Blog post

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Land records: Don’t annoy the surveyor

When I ordered my first batch of land records, the one I was particularly interested to see was for my great-great-grandfather James Bennett (1831-?).

James has not been easy to pin down. Last year I confirmed that his parents were Michael Bennett and Elizabeth Ann Barnes.  I still haven’t confirmed the date and place or fact of his marriage and have found no record of his death. I don’t know when or how he arrived in Australia. So, anything I learn could be very useful in addition to being interested in the land transactions for their own sake.

Having seen very little of him in my records, I now have copies of pages and pages of handwritten letters from him. There are about 20 letters in his hand on the file. I can see that he signed his name as “James Uxbridge Bennett”. I hadn’t seen a middle name before.

What was in the file

I started working my way through his land file from the back, so that I could read it in chronological order. It didn’t start well.

First, an application form dated 29 September 1871 for a licence to occupy land. Then, a short note from the surveyor, Mr O’Leary, dated almost a year later on 27 August 1872 saying that the delay in surveying the land was caused by James declining to live on the land.

Whether this is true or a misunderstanding is unclear. At any rate, James Bennett must have annoyed Mr O’Leary:

“According to instructions the garden must be included, and if the Northern boundary be moved further to the South a portion of the garden would be cut off and doubtless on the representations of Bennett who is very fond of complaining, I should be ordered there again.”

While O’Leary delayed, new regulations came into force and James was no longer eligible for the 60 acres he had hoped for but had to be satisfied with 20. James also hoped that a water hole might be included on his land, although O’Leary recommended against the inclusion of the water hole on grounds of public convenience.

James was not pleased with the reports O’Leary gave of him:

“In answer to yours of the 7th saying that I declined to proceed with my application I beg to state that the Contract Surveyor  utters a most deliberate falsehood as I have been into Maryborough several times to get him to survey it and have also written to him.”

James persisted with enquiring after the land when nothing seemed to be happening. He succeeded in having the President of the Shire, Chairman of the Mining Board and two other mining board members write a letter on his behalf:

“As it was no fault or omission on the part of the said James Bennett that his application was not dealt with prior to the issue of such regulations we consider it would only be an act of justice to grant his application.”

A poor laboring man

Adding insult to injury, two large adjoining plots were granted to “strangers” to the area while James waited for the survey of his plot to be finalised.

“Mrs Mills and Fishburn applied for 200 acres each, including the land that I applied for and had it granted my application for 60 acres is refused and I am alloted 20 acres. So that it appears that the law is attend at Mr OLeary pleasure though I have been applying for the land for four years another party can get it because they are rich people and that I am only a poor laboring man”

I found his remark about being a poor laboring man interesting. He had come from a wealthy family and later in 1884 would inherit several hundred pounds from his father. I still don’t know how he came to Australia but had assumed he had some financial means behind him, perhaps not as much as I thought.

There was a lot more to-ing and fro-ing in the file over the detail of if he was really living on the land (yes, he was) and if he had fenced the land as he was supposed to (no, because OLeary didn’t finalise the survey to tell him what the boundaries were). The frustration of all the parties – James, O’Leary and the department - is quite apparent.

The officials from the department note on the file:

“It is much to be regretted that Mr OLeary’s transactions with the department are productive of so much trouble and waste of time. A recurrence of a similar unnecessary delay will be visited by a recommendation to have Mr OLeary suspended from working selector’s surveys.”

All up, the land file is 103 pages long with documents from 1871 through to when James Bennett was finally able to purchase the 20 acres of land he had been leasing in 1881.


This post is based upon information contained in a land file for James Bennett in the parish of Bung Bong (5188/49.4), held at the Public Records Office of Victoria.


  1. What a find! I always enjoy discovering snippets of my ancestors' own words or handwriting. Do you now find yourself muttering 'well that was a most deliberate falsehood'?

  2. It's certainly a shame that James missed out on the larger block and had to settle for 20 acres. Definitely not a win-win situation...except perhaps for you. If they'd both been cooperative and compliant you might have got far fewer pages..a silver lining ;-)

    1. I can't help but think that about a lot of the documents we use! Death certificates, inquests... A pleasant uneventful year doesn't generate a lot of official documents!