AGY-3499 | Commissioner of Crown Lands for McLeay River

NSW State Archives Collection
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Concerns over the unregulated occupation of land in New South Wales led to an Act (4 Wm. IV No.10) in 1833 for the appointment of Commissioners of Crown Lands to prevent unauthorised occupation of crown land within the settled districts. (1)

In 1836, Commissioners of Crown Lands were first appointed under the provisions of Act 7 Wm. IV No.4 (1836) for the purpose of supervising Crown lands outside the settled district of the colony. The Act provided for the issue of licences for the depasturing of sheep and cattle on unoccupied Crown lands. (2)

The principal responsibilities of the Commissioners were: the prevention of Crown land being occupied without a licence, to collect the proceeds of the assessment on stock, and to ensure that law and order were maintained throughout their districts. They were also responsible for issuing passports for convict travel and for “arranging the transfer of convicts from their own districts to places elsewhere; for the reservation of sites for public purposes; for the granting of hawkers’ licences; and for the compilation of a great variety of returns reports.” (3)

The vast area of land outside the boundaries of the colony was divided into Districts, each with a Commissioner. The first seven Districts and their Commissioners were published in the New South Wales Gazette on 10 May 1837 and they were:

District No. 1: John Lambie, who was based at Braidwood
District No. 2: Evelyn Stuart, who was based at Yass
District No. 3: John Welman, also based at Yass and responsible for the area between the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers
District No. 4: Lawrence Dulhunty, who was based at Wellington Valley
District No. 5: Henry Bingham, based at Cassilis
District No. 6: Alexander Paterson, based at Jerry’s Plains
District No. 7: Henry Oakes, based at Port Macquarie. (4)

Act 2 Vict. No.19 (1838) continued and amended the 1836 Act and in the following year Act 2 Vict. No. 27(1839) established a Border Police under the control of the Land Commissioners. The Border Police were to police regulations issued in 1839 for the management of Crown Lands. (5) The regulations issued under the 1839 Act reorganised the Districts, establishing nine, each with a Commissioner:

(1) Port Macquarie (formerly District No. 7) – Henry Oakes
(2) New England – George James Macdonald
(3) Liverpool Plains (formerly District No. 6) – Edward Mayne
(4) Bligh (formerly District No. 5) – Graham Hunter
(5) Wellington (formerly District No. 4) – Lawrence Dulhunty
(6) Lachlan (formerly District No. 3) – Henry Cosby
(7) Murrumbidgee (formerly District No. 2) – Henry Bingham
(8) Monaroo (formerly District No. 1) – John Lambie
(9) Port Phillip – Henry Gisbourne. (6)

In time, as settlement spread, additional Districts were established.

The Commissioners of Crown Lands were the sole officials of Government in areas outside the settled districts and as such they had magisterial authority. Commissioners were to maintain law and order in their Districts and one of the principal objects of the 1839 Act “was to put a stop to the atrocities which have of late been so extensively committed beyond the boundaries, both by the Aborigines and on them.” (7) The Commissioners were instructed to hold an inquest or enquiry into every violent death of an Aboriginal Inhabitant as a result of “a collision with white men”. (8)

The Commissioners were required to submit reports to the Colonial Secretary until 1849, after which time they reported to the Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands. Reports prepared by the Land Commissioners included statistical information on the following: half-yearly returns of population and stock; quarterly returns of the conduct and employment of police; and returns of hawkers’ licences and of licencees fined for the non-renewal of their licences. (9) Commissioners investigated disputed ownership of land and it could take two full days to collect evidence that was often conflicting and inconclusive, and then a further three weeks to consider and deliver the judgement. (10)

The District of McLeay River was created on 1 March 1842 when the District of Port Macquarie was divided into two Districts: the District of McLeay River and the District of Clarence River. (11) The McLeay River District was “bounded on the west by a line north by compass from the head of the Hastings River; on the south by the range extending from Werrekembee to the Crescent Head, a point on the sea coast; on the east by the sea coast; and on the north by the ranges which form the basin of the Clarence on the south side of that river.” (12) Boundary changes were made in 1842 and 1843 due to changes to the boundaries of surrounding Districts.

Henry Oakes was appointed the first Commissioner of McLeay River on 1 March 1842. (13) Oakes had served as the first, and only Commissioner for Port Macquarie since its establishment on 9 May 1837. Oaks served as Commissioner for the newly created District of McLeay River for only four months and was succeeded by Robert Massie on 4 July 1842. (14)

A Confidential Circular to Commissioners of Crown Lands from the Colonial Secretary’s Office dated 20 June 1846 warned them of an imminent loss of powers following the expiry of provisions of Act 2 Vic No.27. Commissioners were no longer to have the power to settle disputes between occupiers of crown lands or to call for returns of stock. They were further informed that while their powers to remove intruders were in doubt, it remained unlawful for anyone to occupy crown lands without a licence and the Commissioners were to continue to report any unauthorised occupation. (15) In 1848, Act 11 Vic No.61 received its assent and provided for the appointment of Boundary Commissioners to examine and report upon disputes involving boundaries of Runs between claimants of leases. (16)

Orders in Council of 1847, issued under the authority of the Imperial Act 9 and 10 Vic.104 (1847) provided for the issue of leases for periods up to fourteen years in place of the annual licences. (17)

Robert Massie was succeeded as Commissioner on 1 March 1848 by the former Commissioner for the Lower Darling, Edward Merewether. Merewether served as Commissioner until he was appointed Acting Chief Inspector of Distilleries and Acting Agent for the Church and School Estates on 25 January 1854. (18) At this time, responsibility for the McLeay River District was transferred to the Commissioner for New England. (19)

The District of McLeay River remained under the Commissioner for New England. Robert Massie was succeeded as Commissioner for New England and McLeay River by Henry Fellowes on 7 December 1854. Fellowes served as Commissioner for less than twelve months, being succeeded by Edward Merewether on 10 September 1855. Abram Moriarty succeeded Merewether on 1 January 1857. On 21 January 1861, Frederick Mant was appointed Commissioner and was succeeded by Frederick Gardiner on 25 July 1862. (20)

In 1863 the District of New England was divided into North and South, with the southern District remaining with McLeay River and the northern District combining with the District of Clarence. (21) On 1 January 1863, Alexander Black was appointed Commissioner of New England (South) and McLeay River. (22) In the 1860s, the District of McLeay River continued to be under the same Commissioner as the District of New England.

The Commissioners were responsible to the Colonial Secretary until the appointment of a Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands in 1849. In 1856, the office of the Chief Commissioner was transferred to the control of the Department of Lands and in time was listed in the Blue Books for New South Wales (Public Service Lists) as the Occupation of Lands section within the Department. In 1870, the office of the Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands lapsed, although the local Land Commissioners remained under the control of the Secretary for Lands. Control of the local Crown Lands Commissioners was transferred to the Department of Mines in 1878 and the section was known as the Occupation of Lands Branch. (23)

When the local Crown Lands Commissioners were abolished around 1880 there were thirteen Districts: Albert, Bligh, Clarence, Darling, Gwydir, Lachlan, Liverpool Plains, Macleay, Monaro, Murrumbidgee, New England, Warrego, and Wellington. (24)

Records of the Occupation of Lands Branch of the Department of Mines were destroyed in the Garden Palace Fire on 22 September 1882. (25)


1. Act (4 Wm. IV No.10), An Act for protecting the Crown Lands of this Colony from Encroachment, Intrusion and Trespass, assented 28 August 1833.
2. Act 7 Wm. IV No.4 (1836).
3. McMartin, Arthur. Public Servants and Patronage: The foundation and rise of the New South Wales Public Service, 1786-1859, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1983, p.206.
4. NSW Government Gazette No.275, 10 May 1837, p.362.
5. Act 2 Vic. No. 27(1839).
6. NSW Government Gazette No.418, 22 May 1839, pp.605-606.
7. Announcement by the Governor in the NSW Government Gazette No.418, 22 May 1839, p.605.
8. loc. cit.
9. McMartin, op. cit., p.205.
10. loc. cit.
11. New South Wales Government Gazette No.18, 4 March 1842, p.361.
12. NSW Government Gazette No.18, 4 March 1842, p.362.
13. loc. cit.
14. Returns of the Colony for 1842.
15. Public Records Office of Victoria, registration for VRG27 District Land Offices.
16. The Act received its assent on 17 June 1848.
17. Concise Guide to the NSW State Archives (Ca – Commissioners).
18. Returns of the Colony for 1854.
19. loc. cit.
20. Returns of the Colony for 1862.
21. Returns of the Colony for 1864.
22. Returns of the Colony for 1863. NSW Government Gazette No.59, 2 April 1863, p.798 lists Black’s appointment as a Commissioner on 1 January 1863 but does not give the District to which he was appointed.
23. Concise Guide to the NSW State Archives (Ca – Commissioners).
24. Second Annual Report upon the Occupation of Crown Lands, Stock and Brands, and Roads, Streets, and Gates Branches of the Department of Mines, New South Wales for the Year 1880, Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly during the session of 1881, Vol. III, p.453.

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