Group VRG 7
Police Magistrate, Port Phillip District
About this Group Related Agencies Related Functions
Date Range: 1836 - 1839
Description of this GroupDescription of this Group
Establishment of Port Phillip District

The Port Phillip District was established as part of the Colony of New South Wales in 1836 after two early attempts at settlement were abandoned (see VRG 1 Port Phillip Penal Establishment 1803-1804 and VRG 2 Western Port Establishment 1826-1828). Earlier exploration had revealed pastoral potential, while sealers and whalers had established coastal settlements. In the early 1830's they were joined by pastoralists such as the Hentys, Batman and Fawkner. Under Batman's leadership, the pastoralists formed the Port Phillip Association to urge the British and New South Wales Governments to establish an official settlement (records of the Port Phillip Association are to be found in the State Library of Victoria). By the mid-1830's about two hundred Europeans had settled in the area.

On 9 September 1836 Sir Richard Bourke, Governor of New South Wales issued a proclamation authorising settlement of the Port Phillip District. Captain William Lonsdale was appointed Police Magistrate of the District on 14 September 1836 (New South Wales Government Gazette).

NOTE: All civil, administrative and judicial functions for the 1836-1839 period have been grouped under VRG 7 Police Magistrate, Port Phillip District, unless an agency clearly belongs to one of the categories covered by a Non-Ministerial Group - VRG 4 Courts, VRG 5 Cemeteries, VRG 8 Health and Welfare Agencies, VRG 9 Prisons and Youth Training Centres, VRG 10 Police, VRG 24 Educational Institutions, VRG 27 District Land Offices.

For information about the structure of government in the Colony of New South Wales at the time when the Port Phillip District was established, see VRG 17 Executive.

Duties of Police Magistrate

Lonsdale was responsible to the Governor of New South Wales for the general administration of government in the District, fulfilling the role of head of the civil service establishment. He also undertook the normal duties of a New South Wales District Police Magistrate relating to supervision of the local constabulary, the administration of justice and liquor licensing (see also VRG 4 Courts and VRG 10 Police). His civil instruction of 14 September 1836 from the New South Wales Colonial Secretary (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 1, pp.49-54) set out his duties, including a census of the population and "protection of Aborigines".:

It will be one of your most important duties to protect the Aboriginal natives of the District from any manner of wrong, and to endeavour to conciliate them by kind treatment and presents... ..and to improve by all practicable means their moral and social condition.

William Buckley was to be employed "as the medium of communication with them" (p.53).

Lonsdale was charged with general oversight of survey and customs officers with authority to act for the Governor of New South Wales and to report on the performance of survey and customs duties, although survey and customs officers also dealt directly with the Surveyor-General and Collector of Customs in Sydney.

Lonsdale also had general superintendence responsibility for the following embryonic functions:
police administration and prisons
ports and harbours
post offices
public works
trade and customs.

He was required to report monthly in confidence to the Governor of New South Wales.


Lonsdale's instructions on the "protection of Aborigines" included directions to investigate earlier violence and killings. As settlement encroached further into tribal land, attacks by dispossessed Aborigines, counter-attacks and killings became more frequent. Attempts by Lonsdale, his military forces and constabulary to deal with the situation were ineffective. In the meantime in Britain a House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines (1835-1837) was established (extracts from its final report of 26 June 1837 are included in Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 2A, pp.62-69) and the British Government, advised by Sir George Arthur, devised the Protectorate Scheme. General questions about policies to be adopted towards the Aborigines were debated in London, Sydney and Melbourne, while in reality local officials were unable to deal with the appalling effects of colonisation on the Aboriginal population and the Aborigines were frequently subjected to brutal treatment by their would-be "protectors".

During the period 1836 to 1839 several abortive attempts were made to establish a Native Police Corps - from October 1837 to early 1839 under C.L.J. Villiers and in late 1839 under the Chief Protector - and a Government Mission, located on the south bank of the Yarra, under Anglican George Langhorne from early 1837 to October 1839. (For details see Historical Records of Victoria, Volumes 2A and 2B).

Chief Protector George Robinson and three assistants were appointed in late 1838 arriving in Port Phillip in early 1839 to establish a Protectorate there (NSW Government Gazette, 12 December 1838 (VA 512)). Lonsdale was advised that he had no authority over Robinson, who reported directly to Governor Gipps and the Colonial Secretary in Sydney, except for the exercise of control over matters of expenditure and to supply provisions (Colonial Secretary to Lonsdale, 11 December 1838, Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 2B,p.391). Robinson proceeded to allot districts to his Assistants and to issue directions relating to a census of the Aboriginal population, to a rationing and supply system, and to the maintenance of order and the control of disease (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 2B, pp.451-452).

NOTE: For a brief history of the administration of policy and programs relating to Aborigines in Victoria, see VRG 58 Aboriginal Affairs.


Lonsdale undertook a census immediately on arrival, reporting a European population of just over two hundred. A detailed census was held in Melbourne in March 1838 and a general census of Port Phillip in September 1838. At the end of 1839, the population was reported to be five thousand. Details of the Melbourne and general census are recorded in Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 3.

Crown Lands and Survey

Unlicensed occupation at Port Phillip was one of the major concerns of the new administration, and revenue from land sales was to be the District's main source of funding. A Port Phillip Branch of the Surveyor-General's Department of New South Wales was established in late September 1836, headed at first by Robert Russell and later by Robert Hoddle who was to become the Crown Colony of Victoria's first Surveyor General in 1851 (see VA 943). Surveys conducted by the Branch resulted by 1839 in the sale of 86,000 acres of land, raising 117,000 pounds in revenue. Hoddle also produced plans for the Town of Melbourne during this early period.

Hoddle, Russell and his three assistants were also appointed Commissioners of Crown Lands to regulate the use of crown lands under licence and prevent illicit use and trespass (see also VRG 27 District Land Offices).

Finance and Revenue Collection

In December 1838, Sub-Collector of Customs Webb also became responsible for the collection of other revenue, including that from land sales, and was appointed Sub-Collector of Internal Revenue and Sub-Treasurer (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 4, p.69).

Liquor Licensing

Under the Act 8 Wm IV, No.8 (1837) the granting of licences was to be a judicial proceeding. Applicants for liquor licensing were to be heard at General Annual Licensing Meetings attended by a minimum of three justices of the peace within a District. The justices presiding were empowered to grant or refuse certificates authorising the issue of a licence. Certificates and fees were then to be lodged with the Collector of Internal Revenue, or in the Port Phillip District, with an officer appointed by the Governor. Corresponding with the general supervisory and revenue collection duties of the office, Lonsdale was authorised, in September 1837, to issue and register licences for the sale and supply of liquor (at this point publicans' licences) in lieu of the Colonial Treasurer in Sydney (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 4, p.401). It appears from the records that prior to this date Lonsdale was carrying out this function without authorisation. Licences issued prior to September 1837 were later validated.

Lonsdale's duties as a Police Magistrate also encompassed the judicial proceedings for the granting of liquor licences. Early certificates issued to Melbourne's first publicans bear his signature as Police Magistrate presiding (Historical Records of Victoria, Vol.4. pp.394, 395).

By mid 1839 the power to issue licences had been delegated to the Superintendent, Port Phillip District (VRG 11) (Historical Records of Victoria, Vol.4. p.415).

For a more detailed account of the history of this aspect of liquor licensing see VRG 23 Treasurer.

For a brief history of liquor licensing see VRG 4 Courts for 1836-1968 and VRG 82 Industry, Technology and Resources for 1968 ct.


Temporary arrangements were made for a Government surgeon until the appointment of Patrick Edward Cussen as Assistant Colonial Surgeon for Port Phillip in September 1837. A seven bed hospital and dispensary provided the only facilities until the establishment of a small general hospital in Melbourne in 1841. (See also Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 3).


The expansion of sheep-raising and the rapid growth of Melbourne and Geelong produced a demand for immigrant labour. (The supply of convict labour from Sydney was suspended in 1839). Government funded assisted immigration schemes, using the proceeds from the sale of crown land and involving the payment of a bounty to settlers who sponsored immigrants and provided employment, were extended to Port Phillip in 1839. Meanwhile in 1835 a British Government appointed Emigration Agent in London began to supervise the selection of applicants and arrangements for their passage. Seven ships of assisted migrants arrived in 1839 at Port Phillip, the first two via Sydney. The Emigration Agent also organised immigrants for ly funded schemes, including that sponsored by the Australian Emigration Association. The Police Magistrate, receiving directions from the Emigration Agent in London (see Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 4, letter of 15 December 1838, pp.279-284), was responsible for certifying arrivals, reporting on their treatment during the voyage, disposing of immigrants on arrival, providing rations and accommodation for those not immediately placed, and gathering information on the demand for immigrant labour. Although under instructions from New South Wales Governor Gipps and the Colonial Secretary that there was to be no permanent expenditure allocated to the immigration function, Lonsdale strongly urged a permanent "emigrant establishment" for Melbourne to receive and dispose of migrants.

NOTE: For a brief history of the administration of immigration from 1836 to 1983, see VRG 68 Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.

Ports and Harbours

During 1836 - 1839 Port Phillip Bay was accurately charted, the first buoys installed, the first bay pilot, George Tobin, licensed and work on wharf facilities commenced. Captain William Hobson and his officers from HMS Rattlesnake first surveyed the bay in 1836, producing charts and sailing directions, which were subsequently printed for sale, and proposing a system of lighthouses, beacons and buoys. A second survey was undertaken in late 1838 by Commander John Wickham of HMS Beagle. (For details, see Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 4).

Under Superintendent La Trobe the first Harbourmaster, C.M. Lewis, and more pilots were appointed, a light installed at Point Gellibrand in 1840 and at Queenscliff between 1841 and 1843.

Postal Services

On Lonsdale's arrival, he took official charge of seaborne and overland mails. From late 1836 Customs Officer Webb acted as Postmaster. From March 1837 a number of Postmasters combined this role with other duties until August 1839 when the first full-time Postmaster for Melbourne was appointed, the number of letters having increased from 2,500 in 1837 to 40,000 in 1839. By 1841 a Post Office was completed, located on the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke Streets, earlier operations having been carried out from the residences or places of business of the part-time Postmasters.

Public Works

The first public works and road-building were undertaken by convict labourers, overseen by the military detachment responsible for guarding them. The first Clerk of Works was appointed in mid-1837, the first Overseer of Roads in September. Plans for the settlement's early permanent buildings, including the Customs House, Survey Office, Post Office, Police Office and official residences were prepared by the Colonial Architect in Sydney, but the Clerk of Works took detailed direction in overseeing the works from Lonsdale. Other early buildings included a barracks, hospital, schoolhouse and prison. Lighthouse installation and wharf facilities were also the responsibility of the Clerk of Works. (See also Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 4).

Trade and Customs

The establishment of trade and customs control was an immediate priority. Together with land sales revenue, trade and customs duties were a major revenue source with receipts increasing from 329 pounds in 1836 to 11,450 pounds in 1839.

The first Customs Officer (later Sub-Collector), Robert Webb, appointed on 9September 1836 (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 4, pp.37-38), and a Tidewaiter (to board and search ships coming in on the tide) arrived on the Stirlingshire. Detailed instructions, including directions regarding Lonsdale's role of general superintendence, were given by the Colonial Secretary and the Collector of Customs in Sydney, J.G.N. Gibbes, on 13 and 21 September 1836 (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 4, pp.38-39). Planning commenced in September 1837 for a Customs House in Melbourne and building was completed in 1841. By 1851 it had to be replaced by a larger facility.

Lonsdale's Military Role

Lonsdale was also appointed commander of a detachment of troops of the 4th King's Own Regiment and instructed to establish barracks for the troops on his arrival at Port Phillip (see also VRG 3 Armed Forces). His initial military instructions were set out in a despatch from William Hunter on 12 September 1836 (Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 1, p.46).

Appointment of Superintendent

Following the appointment of a Superintendent for the Port Phillip District on 26March 1836 (see VRG 11), the duties of the Police Magistrate, Port Phillip District, were restricted to responsibility for the local constabulary and local magisterial functions in Melbourne, and the position was retitled Police Magistrate, Melbourne. In the meantime, Police Magistrates were being appointed in other Districts, Captain Foster Fyans taking up duty in Geelong in late 1837 (see VRG 4 Courts and VRG 10 Police).

Location of Records

Significant holdings of the Police Magistrate's Group, except for early survey maps, are held at the Public Record Office of Victoria. However, as until separation from New South Wales in 1851, on many issues government officials dealt directly with or referred matters to their parent offices in Sydney, their records are found today duplicated in the Archives Office of New South Wales. In some cases the New South Wales records are the only extant archives. The records of the British administration are also of vital importance for this period. For more information on British and New South Wales records, see VRG 11 Superintendent Port Phillip District.

See List of Holdings 2nd Edition 1985, section 3.6.2 (Lands), 3.10.0 (Immigration), 3.16.0 (Police Magistrate), 3.18.2 (Inquests, Survey, Registration), 16.5.0 (Aboriginal Affairs), 16.6.0 (Customs).

Other InformationOther Information
Agencies within this GroupAgencies within this Group
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Date within Group Agency Title Agency Number Agency Hierarchy
1836 - 1839 Police Magistrate Port Phillip District VA 472 Dept. of State
1836 - 1839 Surveyor General's Department, Port Phillip Branch (also known as the Melbourne Survey Office) VA 943 Sub Department
Functions related to this GroupFunctions related to this Group
Display entries per page
Date within Group Function Title Function Number
- 1839 Supervision of local constabulary VF 2
- 1839 Census and statistics VF 3
- 1839 Finance VF 5
- 1839 General superintendence VF 6
- 1839 Immigration (nineteenth century) VF 8
- 1839 Police VF 10
- 1839 Ports and harbours VF 11
- 1839 Postal services VF 12
- 1839 Prisons and youth training centres VF 13
- 1839 Buildings, government (design and construction) VF 14
- 1839 Roads and bridges VF 15
- 1839 Survey VF 17
- 1839 Health, public VF 125
- 1839 Aboriginal affairs VF 175
- 1839 Courts administration VF 297
- 1839 Liquor licences, issue and registration of VF 302
- 1839 Crown lands (public) VF 309
- 1839 Crown lands (government) VF 310