A Brief History of Land Grants – a Story Map

You may have heard me discuss my StoryMap recently and want a closer look. The link is http://arcg.is/1RIwnNB

I’ve been very busy over the last few weeks, pulling together a paper for the Australian Historical Association conference in July and having quite a lot of fun learning how to use Esri’s Story Map application. I use a program called ArcGIS for my mapping, and could connect the data from that into this online system. The result is an interactive and (hopefully) fun set of maps and illustrations that tell the basic tale of European settlement in Van Diemen’s Land.

This represents work in progress, and I may update it or complete redo it later on, but at this stage I’m hoping it demonstrates (a) what I do (b) how cool maps are for history (c) some history!

Unfortunately I can’t embed the page here, but you’ll find it at http://arcg.is/1RIwnNB

TAHO - AF396/1/250

Different times, different worlds

Next week I’m running a short workshop as part of the university’s school open days, looking at setting up a colony. There will be First Fleet Bingo and an activity looking at what we prioritise in the world around us. This post is written as part of preparation, as I work through the activities.


You are in the world. A real land, with real places and, more importantly for the purposes of this piece, real landmarks. I don’t mean Mount Wellington or Big Ben type landmarks, I mean day to day landmarks you use to navigate. The spot you cross the road because that side is definitely steeper than this one. The bus stop you push yourself to run to before collapsing to a slow crawl, the pothole you correct your steering for before its even visible. They mark your process from A to B, and passing them gives you a message about your journey – you’re halfway there, keep an eye out for that steep hill coming up.

These landmarks tell us a lot about what we pay attention to, what is important as we move from place to place. A map of my journey (by foot) from home to work shows the friendly cat, the sustenance stop, the steep hill, the weird house, and the massive detour that is somehow the most direct route.



These are apparently the things my subconscious notices every time I walk along this route. They’re the things that are important to me. And I’m sure you could tell a lot about an individual from this kind of map. But not only individuals.

Maps reveal what is important to societies or groups. That’s not news, it’s obvious when you think about it. But they also reveal what is important to those people at that point of time. My landmark map has very different priorities to the first map of a British settlement in Van Diemen’s Land.

Historic Plan 10 - 'sketch of the settlement around Hobart and the Derwent in Van Diemens Land' - AF395_1_8.jpg

Risdon Cove Settlement, 1803 – TAHO AF395/1/8

Living in a 21st century city, I don’t need to note the marshy ground, or the soil qualities. Where I buy a hot chocolate on a cold dull day is far more important than where I can plant the wheat that will ensure my survival.

New Norfolk to Huon - AF395_1_47

These early maps of the Van Diemen’s Land settlements reveal a lot about the important elements of establishing a viable colony. Soils, drainage, river access, ground cover, topography, these were the priorities of explorers looking for lands to colonise and exploit.

Back to Earth

Do you ever look at the ground beneath your feet, in a built up suburban area, and ask ‘why was this spot chosen?’ How much attention do you pay to the soil in your garden compared to the soil in your favourite national park, or your rural weekend getaway? For the vast majority of us, I suspect the answer is ‘not much’. Those of us who aren’t farmers, who don’t grow things for a living, who don’t professionally engage with the earth that holds us up, have no reason to pay attention to it.

But we are products of our time, when we buy our vegetables from the supermarket rather than grow them. This has not always been the way.

One of my research questions looks at how the different stages of settlers in Van Diemen’s Land chose their plots of land. They lived in a time that knew about soils and land use, and this shows in the settlement patterns. So I need to understand about the soils and their different uses. One of my current tasks is to wrangle data about soil types, to show the correlations between different periods of land granting and the possible land uses.


An interesting finding coming out of my research is that there were clear stages of land settlement in Van Diemen’s land, each with its own pattern. I’m working on definitions and parameters, but the differences revolve largely around who was getting the land, what they were planning on using it for, and how they gained the land. This isn’t entirely surprising – if history were into creating hypotheses this would have been there, but it is exciting to see it clearly laid down on a map.

So now I’m playing with layers of soil maps and land grants. The image here is a small snippet of the soils around New Norfolk, and looking at it I could tell you approximately when and to which group the land was first alienated. The next task is to work out what defines and distinguishes each region, and track that pattern across Van Diemen’s Land.

Pinterest of Old

Part of my research time is spent looking through colonial surveyors’ journals and logbooks, for clues about landscape details. Sometimes they’re digitised, so I can peruse with a cuppa and biscuit, in the comfort of my office. Other times they’re in the archives, where cups of tea are less welcome. I always enjoy their eclectic nature though. Today I’ve been flicking through the surveyor Thomas Scott’s 1820s notebook. I like to imagine this is the 19th century equivalent of Pinterest, where anything that caught his attention is marked. From sketches of churches and bridges, to a map of Stirling, a notice about wool sales, a design and costing of a phaeton (carriage), and drafted surveys, all that’s missing are a few pages of hats and ways to cook a possum.
Ye Olde Pinterest

New Knowledge

I am now on the research/networking/meeting/training circuit, this week in Lancaster for a summer school. But more of that in a moment.

I spent last week in Sydney at the Australian Historical Association conference. I gave a paper that was well received, but more importantly I heard a great number of interesting talks and met a lot of people at different stages of research (both academic and professional) from across Australia. I’m still digesting a lot of the talks, but some immediate questions were raised as points triggered thoughts on my own research.

One of the most practical sessions I went to was by the ‘Thesis Whisperer’, about writing a journal article in seven days. I walked away wanting to sit down and get writing, and that feeling has lasted into this week. Hopefully it will continue until I get some spare moments. A few other people were talking about Van Diemen’s Land and /or colonial Australia, looking at topics from environmental consciousness in old photography, the use of Aboriginal workers on early mainland grants, and the emotional responses to the landscape. The range of topics forced me to think outside the parameters my research has quite accidentally taken, and challenging me to look through some different lenses at the questions that are arising. I have been musing on my thesis structure, and am now convinced that it will be important to talk about the shifting perceptions of the landscape throughout my study period. It would be very easy to forget to include the people as individuals beyond their land ownership/loss, but that story might make my thesis actually interesting! Plus it’s an important question!

One of the fantastic things of the AHA conference was the diversity of topics. There were only a few of us looking at alternative methods, but there is definitely a growing awareness of the importance of flexibility and cross-discipline skills in historical research.

And that point is exactly what brings me to my next stop on this grand tour. I’m now at Lancaster University in the UK, at a summer school on corpus methods in the humanities. I always keep an eye on what the spatial humanities department at Lancaster is doing, and this course came up a few months ago. The GIS in Humanities course largely covers what I already know, but this Corpus Methods course sounded like it might have some use. I’d not heard of corpus linguistics before, although by reading a little about it I could see that it as something I have encountered, just without any label. As a free course that would be running right when I planned to be in the UK, it seemed like a pretty good opportunity to pick up some new methods. So here I am for the next week, causing a little confusion because it isn’t immediately apparent how it will have relevance to my research. 

Today has been focussed on basics – what is corpus linguistics, one of the basic uses, and a plenary about its use in a large healthcare project. Later in the week it will become more specialised, as the humanities stream is separated from the social science one. I’m hoping that these methods will help me to look at the changing attitudes about the land, or fill in some of my information gaps, or even just help me to think differently about approaching and reading sources, with an awareness of the semantics and language used. 

Australian Historical Association program 2015

Over the coming week I’ll be starting to tweet with the hastag OzHA2015, as I attend the Australian Historical Association Conference in Sydney. The program looks amazing, with five days completely packed with speakers covering topics from ‘Working/Housewife: Diverging Womaness” (Shirley Daborn, Tuesday 11:30) to “‘Us colonials through German eyes’: Convict transportation and the Nazi Gaze” (James Findlay, Thursday 11:30) to “History as place-making” (Laila Ellmoos, Friday 11:00). And that’s not to mention all the other bits and pieces on offer. I’m really looking forward to meeting other postgrads from around the country – it’s very exciting to see the diversity in research themes and researcher backgrounds.

The general topic this year is Foundational Histories, and you can see that across the titles with a strong focus on themes of Australia’s change over time.

You’ll find the complete program at http://sydney.edu.au/arts/history/docs/aha2015/AHA_Program_Final.pdf, keep an eye out for Wednesday 9:00 😉


“The potatoes of Van Diemen’s Land, especially those that are grown on lighter soils, are fully equal to the best potatoes of English growth, and yield very abundant returns.”

– John Bigge, Report of Commissioner of Inquiry, on the State of Agriculture and Trade in New South Wales, 1823, p.25

Never get between a Tasmanian and their potatoes.

In 1819 John Bigge was commissioned to investigate the state of the New South Wales colony (which at that time included Van Diemen’s Land), to ascertain where it was headed and what the British Government should be doing/expect. After slamming almost all agricultural pursuits in and around Hobart Town, he begrudgingly approves of the potatoes. This was a time of very firm ideas about farming practices, so it isn’t really surprising to find such an examination disapproving of the rudimentary techniques used by the Europeans, and therefore disparaging of the results. Bigge lays most of the blame at the feet of the unskilled workers and ignores the shortage of equipment and alien nature of the landscape. Quite frankly, I’d like to see him pick up a patched hoe and do better.

Job satisfaction

During the Easter break I was asked to talk to the Derwent Branch of the Fellowship of First Fleeters about land grants in Van Diemen’s Land. I spoke briefly about the different land administration systems, from the two districts of Buckinghamshire and Continue reading