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Working the land

On his arrival in Sydney, the Settler should waste no time in selecting his grant… Many and great will be the difficulties and privations of his first commencement, but he must make up his mind to grapple manfully with them… 

State of Agriculture in NSW, Atkinson, 82/95, (p.128)

The spread of settlement in the new colony was slow up until about 1830, generally creeping along the coast, over the Cumberland Plain and up into the Hawkesbury-Nepean area. Inland exploration, particularly the crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, opened up the country beyond Sydney revealing spectacular new pastoral land.

Land administration became one of the most important tasks overseen by the colonial government. Before 1826, land grants were given by the Governor. In 1826, limits of location were decreed by Governor Darling and land grants could only be issued within these boundaries. People choosing to settle outside these boundaries were classed as squatters. After 1861, The Robertson Land Acts opened all Crown Land for selection until the law changed again in 1884. During this period, land parcels of between 40 and 320 acres could be conditionally purchased without a survey as long as the purchaser intended to improve the land and occupy it for at least three years.

Spread of settlement

Sketch & description of the settlement at Sydney Cove Port Jackson in the County of Cumberland taken by a transported convict on the 16th of April, 1788, which was not quite 3 months after Commodore Phillips's landing there
Fowkes, Francis
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A new plan of the settlements in New South Wales taken by order of Government, July 20th 1810 [cartographic material] / William Dymock.
Dymock, William.
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From 1791 to 1831, the governors of New South Wales issued free grants of land on behalf of the Crown to individuals to encourage the settlement of the colony. Evidence of ownership was provided by a document known as a Crown grant. This map shows grant lot numbers and acreages in 1814. Several place names included on the map have been replaced. At point H: ‘Bulanaming’ was used up until the 1820s for the area between Sydney and the Cooks River. In 1810 Governor Macquarie renamed the Green Hills region as Windsor although the former name appears on this map.

Plan of the allotments of ground, granted from the Crown in New South Wales
J Burr and G Ballisat
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An outline map of the settlements in New South Wales 1817 [cartographic material] / drawn by Jas. Wyld.
Wyld, J. (James), 1790-1836.
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New South Wales compiled under the superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge [cartographic material] : from the M.S. maps in the Colonial Office, the surveys of the Austral.n Agricult.l Company and the routes of Allan Cunningham
Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain)
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This map of the Colony of New South Wales exhibiting the situation and extent of the appropriated lands including the counties, towns, village reserves etc.
Dixon, Robert, 1800-1858.
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Map of a portion of Australia shewing the area of the Twenty located Counties of New South Wales with the adjoining Eight Grazing Districts as divided under the provisions of the Act [cartographic material] / Engraved by W. Baker.
Baker, W. (William), active 1835-1846.
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Index map of New South Wales shewing pastoral holdings [cartographic material] / prepared by Surveyor General's Office.
Sydney : Surveyor General's Office, 1886.
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After the success of some early agriculturalists, such as John Macarthur, many people were encouraged to leave an overcrowded UK to try their luck in the colonies. As early as the 1820s Australia was being promoted as a land of opportunity for settlers and hundreds of books, maps and pamphlets were produced to describe and promote the colony to potential emigrants. Many of these publications dealt with methods for farming the country, land selection and stories of successful settlers. The would-be farmers were mainly new emigrants and emancipated convicts, many of whom had never worked on the land before. The business of selecting and working the country was new to them and these publications were designed to help them with the basics.

By the late 19th century, the economic importance of agriculture to the colony was so great that the New South Wales government began to consider providing formal learning for farmers and other agricultural workers. The Agricultural Branch of the Department of Mines and Agriculture (established in 1891) was responsible for research, education and advice. One of its first tasks was to establish a college and model farm to provide technological agricultural education and the Hawkesbury Agricultural College officially opened on 14th April 1896.

Experimental farms were established across New South Wales, in places as diverse as Moree, Bathurst, Wagga Wagga and Wollongbar. These farms were used to test new and modified varieties of crops, new techniques in irrigation or fertilisation, new farm implements and methods of working.

Training farms were also established, like the one at Hawkesbury Agricultural College, in areas earmarked for new farming settlements. They catered for newcomers to the land and taught them how to make a success of their own properties. New immigrants to Australia and returning soliders were two of the biggest target groups in the first half of the 20th century. The Soldier Settlement Scheme was implemented throughout parts of Australia following World War I.

Australia’s harsh landscape meant that the knowledge gained by the early settlers was hard won. Although later generations of farmers benefited from the experience of the early settlers as well as from the opportunity to engage in formal education and training, they still had to contend with Australia’s diverse climate, poor soils and lack of water. Flood, drought and plague could and still does often devastate many months of hard work. Despite technological advances, life on the land is still tough.


This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation.