Tag: South Australia

Immigration Restriction Act instructions, 1901 to 1919

I suspect I will never be finished in my quest to understand the workings of the White Australia policy in the early decades of the twentieth century. My most recent work (which I hope will be published in the next year) has focused on the entry and residence of Chinese wives between 1902 and 1920, including the well-known ‘Poon Gooey case’.

While much of what I know about how the Immigration (Restriction) Act was administered comes from individual case files (known as correspondence files), there has been a gap between these files and the legislation itself. Two items in the National Archives (AP214/9 and D3193) help fill this gap. The Collector of Customs in Adelaide – who like Customs officers in the other states administered the Act in accordance with regulations, rules and instructions from the Department of External Affairs – kept a valuable, and seemingly unique, record of this correspondence from External Affairs. I have not come across other similar items for other states (always happy to be corrected though!)

I’ve had D3193 digitised by the National Archives and, while the cost of digitisation of A214/9 was prohibitive because of conservation concerns, I have photographed it and put the images up in Dropbox (link below). There is another series, AP378/37 – ‘Confidential instructions (old system), 1900–45’, listed in RecordSearch as being held in Sydney, but I haven’t looked at this to see if it contains similar material.


AP214/9 is a register containing copies of the Immigration Restriction Act and related correspondence, dating from 1901 to 1913. It was created by the Collector of Customs in Adelaide, South Australia.

The contents of the register includes:

  • copies of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and subsequent amendments, as well as related regulations and statutory rules
  • notes for the guidance of officers administering the IRA
  • copies of forms used in administering the IRA
  • instructions from Department of External Affairs to the local Collector of Customs at Port Adelaide.

Much of the content concerns ‘coloured’ arrivals, including ships’ crews, and arriving passengers with physical diseases or disabilities.

It is a large bound volume, with folios marked with page numbers up to 292. The documents (either printed or typsescript carbon copies) are pasted into the register, rather than being written out by hand. Folios 232 to 267 are blank. There is a separate alphabetical index (which doesn’t seem very complete). The last dated document is from 31 December 1913.

AP214/9, VOLUME 1 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Adelaide and is not digitised in RecordSearch (as of 20 June 2017). My images of AP214/9 are available in Dropbox.

National Archives of Australia: AP214/9


D3193 is a volume containing confidential instructions relating to the Immigration Act (as the Immigration Restriction Act was known after 1912), dating from 1914 to 1919.

The small printed volume has been annotated with handwritten notes and insertions of further documents by the Collector of Customs, Adelaide. The original volume is titled Immigration Act Instructions together with Immigration Act 1901–1912 and Immigration Regulations 1913 and was produced by the Department of External Affairs in 1914.

The contents of D3193 are similar to those in AP214/9.

D3193 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney and is digitised in RecordSearch.

The trouble with spelling Chinese names

Names can be one of the trickiest parts of researching Chinese Australian history. They consistently seem to puzzle and confuse people – there’s the way that given names became surnames, the way that spellings changed over time and in different places and the way that ‘Ah’ appears everywhere.

I’ve written before about some of the challenges that come with researching Chinese names in Australian records. There are tricks you can learn, but my main piece of advice would be to be creative in your searching and in your spelling. I’ve recently been tracking a man whose name I first came upon as Mum Shou Pac—but he’s also turned up as Man Sue Bach, John Ah Shue Bach, John Ah Shue and John a Shue. All of these variations appeared in records from the same year and when he was living in the same place! I am yet to track him before that one year, and my stumbling block is knowing what name his baptism and marriage and the births of his children might be listed under.

I’ve heard some people say that the irregularity of spelling of Chinese names in early Australian records was the result of the disregard that white residents felt for Chinese residents—perhaps even that it was the result of racist attitudes. I have a slightly different take on it, as illustrated by discussions during a court case from South Australia in 1845.

In November that year, a young man named James Coyle was charged with, and then found guilty of, stealing the watch of a Chinese man named John Pegue at Gawler. John Pegue gave evidence at Coyle’s trial, and the following exchange took place when he was being cross-examined by Mr Poulden, the lawyer:

John Pegue: … I am no scholar; I do not know how to spell my name; I call it Pegue.

Mr Poulden: Do you know the letters in your name? Can you write?

John Pegue: No, I cannot write English; it is a China name; I cannot write Chinese; I am no scholar—not at all; my China name is Piggu.

Mr Poulden noted that in the indictment the name was spelled with two ‘g’s’ while in the deposition it was not. The Advocate-General thought the name sounded like it should have two ‘g’s’, and apparently the police at Gawler called him ‘Piggy’ (it doesn’t seem that this was necessarily meant in a derogatory way, just that it was how the name sounded to them). The judge noted all this ‘only shows that different people spell different ways.’

I think there are a couple of things going on here—things that happened over and over again as Chinese residents and white residents met and interacted in the colonies—things that influenced the way that many thousands of Chinese names were recorded in Australian records.

First, although it seems that John Pegue was fluent enough in English to give evidence, he was not literate. He did not know the alphabet. He could not even write his name in Chinese. He didn’t then know how his name should or could be spelled in English. There was no ‘right spelling’ to be written down.

Second, those who were recording his name in English couldn’t decide among themselves what spelling best represented the sounds of Pegue’s name. Was it represented better with a single ‘g’, or two ‘g’s’? Because Chinese names were written down phonetically, the way that English-speakers recorded them could be influenced by their own background, dialect, accent and level of literacy.

I’m not saying that cultural ignorance and misunderstanding had no part in the curious ways that Chinese names were recorded in colonial Australia. But when you explore the mechanics of how those names were written down, and about the personal interactions and exchanges they involved, the situation seems so much more complex and interesting than simple ignorance.

I’d love to hear other stories of strange renderings of Chinese Australian names.


1845 ‘LAW AND POLICE COURTS.’, South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), 26 November, p. 3, viewed 12 February, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article27451418.