It's in the book
Among the most popular records with researchers, assessment books contain basic information about every property in the City of Sydney that has paid rates in a certain period.
They should not to be confused with rate books, which contain much less information. While some councils combined the two functions in the one book, the City kept them separate.
When the City was established in 1842, the body was allowed to levy a rate of one shilling to the pound per year to the value of a building. To determine this value, the City's assessors would visit buildings every 3 to 5 years to record:
- the owner's name
- the ratepayer's name
- materials used to build the house
- the number of rooms and levels
- the building's category
- the building's assessed annual value.
Buildings were categorised into vague descriptions such as house, cottage, hotel, shop, counting-house or factory with little extra detail recorded. However, the names of hotels are sometimes given. Occupants' names weren't usually collected, although some assessors included additional information in the remarks column.
From 1879 ratepayers received extra votes according to their properties' values. Some large landlords paid the rates on all their properties and paid them, not in the names of their real tenants, but dummy tenants who were then registered as electors. This was not the case for every owner of property in Sydney, and in most cases the ratepayer listed is probably the occupant. However, there is no easy way to determine how common these cases would be.
Using assessment books
Each book refers to one ward and most refer to one year only. A set of maps showing city and ward boundaries since 1842 is available online in the Historical Atlas of Sydney.
Within each book assessments are arranged street by street, then building by building within each street. They are not arranged alphabetically by the names of owners or ratepayers, nor by street name.
A small number of the assessment book volumes have not survived.
Some volumes contain supplementary assessments, updating changes made in the following years prior to the next assessment. Where a supplementary assessment has been carried out, there will be a note in the remarks column with a reference to a later assessment number. The supplementary assessments, found at the end of the volume, usually record changes in ownership, major alterations or demolitions. In some cases, they will describe the property as vacant land. Supplementary assessments have not been transcribed into the online database, so can't be keyword searched.
Because assessments were carried out only every 3 to 5 years on average, there probably won't be a specific assessment for exactly the date you wish to research. In this case it is best to start at the next assessment and work backwards. This also helps clarify and overcome problems with street number changes, which are discussed below.
Using the books
Assessment books usually contain the following information:
- An assessment book number A property often did not receive the same number in successive assessments. In most books the numbers begin with "1" but for a few years the City used a single sequence of numbers across all books created for a single assessment
- Situation The term used for street name - usually written vertically on the left-hand side of the page
- Street number These were not generally in use in the City before the mid 1870s. Where present they are usually recorded for one side of the street at a time. All of the odd numbers will be together, and all of the even numbers will be together. See below for a discussion on the problems associated with street number changes
- House name These were not recorded in any systematic way. It seems to have depended very much on the assessor. They are more likely to appear in later books
- Ratepayer's name Until 1879, rates were usually paid by whoever was responsible for paying the rent on a property. After 1879, the ratepayer could be the owner or the tenant. Surnames are sometimes spelled differently in different assessments
- Owner's name When the owners' or ratepayers' names change, the original entry is often crossed out and the new details written in
- Property description Usually limited to house, cottage, hotel, shop, or factory. The Sydney Incorporation Act 1842 specified the categories of buildings as "house, warehouse, counting house or shop". These limitations can be frustrating, especially if one suspects a property may have had a use that is not recorded, for example as a lodging-house
- Building materials A short description of the materials used in the house and the roof such as stone, brick or wood for the house, and slate, iron or shingles for the roof
- Number of storeys and rooms This can change from one assessment book to the next. For example in successive years the same property can be described as having 2 floors, then 3 floors, then 2 floors again. It is possible that some assessors counted basements and attics as floors and rooms while others did not. In some cases the changes will reflect actual construction work, and this could be reflected in a significant change in the value of the property
- Annual value Expressed in pounds. The assessed value of the property used to set the rates payable by the owner or occupier
- Comments Contains a wide variety of remarks. Some assessors comment on the dilapidated state of the property or note that there is a kitchen or stables at the back. Sometimes they note when a property is pulled down.
If you are having difficulties finding a property, there are a number of things you can do:
- Check the City ward boundary maps
- Ensure the street existed and hadn't had its name changed. An online guide to City streets and the Sands Directory for the same year can help
- Has the street number changed? Street renumbering happened frequently in the 19th century. To overcome this go to an assessment for a later date and work backwards towards the date where your research is focussed. The assessment books do not usually reflect changes by crossing out the old number and replacing it with the new one. If there are cross-streets shown, these can help. If you know the position of the property you are searching for in relation to a cross street, you should be able to find the same property again even if the street number has changed. You should also note the names of owners and occupants in neighbouring houses, as some of the names remain fairly constant. Recognising these patterns will usually help you to pinpoint a particular property where street numbers have changed.
There are some steps to help you if you can't find a particular person:
- The occupants of buildings were not always the ratepayers, and were therefore not recorded. Boarders, lodgers and sub-tenants, and family members other than the head of the family noted as the owner or occupier, were not normally recorded in the assessments. If people moved in and out of a property between assessments they will not be recorded. Spelling can be erratic
- Gaps in the record such as these can sometimes be overcome by checking through Sand's Sydney Directories (1858 to 1933, which are available at the Archives, and on microfiche in major public libraries.
Other records can be used to supplement information from the assessment books, or to cover the years after 1948. They are available at the Archives.
- Sand's Sydney Directories (1858-1933) is useful, although it only lists one name per property, probably the name of the occupant
- Dove's Plans of Sydney (1880) and the Fire Insurance Plans, (1916-1940s), show the City area block by block, including street numbers, and the names of buildings and businesses. These are available online in the Historical Atlas
- CRS 31, Valuation Lists, (1949-1969), record name and address of the owner/s only, changes in ownership, house names, dimensions of the property, and sale prices. These were compiled by the Valuer-General's Department
- CRS 52, Valuation Books, (1974+), record name and address of owners only, changes in ownership, sale prices and dimensions of property
- The surviving Rate and Valuation records for the former (pre 1949) municipalities of Alexandria, Camperdown, Darlington, Erskineville, Glebe, Macdonaldtown, Newtown, Redfern, Paddington and Waterloo are also available. These are catalogued in Archives Investigator. Summary lists are also available.
Last updated: Wednesday, 27 March 2013