The Victorian Nicholson Act of 1860 was the first of several Acts passed in the 1860s with the intention of providing affordable land for small farmers. New South Wales introduced similar legislation in 1861. Further Land Acts were passed in Victoria in 1862 and 1865, followed by South Australia in 1869.

Following the crossing of the Blue Mountains, in 1813, by the expedition led by William Wentworth, Gregory Blaxland and William Lawson, the colony of New South Wales expanded westwards. As explorers pushed into the interior, they were followed by the squatters with their sheep.

The squatters were adventurous souls who refused to accept the ‘limits of location’ specified by Governor Darling in 1826. They ‘squatted’ illegally on Crown land  but in 1836 Governor Bourke, aware of the importance of the wool industry to Australia, made squatting legal on the payment of a license fee. Eleven years later, the legislation was amended to grant the squatters leasehold, with the option to purchase the land from the Crown after 14 years.

Land Acts - pegging out selection

Pegging out at midnight, under the Land Act 1869 (State Library of Victoria, IAN01/08/88/supp/17, wood engraving by Samuel Calvert)

In the late 1850s, much of the best land in what are now the eastern states of Australia was under the control of the squatters, who became Australia’s own landed gentry. The squatters’ runs were often vast, with more land being held by lease or licence under the 1847 Order than the total area of France or Spain or Great Britain.

But Australians couldn’t eat wool. The need to encourage more people to farm a variety of produce led, in the 1860s, to the various Land Acts, allowing farmers to select and purchase land, eating into the squatters’ leaseholds. The intent was to allow people of limited means to acquire land. In Victoria, settlers paid for half of an allotment up front at a fixed price of £1 per acre and paid rent on the other half for usually seven years, paying the balance of the purchase price at the end of that period to obtain title to the land.

The Land Acts sparked protests among the squatters, who often succeeded, via proxies, in circumventing the law and selecting the best sections of land for themselves. The process of picking the eyes out of a run became known as “peacocking”. There were many abuses of the system. Many of the free selectors were inexperienced farmers who struggled on inferior land and in New South Wales and Victoria the results of free-selection were often grinding poverty. However, in South Australia and on Queensland’s Darling Downs the system laid the foundations for a successful rural industry.