Purpose: With their focus on private companies, histories of personnel management and human resource management have neglected the much earlier development of these practices in public sector organisations. The purpose of this paper is to examine the origins and development of modern personnel management in the Australian colonial public services between 1856 and 1901 in order to set the record straight about when, why and how integrated and formal sets of personnel management practices were adopted in organisations to manage employees. Design/methodology/approach: The research is based on close examination of public service legislation enacted between 1856 and 1901 in the Australian colonies, the reports of Royal Commissions and Inquiries on the public services and the evidence they gathered, and published histories on public service organisations. Findings: This paper finds that a clear model of systematic personnel management evolved in Australia's colonial public services between 1856 and 1901. While the development and diffusion of personnel management techniques in the public sector varied considerably among the colonies in scope, nature, effectiveness and longevity, there were integrated, coherent sets of personnel policies and practices in place in several colonies several decades before their emergence in private firms. Originality/value: In tracing the origins of personnel management in Australia to the colonial public services in the years following the granting of responsible government in 1856, this paper challenges the conventional understanding of personnel management as a twentieth century phenomenon of private companies.