RAHS Technical Information Service Bulletin No. 07: Local Government Records and the Local Historian

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This invaluable research guide is courtesy R Ian Jack, Terry Kass and the Royal Australian Historical Society.

by R. Ian Jack and Terry Kass for the Action Committee on Local Government Records

The Evolution of Local Government

The records generated by local government have generally been used to write the histories of individual local councils and shires, but they have less frequently been used for the data they contain about the general history of the local area. The intimate concern of all local government bodies for their local area and the considerable powers they have had to control their local area mean that there is often a wealth of material about the history of the area in many council offices which has not been tapped by historians, either amateur or professional.

Local government powers ranged over a varied field, and whilst they were not absolute in all matters, sufficient power had been devolved to local authorities by the central government of the state to enable most councils to exercise considerable control over their local area and its development.

The beginnings of local government lay in the need for local supervision of road-building and road maintenance, markets and water-supply in the 1840s. In addition to such special bodies, Sydney and Melbourne became incorporated by special acts in 1842, followed by Geelong in 1849.Not until 1858 was there a general enabling legislation for the creation of local government authorities throughout New South Wales: this was strongly encouraged by country interests and by most country newspapers such as the Bathurst Free Press and the Yass Courier. Between 1859 and 1867 thirty-eight new municipalities (in addition to Sydney City) were created and after reforms embodied in the Municipalities Act of 1867 the tempo of incorporation increased, so that a further 135 local authorities were created by 1897, with 35 more in the ten years after the Third Municipalities Act of 1897. Up to 1858 therefore, there was only the City of Sydney, but the number of record-generating local councils leapt up to a maximum of 192 within forty years. These councils, however, had jurisdiction over only a very small proportion of the state’s area: just under one per cent. The Local Government Extension Act and the Shire Act together in 1906 created for the first time a universal, compulsory, stable system of local government for the entire state both urban and rural (except for the vast underpopulated Western Division). Under the 1906 Act a further 136 shires were created.

® Royal Australian Historial Society, History House, 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney, New South Wales 2000. Telephone (02) 278001 

In the nineteenth century, control by local authorities over development was weak, but since council rates were levied upon local property, councils were vigilant in retaining records of all local development. In the twentieth century, control by local government over subdivision, building and development has increased markedly, which has generated yet more records of the development of local areas. Council interest in the development of the infrastructure needed for an area to develop particularly in the nineteenth century, means that local authorities had a central role in the development and improvement of an area. Councils have been involved in the provision of roads, water, drainage, sanitation, gas and electricity in many areas. Control over matters of health increased during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, until most powers were lost to state-wide authorities. Councils also had control of many everyday utilities such as dairies, butchers' shops, bakeries or barbers' shops and abuses of facilites caused by noisome effluent, troublesome animals and human problems were matters of concern to many councils, particularly in the colonial period.

Local government authorities were also important in the local economy. They provided employment for professional, skilled and unskilled labour in the local area. Contracts to supply services such as garbage collection or road making and repair, were useful sources of income for local entrepreneurs. The award of such contracts was a possible avenue of patronage which could be utilised by local councillors and aldermen to encourage local expertise or to reward supporters. Such practices could have marked social, economic and political implications for the local area.

During periods of economic crisis, such as the Depression of the 1930s, councils played a critical role in organising relief work for the unemployed, often in the form of public works such as a well-built path to Middle Harbour in Ku-ring-gai Municipality or new sewage mains in Mudgee or new walking tracks in the Blue Mountains.

Local authorities were also the arena in which the local elite sought to legitimise and exercise their power, both in the formal processes of council and in informal ways, such as in the dispensation of patronage. Local factions fought for control of the local legislature. Although such faction fights seem parochial and localised, it should be emphasized that many, if not most, state and federal politicians learned their political skills in local government.

Local Government Records

As a result of these very wide-ranging interests and responsibilities, local authorities since 1842 have been producing for their own use a mass of documentation about the area, its economy, buildings and people. Not all councils have produced the same series of records and certainly a great many have not preserved all the significant records which they have generated. But there are some series of records which it has always been in the interests of a council to retain, and under an ordinance pursuant to the Local Government Act of 1919 a few classes of documents have had legislative protection. These were:

  • minute books
  • registeres of legal documents
  • registers of correspondence
  • legal documents
  • registers of returning officers' declarations of elections and of polls
  • the declarations of these returning officers

Financial documents could be destroyed after six years if the auditor reported that they had no further value. All other documents could be destroyed after six years.

Thanks to the labours of the highly-qualified Action Committee for Local Government Records, this list has been amended and considerably extended since 1985. The full list is given in the Appendix, but for the historian the really important addition to permanent preservation is the class of rate-books, discussed below. Recognition of such new items as plans, engineering drawings, cemetery records, whether to be preserved in their original form or in a microform of approved quality, is also of great importance for future historians.

It must be emphasised, however, that this additional list can apply only to those records generated before 1985 which have chanced to survive. It must also be recognised that the earlier legislation was not always honoured. Furthermore, non-current records have always, since the nineteenth century, had a very low priority for suitable storage or accessibility. We all have stories to tell of important council records being pulped by floods in basements, or eaten by rats in cupboards, or baked on top of boilers.

Amalgamations have also taken their toll. Over the last century, there have been many changes in the boundaries of local authorities and when part or all of an old municipality or shire is absorbed into a new or neighbouring authority records are particularly at risk (a continuing problem which the Action Committee is seeking to solve). In these circumstances, the old records of deceased authorities may survive through inertia or through the public spirit of a local history society, a local library or some other local institution. As a result the historians of many specific localities will find local government records outside the obviously relevant Town Hall or Municipal Chambers.

For example, the present shire of Mudgee is the product of a long and confusing series of amalgamations of earlier local government authorities. In 1860 two municipal councils were proclaimed, first in February one for Mudgee township, the other, in July, for the lightly populated rural area of 192 square miles, named the Municipality of Cudgegong. In 1868 Gulgong town, just before the gold finds of 1870-71 brought it sudden prosperity, also became a separate municipality. This tripartite situation continued until the Local Government Act of 1906, under which the shires of Meroo and Wyaldra were created. In 1924 two of these rural areas, the municipality of Cudgegong and the shire of Meroo joined to form the Shire of Cudgegong and in 1941 the Shire of Gulgong was formed by the amalgamation of the shire of Wyaldra and the municipality of Gulgong. Sixteen years later, in 1957, the shire of Gulgong disappeared, partly being absorbed in Cudgegong shire, partly in Coolah shire.

In 1975 the newly expanded shire of Cudgegong united with the 115-year old municipality of Mudgee to form most of the present Shire of Mudgee and Mudgee shire took its present form in 1977 when the north-west part of Turon Shire (founded in 1906) was added to Mudgee while the bulk of Turon Shirejoined with Abercrombie shire to form Evans shire. Local government minute-books and other documents relevant to Mudgee shire are therefore veiy diverse. Basic information about the role of Councils in many aspects of the history of the area over the past century and a quarter lies in the following series of records:


If you want to know what classes of records are known to survive in the care of any one local council, there are two printed lists which can be consulted.

One was published by the Sydney History Group in its journal The Sydney Gazette vol.l no.4 (Feb. 1982). This listing covers Sydney and many of its suburbs. Most classes of record are listed for the areas which have been surveyed by volunteers from the Sydney History Group.

The other, which covers the NSW country areas as well, was compiled by Helen Temple in 1976, and is available in major libraries as part of A Manual of Architectural History Sources in Australia, I, New South Wales, South Australia, edited by David Saunders, University of Adelaide 1981, pp. 126-135, 241-285.

Helen Temple shows for the entire state (as far as councils were able to inform her) the covering dates for which minute-books, buildings and works reports, building permits and plans and rates records are reported to survive. It is particularly useful for the historian to know in advance what a Town Clerk had in his custody in 1976 so that the right questions can b,e posed to the present municipal or shire officials.

Minute-Books of Councils

The minute-books are the fundamental record of decisions taken by the Council in session. They do not tell the whole story, since other decisions are taken under delegated authority by council officials or by council committees. Nor do they always tell a comprehensible story, for many town clerks recorded decisions taken agreeing to a detailed committee report but failed to paste the committee report into the minute book. But the books remain an indispensible guide not only to the history of the council but also to many aspects of the development of the locality.

A very good example of the range of information in such minute-books can be found in William Chubb's Jubilee Souvenir of the Municipality of Newtown, published in 1912. Pages 10 to 40 of this publication consisted of a digest of the Newtown council minutes from 1862 to 1912. In 1912, for example, the council minutes give details of the wood-blocks paving Newtown's streets, the need for more police protection, the failure to amalgamate with Erskineville, a subsidy for the Newtown Brass Band, the purity of local milk, awnings over footpaths in the shopping area, the resumption of St George's Hall and facilities for mourners joining funeral trains for Rookwood at Newtown Station.

A similar digest of Rylstone Shire Council's minute-book for 1906-10 has been published in Rylstone Area: History of Settlement, 2nd ed. 1983, pp.44-47. In 1910 the council was preoccupied with cutting down thistles and burrs growing in the main streets of Rylstone, in surveying the road at Dairy Swamp, in painting the Rylstone side of the footbridge at Sofala (swept away in 1986) and purchasing strychnine and jam to eradicate the rabbits living in Rylstone's culverts.

Up to the early twentieth century, such minute-books were handwritten by the Town Clerk or by an assistant using the draft minutes made during the council meetings. They are in general fairly legible but they are bulky and are characteristically unindexed. If you are interested only in a single aspect of an area, for example the creation of a particular park or the development of sporting facilites, then you will have to work your way through a mass of material to find the sporadic references. But if you persevere, you will be richly rewarded: Carol Liston, for example, compiled a fascinating account of the development of Cooper Park in Double Bay in the 1920s and 1930s from the Woollahra Municipality's minute-books.

The material contained in council minute-books is often unique and gives compelling vignettes of issues such as daylight bathing on harbour beaches or the provision of a pure water supply: since the minutes are usually continuous over a long period they are equally valuable in giving an extensive view of a locality’s development.

To observe the use of this material in conjunction with other sources, both from the local shire and from central records, you cannot do better than read Bill Gammage's admirable history of Narrandera Shire, published by the council in 1986, and follow the text with a finger in the endnotes on pp. 242-51.

Rate Books

The generic term 'rate books', covers a number of similar, though variable, types of municipal record. Originally, there were two types of rate records. The 'rate book' was a type of ledger which recorded some details, such as property number and owner's name, of all property rated by the local authority, along with details about payment. The 'rate assessment book' was a more detailed record of the properties rated by the local authority and was used to compile the 'rate book'. Rate assessment books varied from one local authority to the next. Depending upon the local council, they could contain the following details - occupant; owner; a description of the property such as 'dwelling', 'shop', 'orchard'; data about the building, such as wall materials, roofing, number of floors, number of rooms, area of land, dimensions of the building; lot descriptors, such as plan number and allotment number; valuation details; and 'Remarks'. In some local authorities, both of these rate records were combined into the one book, which usually meant that details about properties were less detailed than they would have been if a rate assessment book was used.

During the twentieth century, in many local government authorities, the Valuation List supplied by the Valuer-General replaced the rate records generated by the local authority itself. However, this was not always the case. Some, such as the Council of the City of Sydney, continued to maintain their own rate books containing more detail than the VG's Vaulation Lists. Thus, if you are looking for the type of data provided by rate records for the twentieth century, it is worth checking to see if the local authority did maintain their own separate set of rate records.

Some Uses of Rate Records

Depending upon the data recorded by the local authority, rate books enable the researcher to investigate:

1. Details about any individual house, building or property, such as owners, occupants, date of construction, construction materials and changing uses. 2. The development of a group of buildings, a street, a group of streets, etc. 3. The general development of an area - introduction of houses, shops, manufacturing plants, particularly such elusive establishments as brick pits, tanneries and stockyards. 4. Rates of home ownership. 5. Ownership of property by house-renting landlords 6. Mobility of tenants from one house to another.

Further projects are only limited by the ingenuity of the researcher and the nature of the data recorded in the rate records.

The Evolution of Rate Records

During most of the nieteenth century, rates were levied on buildings alone, so that councils were most concerned about careful recording of details about them. Descriptions of buildings were generally very detailed as a result, particularly in the City of Sydney. Other councils, such as Paddington and Newtown, gave fewer details about their buildings. In these instances, the rating value given to the building can serve as a handy guide to its relative size and importance. Owner's names were not very carefully recorded by many councils and addresses of owners who lived away from the property are rarely seen.

During the 1880s and 1890s, details of vacant land began to be included in the rate records. Addresses of owners were also becoming more frequent in the rate books. For instance, on 4 February 1902, North Sydney Council rated properties in Warringa Ward. In Hayes Street, Neutral Bay, there was a dwelling occupied by Phillip Selfe. The owner was John Cooper, whose address was given as 'Equitable Buildings’, obviously in Sydney. The Hayes Street building was described as having one floor and seven rooms.

After the introduction of unimproved capital value rating (UCV) in 1906, there was less interest in the building or buildings on the land, since the land itself, at its 'unimproved' value was the basis for rate calculation. If the Council continued to maintain its own separate rate records, these could still be of value to the researcher. In the Fitzroy Ward Rate Assessment Book of the City of Sydney in 1927, 'Tusculum’ was noted as 'House garage & rooms’ owned by Orwell Phillips. It was built of brick with a slate and iron roof, two floors and fourteen rooms. By 1930, it was owned by Tusculum Ltd., who let it as a private hospital, after they had extended it to twenty rooms.

Tracing a Group of Buildings

Reproduced here are part of the assessments in the Cook Ward Rate Assessment Books of 1858 to 1863 of the Council of the City of Sydney covering Gipps Street (now called Reservoir Street). This part of Gipps Street was opposite the Crown Street Reservoir. By following these assessments, we can see how part of Sydney developed in the hectic decades after the discovery of gold in 1851. The 1851 Rate Assessment Book shows no buildings here. By 1858, some have appeared. The rapid erection and the equally rapid removal of buildings in this period of sudden forced growth is readily evident.

The example shown here is as recorded in the Rate Assessment Books and thus provides a cautionary tale. When using rate records, there is still a need to examine contrasting data as one must always do in proper historical research. In the example shown here, it is evident that assessor or valuer who compiled the valuations for 1861 was either inexperienced or incompetent. To check the accuracy of the Rate books is relatively straight forward in this instance, since these buildings still survive in Surry Hills at the very end of Reservoir Street.



'Correspondence' is a general term which encompasses letters received by councils. However, depending upon the particular record keeping system of individual councils, they may be found under a number of record categories. Sometimes, particularly in most councils in the nineteenth century, correspondence formed a separate record category. In the twentieth century, most councils established a file based system. Thus, letters received can be found in a number of ways. Even if the originals do not survive, letters received were often noted with a brief precis of their contents in Council Minutes. Originals may be found in individual Council files, often self-indexed on a subject basis or on a property basis. Letters received by Councils enable the historian to build up a fuller picture of development in the area, to follow particular people, events, or themes that he or she is interested in.

For some examples of what these letters may tell us, let us look back to Gipps Street, Surry Hills between 1858 and 1865. In the ’Letters Received* of the Sydney Council of 1858, there is a letter from Alexander Skirving, one of the owner-occupiers of Gipps Street, about the payment of his account for work done to Botany Street for the Council. In 1861, Edward Bell, City Engineer, informed the Council formally by letter, that the Reservoir fence opposite Gipps Street was very dilapidated due to the effects of goats and cattle kept by nearby residents and by people stealing the timber for fuel. John Cockroft, owner-occupier of one of the houses, wrote to Council in the same year complaining about the absence of a water supply in Little Gipps Street, a lane which ran behind these houses. The letter was signed by many other owners and residents, including fellow owner-occupiers, Thomas Acton and Alexander Skirving.

Building Registers

In 1906, amongst changes to the Local Government Act, local authorities were given the power to regulate 'the erection of buildings as to height, design, structures, materials, building line, sanitation, [and] the proportion of any lot which may be occupied by the building'. Consequently, anyone wishing to erect a building within a local government area had to submit plans to the council for approval. The councils created registers of these applications as a record of their decisions and the fees levied. These building plans have rarely survived, but the building registers often do and they are valuable sources for the historian. Usually they are not held with the other records of the council, but remain with the building or town planning department.

By examining these registers, it is possible to gain a picture of development in any area by tallying the different types of buildings, such as cottages, factories and shops, that were approved. The register entries usually contained the following data - situation of the property (street, house or lot number); type of building; architect and/or builder; owner; estimated value of building; council decision; and 'remarks'.

Other information that may be gleaned from the registers is a picture of the activity and identity of contract and speculative builders operating in that local government area. Similar data about architects can also be obtained. The character of an area is reflected in the entries in the register. In Mosman, in the 1910s, when motor cars had just become a newly affordable luxury for the wealthy of the area, there were a number of applications to erect garages to house them. In Bankstown, on the other hand, garages do not appear in any number until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the erection of a garage on one's own land was a way of temporarily housing one’s family whilst a house was under construction on the same allotment.

Finally, a word of warning when using building registers. They list buildings approved, not those finally erected. To confirm the accuracy of building totals for any year, one should check them against other data, such as Water Board connection figures or rate records. For individual buildings, a check of the actual site is the best check of the register entry that can be made.

Access to Records

Local government records which are still in Council hands are in the care of very busy officials. Remember that the Town or Shire Clerk and his or her staff have many things on their minds more urgent than the production of old minute-books or old rate¬books. Remember too that few local authorities have space always available for a searcher wishing to read old records. It is therefore a matter of courtesy and of necessity that you contact the Town or Shire Clerk well in advance and discuss your projected enquiries. In this way you are much more likely to gain access to what you want and the local authority is not inconvenienced.

As we have remarked above, many lo6al government records are now housed not by councils but by local museums, libraries, historical societies or tertiary institutions and some have found their way to the Mitchell Library in Sydney. As well as contacting your Town or Shire Clerk, therefore, you should enquire at the other places where records may be preserved and explain the nature of your research. You too may be as well rewarded as one of the authors was when he followed exactly these procedures in Mudgee Shire.


Bate, Weston, A History of Brighton (Melbourne University Press, 1962)

Bate, Weston, Lucky City: the First Generation at Ballarat, 1851-1901 (Melbourne University Press, 1978)

Gammage, Bill, Narrandera Shire (Narrandera Shire Council, 1986)

Hibbins, G.M., Fahey, C. and Askew, M.R., Local History: a Handbook for Enthusiasts (Allen and Unwin, 1985)

Kass, Terry, “The Comparative Use of Land Title Records and Rate Books”,Sydney Gazette vol.l no.8, May 1985

Larcombe F.A., A History of Loco. I Government in New South Wales: vol.l, The Origin of Local Government in New South Wales,1831-58; Vol.2, The Stabilization of Local Government in New South Wales, 1858-1906; Vol.2, The Stabilization of Local Government in New South Wales, 1858-1906; vol.3, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales, 1906 to the Present (Sydney University Press, 1973, 1976, 1978)

Ryan, Marie and Ward, Patricia (ed.), Local Government Records in New South Wales: Control, Management, Preservation and Use, (Occasional Paper No.6, Library Association of Australia, N.S.W. Branch, 1982).

Sydney Gazette, publication of pilot study of local government records in council offices in Sydney area, vol.l no.4, February 1982

Temple, Helen, ‘New South Wales - Local Government’ and ‘Local Government Records: a Survey of Holdings at Town Halls throughout New South Wales, including footnotes’ in D. Saunders (ed.), A Manual of Architectural History Sources in Australia, vol.l, New South Wales and South Australia (Department of Architecture, University of Adelaide, 1981) pp. 126-1345, 241-285.


List of Records Now Protected by Legislation

Preservation of records

55. (1) Subject to subclause (4), the following records of the Council shall not be destroyed: -

(a) minute books of the meetings of the Council and, where kept, minute books of the meetings of committees of the Council;

(b) registers of legal records;

(c) deeds of conveyance of land, certificates of title, leases or mortgages of land, contracts for the sale of land, licences to use Council's property or affidavits of service of rate notices;

(d) cemetery and burial registers;

(e) registers and indexes of Council files;

(f) certified copies of electoral rolls, Returning Officers' declarations of elections and of polls and registers of Returning Officers' declarations of elections and of polls;

(g) rate books;

(h) audited annual statements of accounts, reports of the auditor and reports of an inspector of local government accounts;

(i) maps of water, sewerage or drainage works;

(j) registers of development consents;

(k) maps and registers of residential districts;

(1) registers of building applications and registers of building approvals;

(m) approved building applications with relevant plans and specifications;

(n) road maps and road registers;

(o) records of contracts entered into by the Council relating to engineering, building programmes and public works.

(2) Subject to subclause (4), the records referred to in subclause (1) shall, as far as is practicable, be protected from deterioration.

3) Any records of the council not referred to in subclause (1) may be destroyed or otherwise disposed of, if the Council so decides:-

(a) after the expiration of 6 years from the date of the last entry therein or

transaction thereon; or (b) in accordance with the schedules for the disposal of records approved by the Minister for the purposes of this subclause,

(4) The Council may, in accordance with standards for microfilming approved by the Minister for the purposes of this subclause, microfilm any record referred to in subclause (1) (e) to (o) and destroy or otherwise dispose of the original record.

February 1987