Author: Charlie Farrugia

Senior Collections Advisor, Public Record Office Victoria

The original recordkeeping system that was the unassisted shipping lists 1852-1923 revealed.   

If you’ve ever used our unassisted inward shipping lists, or used the online index to them, you might have wondered why the lists are arranged into sequences from British, Foreign or New Zealand ports. It has always been at the back of my mind and whilst preparing for a recent public seminar on immigration, I made a discovery. The discovery has led me to conclude the lists were originally managed by the Department of Trade and Customs in a structured recordkeeping system and the separation of lists into these sequences occurred as part of the filing process.

Flattened passenger list, with visible docket, for the "City of Sparta" January 1872.

Prior to this discovery a few things about the lists were reasonably clear.  The fold lines in each list indicated these were originally folded by Departmental staff into a standard size suitable for storage in a bundle tied together with ribbon.  The top visible fold of each list (also known as a docket), which was almost always on the rear page containing the summary totals of passengers on the vessel, was annotated with the name of the vessel, the month and year of its arrival and a port.   This was done to enable the identification of each folded list after its placement in the bundle and to enable storage of the bundle in a shelving unit or ‘pigeon-hole’ cabinet similar to the one on display on our Victorian Archives Centre Repository tour.

The use of bundles as a filing method like this was a common recordkeeping practice undertaken by many Government bodies to control records during the same era, notably municipalities with inwards correspondence.  I had always assumed that the shipping bundles consisted of all of the lists received in a given month with each of the sequences identified.  This view was based on the inwards intercolonial / state lists (VPRS 944).  These lists, originally maintained by the same Department, are today still arranged in monthly bundles with sequences for each of the individual Australian colonies / states. 

But what wasn’t clear was whether the separation between British, Foreign and New Zealand ports was made by the Department or was an artificial one made for the sake of convenience.  The original, flattened unassisted lists are today stored in monthly folders for each sequence. This had probably occurred in the late 1960s when the records were microfilmed for the first time by PROV’s predecessor, the Archives Division of the State Library.  I had always suspected that by arranging the flattened lists in this manner, the Archives Division had attempted to preserve the original construction of the bundles.  But there was no proof of this.

This is where my discovery fits in.  Whilst researching the seminar, I came across two series also created by the Department.  Available for public inspection for decades, neither appears to have been previously referenced. These are VPRS 954 and VPRS 955 previously titled ‘Record of Passenger Ship Arrivals’ and ‘Record of Passenger Ship Departures’ respectively.  Both series commenced in 1869 and like the lists ended, more or less, at the end of 1923 when immigration became a Commonwealth responsibility.  Some volumes created during the 1850s have been found within another series (VPRS 22) and it is thus probable that volumes commenced in 1852.  Additionally, VPRS 954 and 955 were transferred to the State Library in March 1928 as part of the same accession that delivered the unassisted lists.

Foreign Ports Jan 1872, from VPRS 954/P0, unit 1, including docket information and summary passenger info for the "City of Sparta"

The content of these volumes is even more revealing.  In each series, information was recorded on a monthly basis.  For each vessel that had arrived (or departed) during the month, the information recorded was the same as that on the docket of each list.  The summary detailing the total number of passengers from the rear page of the list was also recorded and the summaries for all vessels tallied to give the total number of new arrivals for the month.  

Even more importantly, the listing of the ships for each month is arranged under sub headings.  For intercolonial / state voyages, the headings New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia or Western Australia were used.  For international arrivals (or departures) the headings used were ‘British Ports’, ‘Foreign Ports’ and ‘New Zealand Ports’. 

On peering beyond the cloth covers, presumably placed over the volumes by the Library, the wording on the spines was found to be either ‘Passenger Ship Register Inwards’ or ‘Passenger Ship Register Out’. (These are now the series titles for VPRS 954 and 955 in our online catalogue.)  The key word here is ‘Register’.  In recordkeeping jargon, a register is effectively a record used to document the receipt of an item, how it would be identified (usually by the allocation of a control symbol) and how it was filed.  All of these elements are effectively present in these volumes, the information written on the docket and replicated in the register more or less acting as the control symbol.   The chronological order of vessels within each sequence on the pages in these volumes also suggests a process whereby all lists received were folded, annotated, entered into the register and filed in the bundle at the end of each month.

The significance of these volumes is multifold.  They provide an understanding of how the original lists were originally managed by the Department and provide evidence that the Archives Division had attempted to preserve the original structure of the bundles after flattening and filming.  But I think I can point to at least two other things of arguably greater importance.

First, these registers enables us now to state with complete certainty just what lists the Department had actually received. I have yet to come across an unassisted list we hold that is not documented in these volumes. 

More importantly, it is now reasonably clear the characterisation of a list having come from a British, Foreign or New Zealand port was a decision made by staff at the Department in filing the list.  For inwards lists, the key was the port determined by the staff as the point of departure and recorded on both the list’s docket and in the registers.  If the port recorded on the docket was in Britain, the list was designated as being from a British port, a New Zealand or a Pacific Island port resulted in the list being designated as from  New Zealand and any others were designated as Foreign Ports.  There appears to be no exceptions to this rule irrespective of other ports the ship may have visited or even departed from on the listed voyage.