From the start of the decade, the efforts by goldminers and settlers to convince the colonial governments to 'unlock the land' and allow small blocks to be farmed had gathered momentum. There was a belief that the rich squatters (landed gentry) had a monopoly over farmable land and overtly prevented 'selectors' or small-scale farmers from becoming landowners and independent farmers. In Victoria the lower house of Parliament, the Legislative Assembly, passed controversial Land Acts, which were then blocked by the squatters in the Legislative Council. The distribution of land became a political issue. The squatters, who were wealthy and had large sheep or cattle stations, acted to protect their power and influence. Many squatters had taken vacant Crown land when first establishing their stations, often outside the limits or boundaries of settlement drawn up by the government. They then held the land on 14-year leases granted by the government. The Legislative Council passed the Acts after they had been significantly amended.
The Victorian Nicholson Land Act passed in 1860 specified the sale of two types of land: 'special' land bought at auction, and land that was to be made available for selection after the land had been surveyed. In regional areas people could select allotments sized between 37 and 300 hectares. The legislation allocated 1,214,050 hectares of land to be made available for selection in the one year, but the legislation prevented selectors from buying more than one allotment per year. This legislation was to prevent people buying large areas of land. Over the next few years this Act was revised and more land was released for selection.
Gradually, New South Wales and South Australia followed Victoria's example and opened up land to small landholders. In 1861, the Robertson Land Act 1861 (NSW) provided free selection before survey and enabled selectors to take up land for mixed farming and grazing areas. The squatters tried to block the buying of land by selectors. They used techniques such as 'peacocking' whereby the squatters paid 'dummies' to purchase the most fertile parts, particularly those areas with water, thus blocking the genuine selectors from obtaining good land. The 'dummy' purchaser would then sell the land to the squatter after one year, which was the minumum time the purchaser needed to own and farm the land before selling it.
Pegging out at midnight, under the Land Act 1869
(State Library of Victoria, IAN01/08/88/supp/17, wood engraving by Samuel Calvert)