Research guide: Tracing your ancestor’s voyage to South Australia

Australia developed as separate colonies and much of the early information is now maintained within state collections. This guide is intended to assist with locating information for people who arrived within South Australia only.

Tracing shipping arrivals in South Australia can be fascinating but also time-consuming. There are many sources of information available, including primary and secondary sources, that will assist in pinning down that elusive date of arrival.

Starting out

It is helpful to begin with as much information as you can glean about your ancestors.

For example:

  • Did they arrive as a single person and get married in Australia?
  • Is there an obituary or death notice that gives an approximate arrival date or the number of years living in South Australia?
  • When did their name first appear in directories/telephone books/council rate records or other residential lists?

To establish these details, try visiting the State Library of South Australia or State Records of South Australia. Their staff may also be able to suggest other possible sources. The State Library has a substantial collection of ships’ diaries written on the voyage and has access to records such as crew desertion lists and other printed and online sources which may help pinpoint your ancestor’s arrival.

Online passenger lists

It can be difficult to find conclusive shipping arrival information. Lists may lack precise details, or quite often there are no lists at all. It is estimated that only between 10% and 15% of 19th century South Australian shipping lists have survived.

Passengers in History database

The place to begin researching ancestors coming to South Australia is our Passengers in History database. It includes entries for over 328,000 passengers who arrived between 1836 and 1964. Museum volunteers are continuing research to bring the database up to 1975 when Australis brought the last assisted immigrants to South Australia.

You can search by the name of the ship or the surname of a passenger. The entry will give you information on the ship’s specifications (size, build date, owner), dates of voyages to South Australia, passenger lists, ports visited and notes on the voyage.

Passengers in History draws from a number of sources including the National Library’s Trove website which has newspaper articles relating to ship voyages and Log of Logs, which is a catalogue of surviving ship logs, journals and diaries, letters and all forms of voyage narrative covering emigration to Australia. These resources were written by passengers and crew and can provide information about voyages and immigrant ancestors.

There is an opportunity to add your own information and images linked to individual passengers and the site will continue to grow.

Other passenger databases online

There are databases kept by interstate and overseas institutions that you might find helpful.

Access the Passengers in History database here.

Shipping archives

Original shipping lists

Original official lists up to 1940 are held at State Records of South Australia. To view a digital copy of a passenger list dating from 1845-1940, you can visit their website here.

Other sources:

Lloyd’s Register of Shipping

Lloyds of London has published an alphabetical listing of mainly British-owned vessels. It was first published in 1764 and has been published annually since 1775. It provides technical specifications for each vessel including dates and places they were built and the names of owners and masters.

That information can be very useful. With the names of the owners or builders of a ship you can search for company histories that may provide more information about the history of a ship.

Some volumes can be accessed online.

Company histories

If you know the name of a ship owner you can research company histories. Useful publications include:

  • Migrant ships for South Australia 1836-1866
    Ronald Parsons, Gould Books, Gumeracha SA, 1999
  • Fitted for the voyage: the Adelaide Steamship Company Limited 1875-1975
    Michael Page, Rigby, Adelaide, 1975
  • Fast passage to Australia: The history of the Black Ball, Eagle and White Star Lines
    Dave Hollett, Fairplay, London, 1986
  • Blackwall frigates
    Basil Lubbock, James Brown, Glasgow, 1922
  • The passage makers
    Michael Stammers, Teredo Book, Brighton, 1978
  • Colonial clippers
    Basil Lubbock, James Brown, Glasgow, 1924
  • Merchant sailing ships 1775-1815; 1815-1850; 1850-1875
    David MacGregor, Conway Maritime Press, London, 1984-1985
  • North Star to Southern Cross: the story of the Australasian seaways
    John Maber, T. Stephenson and Sons, Lancashire, 1967
  • Ships that passed
    Scott Baty, Reed, Sydney, 1984
  • Passenger ships of Australia and New Zealand Vols 1 (1876-1912) and 2 (1913-1980)
    Peter Plowman, Doubleday, Sydney, 1981
  • Emigrant ship to luxury liner
    Peter Plowman, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 1994
  • 20th century passenger ships of the P&O Line
    Neil McCart, Patrick Stephens, Wellingborough, 1985
  • Passenger ships of the Orient line
    Neil McCart, Patrick Stephens, Wellingborough, 1987

Historic newspapers

The most comprehensive 19th century shipping lists were published in newspapers. These can be searched for free on the Trove website of digitised historic Australian newspapers, including the major South Australian newspapers of the time.

Newspapers such as the South Australian Register, Adelaide Times and South Australian Advertiser contain the most detailed shipping lists and information.

A simple keyword search such as ‘shipping arrivals [surname]’ is a good place to begin. You can also add a year range to the search, e.g. ‘shipping arrivals [surname] 1850-1860’

Images of ships

Remember that photography did not begin until the 1850s. Prior to this date a painting or drawing of the ship may exist.

The Passengers in History database contains images of over 1,000 ships.

The State Library of South Australia has two major collections of ships images: the AD Edwardes Collection (19th century) and the Arbon/Le Maistre Collection (20th century).  You can search in the catalogue for photographs of the ship your family arrived on by the name of the ship. The best approach is to do a keyword search. For example, for images of the HMS Buffalo type: ‘buffalo ship‘.

Other state libraries and archives may hold images as well.

Crew members

Details of some ships’ masters are searchable on our Passengers in History database.

Records of British and foreign crew from the 19th and 20th centuries can be searched at National Archives of Australia.

A range of records which document the licensing and qualifications of masters, mates and engineers, as authorised by the Marine Board or related agencies, can be searched at State Records of South Australia.


It was not uncommon for crew to desert once they arrived in South Australian ports. The State Library of South Australia has South Australian deserters indexes listing those who deserted between 1852-1876, 1877-1882 and 1883-1890 (available on microfiche).

State Records of South Australia has a Deserter’s Index which records offences by mariners, usually desertion or refusal of duty for 1856-1860.

As these men were contracted to the ships, desertion was classified as a criminal offence and warrants were sworn out against them. From 1862 onwards, more information may be found in the South Australian Police Gazettes, held by either the State Library of South Australia or State Records of South Australia.