“Aliens” in the Family: naturalisation records for family historians

Some background

Foreigners or “aliens” arriving in colonial Australia from places such as Europe and Asia were at a distinct disadvantage compared to their fellow British settlers.  As subjects of foreign powers, they did not have the same rights to own land, to vote, or to be appointed to official positions.

To acquire these rights an alien needed to be naturalised.

Prior to 1849 the only way an individual could be naturalised was by a special Act of Parliament, although a process called denization did allow aliens some of the rights of British subjects. Legislation in 1849 formalised the process of naturalisation giving foreign born settlers the same rights as British settlers.

A period of residency in the colony, usually between 2 and 5 years, was required prior to an alien being eligible for naturalisation.

State governments were responsible for naturalisation up until the end of 1903 after which the Australian Federal Government assumed overall responsibility.

German family outside a farm building in the Bethania area, Queensland, ca. 1871, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Negative number: 20265.

How useful are naturalisation records?

Naturalisation records can be invaluable in tracing details of a migrant’s arrival in the colony where no shipping list has previously been identified e.g. 

  • an unassisted immigrant who paid his own passage and for whom the only record of arrival is as one of the [unnamed] “18 foreigners” on a vessel.
  • individual passengers aboard vessels for which no shipping list has survived, e.g. the German ship Diana to Moreton Bay in 1858.
  • migrants with common names where insufficient information in passenger arrival records makes them indistinguishable from each other

Details provided usually include

  • Full name
  • Native place
  • Occupation
  • Age
  • Date of arrival and ship’s name

Later records may also include actual birth date, marital status and number of children.

NSW Certificate of Naturalisation for Lothar Neunsling, pre Separation resident of Moreton Bay, 1857.

Information in pre 1904 naturalisation records varies from state to state and not all of the records have survived. Details may therefore be incomplete. It is also worth bearing in mind that records are based on information provided by the applicant. Details need to be verified in other sources if possible. There are numerous instances where dates are incorrect, names of ships may be poorly remembered or misspelled, and even some cases where one wonders if the applicant deliberately provided misleading information. 

What is not in the records?

The term ‘British subject’ did not necessarily mean born in Britain. New Zealanders, Canadians, and the Irish, for example, were all part of the British Empire. As such they were British subjects and did not need to apply for naturalisation.

Women rarely appear in early naturalisation records. There was, after all, little incentive for them to become naturalised. Whether naturalised or not, women were not legally allowed to vote until the early 20th Century and their social position meant they rarely owned land. Where women are listed in naturalisation records, they are usually widows, inheriting land from their husbands.

The native place of the applicant may sometimes be recorded in generic terms e.g. “France”, often frustrating the researcher looking for the name of a specific town or province. 

Extract from Queensland Votes & Proceedings, 1885, vol.2, p.232, Return of aliens naturalised.

Where to access the records

National Archives of Australia holds Commonwealth naturalisations from 1904, as well as the records for Victoria (1852-1903) and South Australia (1839-1903). Many have been digitised and are available to view online.

Naturalisation records for Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, and Western Australia are held at their respective state archives/records.  

State Library of Queensland holds copies of Queensland and NSW naturalisation records on microfilm. For more information on searching and accessing naturalisation records see our Naturalisations research guide on our Family History research guides web page.

National Family History Month webinar

"Land! Lots of Land" free webinar - Monday 31 August 2020 10am-12pm.

Hear speakers from Museum of Lands, Mapping and Surveying; Queensland State Archives, Brisbane City Council Archives and State Library, describe the land records held by their organisations and how to make the most of these resources. Book now for this FREE event!

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