Registration of Australian Births in the 1800s

Like today, the process of registering Australian births was subject to legislation during the colonial era. Up to 1890, each state was responsible for setting its own rules relating to time limits, penalties and process, all of which were widely published.

Social attitudes

Rule uniformity did not come until 1890 when Commonwealth Laws relating to the registration of births brought the various states into line. Since 1890 not a lot changed until recent social changes in attitude toward marital and gender disclosures saw some Australian states relax rules, moving away from the accepted regulations that prevailed for over 100 years.

State based registration

Before 1890, in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, either a parent or someone present at birth had to notify the registrar within 60 days, in which time the registration was free of charge. If the birth was not registered within 6 months (3 years in Queensland, 12 months in Victoria) there was a penalty fine of up to £10. In South Australia, the period was 42 days as it was in Tasmania. In the latter case, the Christian name of the child could be withheld until the child had been baptised. Still born children did not have to be registered in any state except in Western Australia where both the birth and death were registered.

“As every inhabitant of Australia may, at some time or other, be interested in knowing the precise time of some birth or death, and as a complete system of registration will prevent much litigation in future years, and otherwise protect individual rights of property, besides throwing light on many social questions, as to the duration of life among children and the up-grown population, to the increase of statistical science, and the general advantage of the inhabitants, it is of the utmost importance that every one should yield a ready compliance with the provisions of the Act.”

National rules

The introduction of the Registration of Births, Deaths, and Marriages Act in 1890 saw rules both expand and contract but in general become uniform across the States. The period of free registration was uniformly set at 60 days. IN later years, to promote registration and increase the birth rate, the Commonwealth Government granted mothers a maternity allowance of £5 which became known by the 1930s as the “Baby Bonus”.

In or out of wedlock

As attitudes changed and religious beliefs grew in social importance, the registration of the birth of a child born in wedlock was a matter solely for the father or mother. The sixty day rule made it obligatory for one of the parents to call at the office of the registrar for the district in which the birth took place, and to attend personally to the registration. In the event of a child being born out of wedlock the mother only could register the birth. If, however, the father of an illegitimate child wanted the child to bear his surname he had to attend the registrar’s office with the mother, and both of them had to sign the register. In some circumstances, however, such as when illness or other causes made personal attendance at the registrar’s office impossible or inconvenient, the registration of a birth could be made by way of entering the necessary particulars on a Form of Information, which had to be signed by one of the parents in the presence of a witness.

This system of registration by “form” was very much abused. Some nurses, to make sure that the maternity allowance would come to hand before they had finished with the patient and thus giving them a better chance to collect their fees, got the necessary particulars from the mother or father as soon after the birth as possible and, having entered the details on a Form of Information and had it signed by one of the parents, they attached their own signature as witness and sent the form to the registrar with the information that the father or mother would attend the office later and sign the register.

This practice was considered objectionable and was common especially when dealing with unmarried mothers. In many cases too, especially after WW1, parents of families were just “living together.” It was often the case that the first birth took place shortly after the marriage of the parents and this was very common especially in instances where the male partner wanted to ensure the wife was capable of producing children before committing to marriage. As the date of marriage and the ages of the “previous issue” (if any) had to be shown in the registration of every child’s birth, the illegitimacy or birth under nine months after marriage of the first child of such a family was plainly revealed to the nurse.

Family secrets

In later years, except where a birth took place in a private hospital (where in N.S.W. a special form was supplied for the Child Welfare Department on which the marital status of the mother had to be shown) the registration of a birth was rarely left to the midwife due to the system abuses. This also ensured that the “family secrets” could be kept private between the parents and the registrar. In all cases, persons wilfully giving false information were deemed guilty of perjury and for destroying or falsifying registered books they were deemed guilty of a felony.


In all cases, persons wilfully giving false information were deemed guilty of perjury and for destroying or falsifying registered books