Saturday, 6 June 2015

Unlocking the Land

At the beginning of 1853 the Government established a programme of public works helped by the ready availability of finance and labour. Improvements to roads supported by expenditure by the Legislative Council and supplemented by tolls were aided by setting up a Central Roads Board. [1] There were improvements to street lighting and drainage in Melbourne and Geelong and an act in January 1853 authorised the creation of a university. [2] Despite this and recognition that the Government was now working more effectively, the attacks on La Trobe in the Argus were unrelenting and in December 1852 he resigned, though he remained in office for over a year until his successor was appointed. In the early months of 1853, the Government was severely criticised by the miners over two issues; the need for land reform, and the increasingly vexing issue of police brutality.

Until 1851, squatters’ privileges were not a major concern since there was sufficient agricultural land available to meet demand. Between 1846 and 1851, more than 100,000 acres of land had been sold in the ‘settled’ districts near Melbourne, Geelong and the coastal towns. The Imperial Waste Lands Act 1846 and the Order-in-Council of March 1847 granted leases of up to fourteen years to squatters in the ‘unsettled’ districts covering the northern half of Victoria and for up to eight years in the ‘intermediate’ districts that included the Western District and Gippsland. In both areas, squatters had the sole or pre-emptive right to buy any part of the land during the period of their leases. However, a precise survey was necessary for this to have legal effect, and this had hardly begun by 1851. [3] Once the gold rushes began, growing demand for farming land put pressure on the government to open some of the squatting areas. [4]

This situation created major problems for La Trobe. Should squatters be given pre-emptive rights if leases could not be issued? Squatters were buying and selling land on the assumption that pre-emptive rights applied. Equally pressing was whether the Government could sell any public land outside the ‘settled’ districts where there was little unsold land left. La Trobe was not a defender of the squatters and argued for a liberal interpretation of the 1846 Act believing that it was the duty of government to sell land when and more importantly where it was needed. Consequently in late March 1853, he reserved 700,000 acres ‘for public purposes’ where pre-emptive rights did not apply.[5] The Argus saw this as evidence that ‘the lands are really to be unlocked at last’. [6]

Some members of the Legislative Council were highly critical of the squatters but in July 1852, they were defeated on a motion of extend the boundaries of the ‘settled’ districts and that leases be issued for the ‘intermediate’ districts so that the Government could bring forward land for sale without having to rely on its reserves. Squatters were unwilling to compromise and La Trobe’s executive voted with them to demand the immediate issue of leases for all pastoral land outside the ‘settled’ districts. [7] This was a short-lived victory and radical members of the Council mounted a strident public campaign that led to a compromise of sorts. Protests against the squatters were bitter reflecting long established hostility and the need for outlets for capital than genuine land hunger. [8] Growing demand for land came from successful diggers and urban speculators. For miners, land signified social status; for urban businessmen it was a way to break the economic and political dominance of the ‘squattocracy’.

On 18 August 1852, La Trobe informed the Council that he did not have the power to issue leases immediately and that he would refer the issue to the Colonial Office. In the interim, squatters would be allowed to buy their homestead blocks (up to 640 acres) and the existing policy of reserving land for future sale would continue. [9] While this may have satisfied many squatters, some extremists such as William Campbell reacted bitterly. [10] In early September they restated their position and La Trobe forwarded their views to the Colonial Office along with a wordy dispatch on the issue.[11] La Trobe then gradually brought more land on to the market. With growing demands from diggers for land, in December 1852 a deputation from Castlemaine with a petition signed by thirteen hundred miners was promised that land near the diggings would be sold as soon as they were surveyed. In early 1853, the movement concentrated on the need for sales of 20, 40 and 80 acre lots near the fields. Calls for a colonial reform association were initially voiced at a conference in April 1852 but it was not until November 1852 that an association with a broad radical platform was formed. [12] Increasingly the Colonial Reform Association concentrated on the land question supported by the Argus that, with monotonous regularity, called on the government to ‘Unlock the Lands’.


[1] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 21, 28 January 1853.

[2] Argus, 1 January 1853.

[3] No leases were ever issued under this legislation and throughout the 1850s squatter occupancy of their runs continued with annual licenses.

[4] Roberts, Stephen H., The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847, (Melbourne University Press), 1935, reprinted, 1964, pp. 350-358, is useful on the land question in the early 1850s; Clark2, pp. 179-180.

[5] Geelong Advertiser, 24 March 1853.

[6] ‘Unlock the Lands’, Argus, 14 July 1853, reported the creation of the reserve at Kyneton on 12 July, evidence that ‘the squatters shall give way, when necessary, to land purchasers and legitimate settlers’.

[7] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 29 July 1852, p. 6, indicates that this was defeated by 18 to 9 with ‘the Nominees and Squatters coalescing in opposition to the popular representatives in the mode which is making both so odious…’ See also, ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 6 August 1852.

[8] See, for instance, ‘The Squatter Swindle’, Argus, 14 December 1852, p. 6, and ‘Anti-Squatter Meeting’, Argus, 16 September 1852, p. 6, reporting a meeting at Geelong while Argus, 25 August 1852 p. 6, reported a similar meeting in Melbourne two days earlier.

[9] ‘The Leases’, Argus, 21 August 1852, commented on La Trobe’s indecision.

[10] William Campbell’s position can be found best in his The Crown Lands of Australia being an Exposition of the Land Regulations, and of the Claims and Grievances of Crown Tenants, (John Smith & Sons), 1855, pp. 31-54.

[11] ‘Legislative Council’, Argus, 1 September 1852, p. 4.

[12] ‘The Conference’, Argus, 15 April 1852, p. 4.

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