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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Annexation of the Northern Territory to South Australia

On 6 July 1863 Queen Victoria signed the Letters Patent that formally annexed what had previously been a nameless part of New South Wales as the Northern Territory of South Australia.5 The document defined and named the area, laid the legal basis for government, and ensured that the Territory's citizens had the same rights to political representation as other South Australians.

Northern Territory Act 1863

The South Australian Government proposed to hold the first land sales in 1864 and drafted a Bill that was debated in some haste to ensure its passage in the 1863 Parliamentary session, the first sitting after the Letters Patent arrived in the colony. The Bill was duly passed and became known as the Northern Territory Act 1863.

The legislation provided for the regulation and disposal of wastelands in the Northern Territory, but it did not address the question of land settlement, nor direct any revenue to Territory development. The South Australian Parliament held the view that the Territory must pay for itself and, at least at first, this actually happened.

The 1863 Act expedited the siting and surveying of a principal town in the Territory, contingent upon the arrival of the Government Resident, who would be the administration's principal representative. The town would be known as Palmerston (after the British Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston), and would be mapped out in half-acre lots.

Land sales commenced on 1 March 1864 and speculators in Adelaide and London acquired most of it, sight unseen. In just six months a total of 250,000 acres (100,000 hectares) were sold, a welcome if temporary boost to Government revenue. The records from this period consist of a series of volumes that record the registration of applications and payment of fees.

Selected Records Relating to the 1864 Land Sales
National Archives, Darwin
Colonial applications for land in the Northern Territory received in Adelaide, 1864 E1626
Register of applications for land in the Northern Territory received in Adelaide, 1864 E1627
Letters of allotment for applications of land in the Northern Territory received in Adelaide, 1864 E1628
English applications for land in the Northern Territory received in London, 1864 E1629
Memorandum of deposit for land applications (London), 1864 E1630
Registers of applications (London), 1864 E1631
Signed receipts for preliminary land orders (Adelaide), 1864 E1632
Numerical list of preliminary land orders issued in the Northern Territory (Adelaide), 1864 E1633

Establishing the Northern Territory's principal town

The Northern Territory Act 1863 and the 1864 land sales were both predicated on a rapid survey of the Territory and the establishment of the town of Palmerston so that the allocation of land titles could proceed. The survey, however, proved more difficult than originally anticipated.

Boyle Travers Finniss led the first survey in 1864.6 He was appointed as Government Resident and placed in charge of a large party, with the principal goal of surveying a suitable site for Palmerston. Yet his party had not actually left Adelaide when the 1864 land sales were held. It was several months before their journey to the Territory began, and they had set up their base camp and initiated exploratory parties to report on the nature of the country.

A salubrious climate was considered essential to the new settlement, and Finniss was instructed to avoid swamps, mud banks, and landlocked harbours. The site nominated for Palmerston was Escape Cliffs, near the entrance to Adelaide River (about 58 kilometres northeast of present day Darwin), where the expedition was to commence its survey. The party arrived at Escape Cliffs late in June 1864; however, it failed to find a suitable site.

A year after Finniss' arrival in the Territory only one-tenth of the amount of land already sold during the 1864 sales was surveyed and the expedition was recalled at the end of 1865. Disgruntled buyers began legal action while the Government sought ways to meet its obligations under the sale contracts. Litigation continued until 1873 and cost the South Australian Government more than £73,000 in compensation.

Northern Territory Amendment Act 1868

To appease prospective land purchasers, the South Australian Parliament passed the Northern Territory Amendment Act in 1868. The Act is sometimes referred to as the Strangways Act after H B T Strangways who formed a Ministry on 5 November 1868 and attempted to reconcile South Australia's rival parties on land reform issues.

The Act enabled holders of preliminary land orders to either apply for a refund of their money or an increased acreage of land. Once again, offers could be made in Adelaide or London. Some land holders doubled the area of land to which they were entitled. Yet not everyone was appeased; in April 1870 a disgruntled purchaser from London wrote to the South Australian administration angrily demanding:

What do you mean to do with the dead men whose money you took in 1864? Do you mean to offer them your land in their graves or invite their executors to go out and settle in some of the northern swamps and cultivate some of the scrub that is so much eulogised?7

To remedy the situation the Government despatched George Goyder, who was now the South Australian Surveyor-General, in 1869 and allowed him to select his own site for the Territory's main township.8 He chose Port Darwin (basically the site of present day Darwin), and his survey camp became the nucleus of the town. Within six months Goyder and his team had surveyed 665,000 acres (269,000 hectares) of town and country lands.

Following Goyder's survey, and with settlers arriving in the Territory, the long awaited ballots for the choice of allotments could finally take place, as originally specified in the 1863 Act. Applications had to be lodged with the Crown Lands Office in Adelaide before 10 May 1870. A series of ballots took place that same month.

The records from this period consist of a series of volumes that record the registration of applications, payment of fees, requests for additional allocation of lands or refund of purchase fees, and the awarding of land titles. The allocation of land titles was recorded in the 'Grant Books'.

Selected Records Relating to Land Purchase Under Amended Legislation and 1870 Land Ballots
National Archives, Darwin
Applications for increased area of land under the Northern Territory Amendment Act 1868 (Adelaide register), 1869–72 E1634
Applications for increased area of land under the Northern Territory Amendment Act 1868 (London register), 1869–72 E1635
Register of requests for refund of purchase money under the Northern Territory Amendment Act 1868 (London register), 1869–70 E1636
Register of Northern Territory plans deposited in the South Australian Land Office, 1869–1910 E1625
Register of ballots for priority of choice in selection of country sections of land in the Northern Territory, 1870 E1637
Registers recording order of choice in the selection of town and country land in the Northern Territory, 1870 E1638
Register of selections of sections of land following the ballot of May 1870, 1870–73 E1639
Register of Northern Territory land orders (Adelaide register), 1870–83 E1640
Register of Northern Territory land orders (London register), 1870–83 E1641
Registers of grants of land in the Northern Territory arising from the original land orders (Grant Books), 1870–1914 E1642

With the selection of Palmerston as the capital, and the appointment of William Douglas as Government Resident in 1870, South Australia's administration of the Northern Territory could now begin in earnest. Robert Gardiner, a senior surveyor and draftsman in the State Survey Department of South Australia, was appointed officer-in-charge of the Palmerston Lands Office in 1870. His first task was to sort out the ballot for the surveyed sections of land surrounding Palmerston, and then to allocate the town sections that had been the subject of the 1864 and 1868 land orders. Following this, titles were issued through the Adelaide Survey Office from 1871 and thereafter.

Other administrative agencies were established from 1869 onwards, including a meteorological observatory, police inspector's office, and medical office. With the development of mining, and following a series of gold discoveries, a Chief Warden's Office was established in 1873. Regional police stations were also established from 1873 onwards.

One of the Government's earliest priorities was the construction of an overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Palmerston. In 1865 it had approved the construction of a telegraph line from Adelaide to Port Augusta. In 1870 the Government agreed to fund a continuation of the line to Palmerston, while the British–Australian Telegraph Company agreed to provide a cable from an existing connection at Java to Palmerston. The Australian component of the work was completed in August 1872 and the first messages were sent in October 1872. The residents of Palmerston were now in contact with the United Kingdom as well as the southern colonies of Australia.9

Selected Records of Early Government Administration in Darwin
National Archives, Sydney
Rainfall and river height observations, 1869–ongoing E1680
National Archives, Darwin
Rainfall record book, Northern Territory and South Australia, 1857–1920 NTAC1976/110
Meteorological register for Fort Point, Palmerston (Adams Bay), and Powells Creek, 1869–1907 NTAC1976/106
Rainfall records, Northern Territory recording stations, 1869–1976 NTAC1980/351
Field books, Port Darwin, 1884–1907 NTAC1976/108
State Records of South Australia
Records relating to the construction of the overland telegraph line, 1870–72 GRG154
Northern Territory Archives Service
Souvenir poster of a letter regarding completion of the British–Australian telegraph line, undated NTRS798


Chapter notes | All notes

5 The original document is held by State Records of South Australia; SRSA Adelaide: GRG224/31.

6 Finniss kept a diary recording events relating to the survey; State Records of South Australia: GRG35/637.

7 NAA: E1636, Register of requests for refund of purchase money under the Northern Territory Amendment Act 1868 (London register), 1869–70.

8 Goyder kept a diary which recorded events relating to the survey; State Records of South Australia: GRG35/655.

9 John McDouall Stuart's exploration of the Northern Territory, and the subsequent construction of the overland telegraph line, was the subject of a documentary entitled A Wire Through the Heart shown on ABC television in 2007.


Chapter 1
The Northern Territory of South Australia, 1863-1911