Family History

Family History Research at State Records

State Records of South Australia (State Records) was established in 1919 to collect and preserve the archival records of the South Australian state government.

Since that time our collection has grown to over 80 kilometres of permanent value records documenting the work of State and Local Government departments and authorities.

These records can be invaluable resources for family history research as they document interactions between the state and individuals, and enable family historians to identify when and where their ancestors lived, worked and died in South Australia.

How do I start my family history research at State Records?

Our records are arranged according to the government agency which created them, and reflect the responsibilities assigned to them by the government of the day. It is therefore important to consider which government department may have had dealings with your ancestor.

For example you may have information which suggests that an ancestor lived in the Barossa Valley region, married in 1875, and had four children. The key government agencies in this scenario are likely to be:

  • The Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages – responsible for recording these events for South Australians

  • Local councils – responsible for maintaining rate assessment books which record the annual payment of council rates and the payee

  • Land Titles Office – responsible for administering the leasing and buying of land in South Australia.

    Find out as much as you can from within your own family by talking to relatives and examining family documents (eg: family Bibles, Birth, Death and Marriage certificates). Make a plan of the people you wish to research and the questions you wish to have answered.

Visiting State Records’ Research Centre

Plan your visit to State Records by checking our location and opening hours. Useful information for visitors can be found on our Research Centre web page.

Although State Records staff cannot undertake research on your behalf, they can help you in the Research Centre by:

  • assisting you to search for and order records

  • offering search strategies

  • explaining how to use our online catalogue ArchivesSearch and other guides, finding aids and indexes

Sources other than original records

State Records maintains a printed reference collection made up of books and pamphlets covering various topics. The collection is arranged in broad subject order and subjects covered include: Industries, Biographies, Regions, Immigration, Women, Government Departments, Aboriginal communities, Law, Medicine and Federation.

State Records has also published a number of subject based Fact Sheets to help researchers. To see a a full listing, go to our Fact Sheets web page.   In addition State Records has developed a number of more detailed guides for family history. These guides describe a larger group of records than those in the Fact Sheets, and provide some historical context. A full listing of these guides can also be found on our website.

Researchers can also use our publication Ancestors in Archives, 3rd edition, published in 2000, to assist with their research.   Originally developed with a focus on genealogists, the number of series it describes (over 750) and the wealth of contextual material makes Ancestors in Archives a useful starting point for most researchers. 

Copies of the guide are available for purchase from our Research Centre for $10-00.

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Hint and Tips for Researchers

Variations in spelling

The spelling of surnames may change over time, and the possible variations should be considered. Always remember to check any discrepancies in spelling against other sources, as clerical errors may have resulted in misspellings in the original documents.

Relationships with families of the same name

If the surname you are searching for is a common one, it can be difficult to be sure that you have found the correct person. A common mistake is to assume a family relationship based on a similar name without testing this assumption, eg: by checking birth, death and marriage records.

Name searching

Whilst it is possible to conduct a name search in ArchivesSearch, the results are likely to be limited as only a few series of records are indexed to the individual name level. A full listing of the series linked to name searching is available on the help pages of our catalogue ArchivesSearch.

Which records will help with my research?

The answer to this question can be ‘almost any of them’ however the following categories of records consistently prove useful to family historians.

Births Deaths and Marriage (BDM) certificates

Almost all family history research should start with BDM records. The registration of births, deaths and marriages by the South Australian Government began in 1842. Prior to this date these events were usually recorded by religious bodies. While BDM certificates may only be accessed via the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, the indices we hold can be essential building blocks for family history research, as they help in building the skeleton of your family tree and provide names, dates, locations and relationships between the generations.

State Records holds the following indices to BDM records:

  • South Australian Births 1842 - 1928

  • South Australian Deaths 1842 - 1972

  • South Australian Marriages 1842 - 1937

These indices are also often available at the State Library and larger local libraries.

All certified copies of certificates must be obtained from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Transcriptions of the data on a certificate can be provided by the South Australian Genealogy and Heraldry Society.

Passenger lists

During the nineteenth century travelling by sea was the most common way for migrants to make the journey to South Australia. Lists of ships passengers were created by the ship masters and were handed to the South Australian Customs and Immigration Department upon arrival.

These lists can be a vital source of family history information, as they can enable researchers to identify the initial point at which their ancestors arrived in South Australia. The lists can also provide clues as to an individual’s marital status, number and gender of any children, county of origin and occupation.

The lists held by State Records document the arrival of passengers where South Australian ports (mainly Adelaide) were the ports of international disembarkation. Passengers who disembarked at other Australian ports and then travelled to this state after their arrival will not appear on these lists.

Our largest and most complete series of passenger lists document those passengers who were assisted by the government in some form when paying their passage fares (Government Record Group (GRG) 35/48/1, 1847 – 1886). The government assisted immigrants whose skills were considered to be useful to the colony.

More detailed information about other series of passenger lists and assisted immigration schemes we hold can be found at in the Immigration Fact Sheet on our website.

For records relating to passenger lists for the period up to 1940 see GRG 35 and GRG 41 in ArchivesSearch. After 1940 immigration records are held by the National Archives of Australia.

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Land records

Records documenting the acquisition of land are a key resource for family historians, as they can provide evidence of an ancestor having lived in South Australia, and are a geographic marker for the beginnings of a family’s involvement with the State. Records of land purchase, lease and transfer may prove useful, as well as municipal rate assessment records which document land value, geographic location, land owner and land occupier.

For records relating to land sales, leases and surveying see GRG 35, GA35 and GA803.

Hospitals and government welfare institutions

During the Victorian era there was an increasing professionalization of the medical and welfare sectors. This was evidenced by a growing involvement of the State as a service provider and regulator of these activities.

Family historians may find admission registers created by these institutions useful. These records provide evidence of the health of individuals and their need for support from the State.

Social welfare institution records can be a vital source of information for family historians as they provide evidence of stresses and factors influencing individuals at varying stages of their lives. Social welfare institutions operating in South Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provided support to unmarried mothers, children requiring board or foster care, those who were destitute, the aged and infirm, and the mentally ill. These institutions also placed children in Industrial Schools or Reformatories.

For records relating to hospitals see GRG 78. For records relating to government welfare institutions see GRG 27, 28 and 29.


Another useful resource for family historians are gaol and prison records. These records can include photographs, physical descriptions of inmates, details of offences and terms served, prior criminal histories, marital status, trade or calling, date of arrival in the colony, religion and level of literacy.

For records relating to gaols see GRG 54 and GA355.

Colonial Secretary’s correspondence

The Colonial Secretary’s Department (later the Chief Secretary’s Office) was the first government department in South Australia. The department initially played an important role in the management of the state and in the work of other departments, but during the latter half of the nineteenth century its role declined.

As a result of its initial very broad responsibilities, the records of the department can be a vital resource for amily historians in the first half of the nineteenth century. State Records holds a Special List index to the correspondence of the department covering the years 1837 - 1856, (the period prior to responsible self-government in South Australia). We also hold indices created by the Department for the records for the period 1857 - 1975.

For records relating to the Colonial Secretary’s Department see GRG 24.

School admission registers

Public schools are required to maintain registers documenting the admission of children. These registers often prove useful sources for family historians as they can contain:

  • full name, date of birth and date of admission

  • parent or guardian’s name, occupation and address

  • previous and subsequent schools the child attended

  • child’s grade on admission, grade at annual exams for promotion, details of attendance in days

  • child’s date of leaving and a brief statement of where the child went after leaving the school

For records created by schools refer to GRG 18, and/or search ArchivesSearch for the name of the individual school

Inquests/coronial records

Another useful source for family historians are records documenting inquiries about the deaths of individuals. State Records holds two major series of records: Police Reports to the Coroner 1879-1982 and Inquest Files 1867 – 1976.

The first series consists of reports by police officers and forwarded to the City Coroner upon discovering a deceased person, but contains a gap for the years 1877 - 1930. The second series documents inquiries conducted by the Coroner, known as Inquests, in those circumstances where the Coroner felt the matter required further investigation. The police reports can often contain more detailed information than the inquest files.

Researchers should note that not all police reports to the coroner resulted in an inquest.

For records relating to inquests and coronial records refer to GRG 1. Earlier records of inquests can be found in Colonial Secretary’s Office records – GRG 24/11 and GRG 24/6.

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Management of estates

Succession duties were introduced in South Australia in the nineteenth century. After death an individual’s estate was assessed and if it exceeded a threshold amount, a percentage of the value was taken by the government and the residue released to those nominated. The records can contain:

  • address and occupation of the deceased

  • valuations of property – both personal and real estate

  • details of assets and liabilities of the deceased

  • details of intended bequests, their recipients and their relationship to the deceased

  • details of the duty levied by the government and the residue released

The Public Trustee was established in 1880 to enable the State to manage the affairs of those people who died intestate and of those who were considered mentally incapable of doing this for themselves. It also managed deceased estates and the estates of people who were imprisoned.

Due to the need to document estates for management purposes, these records can provide useful information to family historians about the value and contents of an ancestor’s estate and persons who were listed as inheritors.

For records relating to estate management refer to GRG 33 and GRG 84.


Access to wills can be obtained by contacting the Probate Registry Office, Supreme Court, 1 Gouger Street, Adelaide. The Probate Registry Office holds the indices to wills. State Records  holds GRS 1334/1 Probate Files (Wills) - Testamentary Causes Jurisdiction from 1844 to 2013, which are open for access after 100 years. Authority to access these files within the 100 year access period will be refered to the Supreme Court of South Australia.

Other institutions

Depending on the nature of your research, you may need to contact other institutions to gather information on your ancestors. Some of those most likely to be of assistance to family history research include:

The State Library of South Australia

The National Archives of Australia

The National Library of Australia

The Adelaide City Council Archives

The Anglican Archives

The Catholic Archives

The Uniting Church History Centre

The Lutheran Archives 


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