The earliest counts of the population of Van Diemen's Land were compiled from muster rolls, the forerunners of censuses, which were to become more systematic and regular accounts of well-defined characteristics of the population. Attendance at musters was required by law and offered a means of government control over the more immediate concerns of the colony, such as the number of people to be fed. Convict musters, which were held frequently, and usually after Divine Service on Sunday, allowed for 'roll-call', issuing provisions and making health checks, while general musters, which were held less frequently, accounted for both convicts and free settlers and information relating to agricultural activities. Civil condition (convict or free settler) and sex were generally the only characteristics of population with which the musters were concerned, whereas censuses collected name, age, sex, occupation, birthplace, religion, conjugal condition (marital status), level of education and dwelling information (ABS 1998). Early estimates (for example, Buckingham's population in 1817 was 'Stated generally to be 3114 souls...[and] Aborigines estimated at 7000') were prone to error as attempts at official counting were frustrated by a lack of cooperation with officials and the counting methods they employed.

The first Tasmanian census of population, taken in 1842, resulted in a count of 57,420 persons being published in the Hobart Town Gazette (11 April 1843). After censuses held in 1843, 1848, 1851 and 1857, several problems associated with these were identified, including omission of some households; high degree of illiteracy of the population; lack of suitable staff to act as collectors; and suspect tabulation of results.

The 1861 census was based on the British model, and householders themselves were required to complete newly redesigned forms. Further Tasmanian censuses were held in 1871 and 1881, and following a Conference of Statisticians held in Hobart in 1890, the census of 1891 used a schedule of core topics and applied a standard method of classification and tabulation of results. After Federation, there was a greater need for statistical uniformity to allow realistic comparisons between states and meaningful aggregates for Australia as a whole. The new federal parliament passed the Census and Statistics Act in 1905.

The first census under this Act was taken in 1911 and was followed by censuses in 1921, 1933, 1947, 1954 and 1961 and at 5-yearly intervals thereafter. Initially the state Statistical Offices cooperated with the Commonwealth to produce national data. However, in 1924 the Tasmanian Statistical Office transferred to the Commonwealth and subsequently, four of the following six Commonwealth Statisticians appointed were Tasmanians. Constitutional provisions excluding the counting of 'full-blood Aboriginal natives' were repealed in 1967. Changing social attitudes, political developments and a broader definition of 'Aboriginal' and 'Torres Strait Islanders' are likely to have contributed to the rapidly rising numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that have been recorded in censuses from 1971 onwards (ABS 2003) 3. The 2001 census recorded a total population of 456,700 Tasmanians (ABS 2001).

Further reading: Tasmanian Year Book, 1998; ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics), A brief history of Australia's Statistical Office, Canberra, 2002; W McLennan, 'The development of official statistics in Australia', 2001 Year book, Australia; H Hull, Statistics of Van Diemen's Landů, Hobart, 1856; D Allen, 'The development of official statistics in Tasmania', Dip. Pub. Ad. thesis, UT, 1965; W McLennan, 'The development of official statistics in Australia, and some possible future challenges', in ABS 2001 Year Book Australia, Canberra, 2001; ABS, Tasmanian Year Book, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 1998; ABS, Australian Historical Population Statistics, Canberra, 2003; ABS, Census of Population and Housing, Selected Social and Housing Characteristics, Australia, Canberra, 2001; ABS, Occasional Paper Population Issues, Indigenous Australians, Canberra, 1996.

Dale Cooke