Land Ownership Timeline in New South Wales

Researching New South Wales land ownership is complicated by the changing regulations and historical events of the time, and it pays to know what regulations were in force at the time of purchase or transfer of ownership.

Here is a brief timeline of the land regulations and events that affected land holders at the time.

1788 – First settlers arrived in Sydney Cove. Governor Phillip was empowered to grant 30 acres of land to freed convicts, with an additional 20 acres if married and 10 acres per child.

1789 – Non-commissioned officers and privates were entitled to receive an additional 50 acres to encourage them to settle.

1792 – First free grants of land were made.

1810 - Many land grants had been made before Governor Macquarie’s arrival to replace the deposed Governor Bligh. Macquarie revoked many of these, although most were reinstated.

1825 – Orders received for a general survey of the 19 Counties of the Colony. Introduction of fees for large grants of land.

1826 – Land could only be taken up within the ‘limits of location’ within the 19 Counties.

1831 – Free grants abolished; land had to be purchased through public auction.

1833The Encroachment Act allowed for the appointment of 13 Commissioners of Crown Lands in an attempt to curb the settlement of Crown land (squatting) outside the 19 Counties.

1834 – Survey of the 19 Counties completed.

1836 – First act passed to formalise grazing rights beyond the 19 Counties for leases of £10 per year.

1847 – Colony was divided into Settled, Intermediate and Unsettled categories, with leases available for one, eight and fourteen years respectively.

1856 – Responsible Government granted to the Colony of New South Wales. Requests for land dealt with by Surveyor General rather than the Colonial Secretary.

1859 – Lands Department established under John Robertson.

1861Crown Lands Alienation Act introduced ‘free selection before survey’, or Conditional Purchases. The Crown Lands Occupation Act allowed all Crown land to be selected for purchase, including the pastoral leases of others.

1862Real Property Act introduced Torrens Title, a centralised, government-guaranteed, system of land title to replace the British Common Law system.

1884Crown Lands Act set out a comprehensive system of land tenures, including conditional leases for land adjoining conditional purchases, occupation licenses, homestead leases, and special purpose leases. Land districts were established and superceded the local land agents.

1900Real Property Act consolidated previous acts. Still in force today.

1907 - Closer Settlement Act allowed for land to be purchased by the government within 15 miles of a proposed railway line for division into small lots for farming purposes. Later acts followed.

1916Returned Soldiers Settlement Act relaxed the restrictions on the type of land resumed and allowed returned soldiers to settle on it.

1919 - Conveyancing Act established ‘good root of title’ for Old System land, requiring only a thirty year chain of title instead of all the way back to the first land grant.

1941 - War Service Settlement Act allowed for land to be set aside specifically for servicemen or ex-servicemen. A training certificate had to be obtained before land was allocated.

1961 – Strata titles commenced with the  Conveyancing (Strata Titles) Act.

1975 - government reorganisation brought the Torrens Title (Land Titles), the Deeds Registration, and the Crown Titles Branches into the Department of Lands when the Registrar-General’s Office was transferred. The name of the Land Titless Office has been changing ever since.

Sources and Bibliography

Hepburn, S. Real Property Law, 3rd edition. Pyrmont, NSW: Thomson Legal and Regulatory Australia, 2008.

NSW Department of Lands, A Guide to Searching New South Wales Land Title Records in the Queens Square Office of Land and Property Information Department of Lands – User Guide – Searching the Records of the Registrar General. Sydney: Department of Lands, 2008.

NSW Department of Lands, From Crow Quill to Scribbling, History of Pre Computer Mapping, Lands Department New South Wales. Sydney: Department of Lands, 2005.

Ryan, R.J. (editor). Land Grants 1788-1809, A record or registered grants and leases in New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Norfolk Island. Five Dock, NSW: Australian Documents Library, 1981. First published by Keith A. Johnson and Malcom R. Sainty, 1974.

State Records NSW. Archives in Brief 93 - Background to conditional purchase of Crown land.

State Records NSW. Short Guide 8 – Land Grants, 1788-1856.

Atlas of New South Wales

NSW Lands Atlas ExplorerI remember the old Reader’s Digest Atlas of Australia that my mother had when I was young. Half of it had detailed maps of the country, but the first half showed New South Wales with different overlays to show the distribution of different things – people, minerals, spoken languages, and so on.

Now there is a similar atlas online, and it’s absolutely marvellous!

NSW Land and Property Information, or the NSW Lands Department as we know them, have set of maps online for historians and other researchers to play with. It’s called the Atlas of New South Wales.

There is quite a bit of contextual information on the site. The most important part, though, and the most fun, is the Atlas Explorer. This  allows you to view, in map or satellite image form, the State of New South Wales or Australia as a whole. For example, you can look at the Changing State Borders map and move the slider along the timeline to see when the different colonies were established and the borders of New South Wales changed as a result.

NSW Lands Atlas borders 1851

You can zoom in and out, choose different types of information within each map, and for some maps you can slide along a timeline to see how things have changed over time. Here is a list of the broad categories of maps available:

  • People
    • Populations
    • Health
    • Housing
    • Religion
    • Indigenous Population
    • Social Inclusion
    • Crime
  • Economy
    • Labour Force
    • Labour Underutilisation
    • Economic Sectors
    • taxation and Revenue
    • Agriculture
    • Forestry
    • Fruit and Vegetables
    • Oils and Grains
    • Livestock
  • History
    • Heritage Properties
    • European Settlement
    • Changing State Borders
    • Goldrush
    • Elections
  • Environment
    • Geology
    • Soils
    • Vegetation
    • National Parks
  • Census 2006
    • Populations Distribution
    • Indigenous Population
    • Housing Costs
    • Income
    • Dwellings
    • Religion
    • Languages

In the examples below I have looked at the maps for European settlement and moved along the timeline from 1820 to 1830. This maps shows how far Europeans settlement had spread in 1820:

NSW Lands Atlas European settlement 1820

This map shows the spread in 1830:

NSW Lands Atlas European settlement 1830

You can see how far Europeans had spread in ten short years. It had already overrun the Nineteen Counties and the Limits of Location. Port Macquarie had been established, and the spaces in between were being filled in. Compare this map with the Map of the Nineteen Counties on the State Records NSW website.

There is much, much more in the Atlas than I can describe here. Have a look around and let us know what you find.

Other resources:

Archives in Brief No. 22 Occupation of Crown Land Prior to 1856

Map of the Nineteen Counties

NSW Lands Department User Guides

The NSW Lands Department, or Land and Property Management Authority as they prefer to be known, have reformatted and republished their collection of User Guides. Here is a complete list, blatantly lifted from their website:

First Stop Guide to the Records of the Registrar General (PDF 1.2MB)
Published 20 Apr 2011

The First Stop Guide is the first of five publications that detail the history of and information about searching and accessing land titling records in NSW. This guide aims to be your “First Stop” in helping you decide which publication(s) suits your particular searching needs.

A Brief History of the Records of the Registrar General (PDF 3.1MB)
Published 20 Apr 2011

This publication offers a brief history of the Office of the Registrar General since its inception in 1843 and the records it holds which date back to 1792. It also describes how land was initially acquired and consequently managed.

Old System Information and Search Guide (PDF 9.8MB)
Published 20 Apr 2011

This guide explains the intricacies of Old System land title and offers advice and tips on how to search the indexes and documents that have been registered with the Registrar General since New South Wales (NSW) was founded.

Searching the Registrar General’s Maps and Plans (PDF 4.7MB)
Published 20 Apr 2011

This guide has been prepared to provide a reference guide to Land and Property Information (LPI) mapping and plan resources and as a research tool for historical inquiry.

Torrens Title Information and Search Guide (PDF 5.0MB)
Published 20 Apr 2011

This guide describes how Torrens title information has been recorded historically and offers practical information on how to locate current and historical Torrens title information.

I haven’t examined them in detail as yet, but on first inspection they appear to be much more manageable and more concise than the old ones. The Old System Information and Search Guide is 45 pages and is much clearer and more friendly than the old 148-page User Guide to Old System Searching published in December 2009.

Here is an example. This is the first page of Chapter 1 of the old (2009) and new (2011) versions:

NSW Lands old Old System Guide Chapter 12009

NSWLands Old System Guide Chapter 12011

No comparison really. The descriptive text appears to be the same, at least in the first few pages, but the explanations are much clearer.

I recommend you go and find these guides if you have any interest in land and property in New South Wales. Researchers from other States are also likely to find the explanations useful, as the types of land records are similar in all States.

With grateful thanks to the NSW Land and Property Management Authority

Switch to our desktop site