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The Federation Census, 1901

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has set Tuesday 27 June 2017 as the date for the first official release of 2016 Census data, with further releases to take place in October, December, and continuing into 2018. Ahead of this date, it is timely to recall the newly federated Australia’s first census in 1901.

While the Constitution gave the new Commonwealth Parliament the power to legislate on matters relating to census and statistics (s. 51.xi), it was not until 1905 that the Parliament enacted the Census and Statistics Act. This Act established the office of Commonwealth Statistician and provided for the Conduct of a Census in 1911 ‘and in every tenth year thereafter’ (s. 8) as well as the conduct of annual statistical collections (s. 16). (The states maintained their own Statistical Officers, and only consolidated into a single, Commonwealth agency  in the late 1950s). The first Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia was produced by the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics in 1908.

However, the first census conduced in the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia was actually a series of censuses held simultaneously on 31 March 1901 by the statistical bureaux of each of the states. The history of censuses in Australia can be traced back to the arrival of the First Fleet, when musters were used, initially primarily to keep track of convict labours but later extended to all settlers. The first NSW census was conducted in 1828, with Tasmania following in 1841, South Australia in 1844, Western Australia in 1848, and Victoria (which separated from NSW in 1851), in 1854. Attempts to coordinate the date and content of the censuses between the colonies began in the early 1860’s. In 1881, ‘the first simultaneous census of the British Empire covering the United Kingdom, India and the Crown Settlements (including Australia) was taken,’ producing the first colonial population figures for the same day. ‘The 1891 census was coordinated across the Australian colonies, not only with a common day and an agreed core schedule but also with a common occupation classification for the first time.’ This work was led by regular Conferences of Statisticians from each of the colonies.

In anticipation of Federation, a conference of the Statisticians of Australia and New Zealand was convened in Sydney in February and March 1900 to discuss uniformity in the collection and compilation of data for the 1901 census, considering :

that uniformity is especially desirable at the present time ... as there is every probability that the figures obtained in the coming Census will ... be the basis of many important arrangements in regard to finance and electoral representation.’ (1901 Conference of Statisticians Report, March 1901).

The conference agreed a uniform census schedule including: name; sex; age; conjugal condition; relation to head of household; occupation; sickness and infirmity; birthplace; length of residence in colony; religion; education; materials of houses and number of rooms. Unfortunately, while:

the date, the form, the questions and the occupation classification were all standardised, unfortunately the results were not. The difficulty was in variations in tabular presentations such as calculations of groupings and subtle differences in who was included and excluded in the population. For example, while some states chose to exclude Aboriginal people in their tables, others included this population. As this was in the time before computers and even before mechanical tabulation, the tables could not simply be rerun in each state to make them comparable. Further, a complete picture of the nation had to wait until all states had tabulated and published their data and some states were much more timely than others. Australian Bureau of Statstics, ‘Colonial censuses and musters’)

The  ‘typical’ Australian profiles released by the ABS in April 2017 shows a very different Australian population to that of Federation Census.

The 1901 census counted 3,773,801 people across Australia (1,977,928 males and 1,795,873 females).[1] The median age was 22 years, with some 35% of the population being under 15. Only 4% of the population was aged 65 and upwards (p. 144). (Year Book No. 1 identified major causes of death across the population in the early 1900s as including tuberculosis, meningitis, pneumonia, ‘senile debility’ and violence (p. 208). It also showed that deaths among young children and infants (0-4 years) accounted for more than 25% of all deaths:[2] the rate of infantile morality (within the first year of life) was particularly high at 103.61 per thousand live births registered in 1901 (p.202).)

 Seventy-seven per cent of people were Australian born. Of those born overseas, the most (a shade over 18%) come from the United Kingdom. Indeed, the first statistical Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia terms the population ‘fundamentally British’ and concludes that ‘the Australian at present is little other than a transplanted Briton’ (p. 145).

Forty-six per cent of people reported being married and only 0.1% divorced.

Eighty per cent of respondents reported that they could both read and write (p. 748); 3,626,449 were classified as Christian (with Church of England and Roman Catholic being the largest denominations (p.174).

In regard to occupation, the census recorded 111,134 people whose occupation was classed as professional (2.9%), 201,036 as domestic (5.3%), 222,658 as commercial (5.9%), 122,159 as transport and communication (3.2%), 426,166 as industrial (11.3%), 533,107 (14.1%) as primary producers (p. 171).  The mean annual income per inhabitant was £46.


[1] Unless otherwise specified, all data is taken from Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia No. 1, Containing Authoritative Statistics for the Period 1901-1907, Commonwealth Statistician, Melbourne, 1908.

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Mortality over the twentieth Century in Australia: Trends and patters in major causes of Death, Canberra, 2006, p. xxvii.