1971 National Census, Territory Style

Some time ago, I read an amusing fictional account “The Census Taker Cometh”[1] describing the travails of census enumerators calling at a German immigrant household in Illinois over a 60-year period and concluding with the question “Ever wondered why some census entries look like creative accounting?” This reminded me of my own experiences providing me with an opportunity to impart a personal story about my involvement in the 1971 Census of Population and Housing. I did not get that far at the time but now I am rising to Alex Daw’s weekly blog challenge for National Family History Month.  

Of course, the 1971 Census in Australia is ‘famous’ in Australia as this was the first to count Aboriginal people following the 1967 referendum to alter the Australian Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the Census. In fact, it was not the first to count Aboriginal people and since 1971, the census enumeration of Aboriginal people has been – at least – problematic. However, that is not the point of this story.

In 1971, I was a Patrol Officer-in-Training in the Welfare Branch, Northern Territory Administration and studying at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney. One day, our almost beloved boss Jack Larcombe arrived from Darwin to announce that we were all to be seconded to the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 2-3 weeks to carry out the Census in the Territory. At that stage, I had already had some fieldwork experience in Tenant Creek and the Barkly Tableland district. Therefore, it was with some pleasure that I learned that I was to be despatched to Tennant Creek.

Up until that time, since 1911, ‘full blood’ Aboriginal people had been excluded from the Census. That does not mean they were not actually counted – just that they were excluded from the various statistical conclusions. Censuses had been conducted in the Territory in 1881, 1891, 1901, and 1911 and Aboriginal people had been counted – but not named. Neither were the Chinese or “other Asiatics” named.

The Aboriginal Population Records were ‘inherited’ by the Office Aboriginal Development, of which I was the Director 1993-200, from the former Department of Aboriginal Affairs. At that time no-one seemed to care much for these records but my staff and I could see their value for the history of the Northern Territory and the family history of Territorians not to mention the coming debate over the ‘stolen generations’. The Office of Aboriginal Development and the NT Archives Service negotiated with various Aboriginal organisations the Protocol for Access to Northern Territory Government Records by Aboriginal People Researching their Families that was signed off by the Minister for Aboriginal Development in November 1997.

These records include the old Aboriginal Population Records and the archived material from the Registrar-Generals Office, Department of Health and Community services, Northern Territory Police, Northern Territory Correctional Services, Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, Magistrates Court and the Department of Employment Education and Training.

This protocol was negotiated post the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and prior to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and their Families (known as the “Bringing them Home Report”). The protocol was a genuine attempt by my Office to ‘do good’ against some significant opposition but one that was ultimately endorsed by the Northern Territory Government. Evidently, the Protocol was revised or updated in 2005 such that it now seems a product of a later Government and as a response to the Bringing Them Report. At the risk of escalating the debate to another level, can I say that my experience of Sir Ronald Wilson AC KBE CMG GC concerning the Northern Territory aspect of his inquiry was less than edifying?

Let us return to the more humorous aspects of the 1971 Census.

We Patrol Officers-in-Training were flown from Sydney to Darwin to attend a 2-hour briefing on how to carry out the census and then I was on to Tennant Creek. Two of my colleagues were also posted to Tennant but I arrived in the town first. Under interrogation by my mentors – TWM and BM – at the Memorial Club, or maybe it was the Goldfields Hotel, I confessed that my fellow students “Peter Rabbit” and QJ were – well, a little different. On that basis, TWM decided they could take one census district each north of the Barkly Highway and the three of us would together take three districts south of the Highway.

Let us say that my mentors were seasoned drinkers – and at age twenty, I may or may not have been a willing apprentice! We commenced with a trial run to McLaren Creek Station where it took us about 3 hours to fill out the forms in respect of about 60 people. We then retired to the Wauchope Hotel for a five hour debrief. Retreating to Tennant Creek, and armed with our newfound knowledge, we kitted out for a two-week long bush trip. We had two vehicles – a Holden utility with all the camping gear and basic supplies and a Holden sedan with the documents and the all-important newfangled car fridge containing meat and beer. Then began a constant refrain repeated several times per day for the rest of the journey – “will we do 60 kilometres or one hour before smoko?” ‘Smoko’ would inevitably involve a beer or two. I would plump for either scenario – relying on my guesstimate of the upcoming road conditions and how to get the maximum distance and force the issue.

After an early port of call at Murray Downs Station, we arrived at Kurundi where we met the three men who had carried out a “Kadaitcha” killing at Murray Downs in the mid-1950s. The killing was not strictly traditional in that they had used a .22 calibre rifle and had then strung the body on a barbed wire fence and decorated it with ochre and emu feathers. Finding them guilty, the enlightened Justice Kriewaldt sentenced them to five years exile to Melville Island.  The men spoke excitedly of this exile; first about fear of the “salt-water blackfellas” but with admiration of the environment and its plentiful food. By 1971, each of these men had three wives with about six children by each wife. Tragically, I have lost the photograph I took that day. I only had a simple instamatic camera and had to retreat so far to fit the entire group in the frame that individual features were barely discernible. Needless to say, the census form was hardly designed for a man with three wives and eighteen kids and it took the entire day to complete the exercise.

Boss mentor TWM had a hankering to see the ghost town of Dajarra just across the border in Queensland. Dajarra had once been an important town being at the junction of various stock routes along which cattle from the Northern Territory and north-west Queensland were driven to the Darling Downs and the southern markets.

Getting to Dajarra was somewhat an adventure. The track just went straight into the front fence of the Headingly Station homestead. Driving the utility as the second vehicle in our little convoy, I observed a man hiding behind – of all things – a giant rhododendron bush peeking at the first car. He did not see me pull up and getting out of the ute and startling him, the conversation ensued:

“G’day mate”

“F*** you frightened me!”

“How do we do we get to Dajarra?”

“Wouldn’t have a f*****g clue mate”

“But where did you come from?”

“I come from Redlands [a suburb of Brisbane]”

“No, I mean how did you get to here?”

“Dunno mate. I was on the piss in Cloncurry and woke up here!”

We arrived at Dajarra just on dusk having passed a galloping horse and rider who mysteriously never arrived. There were just a few buildings remaining; the town hall was a collapsing mess of weather board, a crow was “aarking” in the background and there was a metallic hammering by a person unknown and unseen. We entered the pub, the bar of which was lit by carbide lamps but otherwise deserted and containing, surprisingly, a modern glass fronted beer fridge. Eventually, having called out several times, we ventured down the corridor to perhaps the kitchen where we startled by a broken and shattered man emerging from behind another fridge. It transpired he was an American who had come to Australia several years before to tour the remote areas and fell in love with Dajarra. Selling up in the States, he returned to Australia and bought the Dajarra pub. Working under a vehicle one day, the jack collapsed and the car fell on him causing serious injuries and also to have a stroke. As long and painful as the conversation was, it was also inspiring. “They said I would never walk and talk again. Well I can walk now – sort of – and I will learn to talk again”.

We camped that night on the racecourse close to the single stand-alone gaol cell that a couple of years previous was the scene of an infamous Aboriginal death in custody. This was June and the weather was bitterly cold. The Barkly Tableland is immense, featureless and windswept – an occasional tree the only relief and where the Mitchell grass is higher than the vehicles. Onto Camooweal for a dayin the bar but with a good feed and an opportunity for proper clean-up (or ‘bogey’ to use the outback slang). Leaving Camooweal, we went back into the Territory and did the counts at Avon Downs and then Austral Downs before arriving at the ‘biggie’ – Lake Nash.

There were some 600-800 Aboriginal people living at Lake Nash at that time in the most abject of conditions. No housing at all – just humpies spread across a dusty rubbish strewn flat. The Census planners would have had no idea of the conditions their collectors were to encounter! Within an hour it was obvious that, firstly, we had insufficient forms and, secondly, not enough time to complete the exercise. We resorted to scribbled notes about each ‘household’ and even that took two days. Returning to Tennant Creek, we worked furiously for a day transcribing our notes to the returns and using our Aboriginal Population Records data to check and fine-tune the results. Mentor BM departed on leave and I returned to Sydney leaving mentor TWM to complete the Lake Nash enumeration. Two weeks later, I was flown back to Tennant Creek for two days to help TWM finish off the Lake Nash count – about four weeks after the official enumeration date of the night of 30 June.

The 2016 Census is about to get underway and apparently 247 people have been recruited to form 104 Remote Mobile Teams. This Census is largely a digital census and many of us will complete the form online. There is controversy at present with the Australian Bureau of Statistics intending to retain names and addresses. This debate is largely uninformed in my view with all and sundry forgetting that people had the option in 2006 and 2011 to declare whether or not their personal information could be retained. The personal data relating to all previous censuses is destroyed and so it will not be until 2100 that a future family historian will have the benefit of an Australian Census. The 2016 Census will not be available to researchers until the year 2115.  For the United Kingdom, the 1921 Census will not be released until 2022 because of legislation passed in 1962 but this has not stopped a clamour for its earlier release. In the meantime, the 1939 Register – technically not a census – is readily available to family historians. For Canada, the 1921 Census is available and for United States so is the 1940 census. I for one, cannot see what the fuss is about notwithstanding my normal individual freedom and responsibility viewpoint.

I trust the 2016 Remote Area Teams driving their flash and beautifully equipped four-wheel vehicles on largely sealed roads and with lap-tops and tablets can cast their mind back and wonder what it was like for the census collector 35 years ago when by necessity, there was indeed some “creative accounting”.


Protocol : Access to Northern Territory Government Records by Aboriginal People Researching their Families, Northern Territory Government, 2005

Rimmer S, Access the 1921 UK Census Now? 30 Arguments For and Against, Ancestry-Genealogy & DNA, http://www.abroadintheyard.com/access-1921-uk-census-now-30-arguments-for-against-early-release accessed 5 Aug 2106








[1] The article is copyright to MyFamily.com but attributed to Jones.lostsoulsgenealogy.com and appeared in the Ancestry Daily News.

About njsresearch6

Although raised in Western Australia, I have lived in the Northern Territory most of my life. Memberships include the NT Genealogical Society (Committee), Australian Museum and Gallery Association (NT Chapter Committee), and Chung Wah Society (NT Chinese Museum Coordinator).
This entry was posted in News and Views and General Research. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 1971 National Census, Territory Style

  1. luvviealex says:

    Hah! Makes my census collection stint in 2011 around my suburb look like a walk in the park! Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  2. kerbent says:

    I always shudder when I think about the implications of people not being included before 1971 Census. I loved your personal story about a subject that is often not spoken about.

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