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Christopher Keating’s article on local government records as a source in investigating the local area

Keating, C. ‘Local government records and alternative sources for the local area’, Teaching History, History Teachers’ Association of NSW, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1992

Local councils deal with services that shape the basic lifestyle factors of local communities – housing, water, sewerage, roads, health care, planning and development and land use and zoning. Decisions about local issues are generated from within the community and provide an intimate mirror for the concerns of the ordinary people within the municipality.

If something is wrong in a community the complaint comes first to the local council. Petitioning the council was often the only way residents could influence the things that most immediately affected their lifestyles. Municipal archives are full of letters, petitions and the subsequent council inquiries about local problems and needs – requests for roads to be built, water to be laid on, complaints about the state of the sewerage system, noxious trades, nuisances, the need for a baby clinic. By accessing these records the researcher can build up a fairly clear picture of what it was like to live and work in a particular street at a particular time.

What Local Government Records Can Be Used For

Local government records can be used to trace development and change in the local area, including:

  • the rate and timing of land sales, subdivisions
  • the process of house building, where it occurred, what was built
  • the gradual provision of essential services
  • the problems associated with uncontrolled urban development
  • population, population densities
  • landlording and tenancy
  • commercial and industrial development
  • evolution of civic government

By using sources like rate assessment books students can build up a street-by-street or house-by-house profile of an area, incorporating the landlords, the tenants, the size of the houses, what they were made from, the number of rooms, the annual value (rent). Combined with directories, maps and photographs, these records give an 'on-the-street' completeness to the past in the local area that can be found nowhere else.

Local government records also provide a unique insight into local politics, local identities, and into the structure of local power relationships.

What Are Local Government Records?

In 1988 a listing was done of the types of records that may be generated by local authorities and it ran to 254 pages. The Sydney City Council is currently up to series number 558.

Of course, most councils generate nowhere near this range of records. Less still is actually retained and less again makes it into the council archives. Many councils don't have an archivist or a local studies collection and, until quite recently (1981), councils were required by law to keep only four types of records (minute books, legal documents, declarations of polls, and registers of correspondence – but not the correspondence itself). All this is fairly useless stuff for the history teacher but thankfully many councils have kept more relevant records.

These may include...

1. Assessment Books

  • initially used to assess the value of properties (including the buildings)
  • give a complete and detailed snapshot of housing every five or so years
  • are arranged by ward, street and then house number
  • describe housing by number of rooms, size, building material, condition, value (rent)
  • list all landlords and tenants
  • list all hotels, shops, churches, halls, industries, stables, etc
  • can be used to show change over time (housing, industry, land use, type and distribution of houses and population, booms and busts)
  • can be used to trace the history of a particular house, a family or an institution
  • gives the most detailed access to the built environment of the past

2. Correspondence Files

  • record all the correspondence to and from council, including all action taken, reports and surveys bearing on the request or complaint, legal opinions
  • form the interface between local concerns and local solutions
  • usually indexed by sender, sometimes by subject, sometimes not at all
  • give valuable literary evidence of life at a particular time
  • can be used to investigate a certain issue (the 1891 letters on unemployment in the local area, the 1943 letters on the war at home, the need for a new water supply or activity centre); a certain person (the student's family, the local business community, the graziers, etc); or certain institutions (the church, the local school)
  • can be used as a document study in itself
  • questioning how we access the past, what is kept and why, the nature of sources and evidence, testing bias, how historians re-create the past

3. Other Local Government Records

  • minute books
  • committee reports (deal with health, lighting, finance, works, special committees)
  • annual reports (town clerk, surveyor, health officer, nuisance inspector)
  • current records, held within council (community surveys, plus local surveys of health, welfare, housing, demographics)
  • photographs, most councils retain a wide range of contemporary and historical photographs (councils are represented at most local important events by the mayor or other officials so local events are often well documented)

Alternative Sources for the Local Area

1. Business Directories

  • give occupations of the whole suburb, town
  • Sands Directory begins in 1858
  • there is a surprising number of country directories that can be used in conjunction with assessment books, maps See Bibliography

2. Unpublished Manuscripts

  • many unpublished local histories probably already exist in your region (school and church centenaries, amateur histories, family histories, etc)

3. Local Societies

  • Iocal studies collections are being established in an increasing number of municipalities
  • Iocal history societies often have a wide range of documentary, photographic and oral records
  • specialist societies

4. National Trust

  • has local branches
  • Iocal registers give a potted history of local items of historic significance
  • can supply a National Trust Listing Sheet
  • may arrange guest speakers, etc

5. Local Government Databases

  • available through Department of Local Government
  • can supply approximately 300 tables of census-type data and demographic information on your area (housing, income, occupation, ethnicity, etc)

6. Oral History

  • often a very local perspective
  • analyse it as evidence – is it history, biography or something even less reliable?
  • the role of memory in history, its drawbacks

7. Heritage and the Built Environment

  • use assessment books, maps and directories as a precursor to a site study
  • use local government sources as support documents for a unit on the local built environment
  • compare physical and documentary manifestations of the past

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Christopher Keating.


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