RESEARCH NEWS: A map of the Land Divisions of New South Wales

Dr Iain Stuart, JCIS Consultants

In 1884 the Crown Lands Act divided New South Wales into three divisions; Eastern, Central and Western. This was not some whimsical classical elusion to the Gallic Wars but the outcome of deliberation on the results of Free Selection since its introduction in 1861. Free selection was established in the various states throughout Australia as a way of establishing a class of “Yeoman farmers” to form a solid buttress against the squatters and to bring land considered underutilised into production.

In New South Wales the legislation introduced in 1861 clarified the tenure of the Squatters, who held most of their land as leasehold and allowed free selection of up to 640 acres before survey. The farm size of 640 acres was deemed as suitable for a small farm.

In 1883, a major review of the working of the Lands Acts in New South Wales, the so-called Morris Rankin report, recognised that it was difficult to apply one size of holding over land that varied in quality, environment and distance to markets, all critical factors in making a farm viable. They proposed the split into three divisions across NSW with varying regulations applying in each division.

The Crown Lands Act (1884) followed the recommendations of the Morris Rankin report although with some amendments and created the three divisions based on the boundaries of the Land Districts created in 1883 under the previous act (Lands Acts Amendment Act, 1875). Selection within the Eastern division still retained the 640 acre upper limit but within the Central division and upper limit of 2560 acres was allowed. Selection was prohibited in the Western Division except that special areas could be created to allow selection if required.

In the research for my Ph D. thesis I could never find a map of the three divisions except for the one used in the Morris Rankin report which was altered by the legislation. In a fit of GIS inspired enthusiasm I recently decided to make one. The first thing I located was a boundary of NSW – these shapefiles are readily available from varying sources, mine was sourced from PSMA (surprisingly they are all identical).

In NSW, Spatial Services portal leads you to a site called Clip n Snip where you can essentially clip a section out of the NSW Digital Topographical Data Base or Digital Cadastral Data Base and download the results in the form of shapefiles. This used to be a paid service but about a year ago it was unexpectedly made free with the result being I spent a fortnight downloading the whole State (you are now limited to 5 downloads per day!) This gave me access to useful things such as shapefiles representing Counties Parishes and Land Districts which are part of the Digital Cadastral Data Base. Note I also added the pre-federation boundaries of the Counties of Cowley and Murray, now partly in the ACT.

Figure 1. The three Divisions of NSW showing elevation and drainage.

Mapping the Western Division was easy as the main boundaries were the State boarder and then along main rivers. These were able to be traced in ArcGIS. There was an odd gap and that needed to be mapped using historical county plans either available from TROVE or from the Historical Land Records Viewer (found on the LPI site). The counties could easily be imported into ArcGIS and georeferenced to the County shapefiles. The location of the division boundaries was marked on County and Parish plans in dashed lines. It was relatively easy to trace these.

The Central Division was easily started by tracing the boundary of the Western Division and then the north and south State boundaries. However the eastern boundary was more difficult to establish. The reason being that it changed as the Land Districts boundaries were changed. This caused some head scratching around the general areas east of Gundagai and Wagga Wagga. To overcome this,  once I realised what had happened, was to use the 1890 Parish maps to map the boundary. These can be downloaded from the Historical Land Records Viewer and georeferenced to the Parish shapefiles and the original boundaries plotted.

The Eastern Division was completed using the Auto trace features of ArcGIS. I might note that it used the County boundaries largely as someone else had digitised them and presumably had decided what was the location of the High Flood Level of the Murray River and the HWM of the coast, both issues when establishing the boundaries of NSW.

I have presented some the maps of the three divisions. The first one (Figure 1, above) uses the 1:250000 map sheet contours and the second one (Figure 2, below) uses a DEM that I found on the Mines website as a digital download and clipped to the state boundary. Both really show the differences in elevation, terrain and to some extent drainage between the three divisions.

Figure 2. The three Divisions of NSW over a the Digital elevation map of NSW

Like all illustrations maps are heuristic devices and as soon as you look at them there are questions. For me the question is one of boundaries – in the south there is an area that looks like it should be in the Western Division. Actually this is roughly centred on Hay. There is another area of the Western Division that looks as if it could fit into the Central division – this is the Cobar area. If you are so inclined you can ask why?

What happened next? The third figure shows this. Using the distribution of grain silos as an analogue for grain growing areas, the location of NSW’s primary grain growing areas can be seen and they all fit more or less neatly into the Central Division and more particularly the elevated areas of the Central division.

Figure 3. The Divisions of NSW and railway and grain silo distribution.

Historically we know that the grain growing areas of NSW moved west, and that this was accompanied by a shift in demand for harder wheats, and that the famous Federation wheat was developed in the late 1890s mainly by William Farrer to fit into the new environment. We can see that being in the Central Division farm sizes potentially could be greater allowing more economies of scale in production. So a suite of changes occurred to allow the development of NSW’s wheat belt.

To return to the original purpose of the project I now have a map of the Land divisions, and I can return to the discussion of the effectiveness or otherwise of the Crown Lands Act (1884) which I began in my Ph. D. thesis.

I am happy to discuss this further or provide the Land Divisions file in gdb or shp format. Contact


New South Wales. Inquiry into the State of Public Lands Operation of the Land Laws. (1883). Report of Inquiry into the State of the Public Lands and the Operation of the Land Laws / instituted 8th January 1883. (Parliamentary paper (New South Wales. Parliament); 1883). Sydney: Thomas Richards, Government Printer.

Stuart, Iain M 2000, ‘Squatting landscapes in Southeastern Australia (1820-1895)’, Doctor of Philosophy, University of Sydney.

Spatial Data

Note: citing spatial data is a slightly tricky process as there are limited guidelines on how to do it and often the metadata is difficult to convert into a citation.

Geological Survey of NSW 2016, Digital elevation map of NSW, First edition. Scale 1:1 500 000, Projection: Lambert Conical Conformal, Geological Survey of NSW, Maitland.

NSW, Department of Finance Digital Cadastral Data Base, accessed (January 2017)

PSMA Australia 2016, 'Administrative Boundaries', Projection GDA 94, PSMA Australia, Griffith, Canberra