O'Connell Street, Parramatta which began taking interments in 1790.[3] Then land was set aside for burials at the edge of the Sydney Cove settlement: the Sydney Town Hall in George Street is built on the site of the "Old Burial Ground" which operated from 1793 to 1820. In 1820, a new burial ground was established by Governor Macquarie at Brickfield, known as the Sandhills or Old Devonshire Street Cemetery. Some of the remains were moved from the Old Burial Ground to the new location.[4] This land was resumed in 1901 to build the Central Railway terminus, some remains were moved to Rookwood and the majority of those moved were taken to Bunnerong Cemetery. It was estimated that the Old Devonshire Street Cemetery contained more than 21,000 internments but only some 1,000 of their headstones survive in the cemetery's Pioneer Park.[5]

The stories of these early cemeteries are told in:

  • Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm Rex Sainty, Sydney burial ground, 1819-1901 (Elizabeth and Devonshire Streets) and history of Sydney's early cemeteries from 1788 (Sydney, Library of Australian History, 2001)
  • Sue Zelinka, Tender sympathies : a social history of Botany Cemetery and the eastern suburbs crematorium ( Sydney, Hale & Iremonger, 1991)
  • David A. Weston (ed.), The Sleeping city : the story of the Rookwood Necropolis (Sydney, Society of Australian Genealogists, 1989)

Cemeteries in the Sydney area have been identified by the National Trust and classed into the following groups:

"General Cemeteries are areas of land set aside by government bodies for the use as burial grounds. They are divided into areas for different religions. Church Cemeteries is the term used for any cemetery for a specific religion, whether it is located near a place of worship or not. Converted cemeteries have had monuments moved, often completely removed from the site, or with selected headstones placed in rows or built into walls. Cemeteries were sometimes converted into parks. Revoked means that this was land set aside to be used as a cemetery, and later had its reservation as a cemetery revoked. While some cemeteries have been used for many years before being revoked, in some cases the land may never have been used for burials."



The first directory published in Sydney was the New South Wales Almanack and Colonial Remembrancer (1806) compiled by George Howe. It was reproduced in a facsimile edition in 1966: downloadable in PDF and held by the Family History Library.

The New South Wales Calendar and General Post Office Directory (1832–37) was at first produced commercially but later some editions became official post office publications. The 1832 edition is available at They have been filmed by the Family History Library.

Lowe's City of Sydney Directory for 1844-1845 has been filmed by the Family History Library.

John Sands entered into partnership with his brother-in-law, Thomas Kenny in April 1851 trading as Sands & Kenny. From 1860 their Melbourne manager, Dugald MacDougall joined the partnership now known as Sands, Kenny & Co. After Kenny returned to England he left the firm which continued as Sands & McDougall. Under these various names, the firm published directories for Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. After the death of John Sands, his widow re-organised the firm so that the New South Wales business was carried on by John Sands Ltd. The series of directories for Sydney are usually referred to as the Sands Directories (1859-1932).

These records have various known problems: information may be a year out of date and they are not universal with some reluctant to pay a fee for listing. The information printed was collected by a Sands' agents who canvassed from door to door: errors were made in the collection of information and the spelling of names may vary. The early directories do not always record house numbers and later editions may have houses renumbered without reference to the former number. The names of houses and streets may change without reference to past names. A change of use or redevelopment may not be reflected in a listing. If the property was vacant when the Sands' agent canvassed, information may be outdated or missing.


MORLING Loreley A. The White Family Leitrim to Lidcombe via Lancashire.  Family history and 2 family trees of Henry White and 1. Ann(e) Robinson and 2. Mary Rutherford, and article dates from 1818-1978, with a branch immigrating to Lidicombe, New South Wales and also Qld,  Brisbane.  Article to be found in The Lancashire Family History and  Heraldry Society. vol. 13, no. 2. pages 16-25, FHL Ref. 942.72 B2r vol. 13

Slawson, Daphne.  The Wreck of The Zenobia.  History and family tree of Joseph and Sarah Ayers Slawson and letters from Kingston on Thames, Surrey.  Photo of Slawson Family at Brisbane, Australia 1900, also reports of the fatal boat accident.  Article dates 1677-1897, and is found in The Hampshire Family Historian vol. 16, part 1, May 1989, pages 10-14, FHL Ref 942.27 B2h

Mailing Lists

There is also a list serving the wider New South Wales community: AUS-NSW.


The Council of the City of Sydney has established an online collection of maps: the Historical Atlas of Sydney.

1833 Map of Sydney: Courtesy of London Ancestors,

Notes and references

  1. "Sydney" in John Everett-Heath (ed.), The Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names (2nd ed., Oxford University Press published to Oxford Reference Online, 2010-2012, eISBN 9780199580897) accessed 19 June 2013. Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, founded in 1783 is also named in honour of the 1st Viscount Sydney.
  2. Thomas Keneally, The Commonwealth of Thieves : The Sydney Experiment (Random House Australia, 2006, ISBN 13: 9781741661217), p 103
  3. Stephen Downie, "Wal Back In Time - Halloween Special", Daily Telegraph, 31 October 2009, p 14
  4. Geraldine O'Brien, "Grave Secret Unearthed, Brick By Brick", Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 1991, p. 3.
  5. Geraldine O'Brien, "New Botany Park Commemorates Our Early Dead", Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 1990, p. 9.