Staking a claim

Staking a claim

Find out how to trace land and property records in Australia and New Zealand

Place in Focus, Discover Your Ancestors

Place in Focus

Discover Your Ancestors

Land records are primarily used to learn when an individual lived in a particular place. These records often reveal other family information, such as the names of a spouse, children, heirs, other relatives or neighbours. You may learn where a person lived previously, his occupation, approximate death date and other clues for further research.

To find land records in Australia, you must know some of the history and development of Australia as it was settled (see timeline). Initially all land in Australia belonged to the Crown, which used three basic methods to dispose of the land: free grants, sales, and licence and leases. Alienation is the term used to describe the passing of land from the government to an individual on a permanent basis (ie free grants or sales). Licences and leases allowed the government to come back and possess the land at a future date.

Torrens system
The Torrens system of land title registration in Australia and New Zealand is aided by maps showing property boundaries. Here is an 1897 map of County of Wynyard, New South Wales, showing land divisions

Crown Land Grants: 1788–1831
A grant gave, without compensation, an individual or company a parcel of land for private use. Some land grants required that the land be improved within a certain time period. These grants from the Crown are the most valuable records to use when searching for early settlers. All grants, from the first one recorded in 1790 to the time when free grants were halted in 1831, are held in the Lands Title Office in New South Wales. These records generally give the grantee’s name and occupation and identify the land being granted. Other records relating to grants are military volunteer land grants, lists of occupants of Crown lands, land orders and registers.

Sale of Crown land
In 1824 a new system was initiated that allowed the sale of Crown land to settlers. When land was passed from the Crown to an individual or from one individual to another, a document known as a deed was written to record the event. It listed both parties involved, their occupations, and places of residence.

Early deeds are held in the Lands Title Office in New South Wales. Later deeds are held by individual state land titles offices. Other records available regarding sales of lands are registers, applications, description books, schedules of lands sold, memorials, and deeds for the transfer of land.

In 1831, when land grants were halted, disposing of land by auction was introduced. This system created new records, including records of lands leased by auction, registers, and applications.

As Australian settlement began, no commercial or industrial establishments existed. Availability of vast areas of land gave rise to what became the largest commercial effort in Australia: the grazing of cattle, sheep, and horses. The lands used for this purpose are known as pastoral lands. These lands were seldom alienated (sold or granted) but were licensed and leased, which allowed individuals to use the lands while the Crown retained ownership.

Licensing Crown land
Settlers were permitted to occupy Crown lands for grazing purposes if they obtained a licence that could be renewed annually. The first of these licenses was the Ticket of Occupation, which was granted in about 1820. These licences gave owners rights to grazing land within two miles of their residence.

Later, depasturing licences gave owners rights to the vacant Crown lands beyond the limits of the owners’ homes. (Today, depasturing licences can be used as census substitutes.) The applications for depasturing licences list: name; trade or calling; residence; land applied for; marital status; number of children; name and condition of the person under whom stock are to be placed; and real or personal estate possessed by the applicant.

Licensing impacted not only the grazing industry, but the mining industry as well. Mining licences began with the gold rush in 1851. Mining is still licensed today.

As the wool industry progressed, squatters began to illegally overrun Crown lands to pasture their sheep. In 1836 a squatter was allowed the use of his ‘run’ if he paid an annual licensing fee. In 1847 the Crown instituted a lease system which offered a more secure occupancy for the squatter.

Leasing allowed the squatter to legally occupy the land for longer than a year and, if desired, to buy it at a fixed price. Records dealing with this period include leases and squatters’ directories.

This article is an edited extract of resources at, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licence.

Timeline: land ownership in Australia

Governor given power to grant land at his discretion
Privates, noncommissioned marine officers, and free settlers given free land grants
Rich settlers given grants if they will make major improvements to land
Sale of crown lands begins; free land grants limited to 2,560 acres
Free grants halted; public auction of lands begins
Squatters enter lands outside original 19 counties of New South Wales
English Crown Lands Act regulates price of land
Sale of Waste Lands Act creates settled, intermediate and unsettled classifications for land, opening new possibilities for settlement
Torrens system of land conveyance and registration in South Australia provides title registration for first time; other states follow
Archibald Clunes Innes
Archibald Clunes Innes, who arrived from Scotland in 1822. In 1836 he was one of the first squatters in New England, New South Wales – squatters occupied large tracts of Crown land in order to graze livestock

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