By 1830, much of the south-east and central eastern regions of the colony had been settled, including the southern tablelands, the Hunter Valley and the inland plains from Dubbo to Gundagai.
There are a number of different but complementary aspects of the European settlement of NSW that encompass a series of phases and a variety of forms of settlement. Two points need to be stressed at the outset, however. First, just as ‘discovery’ in the section on Exploration referred to European discovery only, acknowledging that Aboriginal peoples had discovered the entire colony or state thousands of years earlier, ‘settlement’ in this section refers to European settlement only, acknowledging that the entire colony or state had been long before settled, inhabited, and used as a resource base by its Aboriginal peoples. Secondly, there are, not surprisingly, close parallels between aspects of the maps and text dealing with European exploration, and those in this section that show European settlement.
For this purpose, settled areas are defined as those which Europeans had brought the land, at least tentatively within the colonial economic and bureaucratic system. Formal government control of land settlement and ownership often came about many years later. In some districts, settlement quickly followed European exploration, as the purpose of many explorations was primarily the search for grazing land (see the ‘Exploration’ topic, page 10). In such cases, initial settlement was most frequently pastoral, often illegal, and certainly running ahead of the surveyors and other government officials, at least in the earlier periods. On the other hand, many coastal areas were first settled by cedar-getters, especially in the North Coast river valleys, where such activity both harvested valuable timber and made cleared land available for grazing or agricultural uses. Other localised areas were opened for settlement by miners, as at Kiandra in the Snowy Mountains, or by agriculturalists, although the latter almost always followed graziers as a second wave of more intense settlement, as we shall see.
It is also important to remember that although only the broad-scale spread of settlement is shown on the map of ‘Original Settlement’, the pattern was almost always much more complex at the local level. More fertile, better watered land might be taken up some decades ahead of poorer, drier land only kilometres away. Streams were also invaluable as transport arteries, especially before road and rail systems reached newly settled areas. Transport costs were a huge problem for early settlers; it was said that in the early days of settlement, it cost more to transport a bale of wool from Bathurst to Sydney than it did to ship it from Sydney to London or Liverpool.
In 1788, the First Fleet under Governor Phillip established the colony’s first settlement at Sydney Cove. Early spread of settlement on the Cumberland Plain was westward, including to the northwest and southwest, as the North Shore was considered too rugged, and the coastal area immediately southeast of the fledgling town, too sandy and barren. The Blue Mountains remained a seemingly impenetrable barrier until 1813 (see the ‘Exploration’ topic, page 10), and movement in other directions from the Cumberland Plain was also slow and hesitant. However, by 1830 much of the southeast and central-eastern regions of the colony had been settled, including the Southern Tablelands, the Hunter Valley, and the inland plains in an arc from Dubbo to Gundagai. Convict outposts helped open up the Newcastle area, which was a penal settlement from 1802 until 1823, when the Hunter was opened to free settlement; and the Port Macquarie district, which received the ex-Newcastle convicts in 1823, but saw them replaced by private timber-cutters and others from 1833.
New England and the southwest slopes were the areas of major expansion in the 1830s, as were the north-west slopes and the Riverina in the 1840s. New England was occupied by graziers droving stock from the Hunter Valley to the Liverpool Plains, and then onto the New England Plateau, and later down the major rivers flowing inland. Further south, the upper reaches of the Murrumbidgee and tributaries were settled in the 1830s, spreading out from the Southern Tablelands into the Yass district. Expansion of settlement further west was slower and later, but had reached the Balranald area by the late 1840s. Another wave of squatters entered the Riverina from Victoria in the 1850s. Land along the Darling River was settled in the 1850s, but land between the Darling and the Lachlan rivers was not taken up until the following decade, thus interrupting the general westward spread of settlement. The major rivers attracted settlement before areas away from them both because of the water supply they provided, and also because they were transport routes to ship out produce, especially wool, and ship in supplies. Only the arid northwest remained to be taken up for extensive grazing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
A second phase in the settlement process in many parts of the colony, and later the state, involved breaking up large pastoral holdings, whether leases or freehold, for more intensive use. This process was often opposed by the powerful graziers’ lobby in Parliament, of course, and various kinds of subterfuge were used to subvert it. One was for the current leaseholder, or a member of their family, or even, on a few occasions, their dog (all referred to as ‘dummies’), to gain control of the key section of the land that had best access to permanent water, the best pasture, or transport routes. This approach, known as ‘peacocking’, rendered the rest of the land parcel much less desirable, and often meant the former lease remained intact.
The smaller, agricultural lots were normally intended for arable farming on a family-unit basis. They were usually purchased with the proviso that the purchaser had to live on the land, work it, and make specified improvements to it, such as fencing and providing watering points, within a given time period. Lots were frequently balloted, often among many applicants, none of whom had seen the land, and in some periods before the land had even been surveyed. Some properties were privately subdivided, but closer settlement most commonly involved the Government in either offering Crown land, or acquiring, subdividing and then offering large freehold estates in multiple, smaller portions. Shown on the map are the districts of most intense activity under the Crown Lands Alienation Act 1861, the Crown Lands Act 1884, and the various Closer Settlement Acts from 1901. Although closer settlement did not begin with the 1861 Act (the ‘Robertson Act’), free settlement was actively promoted under that Act by opening up leaseholds areas for selection sale, with the most intensive activity in the late 1870s. Settlement under the Crown Lands Act between 1885 and 1900 was at a much lower level. In the early twentieth century, estates were acquired under the Closer Settlement Acts and subdivided. From 1910, scrub leases were resumed and subdivided as well.
As farmers took advantage of the various schemes, rural population densities rose. The large number of properties resubmitted for sale in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century, however, reflects the number of ill-prepared or badly-suited purchasers, and the fact that farms were often too small to be viable units, given their environment. What is more, the lots were frequently delineated on maps back in government offices in Sydney sight unseen, and with no regard for topography, soils, vegetation, or water sources. Closer settlement under the various Acts had essentially ceased by 1916.
Two other forms of land settlement (irrigation and soldier settlement schemes) did, however, continue the tradition by intensifying agricultural activity and increasing population densities. Soldier settlement following World War I took place under a large number of different acts, and information is thus diffuse, and has proven difficult to collate. The soldier settlement map indicates the location of the major estates allotted specifically to returned servicemen between 1916 and 1927. They were widely distributed with major activity in the Riverina, both in and near the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, and further north towards the Lachlan. A similar but more centralised process of farm allocation to returned servicemen occurred after World War II, in the newer irrigation areas of the southern Riverina, on the southwest slopes, and in parts of New England. World War II estates were concentrated more in the upland areas of the State than their World War I predecessors had been, including on hill country in New England and in the Tumut district. Many soldier settlers, like their closer-settler precursors, were ultimately unsuccessful. Small farms on marginal lands were again partly to blame, while inexperience in, and unsuitability for, farming, and lack of capital also played a part despite government attempts to overcome these problems.
The first irrigation schemes in the State were established by trusts at Hay and North Yanco in 1896 and 1897 respectively. The first major scheme, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, was commissioned in 1912–13. A number of further schemes, mainly on the Murray and Murrumbidgee river systems, have been opened for settlement since then, including some large private irrigation schemes since the mid-1960s. The problem of blocks being too small for actual environmental and economic conditions was again evident in some areas, while salinity has also proven to be a long-term problem.
The final two maps show the dates of origin for towns that have reached 1,000 population at some stage in their history, although a few others may have fallen through the cracks, so to speak, if they peaked at over 1,000 and then lost population again between the chosen census dates. The map of ‘Original Settlement’ shows towns in this group established before 1870, while the fourth map in this section shows those established after that date. The only other known omissions are among formerly separate towns now incorporated in Sydney, Newcastle or Wollongong; only a selection of these are included.
The foundation of a town has been taken to be any of a number of official actions, such as surveying the town site, proclamation, gazettal or the establishment of official services such as a post office or court. The majority grew as service centres for rural districts and were dependant on farm populations for their survival. Most only came into existence, or at least grew to 1,000 or more population, after closer settlement in the surrounding district, as the large grazing leasehold properties did not give rise to a large enough set of potential customers. Other towns, though, were transport, or mining, or resort centres. Those towns that had fallen below 1,000 population by the 2001 census are further distinguished on the maps. Most are former mining centres, although some are rural towns that have lost functions and populations to larger provincial centres as rural populations have declined with mechanisation and further farm amalgamation, and as motor vehicles have enabled farm dwellers to travel further for goods and services.
Towns established by 1829 are, not surprisingly, largely restricted to the Sydney district and the Hunter Valley, although Bathurst and Wellington had been founded by that date to serve the pastoral interior. In general terms, towns founded in the next three periods are located in concentric bands further and further inland. There are many exceptions, however, reflecting in part the uneven spread of settlement mentioned earlier. For example, the relatively early settlement of areas along the Darling is again indicated, mirroring the pattern of initial European settlement, although Wilcannia, Bourke, Brewarrina and Wentworth were river ports as much as, if not more than, local service centres. Some towns were founded, or only grew significantly, once irrigation areas were established, notably Leeton and Griffith in the 1910-1920 decade when the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area was opened for intensive settlement. Towns founded between 1920 and 1981 are chiefly resort and retirement centres, or residential satellites on the periphery of the main urban centres. The only exceptions – Lightning Ridge, Kandos, Glen Davis, Wallerawang and Warragamba – resulted from specific mining, industrial or construction activity.
A large number of towns reached the 1,000 population level between 1981 and 2001. By far the largest group comprises coastal, or near-coastal, centres along virtually the full length of the NSW coast, excepting the far south. Many of these coastal towns mix the functions of resort or tourism centres, and those of retirement centres. Most other ‘newcomers’ are peripheral to the largest urban centres, especially Sydney, but also to Canberra and others. Of the few remaining growing centres, Perisher is related to skiing, and Barooga to tourism on the Murray. In very general terms, the large provincial towns of over perhaps 30,000 population have been growing, even booming, while those below 10,000 have battled to hold their numbers. As a gross generalisation, the smaller a country town, the more likely it is to have been in serious decline since the mid-twentieth century.
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Dr Graeme Aplin, Macquarie University