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Police, Priests & Publicans

Police, Priests & Publicans
Researching historical occupations
8 March 2018

“A policeman, a priest and a publican…” may sound like the beginning of a great joke, but these are just some of the occupations listed in records that I have searched through as a Family History Reference Librarian. The National Library of Australia provides access to a wide range of job related and company records, in which you can discover the vocations of your distant relatives.

Finding information about your ancestor’s profession could help solve a mystery about why your ancestor lived in particular location or had no fixed address. It could also be a great way to enhance your family’s history.

You may be surprised at the range of occupational or business records accessible at the National Library of Australia from Ashton Circus employees to Government railway workers. 

If you are not sure how to get started, here are some research strategies I have used to help answer the following questions:

How can I discover my ancestor’s occupation?

Electoral rolls

Electoral rolls can be a great starting point to determine a person’s occupation. You can access historical electoral rolls in microfiche format in the Newspapers and Family History Zone or electronically via family history databases such as Ancestry and Find My Past. 

Patrick Gallagher listed as a publican in 1903 Cobar electoral roll available via Ancestry database

Birth, death and marriage (BDM) records

Birth, death and marriage certificates can list a person’s profession or occupation. Although the National Library of Australia does not hold original BDM records we do hold the relevant registration numbers required to purchase a certificate from the relevant Australian state or territory BDM Registry Office.

The Library does hold copies of various historical church records which will allow you to access baptism, marriage and burial records. Use our Ask a Librarian service to find out if we hold the church record you after.


Burial record for Thomas Dunn in 1832 lists his occupation as Chief Constable. Record available via the Pre 1856 NSW BDM Registry microfilm collection in the Newspapers and Family History Zone.

Shipping and passenger records

Passenger and immigration records can include details about a person’s occupation. You can access Australian immigration and passenger historical records up to 1920 at the Library.


Robert McKellar is listed as a policeman on board the Suffolk ship arriving to Australia in 1911. Passenger record available via the Queensland Passenger and crew lists of immigrant ships 1848-1915 microfilm collection in Newspapers and Family History Zone.


Newspaper articles can include career achievements, photographs, awards, business advertisements. You may even find details about your ancestors work history published in an obituary or a death notice.

You can access historical Australian digitised newspapers via Trove or search the catalogue to find if we hold the newspaper title, you are after in our collection. 

Death notice for Priest Joseph McNamee published in the Freeman Journal, 6 August 1853 pg. 7

Government Gazettes

Government gazettes can contain employment details such as appointments, promotions, resignations, company registrations and bankruptcy notices. The Library holds commonwealth, state and territory government gazettes issues in electronic, microfilm and print format. 


Samuel North's appointment as Police Magistrate is listed in the NSW Government Gazette in 3 December 1847, pg 1324 available via Trove.

Do you hold any employment records?

The Library holds a variety of employment records in our collection. We hold some original records but we also provide access to databases, which contain historical employment record ranging from railway staff records to Public Service Lists. Employment records can provide information such as job title or position, salary, awards and even details about a person physical appearance.


Employment record for Priest Patrick O'Farrell contains salary details in the 1866 NSW Public Service List or also known as the Blue Books

Do you hold company or business records?

The Library holds and provides electronic access to business and trade directories that can help with finding out the name and address of a business.  If your ancestor owned their own business or worked for a company then we may hold their records or archives such as staff photographs, annual reports, books and much more in our collection.

Publicans listed in the 1860 Melbourne Directory (Sands & McDougall) available via Find My Past database


Federal Territory Police, Canberra, 1929, nla.cat-vn5759809

Do you have a list of historical jobs?

In your family history searches, you may encounter job titles that you have never heard of before or would like to know more about. Interesting occupations I have discovered in the historical Australian electoral rolls include "Magician", "Portmanteau Maker" which was a suitcase maker, "Traveller" was someone with no fixed address or a travelling salesperson, "Laster" was a shoemaker, and a "Groover" was not a dancer but a miner. We hold reference books in our collection such as A dictionary of old trades, titles and occupations by Colin Waters and Dictionary of old trades & occupations by Andrew and Sandra Twining that can assist to identify historical professions. Websites such as the Index of Old Occupations UK - Hall Genealogy or Dictionary of Old Occupations: A-Z Index are also helpful.


I hope this has provided an insight into the type of questions we may receive. If you have, any more questions about historical jobs please contact us via the Ask A Librarian

Some useful resources


Tracing your ancestors books published by Pen & Sword Family History

Occupation records in Australia by Cora Num

Research Guides:

Family History and Genealogy Research Guides


Government Gazettes 

Australian Companies


State Libraries and Archives

Noel Butlin Archives Centre

Great blog :)
Very interesting
Great article. Will pay a visit to the NLA soon as the stepdaughter is keen to explore her dads ancestry.

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