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My passion is genealogy and family history. I host a podcast about Australian family history, Genies Down Under. In my day job, I work as a lecturer and a researcher in higher education, teaching pre-service teachers.

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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Weeks 1 and 2 NFHM Challenge: Maria, the 1996 census collector

This blogpost spans the two themes of Week 1 and Week 2 of the National Family History Month Blogging Challenge. The process of filling out the online census tonight, reminded me of my work as a casual census collector in WA in 1996.

Census records. Week 1 - Sunday 7 August - 9 August is Census Night in Australia.  What extraordinary things have you discovered about your ancestors in census records?

Working ancestors. Week 2 - Sunday 14 August - Blogger Anne Young reminds us that 16 August 1891 was the date the Shearers' Strike Monument was dedicated. This week why don't you honour your working ancestors and the challenges they faced in their occupations.

While filling out the details of the online census form tonight, I had a flashback to 1996 when I worked as a census collector in a rural area in Western Australia, not far from where I was living in the town of Wundowie, about 60km outside of Perth. I was working part-time as a primary teacher at the time and thought it would be interesting to put my hand up to do some census collecting work on the days when I wasn't teaching.

It was another world back then. In 1996, jobs were advertised in newspapers and census forms were completed with pens and paper. I applied for a census collector job I saw advertised in the newspaper and was given the job of a casual census collector. My job was to drive around an area not too far from where I lived to drop off and pick up household census forms.

In my trusty Mistubishi L300 van (looked a bit like the van below, minus the scary man), I trekked around the streets, backroads, farmroads and dirt tracks of Northam, Clackline, Spencers Brook and a few other towns I can't remember.

Source: Googlemaps

From memory, the process was as follows:
  1. Training. The gang of census collectors involved in the census collection around the Northam area of Western Australia all met at Northam before our census work began for training.
  2. Drop off a census form to each household, no matter where they were: in a suburban type street or on a farm up a windy dirt track.
  3. Arrange a time and date with the householder, if they were home, to collect the census form.
  4. Keep returning to the empty houses. If there was no-one home, I had to keep going back to the house until I spoke to a person. In some cases, after going back a number of times, I would give up looking for anyone and peg the census form to the gate (usually a farm gate) or put it inside a letterbox, in a clear plastic bag, in the hope that someone would complete it before I returned. In most cases like this, the census form was still hanging on the fence when I returned.
  5. Collect the forms. Go back to each house, pick up the census form.
  6. Collate and check. At the end of the process, our collected forms were very carefully counted and checked (without reading the information in detail) and returned to the government officials who were supervising the collection process.
  7. Debrief. We met with other census collectors and census officials to discuss what went well and what needed to be improved, and we were asked to give suggestions for how census data could be collected in the future.
In 1996, the first page of the paper census form looked like this. The entire census form was 16 pages long. Talk about survey fatigue!

You were asked to record the age of each member of the household by answering Question 4 like this:

See the full sample of the 1996 census form.

At the time of my census collecting job, I was living on a farm, so I knew about the importance of closing farm gates. I didn't need any extra training in that side of the job. The main, lasting memory of my census collecting job was the vast, creative, challenging collection of farm gates that I had to open, close, open again and close again. For each gate I had to tackle, it meant I had to tackle it four times, each time I visited the household, as follows:

  • Get out of car, open gate.
  • Get in car, drive through gate.
  • Get out of car, close gate,
  • Drive away from the gate, up a track/ driveway/ road to the farmhouse. 
  • Drop off or pick up the census form.
  • Drive towards the gate, get out of the car, open gate.
  • Get in car, drive through gate.
  • Get out of car, close gate.
  • Drive off
That was the process if there was one gate.  Of course, the census collection process involved going back to a house at least twice (drop off the form, pick up the form). However, if there was more than one gate between the road and the farmhouse, the whole process above was repeated multiple times. This will give you a feeling of what it was like to be a rural census collector. Those city census collectors had it easy:)

Some of the gates I had to master were like these ...

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Farm_gates_near_Churchlands_business_park,_Harbury_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1569994.jpg (Creative Commons licence)

After my time as a census collector, I could open almost any gate that farm life threw at me. In addition to my memories of many, many, many gates, my other memories of my stint as a census collector were:
  • The incredibly serious way in which personal data was treated by census officials and census collectors. It was almost considered in sacred terms. I was glad to learn this.
  • The confidential nature of our work. This was emphasised over and over again by the census officials.
  • The friendliness of people in general. I had a few hundred households to visit and most included very, very nice people to meet. There were some complaining, grumps too but these were fewer than the friendly folk.
  • At the debrief some of us younger census collectors suggested that future census collections could be done online (this was in the early days of the internet).  I remember one census collector responding to this suggestion with an adamant, "Never!"

Thanks to Alex  Daw for setting up this National Family History Month Blogging Challenge.


  1. Interesting to hear it from your point of view Maria. Thanks.

  2. Never say never. My grandmother thought the telephone was fanciful and now we can't do without it. I wonder the implications will be if the census goes on line will the results be skewed to those that can afford such a luxury and will historians in the future realise this.... Makes for interesting reflections and speculations.

  3. Dear Maria Please forgive me for taking so long to find your blog. Oh this post made me smile. I was a census collector in 2011 and you are absolutely correct...city slickers had it much easier than you! I felt so sorry for the ABS and all the flack they received this year. Doing it online is so much easier. I only had to walk around my suburb but it was a real slog, going back several times to some houses where the residents obviously did not want to participate. All good grist for the mill.