Sunday, 31 March 2013

Squatting and the colonial state

This resolution proved difficult. Coincidentally with their squatting march, the leading Sydneyside landowners acquired the magisterial, executive and legislative power to preserve their hold on the land while newer immigrant squatters brought with them the matching political power of family connection and patronage. The regulation imposed in 1831 continued till 1838, when the price was raised to 12s an acre because that was the minimum fixed in South Australia. It was clearly impossible to make a success of that colony if its lands were sold for more than double the price for which land could be obtained in NSW. Ironically, this gave squatters added incentive to preserve their status quo, for at that price most of their land would be unattractive to buyers. The Wakefield Principle was then occupying much attention in England, and it especially affected the judgement of a committee of the House of Commons before which its author gave evidence. This committee and the Land and Emigration Commissioners appointed to advise the British Government on colonial land questions, were of opinion that all land, except town land, whatever its quality might be, ought to be sold at a fixed price of £1 per acre. Instructions were accordingly sent out that this price should be charged. [1]

The British government followed the advice of the Land and Emigration Commissioners but had failed to observe the great difference in value between country lands and lands close to a town. These Commissioners, who had no practical experience of colonial conditions, actually made the regulation that any person depositing £5,120 might have a special survey made of 5,120 acres or eight square miles of land anywhere they chose in specified districts of NSW, except within five miles of a town. A few wealthy speculators, who had a shrewd idea that lands near to Australian towns would become very valuable, at once lodged their applications and £40,960 pounds was paid before Gipps peremptorily refused to allow any more special surveys to be made. Henry Dendy obtained eight square miles in the present Melbourne suburb of Brighton for his £5,120 and was offered £15,000 before he had even had a sight of the land. Another special survey purchaser, Elgar, selected his eight square miles close to the Melbourne suburbs of Kew, Hawthorn, and Camberwell. Lord John Russell, the Colonial Secretary recognised that Gipps had acted rightly in stopping the special surveys even contrary to instructions. In 1842 the Crown Lands Sale Act was brought into force, under which lands were to be sold by auction with a minimum, not a fixed price at £1 per acre. The £1 per acre system continued to be followed until the colonies obtained representative government and were free to legislate for their lands. The Legislative Council of NSW thought the price too high and objected to the provision of the Crown Lands Sale Act that gave to the Governor the administration of the revenue produced by the sales. Half of it had to be spent in immigration, the balance on public works. However, the Council considered that it should have the disposition of the money and not the Governor and the rest of Gipps’ governorship was embittered by his quarrel with the Council on this question but he was well supported by the Imperial Government.

Sir George Gipps

From 1833, Commissioners of Crown Lands were appointed under the Encroachment Act to manage squatting. Governor Bourke therefore devised the mode of dividing the area whither the squatters had wandered into ‘pastoral districts,’ and of granting annual licences to the occupants of ‘runs,’ for which they wore charged a small fee based upon a computation as to the number of sheep which a particular run would feed. The granting of grazing licences suited the squatters, because, while the licence fee was not heavy, it guaranteed them in the occupation of the lands upon which they had entered.[2] However, Bourke’s successor, Sir George Gipps wanted to use other means to curb the chaotic spread of squatting and to introduce permanent settlement for graziers.[3] He believed that ‘the occupation of land should be made difficult instead of easy’, and wanted to use the revenue gained from land sales to squatters for assisting immigration. His plans to make the squatters pay more for their land met with organised opposition. The government, he wrote, ‘would not suffer them to be kept in perpetuity, and at a merely nominal rent, by those who may be the first to seize upon them’.[4]

In April 1844, Gipps made two regulations with the intention of remodelling the squatting system. The first, gazetted on 2 April, permitted squatters to occupy runs on payment of £10 for every 20 square miles. The second regulation allowed squatters after 5 years occupancy to purchase 320 acres of a run and gave purchasers security of tenure over a whole run for another 8 years. 150 squatters gathered in Sydney later in the month of April and protested against Gipps’s changes drafting a petition to the Queen and forming the Pastoral Association of NSW, the first formalising of the identity of squatters as a political group. A large squatting demonstration was held in Melbourne in June 1844 at which petitions were adopted to be sent to the British parliament and the NSW legislature requesting alterations in the law of Crown lands and a total separation from NSW. A new association was formed at this meeting, designated the ‘Pastoral Society of Australian Felix’. By lobbying in London, the squatters obtained much better terms than Gipps had offered them. The Imperial Waste Lands Act of 1846 and the 1847 Orders in Council divided land into settled, intermediate and unsettled areas, with pastoral leases of one, eight and 14 years respectively and squatters were able to purchase parts of their land, as opposed to just leasing it.

By 1847, there were two ways that people could acquire land. They could purchase it at a minimum of £1 per acre under provisions introduced in the 1842 Crown Lands Sale Act. Or, largely in NSW, they could squat on land and obtain pastoral leases that gave their cattle or sheep runs a degree of legality. Given the scale of the squatters’ holding in NSW and, after 1851, in Victoria, they formed a powerful economic and political elite that was resistant to further change in land policy and especially to calls to ‘unlock the land’. By the late 1840s, nearly all the good lands were used for sheep and cattle and arable farming was located in the coastal areas. In eastern Australia not enough wheat was grown to supply local needs and Tasmania and then South Australia were the granaries for NSW. In South Australia, unlike in the east, the coastal lands were suited to wheat and from the 1840s it production was mechanised and transport costs were low since even though wheat-growing expanded northwards farms were still close to the sea. As a result, Tasmania lost out in wheat to South Australia, but diversified into the production of potatoes, oats and later fruit for the mainland.

Before 1856, land disposal and settlement especially in NSW were characterised by several important elements. Successive colonial governments wanted to recreate the colony in line with the social and economic system of land use in England. This position was to a certain extent supported by the Colonial Office’s desire to restrain the spread of settlement despite the development of a widespread desire for land. However, there was a failure to appreciate that the colony’s land resources were different from those in the United Kingdom and that the sheer vastness of the public domain made development control and policing extremely difficult, if not impossible tasks. It was the discovery of gold in NSW and Victoria in 1851 that precipitated growing demands for land reform, something that after 1855-1856 was possible since the new colonial legislatures being given responsibility for the entire management and control of waste lands belonging to the Crown. [5]


[1] Burroughs, Peter, Britain and Australia 1831-1855: a study in imperial relations and crown lands administration, (Oxford University Press), 1967.

[2] Fletcher, B.H., ‘Governor Bourke and squatting in New South Wales’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 74, (4), (1989), pp. 232-251.

[3] Buckley, K., ‘Gipps and the Graziers of New South Wales, 1841-1846’, Historical Studies, Vol. 7, (1956), pp. 392-407.

[4] Gipps to Stanley, 16 April 1844, cit, Buckley, K., ‘Gipps and the Graziers of New South Wales, 1841-6’, p. 396

[5] Auster, M., ‘The regulation of human settlement: public ideas and public policy in New South Wales, 1788-1986’, Environmental and Planning Law Journal, Vol. 13, (1), (1986), pp. 40-47.

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