The key to learning who lived in your street: Electoral rolls on FMP and WVR

Findmypast Australia’s blurb tells the researcher that electoral rolls are the nearest record Australians have to census listings and hence are extremely important to local, social and family historians…. Compulsory enrolment was introduced for all federal rolls from 1911 so the 1959 should reflect the adult population (over 21 years) excluding the foreign and indigenous population. Voting in Federal elections was compulsory from 1925.

Pre-internet researchers are familiar with plying the paper or microfilm records of state and federal electoral rolls but current-day researchers are accustomed to simply searching one of Ancestry, Findmypast (Australia) or World Vital Records (WVR).

Online searching allows for plug-and-play solutions which make life so much easier, usually quickly identifying the person you’re searching for and where they’re living. But they can also do much more than that and provide additional information, beyond a simple name search, that’s not readily available via a traditional paper-based search.

A cropped view of the street extracted from Google Maps Street View.

Yesterday I decided to have a play and see if I could reconstitute the residents of my home street in Brisbane and it was certainly an interesting exercise.  I personally found Ancestry relatively useless for a non-person-specific street search, however the story was quite different with Findmypast Australia. I plugged the address into the Keyword search, with no personal name specified. This provided me with results for different electoral roll years which reflected the sub-division of an old property and the development of the suburb. I also tried the same thing with World Vital Records (WVR) and the results are shown here:

Year Findmypast Australia (FMP) World Vital Records (WVR)
1913 7 6
1915 11 8
1922 14 14
1934 28 28
1949 50 50
1959 45 n/a

As can be seen there are slight differences between FMP and WVR but FMP also offers another very useful record, the 1959 electoral roll.  I used FMP first and found it initially excellent. It should be noted though that if people don’t update their electoral information it will not be correct eg my parents are listed at the same address in 1959 as they were in 1949 even though shortly after the latter date they’d moved into their own house next door. Similarly the name of my grandparents’ house is mis-spelled on a couple of the records. I also subsequently found another elector who’d given the street an additional vowel. The records for 1915 were also somewhat unreliable – some names appear more than once due to late registration etc and in other cases one spouse would be in the listing but the other was not, although found when the page is reviewed. It’s possible that there may be people missing altogether I suppose. Be aware of these problems but it will still provide you with lots of information.

What else did I learn?

  1. It gave me the opportunity to look at the development of the street over time.
  2. It provided insights into the socio-economic category of the area: as anticipated, largely working class with a minor scattering of middle class occupations.
  3. The majority of the women were homemakers.
  4. Some families lived in the area for at least 40 years based on this electoral data, though through personal knowledge many lived there for much longer.
  5. The 1959 roll can be very useful as the change in ethnic names reflects some of the post-war migration, less so for this street.
  6. The 1959 roll also provides the street number where earlier records only provide the street name and sometimes the house, but knowing the house name is interesting too.
  7. It reminded me that there were a couple of houses which provided rental accommodation for mainly single people, apart from one which continues to this day.
  8. The convenient proximity to the hospital is already clear quite early with a smattering of nurses renting in the street
  9. Knowing certain families were definitely living nearby meant I could go looking for their names, highlighting some anomalies in indexing.
  10. My memory is really bad about which house some people lived in: using Google Maps (with street numbers) and Google maps street view enabled me to jog my memory about the house number combined with the image of the house: mostly they’ve remained similar with some additional houses on easements.
  11. I could confirm the names and locations of people I remembered from the neighbourhood.
  12. I can’t yet confirm the details put forward in the local history, some of which I now know to be incorrect (mainly through Trove searches) and some I’d like to learn more about.
  13. I’m still not confident when my grandfather bought the land, moved to the street and built his house: part of my future research plan.
  14. Why was there almost always a cabinet maker/carpenter living in the street?

Buoyed by my discoveries with FMP regarding the street where I grew up, I tried the street immediately behind us where my childhood friends lived. Well, at that point my bubble burst. FMP let me down with a vengeance: I could find some people with one (older) spelling of the street name and some with the newer spelling of the street. But nowhere could I find the parents of my childhood friends, no matter how I searched: name/street etc. I eventually came to the conclusion they simply aren’t there: misindexed or whatever, they’ve fallen off the research log.

The Post Office directories on FMP, where available, were helpful to indicate which side of the street a family lived on, but they did require a bit of fiddling to get to the street directory section.

I turned my attention to World Vital Records (WVR) which also let me search by place. A bit more clunky but nonetheless it eventually gave me results and it gave me the family (plus others) which had been omitted from FMP without any problems whatsoever.  As you can see from the table above, there are some names missing from WVR compared to FMP in one street, but plainly for the next street WVR is the leader. It proves the point that as researchers we should never put all our eggs in one basket and it kind of justifies my usual practice of “testing” a record by searching for something I know should be there. If it’s not, there’s a problem, either with my search terms or the records. Unfortunately WVR doesn’t provide the 1959 roll so on the second street I was left in limbo.

Not much liking having two quite different outcomes, I tried FMP again with a different street and got a satisfactory outcome. So part of the problem appears to have been the various ways this problematic street’s name could be searched.

Going back to FMP’s original blurb: can the electoral roll be a substitute for the census in Australia? Well it surely won’t give you the names of all family members irrespective of age, or their relationships, but thanks to our early women’s suffrage and compulsory registration, it will usually give you the adults living in the area. It will also go a long way to tell you more about the social demographic of a particular area and its changes over time: something I routinely use the census for, and one of the benefits of the FreeCen search where it’s available for the UK.

I had great fun with this search process, now all that remains is to put it all into a spreadsheet for future reference.

Online searching is heaven-sent for this purpose and I could have only done this type of search the traditional way with some tedious page-turning. However if you’re looking for family members and the actual image hasn’t been digitised it can still be worthwhile looking at the “original” paper or microfilm versions. Once an address is known and the electorate is identified, original records can tell you when someone leaves the electorate (or dies) and to which electorate they move. Queensland State Archives microfilm copies of electoral rolls give you these extra snippets. Commonwealth rolls can also give you slightly different information re occupations, house names etc, and have the added benefit of being easier to search because there are fewer of them.

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