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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Lands and Survey Branches

In 1912 the Commonwealth established the Lands Branch under the direction of George Ryland. It had responsibility for administering Northern Territory lands, both town and rural. A Survey Branch, with Theo Day as Chief Surveyor, was also established. It was anticipated that Territory lands would be surveyed and then classified by the newly created Land Classification Board before being made available for leasing.1

The vast size of the Territory meant that surveys were limited and it was generally the case that for some time the Commonwealth remained ignorant of much of the Territory's lands and their value.

Wells' survey of the Territory, 1907

Some survey activity, however, had been carried out by South Australia. Following the occupation of pastoral lands in the north-west of the Territory during the early 1880s, much uncertainty existed among property managers about where their boundaries commenced and ended. This was known to cause friction and feuds, as the locations of waterholes, yards, out-stations, and favourable fattening portions of leases on large holdings were often disputed by contiguous leaseholders.

The South Australian Government appointed Lawrence Wells to undertake a trigonometrical survey to define the position of that portion of the Territory between Pine Creek on the Overland Telegraph Line, and the Western Australian border. Wells' survey expedition left Adelaide in September 1905 for Port Darwin, and from there by coastal steamer to the Victoria River landing some 100 kilometres from the mouth of the estuary. A depot was formed on the Wickham River close to Victoria River Downs station homestead. From here the work commenced, taking in the Victoria River Downs, Delamere and Willeroo properties to the confluence of the Fergusson and Edith Rivers, and the Katherine and Daly Rivers.

Wells returned to Adelaide early in 1908 to compile plans of the work done over the previous two years, before returning to the Territory later that year to complete the task of charting north-western pastoral leases. His expedition erected 71 trigonometrical beacons (trigs) and an area of about 32,000 square miles was mapped in three years.

Selected records relating to Wells' Survey of the Northern Territory
National Archives, Darwin
Book of correspondence compiled by L A Wells during his survey of the Northern Territory, 1905–08 E1649, volume 1
Correspondence and data relating to L A Wells expedition to the Northern Territory, 1905–08 E1650

World War I and the Great Depression meant that the Commonwealth undertook little survey work in the Territory. At the urging of Herbert Gepp, in 1934 steps were taken to mount an aerial, geological and geophysical survey of northern Australia. This involved the Commonwealth as well as Queensland and Western Australia. The work was undertaken by the Royal Australian Air Force, and continued in the Northern Territory until 1941. The survey resulted in a wealth of geological information, which proved of value to the mining industry.

At the end of World War II formal surveys of pastoral properties were needed prior to new leases being issued to meet the increased demand for rural land. Surveyors were in short supply, not just in the Territory but across the country. Therefore a class of cadet surveyor was created, with the idea that local administration staff would be apprenticed to a qualified surveyor, and trained by them. The first four cadet surveyors, appointed in 1949, included Vern O'Brien, who later became Director of Lands, and Peter Wells, who later became Northern Territory Surveyor-General.

Selected records relating to the Lands and Survey functions
National Archives, Darwin
Correspondence files – 'L' (Lands) prefix, 1975–79 E236
Northern Territory Archives Service
Correspondence files relating to land sales, reservations and townships, 1887–1949 NTRS3345
Correspondence files – 'L' (Lands) prefix, 1924–90 NTRS2500
National Archives, Darwin
Maps, plans, and charts regarding the survey function 1945–97 E1594
Field/level/survey books, 1960–97 E1552
Northern Territory Archives Service
Correspondence relating to surveys, 1884–1934 NTRS2660
Register of plans, reports and field books, 1912–15 NTRS2682
Correspondence files – 'S' (Survey) prefix, 1942–72 F649
National Archives, Canberra
Minutes of meetings – Northern Territory Land Board, 1925–38 A1, 1938/1181
Northern Territory Archives Service
Land Classification Board – Minute book, 1912–24 NTRS2821
Land Board [I] Minute book, 1924–27 NTRS2668


Chapter notes | All notes

1 The history of the Lands and Survey Branches in the Northern Territory has been researched by Geoffrey Helyar, They Led the Way: A Short Account of the Lands and Survey Department of the Northern Territory, 1869–1978 (Darwin, 1990).


Chapter 9
Primary Industries