How the Squatters Opened up Our Grazing Country

The Farmer and Settler, By James Jervis

 4 November 1955

As a conclusion to his very popular series of articles, Recalling The Pioneers, James Jervis surveys the growth of our land settlement under those pioneer occupiers, the squatters, whose work in opening up vast tracts of country is now largely forgotten.

The squatter has played a major part in exploring and opening up the interior, a fact sometimes forgotten. The early explorers, Oxley, Sturt and Mitchell, to mention only a few of them, followed the rivers in general and it was left to others to examine the country in between. This work was done by squatters in their incessant search for more and still more grasslands. Even as late as 1850 and 1860 much of the interior was still unknown and the squatter explored it - a task requiring courage and initiative. It took courage also to occupy the newly located grass lands. There were no roads and the squatter and his men had to make their own tracks. There were none of the amenities of civilization; no police to protect the new comers and there was the ever-present fear of an attack by marauding aborigines or lawless elements.

Shepherds' Part

Nor must the part played by the humble and necessary shepherd be overlooked. Without his aid the industry would have languished and possibly failed.

Many of the shepherds were 'ticket-of-leave' men or assigned servants. By the aid of these forgotten men the squatter occupied and held the grasslands of the interior. Here and there on a waste of lonely plain may be seen the decaying timbers of a crude hut and a mound of earth which marks the resting place of one of these nameless heroes. The modern squatter is a respected member of the community, the owner of broad acres and many sheep and cattle. He is accustomed to gracious living. His home is spacious and is often surrounded by colourful gardens. 

Once an Insult

The squatter of the 1820's and early 1830's was entirely unlike his modern namesake, and the name then had a very different meaning. It was the direst insult at that period to call a man a 'squatter,' and those who did so were liable to buy into a fight. The term was used in New South Wales as one of opprobrium.

To squat meant, originally, to occupy land without permission, and the term squatter was used in England to describe gypsies and others who lived on the common lands outside the villages. It was used also in Canada and the United States in the eighteenth century. The earliest use of the word squatter in New South Wales occurred in 1825 when it was applied to a man named James Webb who was the first settler at Brisbane Water. Webb occupied land there without authority and a journalist who visited the locality in 1825 wrote that he was 'what our neighbor Jonathan would call a squatter.' Squatting began very early in our history and there were squatters at the very gates of Sydney itself before 1800. Many of those who occupied pieces of land without authority were respectable people. They built huts and cultivated small portions of the land.

Statement Spreads

 Gradually the word squatter acquired a more sinister meaning. As settlement spread, north, west and south, and the ever-increasing flocks and herds of the graziers of the early colony spilled out to graze over the grasslands of the wide interior, an unsavory class of persons became a menace to legitimate settlement. These men harassed stock-owners. They erected rough huts and sapling stockyards and roamed the country-side collecting unbranded animals or even branded or ear-clipped sheep and cattle belonging to the neighboring settlers. Many of these gentry sold illicit whisky distilled in some remote valley in the mountainous country along the Great Divide. While these men were occupying without authority some of the waste lands of the interior for their own nefarious purposes, the graziers of the colony, not yet known as squatters, had also begun to send their sheep and cattle to graze on the Crown lands outside the County of Cumberland. Their cattle and sheep increased slowly until about 1860, when the pioneer graziers began to have difficulty in finding sufficient glazing land' for   their stock. This demand far more grassland led to the explorers travelling west and   south to locate more grazing country.  Then began the occupation of the newly discovered territory. The pioneer of the occupation was William Lawson, 'Old Ironbark,' as; he was known to his contemporaries. An ex army officer, settler and explorer, Lawson was a member of that historic expedition which discovered the way across the Blue Mountains in 1813. G. W. Evans followed and opened up the rich country further west which he named the Bathurst Plains. In 1815 Lawson was permitted by Governor Macquarie to drive a mob of his cattle across the Blue Mountains and to occupy some land on which to graze his stock. Lawson appears to have occupied land on Campbell's River. He was therefore the 'father' of the Australian squatter in the modern sense of the term.

Oxley A Squatter

 Lieut. John Oxley, naval officer, Surveyor-General and explorer, sent stock to the rich meadow lands near the present town of Bowral in 1816, thus becoming the first squatter of the southern country. Dr. Charles Throsby, also an explorer, sent his faithful servant, Joe Wilde, to Illawarra with stock in 1815 to squat on what is now the city of Wollongong. This trickle became a flood before many years had passed. Presently Governor Macquarie began the issue of permits to stock-owners to graze their stock in newly opened country. Sir Thomas Brisbane continued the practice, but in his time the ticket-of-occupation gave some indication of the land to be used. A number of these permits stated that the holder was to occupy the land within a circle of two miles radius with the grazier's hut as the centre. The ticket holder had to leave the land on being given six months notice to quit. Quite a number of these tickets-of-occupation were issued and land in the west and south was taken up by graziers.

 Border Lands

By 1824 the squatters with permits had occupied land as far west as Wellington, as far south as Yass, in the upper Hunter above Singleton and in the Mudgee country. There is evidence also of unauthorised occupation in these areas about this time. This occupation presented a problem because there were no police in these border lands held by the squatters. In 1826 the Legislative Council recommended that all tickets of occupation should be withdrawn and that graziers should be allowed to rent land near their properties at a rental of £1 per 100 acres. Governor Darling reported to the British government early in 1827 that the system of issuing tickets of occupation had been abolished, but that graziers would be permit ted to depasture stock by paying a rent of £1 per 100 acres, a rental later reduced to 2/6 per 100 acres. But this system was only applied in the more closely settled areas. In 1829 boundaries were laid down outside of which settlement would not be permitted. Settlers were to be allowed to select land within the following rough boundary south of a line running west rrom the Manning River to Wellington. The southern boundary was a line from Bateman's Bay to Wellington. These boundaries were known as 'limits of location.' However, by this time, graziers had occupied land as far south as the Murrumbidgee River, where Captain Sturt found John Warby's (sic, William Warby’s) cattle in 1829. R. V. Dulhunty had a station at Dubbo about the same year or soon afterwards, and a man named Baldwin drove his stock to the Liverpool Plains in 1826.

No Authority

By 1832 about 20 squatters had stations on the Liverpool Plains and the Peel River, and at about the same time the occupation of the New England country began. None of these people had authority to occupy the land over which their stock roamed; they were squatters in the literal sense of the word. During the late 1820's and early 1830's there were loud complaints about the other type of squatter, referred to earlier in this article. In 1835 the Legislative Council inquired into the police and gaols of the colony and a number of witnesses who were large stock-owners gave evidence about the undesirables masquerading as squatters.

Settlers' Envy

W. H. Dutton, or Yass, said there was little doubt that squatters readily afforded bushrangers food and shelter; they were instigators and promoters of crime, receivers of stolen goods, illegal vendors of spirits and harborers of runaway convicts and vagrants of every kind. P. P. King, son of the former Governor, said he could not express himself too strongly on the subject of squatters. Judge Burton, addressing a Supreme Court jury late in 1835, said that the occupation of the waste lands of the colony by unauthorised and improper persons, both bond and free, who, commencing with nothing, or a very small capital, soon after acquired a degree of wealth which led every reasonable man to the conclusion they did not get it honestly. Sir Richard Bourke, commenting on Burton's remarks, said: 'The persons to whom Mr. Burton alludes, familiarly called squatters, are objects of great animosity on the part of the wealthier settler. 'As regards the unauthorised occupation of waste land, it must be confessed that these squatters are only following in the steps of the most influential and unexceptionable colonists whose cattle and sheep stations are everywhere to be found side by side with those of the obnoxious   squatter and held by no better title.' The Governor called for a report from the magistrate about 'the people called squatters.' The returns showed that only a few of the ticket-of-leave men holding land as squatters were undesirable; the great proportion of them were particularly industrious and honest.