The Present State and Prospects of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales/Chapter 3


CHAPTER III.

THE SQUATTING SYSTEM AND ITS TENDENCIES—PRESENT PROSPECTS OF SHEEP-FARMERS AND CATTLE-HOLDERS.

"Quid tibi pastores Libyæ, quid paseua versu
Prosequar, et raris habitata mapalia tectis?
Sœpe diem, noctemque, et totum ex ordine mensem
Pascitur, itque pecus longa in deserta sine ullis
Hospitüs. Tantum campi jacet! Omnia secum
Armentarius Afer agit, tectumque, Laremque,
Armaque, Amyclœuraque canem, Cressamque pharetram."

Vir. Georg.

From a consideration of the statements in the foregoing chapter, the importance of the pastoral interest to the welfare of the colony will be evident, and one would naturally have supposed that it would have been the object of our rulers to encourage those engaged in this pursuit, and to put it in their power to obtain such an interest in the land which they occupy, as would render it safe for them to erect the buildings necessary for carrying on their business in the best manner; to build for themselves, their families, and servants comfortable dwellings; by degrees to gather round them the comforts and conveniences of civilized life; and, in the beautiful metaphor of Scripture, "to make the wilderness to blossom as the rose." But if their intention had been the very reverse of all this, they could scarcely have hit upon a more effectual mode of carrying that intention into effect than by the course which they have adopted with respect to the sale of land; which has been an attempt to concentrate the colonists in a country not calculated, in its present condition, to support a dense population, but above all others suited to pastoral pursuits, and where common sense and experience point to dispersion as the only means of making its resources available.

The squatting system has been the necessary though monstrous result of this injudicious attempt. According to the present system of colonization, government is placed in the position of an immense monopolist of land, and as land is the only thing from which a livelihood can be derived, they can impose what terms they please upon the colonists. As the mode of deriving wealth from the land, pointed out by the peculiar circumstances of the colony, was through the medium of grazing, and as it was impossible to buy land for that purpose without paying at least £1 per acre—a price amounting to a prohibition—it followed, as logically as any conclusion in Euclid from its premises, that men, in order to prosper, must adopt some other mode of obtaining a tenure, and the squatting system was the result.

That which is commonly known as the squatting license, is a license from the crown to depasture unoccupied crown lands. For this license, £10 a year is paid to the crown, as well as a poll tax of 1d. for each sheep, 3d. for each head of cattle, and 6d. for each horse depastured under it. It is granted for a year, but is revocable at pleasure;[1] and it is optional with the commissioner to renew your license at the end of the year or not, without assigning to you any reason. If he does not like the way you wear your hat, he may refuse to do so, and you are without any legal redress. You may, indeed, appeal to Sir George Gipps, or you may lay your case before the secretary of state for the colonies, or petition the House of Commons, or write a letter to The Times; but you have no legal right to ground your case upon, no fixed tribunal to resort to, and you must appeal only to the pity of those whom you address, or to their abstract sense of justice. I do not mean to say that in practice injustice is actually done; in fact, I believe that in every case where the renewal of a license is refused, the governor requires from the commissioner of crown lands a full statement of his reasons for doing so, and gives the aggrieved person an opportunity of explanation; but, still, it is not pleasant to have one's property depending on the caprice of any man. It must be remembered, also, that from the difficulty of disposing of stock without a station, except at ruinously low prices, to deprive a man of his run almost amounts to a confiscation of his property.

In all cases it is expressly stipulated that, when the lands are purchased, the occupier is to be turned out at the end of the year, and that he is not entitled to receive one farthing's remuneration for any improvement he may have made in the way of buildings or paddocks, however suitable or however advantageous they may prove to the incoming purchaser. Nor is he entitled to any right of preemption or preference whatever, but is in no respect more favoured than a mere stranger. In fact, the Australian squatter is nearly in the same position with what was once called the tenant in ancient demesne, who held in villenage under the crown, and the tenant by copy of court roll, who held under inferior lords. The English judges, indeed, always so fayourable to liberty of tenure, by a pardonable straining of construction, afterwards held that the will of the lord was to be interpreted and controled by the custom of the manor, and by thus establishing a fixed rule, instead of the uncertain and arbitrary caprice of the lord, got rid of the villein tenure at will, which even then was felt to be intolerable to the free spirit of the people. But it is a curious illustration of the maxim that extremes meet, that an experiment, founded upon a vaunted scheme of an enlightened political economy, has resulted in establishing, at least for a time, over a large portion of the Australian continent, the servile tenures of the middle ages unmitigated by the intervention of judicial authority.[2] I say established for a time, for I should be unwilling to do any man who has reflected on the subject the injustice of supposing that he wishes the system to be permanent. If, however, they are to be got rid of, much of the prosperity of the country will depend on the way in which this is done. It is to be remembered that, although it is a grievance to be forced, through the conduct of a monopolist, to hold land on a bad tenure, it would be a still greater to be turned out of possession altogether—such a circumstance exposing you to almost certain ruin. It is not to be forgotten either, that something is due to the squatters; they, or those whom they represent—those (in the language of the law) whose estate they possess—are the men who in spite of toil, privation, and hardship, undeterred by difficulty and undismayed by danger, at the risk, and in many cases at the actual sacrifice of property, nay life itself, have reduced this fair country into the possession of England. It is but fair, then, that in the adjustment of this question some consideration should be given to their claims; that a preference should be given them in the purchase of land which they have improved, or adequate remuneration secured to them for their improvements. Men cannot at once forget their previous tastes and habits; and the consequence has been that many men, particularly those who are married, have laid out considerable sums upon their stations in spite of every discouragement; and it is precisely the most desirable colonist who will be the most injured unless this be done.

These may be termed the speculative evils of the system; I come now to its practical working. The first and most obvious result is, that persons of capital are either deterred from emigrating to a country where such a state of things prevails, or should they do so, they are discouraged from embarking in sheep farming, or from residing on their stations in case they purchase them. A man with a family, who is able to afford many of the comforts of life, does not like to go and live in a hut in the bush, nor is he willing to build a good house without having any tenure of the ground on which it stands. He cannot purchase that land because it is not surveyed; and if he should succeed in getting government to survey the homestead and put it up to auction, he will have to pay, even at the minimum price, £640 for as many acres, worth probably about 5s. each, and run the risk also of losing his improvements, water, and homestead, in case any person should, for the sake of those improvements and advantages, choose to outbid him. The consequence is, that he leaves the management of his station to an overseer, while he himself resides at a villa near Melbourne.

The second result is, that the sheep-farmer is prevented from getting up his wool in as good a condition as he might, were he not prevented by the insecurity of his tenure from making the first outlay in putting up the buildings and other improvements necessary for this purpose. To wash wool clean, it is necessary that every sheep owner should have a washing place on his station; and, if possible, an artificial fall of water with a spout. This generally cannot be made without a good deal of expense. Even when the sheep are washed clean, it is impossible that they can be kept so during the process of shearing unless there be a proper shearing shed; nor can the wool when shorn be classed and sorted without a wool room. These are all expenditures which men should be encouraged to make. Many have done so at all risks, and in this respect there has been a decided improvement through the country within the last year or two; hut it will be hard if they are not allowed the enjoyment of them. There are still, however, numbers who go upon the principle of not laying out one farthing which they can help on government land. That this is a practical evil, exercising at this moment an extensive influence on the welfare of the colony, no man will deny who has seen the imperfect mode in which too many of the sheep in the Port Phillip district are washed, or the wretched huts in which the operation of shearing is sometimes performed; nor can any one who looks at the returns of the London wool sales fail to recognize its injurious effects in the comparatively low prices of Port Phillip wools. There is no natural obstacle to the growing of wool in that district fit to compete with most of the German wools. In no part of the world can sheep thrive better, and the fleece is admitted to be remarkably soft and healthy. There is an excellent breed of sheep, fine woolled enough for most purposes of manufacture, and which can be brought to almost any required degree of fineness, by crossing with the pure Saxon merino, several flocks of which exist in the country.

The construction of tanks and the sinking of wells are almost altogether neglected under the present system. In a few instances, indeed, men have sunk wells near their homesteads, for the convenience of having a supply of water close at hand; but these are rare exceptions. There are thousands of square miles of country now perfectly useless, which would be available if this were extensively done; but it is the interest of a squatter to conceal a spring rather than to dig a well, and men's actions will in the main square with their interests.

I have spoken of the consequences of the squatting tenure only as they affect sheep farming, that being a subject with which I am practically acquainted; and I know the inconveniences of it, having myself suffered under them; but they affect the cattle holder nearly in a similar manner, and the breed of cattle is already beginning to deteriorate from the want of paddocks to keep the heifers separate from the rest of the herd.

I have thus given a summary of the drawbacks of a squatter's position as regards tenure, which, however, are capable of being removed by legislative enactment, and which, I trust, are but temporary. Every statement which I have made, I could substantiate by evidence taken before the committees of the Legislative Council of New South Wales did I think it necessary; but the evils which I have pointed out seem to me to result so naturally from the facts admitted on all hands, that such a course appears superfluous.

I will now give, as nearly as I can, an account of the prospects of the sheep farmer, in a pecuniary point of view. These, I am happy to say, are of a cheering kind, and after so long a growl, it is a relief to turn to a more pleasing subject. Persons who know but little of the colony, and who have only heard that money matters have been in a state of great confusion, will be surprized to hear that sheep farming at present promises to be a more remunerating employment than it has been for the last four years, or, indeed, than it has ever been in the Port Phillip district. In 1840, ewes were selling at from about 20s. to 25s. a head without station; from 5s. to 7s. is now considered a very good price for any number of them, with station given in. Wedders then fetched about 20s. These now bring about 5s. or 6s. Wool was then bringing from 1s. 2d. to 1s. 6d. in Melbourne ; this year it has ranged from 8d. to 1s. But it was not the Port Phillip sheep farmers who reaped the benefit of these high prices of sheep, but those of Van Dieman's Land and Sydney. The former, on the contrary, were either purchasing, or at any rate doing all they could to increase their stock, in the futile hope that those high prices would continue. On the other hand, shepherd's wages were from £40 to £45 per annum. Flour varied from £28 to £40 per ton, and sometimes rose as high as £60. Sugar sold at from £36 to £40 per ton ; and tea at from £10 to £15 per chest of 64lbs. In January, 1844, shepherd's wages were £20 a year, and were likely to fall to £15; flour was £10 a ton; sugar £16 to £18 per ton; tea about £5 per chest. Wages were in fact less than one half, and rations[3] one third what they were in 1840 and 1841. The prices of working bullocks, drays, &c. bear about the same proportion, and horses have fallen to about one fourth their former value. At that time too, much more labour was employed in the care of the same number of stock than is now found to be necessary. The flocks then varied from about 500 to 800; the latter number being considered a large one. They now average nearly 1,200. There are few flocks of breeding ewes less than 1,000, and the dry flocks vary from 1,200 to 1,800. The whole number of sheep on each station was at that time much smaller, so that, what may be called the staff of the station, the bullock drivers, spare hands, and overseer, if any, bore a larger proportion to the numbers and actual returns of the sheep. Taking these persons into consideration, the number of men to 600 sheep was at least two. Beckoning wages at £40 per annum, and rations at £12 out of pocket, 600 clean sheep cost at that time, at a very moderate calculation, £104 in mere labour, without allowing anything for license, assessment, shearing, and washing, wear and tear of hurdles, drays, &c. and contingent expenses of all kinds. The return from these sheep, averaging each fleece at 2¾1bs, and the wool at 1s. 4d. per lb, was £109 16s. 8d., say £110, leaving only £6 to go towards defraying the expenses enumerated above. At present, two men are employed about 1,200 sheep; this will cost £20 each for wages, and £5 out of pocket for rations. This gives £50 as the expense in labour for 1,200 sheep. The return from these, taking the fleece at 2¾ lbs, and the wool at lid. per lb, will be │151 1s. 8d., say £150, leaving £100, which would yield a fair profit, after paying their share of contingent expenses.

In former times, the number of sheep was so small, comparatively speaking, and the return from the wool, even, at those good prices, bore so small a proportion to the expected profits from the increase, that the former was looked upon as a matter of very secondary consideration, while now it is become the object of principal attention. Hence arises the improvement which is rapidly taking place in the condition in which it is sent into the market. Hence, too, the obstacles which are placed in the way of that improvement by the squatting tenure are more felt now than under the old system of management, and will continue to be more and more so every year. Formerly the object was to increase the number of sheep with but little regard to their quality; but now, in order to make them pay, it is necessary constantly to cull the flocks, and to keep nothing but such as are in the highest order, and yield the most profitable fleece. The plan of boiling down here comes in aid of the stockholder, and thus, if not carried to an injudicious length, will serve, rather than injure, the export of wool, by improving its average quality, though to a certain extent diminishing the quantity.

But the greatest improvement which has taken place in the management of sheep, has been in the extent to which scab has been eradicated. This is the greatest enemy of the sheep farmer. Sheep when scabby, must be run in small flocks, and constant trouble and great expense gone to in dressing them. Many men have in this way spent more on their sheep than they would now fetch. It can, however, be eradicated almost with certainty in six months, or a year at farthest, if proper means are used, and if there is room enough to give the sheep clean ground to run on. Foot rot is very troublesome in the western and southern parts of the district towards Port Fairy and« Portland Bay. Catarrh, the great scourge of the Sydney district, is unknown in Port Phillip. Some time ago, indeed, I heard rumours of its having attacked some flocks in the neighbourhood of the Campaspe, but I never heard more of it.

When we consider the class of men who have embarked in sheep-farming, without the least previous knowledge on the subject, the wonder is not that there have been mistakes and mismanagement, but that there has been so little of them. Officers of the army and navy, retired barristers, half-pay linen-drapers, doctors, quakers, captains of whalers, merchants, and traders—in fact, men of all professions, and the most opposite pursuits, are to be found settled upon their stations in the bush, and seem in general as equal to the management of them as men brought up to rural occupations in England. Those who have managed to steer clear of debt will now do very well. But many bought their sheep originally on long credit, and at high prices, hoping to be able to sell them again at the same rate, so as to meet their bills, and to be able to retain the increase. All these men, I need scarcely say, are insolvent. Others purchased to the utmost of their means, and had to go in debt for stores to the merchant who supplied them, who was enabled to charge what he liked, and to take the wool in payment at his own valuation. This also was a ruinous system. The failure of the settlers of these two classes has thrown so many sheep into the market, that it has had the effect of making them fetch less than they are entitled to do, reference being had to the profits to he derived from them; and I have not the slightest doubt that a reaction will take place. The present state of things is, however, an advantage to the newly-arrived settler, who can buy his stock now for less than they are intrinsically worth; and any man of common sense and industry who could land now at Melbourne with £2,000 in his pocket, might secure to himself and family a comfortable independence, and, if he chooses to run the risk of laying out about £100 in building a good hut and offices, and making a garden at his station, might live as comfortably as he could in any part of the world, as long at least as government leave him his run. Two young men as partners, with the same, or even a less sum, might of course do the same. In the first place, they could buy 4,000 clean sheep, with station, for £1,000; bullock dray, bullocks, horses, and other expenses would amount to about £200 more. The remaining <d6800 ought to be put into the bank at 3 per cent bank interest, so as to be at hand to buy stores, pay wages, and meet contingencies of all kinds. The following is, as nearly as I can give it, a fair statement of the expenses and returns of such a station for two years, without exaggeration on one side or the other.

We will suppose that the stock (4,000 in all) consists of 2,400 breeding ewes and 600 hogget ewes, which would form three flocks, the remaining 1,000 consisting of wedder lambs and rams, would form the fourth flock:—

First year expenses and returns (The Present State and Prospects of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales).png[4]

Next year there would be about 5,850 sheep on the station, allowing 100 wedders for consumption, and 50 sheep of all kinds for casualties. We will suppose, however, that there are 6,000 sheep, for the sake of round numbers. They might be disposed of as follows:—

3,000 breeding ewes, 3 flocks; 1,500 lambs, 1 flock; 1,000 wedders, and 500 wedder lambs, 1 flock: being 5 flocks in all.

Second year expenses and returns (The Present State and Prospects of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales).png

In this calculation I have taken the fleece at 2¾lbs., which is less than the average of what a fleece ought to be, which only fetches lid. per pound. I suppose the sheep to be clean, that is, free of scab. I have put down the wages at the present prices, though I think there is every reason to expect a fall to £15, or even £12. The settler would shear about 11,000 sheep and lambs in the third year. If a man have a family, he might add another hundred a year for comforts, and for a man and a woman servant additional.

From the foregoing statement it would appear that less than £2,000 would suffice for the purchase and conducting of a station such as I have described; and perhaps it might, but it is by no means probable that sheep will long remain at their present low price; we must leave room also for some mismanagement and mistakes on the part of a new-comer. The expenses of living in Melbourne and other contingencies must be allowed for. It must also be remembered that the full amount of the price of the wool is not received for nearly a year after shearing; while wages, stores, &c. are expenses out of pocket, and that a man is in a far better position who can go with his money in his hand to buy his stores than one who deals on credit. The present system, too, of taking a large advance on wool when shipped is one which had better be avoided. The use of the money for about nine or ten months costs, between exchange and commission, about 5½ per cent on an average; and it would be far better, if the wool-grower could afford, to wait until the proceeds of his wool were remitted from England. Selling wool at Melbourne is very unsatisfactory. If sent home, it goes into a market where there is a fair competition, and it fetches pretty nearly its value, whether this be much or little; but in Melbourne, where there are but few buyers, a man is never sure of this.

I do not like at present to say much on the prospects of the cattle holder, because until salting, boiling down, or preserving meat in tin cases hermetically closed, or some of these modes of turning stock into cash is carried out on a good system, the profit likely to be derived from cattle cannot be calculated on with any degree of certainty. There is, however, so little expense and risk attendant on rearing them, and they can be purchased so cheap, (I have known some to be sold so low as 13s. a head,) that whichever of these modes or whatever combination of them be found most advantageous, I have no doubt that stock of this kind will yield a fair return. Making cheese and butter may, I think, turn out profitable; but it must be for export. Van Dieman's Land will probably take a good deal of cheese at a remunerating price. The home market at Melbourne is so small, and so easily overstocked, that it would not be worth the while of any person who does things on a large scale to undertake to supply it, at least at present, a certain market being of greater consequence to a producer than an occasional high price.

In April, 1844, (subsequent to the author's departure from New South Wales,) a set of regulations regarding depasturing licences, were published by the government, which have excited a considerable ferment amongst the pastoral interest in that country. Under these regulations one- license of ten pounds will not cover a station capable of containing more than 4000 sheep or 500 cattle, nor one extending over an area of more than twenty square miles, but in these, and one or two other cases, a second fee of ten pounds is required. It does not appear to me that there is any thing in these regulations to call for the strong censure which they have received, nor to account for the excitement caused by them in New South Wales. It seems but fair that a man who has 8000 sheep should pay more for his license to depasture them, than he who has but 4000, and that if he has to pay £20, while the latter pays but £10, he is only taxed to the same amount. Probably the fairest and most satisfactory mode of proceeding would have been to have done away altogether with the ten-pound fee for the license, and to have increased the poll-tax to three half-pence on each sheep, and so in proportion for cattle. Still there seems nothing so objectionable in these regulations, as to account for the feeling which they have excited; and if the money raised hy them he applied to the keeping up a moderate stream of immigration, they will he of henefit to the stockholders themselves. We must therefore look deeper for the causes of the present dissatisfaction, which is attributable to this; that these regulations have forced upon the attention of the stockholding squatters the fact, that they and their property are completely at the mercy of the government, and they fear that other changes still more unfavourable to them may he in contemplation. They know that they have sprung into their present importance without the aid, and they believe in despite of the discountenance of government, and they fear that their interests, and through them, the interests of the colony, may be sacrificed to some hankering after the exploded Wakefield system. I have no doubt that these fears are exaggerated. It is absurd to suppose that government can have any other object than the welfare of the colony, lind it is almost equally impossible to imagine that they can long shut their eyes to the importance of the export of wool, whether it is looked upon as a colonial export, or as contributing nearly a third of the imported raw material of one of the most important branches of British manufacture. The interests, therefore, of the class of men by whom this article is raised, namely, the squatters, cannot be a matter of indifference, and it cannot be disguised that they are placed in a false position. Whether from too great a leaning to theoretical systems, and to the oldfashioned notion that it is more virtuous to grow a pound of flour than a pound of wool; or from whatever cause an attempt was made, by a forced system of concentration, to make New South Wales an agricultural country, without its being considered that had this attempt succeeded she would have had no market for her surplus produce. When, however, the aptitude of the country for the growth of wool, an article of sufficient value to bear the cost of transit to a distant market, had induced the colonists to overstep the bounds assigned as the limits of location, and to trust themselves and their flocks to the wilderness, government had to recognize their possession and to sanction their occupation, without, however, recognizing any right of property. Hence arose the present unsatisfactory squatting tenure, under which the property of the land is dissevered from the possession. And, in my mind, the problem which the government have to solve is, how this unnatural state of things is to be got rid of without doing injustice to any interest, and how the large and respectable class of men, who compose the body known as the squatters, are to be given such an interest in the lands which they occupy, as may enable them to reside with comfort upon their stations, and to spread civilization through the country, while they personally superintend the management of their farms. That a modification of the act of parliament, fixing the minimum price of land at twenty shillings an acre, must be one of the first steps, is an opinion about which there exists a perfect unanimity amongst all classes in New South Wales; and it is to be hoped that the temperate expression of that opinion will have its due weight with the government and legislature of Great Britain.


  1. There is considerable doubt whether this power of revocation within the year, being equivalent to rendering the whole grant nugatory, is not itself void for repugnancy.
  2. There is a wide difference between the position of the Australian squatter and that of the modern tenant at will in England, for whom all improvements are made and all buildings erected, and with whom there is at least a tacit agreement that no circumstance except his failure in performing his part of the contract shall lead to an eviction. Yet even this is scarcely a fit tenure for an independent man.
  3. Calculation of rations for a year for one man:—
    Calculation of rations for a year for one man (Present State and Prospects of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales).png

  4. The prices obtained for wool in the summer sales of 1844 were fully 4d. per lb. more than those of 1843, upon which this calculation is formed, which would of course give a still larger return to the sheep farmer.