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Basics on inquests (Australia)
An inquest is an investigation into the causes of an unexpected or unnatural death such as an accident or act of violence. This includes suicides. If a death certificate contains an annotation such as 'finding at inquest held on [date]', this indicates that an inquest had been held into the cause of the person's death.
Records of inquests are a wonderful source which can add 'meat to the bones' of information otherwise contained on a death certificate. Inquests may also be used as an alternative source to tracing a death which does not appear on publicly available death indexes.
Inquest Records and how SAG can help you
The main record of an inquest is the inquest papers. There are also registers of inquests and indexes to those registers and files. Inquest records are created by State Government departments and the first port of call, therefore, in tracing inquests should be the State Government archives institution in the State where the death occurred.
New South Wales
Inquest records survive and are publicly available from 1796 to 1963. As is often the case with source records, there are gaps in both the time periods covered and in the types of record which have survived.
From 1796 to 1824 and for 1828, reports of inquests survive. These usually provide full accounts of a death, often through witness statements.
For the period up to 1824, the papers form part of the Colonial Secretary's Index and Papers, 1788-1825 (searchable on-line). The reports of inquests are available on microfilm at SAG (SAG Reels 3810-3811), as are the Colonial Secretary's Papers. These sources are also available at various research repositories throughout New South Wales.
From 1834-1942 there are inquest indexes and registers on microfilm. There are gaps in these records, with indexes for some years but no accompanying registers, and registers for others but no indexes. The available records can be found on microfilm at SAG (SAG Reels 3812-3820 and 3672-3678) and at a number of other research repositories.
As a minimum, the registers of inquests will provide the person's name, date of the inquest and cause of death. Later registers - from the 1870s on - provide greater information, including details such as place of birth and age.
The inquest papers themselves do not survive before 1940, apart from a small number of papers for the years 1916, 1918-20, 1921-38. From 1940 to 1963, the inquest papers are accessible at State Records.
Inquest Deposition Files 1840-1990 are available at the Public Record Office of Victoria and an index to 1841-1985 is available on CD-ROM.
What do you do once you find an inquest?
Depending on the circumstances of the death (and often depending on whether it was otherwise a 'quiet' news day!), there may well be a newspaper report of the death and the inquest. This is particularly likely if the death occurred in a country area.
You should therefore consult any local newspapers surviving from the period of your ancestor's death and inquest. This can be especially useful for extra information if the inquest papers have not survived.
You should also consult the web site of the appropriate State archive authority for sources of further information. In NSW, further information is available in Archives In Brief No. 4 from the State Records web site.
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