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Archives In Brief 23 - Land grants prior to 1856

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A brief overview of the major sources held by State Records that relate to land grants prior to 1856.

Online indexes to land records

A collection of indexes relating to land records is available on our website. These indexes are listed in this AIB. We are progressively adding new indexes to this collection.

Public offices responsible for the administration of land

Prior to 1856 the main agencies responsible for the administration of land in the New South Wales were the Colonial Secretary, the Surveyor General and the Commissioners of Crown Lands.

Categories of land records prior to 1856

Prior to the introduction of Responsible Government in 1856, land records were divided into two major categories.


The alienation of Crown lands (leading to the granting of freehold title) — these were referred to as land grants.


The occupation of Crown land was often on an annual basis where freehold title was not granted — this was later referred to as tenure. For more information, consult Archives in Brief 22: Occupation of Crown Land prior to 1856.

Historical background

One of the responsibilities entrusted to Arthur Phillip as the first Governor of New South Wales was the power to grant land. The first land was granted in 1792. Phillip insisted however, that land must have a particular use. As a result he only granted approximately 4,000 acres in almost five years. It was not until 1792 that larger grants were made, although these were frequently subject to exploitation and land speculation.

Who was entitled to a land grant?

Free Settlers and Emancipists

Free settlers and ex-convicts who were 'of good conduct and disposition to industry' were entitled to a land grant. The grant consisted of up to 30 acres of land. If the person was married they received an extra 20 acres and if there were children a further 10 acres was granted.


Women were also entitled to receive a grant of land — the first possibly being Ellenor Frazer on 20 February 1794.


From 20 August 1789, non-commissioned Marine Officers were entitled to receive 100 acres more (and Privates up to 50 acres more) than the quantity allowed for convicts. Commissioned Officers were excluded from land grants under the original instructions. It was not until 1792 that land grants were made to officers by the Acting Governor Francis Grose.

Fees for land grants

Fees did not have to be paid for land grants until 1825. After this date it was still possible to obtain a free land grant although the grant was not to exceed 2,560 acres or be less than 320 acres (unless in the immediate vicinity of a town or village).

Limits of location and the nineteen counties

On 5 September 1826, a Government order allowed Governor Darling to create the limits of location. Settlers were only permitted to take up land within this area. A further Government order of 14 October 1829 extended these boundaries to an area defined as the Nineteen Counties.

No free land grants after 1831

The Governor was instructed to make no further free grants (except those already promised) after 1831 when a new land-policy was adopted. Revenue from the sale of land was to go toward the immigration of labourers. Following this, land was sold by public auction without restrictions being placed on the area to be acquired. After 1831 the only land that could be made available for sale was within the Nineteen Counties. This restriction was brought about to reduce the cost of administration and to stem the flow of settlers to the outer areas.

Correspondence relating to land grants

Colonial Secretary

Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825 *ARK
These records are a most valuable source of information relating to land in the Colony and the State of New South Wales.

NRS 899, Memorials received relating to land, 1810-26 [4/1821-45]
Reels 1066-1080, Fiche 3001-3162
A memorial is a letter of request from an individual for a grant of land. It may provide personal particulars to justify this request for land such as the length of time in the colony, marital status, numbers of children, occupation and livestock numbers.

NRS 907, Letters received relating to land, 1826-56 [2/7787-8013]
Reels 1081-1200
These papers include letters from individuals as well as memoranda, reports, applications and petitions relating to a land grant, purchase, rent or lease of land in the colony. An online index to the letters is available.

NRS 944, Copies of letters sent to individuals and organisations re land, 2 Jan 1827-17 Nov 1856 [4/3555-92]
Reels 2298-2313
These are copies of letters relating to requests for land, refusals, grants, intrusion complaints, petitions to survey, licence fees, forfeiture of runs and so on.

Registers of land grants and related records

Colonial Secretary

NRS 1230, Registers of notices of the intention to issue deed of grants of land, 1830-56 [2/2143-45]
Reels 2653-2654
The registers record under the date of notice, the number, person's name, area and portion of land. After 1843 many of the grants are for churches and schools.

NRS 1233, Index to applications for title deeds, 1839-54 [2/1938]
Reel 1439
This is an index to applications received for title deeds to grants of land and town allotments in NSW. The lists give the number allocated to the allotment when it was advertised in the NSW Government Gazette, the name of the person claiming, area of land, date of receipt and application.

NRS 1236, Register of notices of intention to grant land, 1845-55 [2/2146]
COD 68
The registers give the following information: place, parish and area. In many cases it will show the reason that the grant was given and the date the deed was executed and despatched.

Surveyor General

NRS 13837, Index to registers of grants, Cumberland and elsewhere, 1792-1865 [7/443]
Reel 2560, COD 205

NRS 13836, Registers of land grants, 1792-1856
The Registers are listed in Short Guide 8.

Additional sources

Judge Advocate

NRS 5604, Registers of Assignments and Other Legal Instruments (the 'Old Register'), 1802-1824 Digital images and index on ‘Old Register’ One to Nine DVD.
The register was proclaimed in 1802 but allowed people to register assignments and other legal instruments which dated back to 1794. The nine registers record land and other transactions from 22 January 1794 to 15 May 1824.
The registers show registration number, names of parties and nature of agreement.

Surveyor General

For more information about these records consult Archives Investigator and select Advanced Search - Agency - Surveyor General.

NRS 13736, Letters received from Surveyors, 1822-55 [2/1509-96]
Reels 3051-3098
The letters are particularly useful when used in conjunction with the following series:

NRS 13859, Crown plans, 1792-1886
These contain the earliest surveys of New South Wales including those of towns and villages, squatting districts, counties and parishes, roads, rivers, mountain ranges and explorers' expeditions.
Search the online index »

NRS 13886, Sketch books, 1828-90 [X751-78]
Reels 2778-2782
Sketch books consist of tracings and sketches of towns and villages. They can also give information relating to allotments sold or granted to a person or on the ownership of land that is in dispute.
The Sketch books are indexed at [X750A & B].
[X750A] is copied on Reel 2778, COD206, and COD259 (City only).

NRS 13889, Field books, 1794-1860
Field books are the diaries of surveying expeditions, descriptions of natural features, and sketches of farms, town allotments and roads.
Search the Index to Surveyors' fieldbooks, 1794-1860 »

Related sources

Online indexes

Index to Depasturing Licences, 1837-46, 1851
This index covers people who leased Crown land beyond the nineteen counties.

Index to Squatters and Graziers, 1837-49
This index was compiled by Kaye Vernon and Billie Jacobsen. It indexes the Itineraries and returns of the Commissioners of Crown Lands.

Further information

Further information about records relating to land may be found by consulting the Archives Investigator under the agency titles (select Advanced Search - Agency):

  • Colonial Secretary
  • Registrar General
  • Court of Claims
  • Lands
  • Surveyor General, and
  • Treasury

Other records may be identified in Short Guide 8: Land Grants 1788-56, and Archives in Brief 108, as well as the Guide to records relating to the occupation of Crown Lands, which is available in the reading room.


Researchers should consult the Register of Access Directions to confirm the public availability of records. State Records' staff can advise you on the availability of records if they are not listed on the register.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
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