To the people of Great Britain - where every inch of land had been owned and traded for centuries - it must have seemed incredible that settlers in the new colonies of Australia could simply trek into the bush, mark out a large parcel of land and claim ownership without reference to anyone else.
The British Government, which claimed all land in Australia, stepped in and tried several different ways to regulate the system of private land ownership.
These landowners, who farmed livestock instead of crops, became known as ‘squatters’. Not all were interested in holding huge areas of land, but some built large pastoral empires, running thousands of cattle and sheep, and becoming extremely rich.
A group of them joined together to establish a residential club to stay at when they came to Melbourne on business. The Melbourne Club was founded in 1839 and still exists today. Its members are considered to be some of the wealthiest, most powerful and most influential men in Australia (women are not admitted).
No body of men ever created so much wealth in so short a time. The squatter founded Melbourne whose history from first to last is unprecedented and unequalled in the annals of colonization.
– Edward Micklethwaite Curr
Curr, E M 1856 in Edmonds, P and Furphy, S (eds) 2006, Rethinking colonial histories: new and alternative approaches, Dept. of History, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Vic.
By the time gold was discovered, in 1851, squatters' properties took up almost every inch of usable land, leaving very little to be occupied by the rush of unsuccessful gold diggers. Resentment grew against the squatters' monopoly:
The great sheep-owner may have half a million of acres for nothing—may accumulate a hundred thousand pounds by selling wool and wethers [...] but [...] the man who comes here to create a home by his industry, and to aid in developing the resources of the country—is to be ignominiously driven away from it.
– The Argus
The Argus, 1 & 8 February 1853
This growing resentment led to the formation in 1857 of the ‘Land Convention', which began campaigning for land reform. It was successful, and 1860 saw the establishment of the Nicholson Land Act, which opened up squatters' land to anyone who could afford to buy it, and restricted the amount of land an individual could own.
Unfortunately, the Act wasn't very effective. With the help of ‘dummy' bidders, squatters could still purchase whatever land they required. They also used their knowledge of the land to buy up the best locations, leaving only infertile ground for farming.
However, despite their dubious methods of ensuring their own success, squatters had an enormous impact on Victoria's early economic expansion and development.