Investigation 1

Who were the people of the Australian colonies?

Mostly of British descent, the people of the six Australian colonies shared a common language, beliefs and traditions. Despite this, the colonies had been founded at different times and had developed in different ways. They also varied in size, climate and natural resources. For most of the 19th century, the Australian colonies had unusually young populations, with very few elderly people. There were also many more men than women. This was because of the types of employment available—women were unlikely to be considered for the difficult, physical work in mines or on stations. Therefore, some men found it difficult to marry and have a family. The gold rushes dramatically changed life in some of the colonies. Immigrants from all over the world arrived, new towns were created and cities grew and prospered. Many people who had come to find their fortune on the goldfields stayed to work and establish livelihoods for themselves.

In the early 1900s, just after Federation, the new Commonwealth Government compiled a census to establish how many people there were in Australia. The census also recorded where they were born, where they lived and what their occupations were.

Your Task

Examine the population data to understand people and society in the Australian colonies in 1901.


  1. As a class, discuss the term ‘census’. What kind of data is collected, why is it important and how is it used?
  2. Examine the data showing total population and birthplaces in Australia in 1901. Record your answers to the following questions:
    • What was the total population of Australia in 1901?
    • Which State had the most people? Which State had the least?
    • Which State had the highest percentage of Australian-born people?
    • Which country did most migrants come from?
    • After Europe, from what other region of the world did most migrants come from?
  3. Calculate the proportion of the total population made up by each State, and present this data in a pie chart. A spreadsheet program could assist with this task. Write a description explaining your chart.
  4. Look at the kinds of work Australians did in 1901. As a class, brainstorm the occupations each identified category might have involved.
  5. In groups of six, complete the following tasks:
    • Have each member of your group take responsibility for creating a pie chart representing the size of the population employed in each category of work in each State.
    • Compare the pie charts. Which States had the biggest proportion employed in factories? Which had the biggest proportion employed on farms?
    • Examine the population data for the capital cities. As a group, consider the relationship between the proportion of people employed on farms, and the proportion of people in each State who lived in the capital cities. Describe the relationship.
  6. Using your pie charts and a map of Australia, create a group poster that summarises the information you have discovered about Australia and Australians in 1901. Use images to convey your message. Ensure that your poster shows the following:
    • the distribution of Australia’s population by State;
    • their occupations;
    • the three main places of origin of migrants in each State; and
    • the population size of each capital city.