Australian Population Statistics

4 November, 2010 at 2:56 pm Leave a comment

Years ago I studied number theory, and I still find patterns of numbers fascinating, especially when they suggest underlying explanations.

On first glance the Australian Historical Population Statistics on the website of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Table 1, ‘Population by sex, states and territories, 31 December 1788, onwards’) – well maybe it didn’t look fascinating at first glance. In fact all those numbers look a bit intimidating.

However I am writing a course on Australian Family History (for the National Institute of Genealogical Studies – NIGS) and I started looking more closely at the population numbers, considering them within regions and then within decades. And then patterns began to emerge as the population trends reflected what was happening at the time.

I mean – look at Victoria. It didn’t become a separate colony until 1851 (before that the area was known as the ‘Port Phillip District of NSW’) so there are no statistics for the Victorian colony until 1851. However the new Victorian colony in 1851 had a population of 97,000. A year later this had grown to 168,000 and 2 years later to nearly 284,000. The reason of course was the gold rush, but those numbers echo the stories we read of ships deserted in Port Phillip Bay, when passengers and crew rushed off to the goldfields, often before immigration officials could record who had arrived.

The Swan River settlement in Western Australia was founded in 1829, and at the end of that year, the population was 1,003. Numbers crept up over the next 20 years, including a slight boost in the 1850s and 1860s when the western colony requested convicts for labour (at a time when the eastern colonies rejected convicts because of their gold rush immigration boom).

By 1881 there were still only 30,000 in Western Australia. The numbers continued to grow slowly, boosted by gold discoveries in the Kimberley region in 1885 (although the population actually dropped between 1887 and 1888). Huge finds at Coolgardie in 1892 sparked a major gold rush: in 1892 the WA population was 58,000; in 1894 the population jumped to 81,000 and a year later it passed 100,000.

The Goldfields Pipleline brought water to Kalgoorlie in 1903 and contributed to significant population increase in the new state of Western Australia, especially in the years leading up to World War 1.

South Australia had a population of 546 in 1836, but increased by over 15,000 in its first 5 years.

Northern Territory was called the ‘Northern Territory of South Australia’ from 1863 until 1911, so separate numbers for the NT do not exist before 1911, when it is described as having 3,000 residents. Those numbers creep up until it appears that the population approximately doubled in 1961, from 24,000 the year before to 45,000 in 1961. In fact the explanation is that 1961 was the first year that ‘estimates of indigenous populations’ were included into the totals.

Tasmania’s numbers are interesting in that the population actually dropped each year from 1914 to 1916, and then again in the years 1924 to 1926. The population dropped again in 1941, as well as in each of the years between 1997 and 2000.

Mark Twain attributed to Disraeli the comment about there being “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. We could interpret these population statistics to imply many things. However to me some trends seem to have obvious explanations, while others make me think “I must find out why…”

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