Lands Administration

Lands Offices

Initially military officers undertook the task of land surveys for the penal colony of New South Wales, which included Van Diemen’s Land. When South Australia and Western Australia were being settled, the importance of the position of Surveyor General was recognised. South Australia’s surveyor, Colonel William Light arrived as one of the first settlers, even before the Governor. Light quickly set about the task of choosing a site for the main settlement and was responsible for laying out the city of Adelaide whose citizens remember him with great pride today.

The business of surveys led eventually to the creation of the Lands Departments which we know today. The prestigious buildings erected for them during the 19th century reflect the importance of this service which provided a major proportion of government revenue. Those in New South Wales date from the Act of 1884 which established administrative centres for the Lands Districts and set up Land Boards to settle disputes. Western Australia's land administration was also based on Districts, each of which had a district office employing surveyors, draftsmen and clerical staff. Because many of its lands offices were established in response to the extension of settlement associated with mining development, they were often accommodated in the same building as the mines administration. Today Lands Offices administer all affairs relating to Crown land in their areas. These include leases, plans of survey, inspections, disputes, environmental protection, allocation of land for recreational purposes and map resources.

Using the Land

From the earliest days of European settlement the use of the land was of paramount importance. The colonists depended on it to grow food to supplement intermittent and unreliable supplies from England, and they looked to it for fuel and building supplies. The British authorities took possession of the land for the Crown, in accordance with international law at the time, on the basis that the Aboriginals did not appear to use it - they did not settle in one place and did not till the soil. This principle was given the name Terra Nullius by later historians. British possession of ‘uninhabited’ land not only involved the planting of a flag and a public declaration, but also the establishment of a settlement, no matter how small or short term. Once this was done, the implementation of British law in relation to land took immediate effect. Once all the land to the east of the 135º line of longitude was claimed by the British government as Crown Land in 1788, its distribution and disposal was the responsibility of the Governor, who observed the guidelines established by the Colonial Secretary's office and the British parliament. He was empowered to make grants in fee simple, a term which means that the land is transferred to the new owner and that person’s heirs and successors forever.

The colony at Sydney Cove was a convict settlement and there was no shortage of land, so there was no immediate need for a codified land policy. Nearly four million acres were distributed by 1831. Huge tracts were granted to land companies such as the Australian Agricultural Company, incorporated in 1824, which received a grant of half a million acres. The aim of the grants was to encourage the cultivation and improvement of land, with the goal of self sufficiency for the colony.

Early Settlements

The British did not confine themselves to the penal settlement at Sydney Cove. Small settlements were established in remote but strategic locations so that ownership of the land could be claimed by virtue of its occupancy and use. In 1788 Governor Phillip sent Lieutenant King with a small group, which included 12 convicts, to Norfolk Island to establish a settlement. It was abandoned in 1814 because plans for flax and timber production did not eventuate, but the island was used subsequently as a convict settlement. In 1824 a small convict settlement was set up on Melville Island in the far north and, as a result, the boundary of New South Wales was moved further west to the 129º line of longitude.

Van Diemen's Land and the Port Phillip District

Settlements were established in Van Diemen's Land and the Port Phillip District in response to fears of French ambitions. In 1803 Governor King sent Lieutenant John Bowen with 50 people to the River Derwent in Van Diemen's Land. Another settlement was planned for Port Phillip Bay on the southern coast of the mainland. Here David Collins and a small group of settlers selected a site near the present day towm of Sorrento, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. It proved unsuitable largely because of a lack of fresh water, so they moved to the Derwent where their settlement became known as Hobart Town. In 1804 another settlement was made to the north and the successful site was named Port Dalrymple, later Launceston. In 1825 the Van Diemen’s Land Company was granted a huge tract of land which formed a square in the north-west corner of the island. The grant was administered by five commissioners; the two appointed by the Crown and the two representing the company elected the fifth member. They paid for only the 250,000 acres of useful land by a quit rent of 30 shillings for every 100 pounds of the land’s value. The rent, which became payable after five years, could be extinguished by a payment of twenty times the amount. Until the 1840s much of the revenue from the sale of land was used for the maintenance of police and gaols, which led to discontent among the growing numbers of free settlers. Nearly eighty thousand acres were sold in 1841 for twelve shillings per acre, but less than four thousand sold in 1847 when the price was raised to one pound. The year of 1853 proved to be prosperous with more than fifty thousand acres sold, but, although one million acres had been leased by this time, much of it was not developed for ten years because of the speculative nature of the purchases.

By 1835 settlement on the Yarra River proved viable and John Batman was so bold as to exchange goods with eight tribal leaders for the right to the land. Although his contract was signed by both parties, the Governor declared it invalid, and sent a police magistrate to the area in 1836 to represent the government's claim to the land. Meanwhile whalers had discovered the attractions of the area further west on the coast and, together with settlers from Van Diemen's Land, they opened up the area of Portland where another police magistrate was stationed in 1840.

Western Australia

In 1826 a settlement was established at King George Sound, again in response to fears of French influence in the area. Major Edmund Lockyer was sent from Sydney with soldiers and 24 convicts to claim the area now known as Albany. In 1829 Captain Fremantle took possession of the Swan River area and all the territory of New Holland which was not part of New South Wales. He was followed by Captain Stirling who, as Lieutenant Governor, set up the colony which was to be completely independent of New South Wales. He established the port of Fremantle and the settlement of Perth further inland on the Swan River.

The brief history of settlement in the Western Australian Year Book of 1886 states that by the end of 1830, 1,000 settlers had landed at Fremantle, bringing a total wealth of 144,000 pounds. The original policy for land grants was based on the premise that there would be no commitment of funds from Britain, except for the provision and maintenance of a military presence. Settlers were entitled to 40 acres for every three pounds which they could invest in the use of the land, and if they could finance another person they received another 200 acres. The policy of granting land in proportion to the assets led to three major problems - firstly, local authorities determined the value of the assets on principles which were not clearly explained: one early settler acquired 200 acres because he owned a couple of rabbits; nor were the new owners suited automatically to the harsh conditions and difficulties of land development. Secondly, the good land was quickly alienated and new settlers had to move much further from the settlement. Finally, when disillusioned settlers left the colony, they often retained ownership of the land which was then left unproductive. Even after land had been allocated, the ownership of it was to be granted only after every acre had been improved to the value of one shilling and six pence within a specified period. Because experience proved this to be unrealistic, land regulations changed frequently and after 1832 land was being sold at the same prices as in the eastern states.

South Australia

The colony of South Australia was established in 1836 after considerable planning. The principles underlying its land settlement were revolutionary, not only for the Australian colonies, but also for the British Empire. It is ironical that they were propounded from Newgate gaol where Edward Gibbon Wakefield was held for abducting a fifteen years old heiress. He set out his philosophy for land settlement in the Letter from Sydney which was published by the Morning Chronicle in 1829. All grants were to be terminated and the proceeds from land sales used for the passage of labourers to the colonies. His theory attracted widespread support among influential political theorists and politicians, and in 1831 the British government abolished the system of land grants and imposed a minimum price of five shillings per acre. Meantime the newly explored area of South Australia provided the ideal location in which to apply the new principles. After several years of planning it was decided to share the control of the colony between the Governor and the Resident Commissioner who represented ten Colonisation Commissioners in Britain. The profits from land sales did indeed finance prospective laborers, who came out in considerable numbers, but they could find little work on arrival. By the end of 1840, the population had reached 16,000, and nearly 300,000 acres of land had been sold, but only 2,500 cultivated. Capital was leaving the colony to pay for goods needed for basic survival and provision of housing was a major problem.

Unfortunately production from the land fell far short of expectations and many investors preferred to speculate in quick re-sales rather than work their land. This meant that the new laborers could not be employed while land was constantly changing hands only for profit. In addition, the Board of Commissioners had borrowed heavily at high interest rates to meet the initial costs of establishing the colony without financial input from the British government and without convict labour, and so the colony was burdened by debt from the beginning. In 1838, James Horton in his book ‘Six Months in Australia’ explained the problems associated with land distribution:

It has been thought put English readers on their guard against improper statements...that all rural land throughout the colony is worth two pounds per acre!... There is and always will be, too much in the market for sale ever to command a high price, or even a profit to the purchasers who have bought at 20s per acre. And with regard to the town acres these being limited to one thousand, may rise a few of them in good situations to even 200 pounds per acre; but the bulk of them were obtainable in June 1838, when the author left, at about 30 pounds to 35 pounds each... The great cause of this high price of land in the town is that it is held principally (at least one half) by absentees or monopolisers; either by persons living in London or by the South Australia that the government have no more to dispose of. This is felt by new arrivals as a great hardship. Though they bring their homes with them, yet they have not a piece of land to put them on when they arrive, though the place is a desert; and according to the plan of the township just published by Arrowsmith, the author is informed that it measures sixteen miles around! Besides it is hardly fair for those respectable parties, who are arriving in the colony day by day, and naturally wish to purchase a quarter of an acre to receive their wooden house, that the price of all the eligible building plots in the township should have been raised, not by improvements on their lands by the absentee proprietors themselves, but by the industry of those who have built on the adjoining lots, right and left. 1

Not only were the Commissioners unable to redress the problems of land settlement, but they were often in open conflict with the governor, and eventually in 1842 South Australia became a Crown colony.

New South Wales

Until 1831, the Governor allocated land to those people whom he considered deserving. As convicts were emancipated and free settlers were attracted to the colony, the demand for land grew. Vast areas were being opened up by the explorers, and many settlers squatted on land away from the established colony without going through government formalities, ignoring requirements for land to be surveyed before settlement. The British authorities soon found it necessary to impose restrictions and regulations. In 1829 the Sydney Gazette published guidelines set down by the Colonial Secretary's office to confine settlement within clearly defined boundaries encompassing 22,083,200 acres of New South Wales. The nineteen counties forming this area constituted the ‘limits of location’.

The first New South Wales Land Act of 1831 stated that any person interested in buying land should apply to the Surveyor General so that it could be advertised for a month and then auctioned with a minimum price of five shillings per acre. In 1838 this increased to twelve shillings and in 1841 to one pound. All colonies needed to maintain relatively uniform prices to avoid settlers favouring areas which offered cheaper land.

Patrolling the Frontiers

In 1833 the New South Wales Governor, together with the Legislative Council, created the positions of Commissioners of Crown Lands to protect the land from illegal use. These officers lived a frontier existence: they were required to settle disputes, patrol boundaries, administer the collection of fees, enforce the regulations for grazing establishments, and handle problems with Aborigines.

In 1841, Governor Gipps enclosed a memorial from Assistant Surveyor Townsend in a dispatch to Lord Stanley, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Townsend, who was employed by the Surveyor General's Department, felt that he had been overlooked for promotion when two surveyors from Britain were appointed to senior positions over him. He endeavored to respectfully show:

That your memorialist has been employed in various arduous duties in different parts of the colony, has suffered innumerable privations, and undergone many hardships, and the last three years has been employed in surveying and exploring districts previously unknown, and has been consequently subjected to many dangers from wild aborigines, also has performed the duties of a surveyor and had seven officers under his direction at one time, four of them being Contractors whose work he had to check on the ground. Memorialist is now conducting a trigonometrical survey without the limits of the colony southwards, and has to traverse mountains covered with perpetual snow. 2

At this time two commissioners were being appointed to the newly developing areas of Moreton Bay. They were selected on recommendations - one coming from Lord Stanley on behalf of the Duke of Sutherland “or some other member of His Grace's family.” Governor Gipps wrote concerning the appointments that one of them, a medical man, would be an advantage in the contact with Aborigines, and that the other, “a perfect stranger” whom he had appointed to the Clarence River area had come to his notice “... when the County of Argyle and some parts of the Southern district were infected with a band of free booters. He is I believe particularly fitted for the duties of a Crown Commissioner; and his appointment gave much satisfaction in the colony.” 3

Land Regulations

In 1836 the Governor of New South Wales tried to regulate the problem of squatting outside the limits of settlement by allowing a grazing license obtainable for ten pounds per year. This policy, which had the effect of tying up large tracts of land, was not an immediate problem, but the rapid growth of population after the gold rushes created a growing demand for land reform. There was a conflict of interests between the pastoralists with large holdings who were concerned about their security of tenure, and those citizens who wanted the right to purchase small lots for agriculture at affordable prices..

All the colonies faced the task of regulating land tenure and the terms of purchase. In 1854 the New South Wales Department of Lands was created from the Surveyor General's office. An Act of 1861 enabled potential farmers to select lots of Crown Land, between 40 and 320 acres in size, for one pound per acre before survey, with provision for them to pay these off over three years. In 1862 the Land Titles Office was established to handle titles of freehold land. The early system of land administration led to two problems: one was its centralised structure which created an overburdened bureaucracy, and the other was the influence which some citizens might exert on the minister, the person responsible for interpreting the Acts. In 1884 the colony was divided into three divisions containing smaller districts, each with a land agent. The administration of the Act was supervised by Land Boards which operated in open court. The decisions of these courts could go on appeal to the Land Appeal Court.

Until 1859 the land policies of New South Wales had applied in the Moreton Bay area but, following separation, the new colony of Queensland set out to attract settlers with free passages and allocation of land. Unfortunately many of these new settlers sold their land orders and moved to other colonies. In 1869 1,635 immigrants arrived but 2,272 people moved on, so stricter regulations were put in place. In South Australia the Strangways' Act of 1869 facilitated the selection of land in designated agricultural areas, subject to residential and cultivation requirements and full payment within seven years. In 1887 Western Australia’s Legislative Council passed Land Regulations which divided the colony into six Divisions and required all town and suburban land to be sold by auction. The agricultural land holdings could not exceed 1,000 acres, and garden lots, which could be purchased subject to residential and development requirements, could not exceed 20 acres. Pastoral land was to be granted by lease.

Land Titles

It was one thing to regulate the sale and distribution of land holdings, but quite another to keep track of them, once they changed hands. The problems faced by a South Australian land holder led to the system which has operated successfully for more than a century. Until 1858 conveyancing was not only very expensive but also difficult, because three quarters of all the 40,000 land titles were lost or defective. Mr. (later to become Sir) R.R. Torrens had been the Controller of Customs at Port Adelaide, and addressed the problems of land transfer in the light of those which applied to the transfer of shipping property. He gained widespread support for his proposed system, which, as an MP, he presented to parliament. When it was passed, he resigned his seat to head the department which was to administer the legislation. The new system, implemented in 1858, required land to be registered with the Lands Title Office, and ownership recorded on a certificate, a copy of which was held by the current owner. It was so successful that it was applied throughout Australia and internationally.


The creation of the national capital meant that an area of New South Wales was annexed as the Australian Capital Territory. It was selected as a halfway point between Melbourne and Sydney, both of which had laid claims to the right to house the capital. After an international competition, the plans of Walter Burley Griffin, an American landscape architect and town planner, were used as the basis for the initial layout and buildings of the capital, Canberra. Griffin’s plans, dogged by bureaucratic interference and the effects of war and depression, were never implemented in their original form.

In addition to the Australian Capital Territory, the Federal government controls the land occupied by quarantine and defence establishments as well as coastal installations such as lighthouses. Apart from such specific powers, it was given no constitutional rights to administer lands. Nevertheless, over the years it has had substantial influence over certain major land use issues. It used its external affairs powers in 1983 to block the Franklin Dam proposed by the Tasmanian government. To do this it passed the World Heritage Conservation Act under the International Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. It also legislated for the creation of the Kakadu National Park, effectively restricting other land uses within its confines.

Following the High Court successes of Torres Strait Islander, Eddie Mabo, and the Wik decision, both of which affirmed native title to traditional lands in the 1990s, the Federal government has faced the task of clarifying procedures for establishing land rights. In the Mabo decision of 1992, the High Court decided that the principle of terra nullius did not apply to traditional Aboriginal lands. Many pastoralists who hold leases on Crown Land see their rights threatened by native title claims on their land, and mining companies are reluctant to explore or develop resources if they are likely to be challenged. Commonwealth legislation in 1998 confirmed that grants of land in fee simple extinguished native title. It set basic requirements, but allowed the states to implement their own legislation to give the right to negotiate on native title claims. Claims will continue to be heard in the courts, where indigenous people must prove their continuous attachment to the land in question.


  1. Six Months in South Australia; with some account of Port Phillip and Portland Bay in Australia Felix, by T. Horton James Esq., London, J. Cross, 18, Holborn, and Simpkin and Marshall, Stationers’ Court, 1838, pp. 148,149. 2.Historical Records of Australia, vol. 22, p. 340.
  2. ibid. pp. 448, 449.