On 2 March 1841 a census of all of New South Wales was held. For collection and statistical purposes the Port Phillip District was divided into the counties of Bourke, Grant and Normanby and the Police Commissioner's Districts of Western Port and Portland Bay.
In preparation for the census the Melbourne newspaper "Port Phillip Gazette" of 3 February 1841 contained the following advertisement: "REQUIRED, the services of six active Men, of respectable character, to collect the Census in the County of Bourke. Apply to the Police Magistrate." From the completed census forms it is possible to identify the successful applicants as Frederick Horace James, James R. McLaughlin, Peter Mathews, Mr. Morgan, William Nicholson and Charles Henry Seymour Wentworth.
Concerns were held about the legality of certain questions in the census which required the heads of each household to provide information about any convicts or former convicts in their household. This was a sensitive issue at the time but eventually certain questions were asked which requested only the numbers of such persons and not their names. On 27 February 1841 the following article appeared in the "Geelong Advertiser": "CENSUS. - This important statistical labour will commence on Tuesday next, provided the requisite collectors can be obtained. This, however is not likely to be the case. The sum offered by the government for men, horse, not being sufficient for horse hire. There has been a deal of heart burning created in Sydney by the inquisitorial spirit of the insulting questions which the Census Act empowers the collectors to put. How much more deeply ought the insult to be felt by the free inhabitants of Australia Felix." The census of Geelong and suburbs was collected by Robert Robinson of Geelong. He was paid 10 shillings a day (PROV, VPRS 19, 41/303). Samuel Evans was paid a total of 10 pounds and 10 shillings to take the census of the Portland area (PROV, VPRS 108, P1).
On 18 March 1841 the "Port Phillip Patriot" reported: "THE CENSUS - The census collectors having commenced their operations, it is necessary that in order to the attainment of the end for which the act was passed, we should warn householders to be careful that they see the entries are made correctly. The schedules with which the collectors are furnished are so complicated and drawn up in so slovenly a manner, that there is little probability that the lists will be properly filled up, but as much depends on the accuracy of the returns of the various religious denominations, we would recommend householders to pay particular attention that they are really designated as to the creed to which they belong. It is told of our late worthy Colonial Secretary, Alexander M'Leay, Esq., or some of his underlings, that on one occasion when mustering a fresh cargo of convicts, on board the ship, one of the number, either more honest or more shameless than his companions, said, in reply to the question "what is your religion?" - that he was of no religion at all, and that the officiating clerk was directed to construe this answer as meaning "Episcopalian." To guard against similar misconstructions we would recommend that householders should be particular in specifying the denomination they belong to, for the term "Protestant," like the term "no religion," in the case referred to, is but too apt to be converted into the term "Episcopalian." Though this article was unsigned there is a good chance it was penned by John Pascoe Fawkner who was a prominent member of the Congregational (or Independent) denomination. It is therefore interesting to note that from the surviving records it is possible to ascertain that he was the only person who did not to have the household details transferred from his householder return onto the summary sheets. This meant that Fawkner and his family were not counted in the published totals.
On 22 March 1841 the "Port Phillip Patriot" stated: "The Census. - The Census collectors for both town and country are hard at work. The Census of Melbourne is nearly completed, and we are informed that the population of the town alone proves to be larger by several thousands than it was generally supposed was comprised in the extent of both town and suburbs. Sir George Gipps, we fancy, will be rather surprised at the result." A second clerk was employed in the Police Office, Melbourne for two months to assist with the census. (PROV, VPRS 19, 41/720)
On 3 May 1841 the "Port Phillip Patriot" reported: "THE CENSUS - It is understood that the census collectors have finished their labours and that the returns are prepared, but of course until submitted to the inspection of Sir George Gipps and the Sydney folks they will not be published here. So far as we can learn the duty has been done in a very slovenly manner, both in town and country the returns must consequently be very incorrect. We are told of several back lanes in Melbourne, where neither of the collectors ever made their appearance, and we know of an estate in the country where two families, comprising about a dozen individuals, were altogether passed over."
On 29 September 1841 the "Port Phillip Gazette" published figures from the official returns of the population and number of houses in each town throughout New South Wales. These showed Melbourne had a total population of 4,479 persons (2,676 males and 1,803 females) and 769 houses. Geelong had a total population of 454 persons (304 males and 150 females). Obviously the editors did not agree with these figures as they stated that if all the figures were as incorrect as were those for Melbourne, then the whole results were sheer humbug.
Though there is good reason to believe that there were problems with the collection of this census, and that the published figures were far from accurate, it did provide meaningful information and a basis for planning for the future.
The printed forms used to collect the census were referred to as Schedule "A" (the questionnaire to be filled out by each household); Schedule "B" (a form of affidavit to be signed by the collectors); and summary or abstract sheets upon which the totals for each household were entered and totalled. Regretably some detail was lost in transferring these totals. For example, the householder's returns give an analysis by marital condition and sex of those engaged in various occupations whereas the summary sheets only show the totals for each household.
Unfortunately most of these forms are said to have been destroyed after the census. What has survived for the Port Phillip District are about 440 householder's returns for the outer Melbourne area and the summary sheets for the inner and outer Melbourne areas. The original surviving records are held by State Records of New South Wales who have a searchable index to them on their internet web site. They have also published them on microfilm and the Victorian Public Record Office holds photocopies of them.
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