Pushed for a Royal Commission ... JW Cheek: Picture Here

We don’t hear the word “dummying” anymore, but in 1910 land dummying was a big issue for the Tasmanian people.  A Royal Commission had been called into the actions of the Tasmanian Lands Department and the alleged turning a blind eye to dummying in various areas of the state.

Dummying involved the selection of Crown land using an agent or a nominee who would then hold the land in his or her name.  This technique was used to allow the real “owner” of the land to remain invisible and allowed some purchasers to overcome land laws which limited the amount of land a single purchaser could acquire from Crown Lands.

Land dummying was rife in all colonial societies as large tracts of Government lands were opened up for settlement.  Dummying was particularly problematic in the US and Australia as railway expansion opened up large areas for selection.

In Tasmania under the 1890 Crown Lands Act the amount of land that could be selected by an individual was 320 acres.  While one reason for this limitation was to ensure that there were many individuals and prospective taxpayers taking up land rather than a few monopolists, there was another reason for this restriction relating to road transport.

If large landholdings were allowed to develop they could effectively “lock up” land in the hinterland away from further settlement because of the cost of providing roads around large holdings. If all land holdings were only 320 acres then the sale of the land along with effective road building could be more effectively organized.

A book or pamphlet produced by T Alfred Stephenson in 1907 called The Peril of the Empire about land dummying on King Island provided the impetus for several years of anti dummying feeling in Tasmania.

Stephenson was concerned in particular about the dummying occurring on King Island by the firm of Stephenson and Gunn and well known identity and member of the Closer Settlement Board, W F Von Bibra. Despite the strict provisions limiting land selection to 320 acres, Stephenson and Gunn had accumulated holdings of some18,000 acres on the island while Von Bibra was said to have accumulated some 5,000 acres of former Crown land. 

There could have been some element of bad feeling which led to Stephenson’s crusade as he was the brother of one of the partners of Stephenson and Gunn and had also been in the employ or the partnership at one time. Thomas Gunn, Stephenson’s partner, was a member of the Launceston timber merchant family. 

Stephenson ignited a raft of public opinion against dummying which led to Legislative Councillor, the Hon JW Cheek seeking and obtaining a Royal Commission into the activities of the Lands Department, in particular how they were dealing with land dummying.

Harold Crisp, a Hobart legal identity, was appointed as Commissioner and the public was pleased that the matter would be aired.  The North West Advocate and Emu Bay Times congratulated Cheek on pursuing the matter and opined on October 5 1909.

Too often in Tasmania the general course when an irregularity is discovered is to hush the matter up and make as little of it as possible.1

Cheek’s investigations had revealed that the Lands Department was aware of the accumulation of selections by Gunn and Stephenson as recorded in the valuation rolls showed that Messrs Stephenson and Gunn occupied 75 blocks “whilst only in 3 instances did the blocks appear in the firm’s name, the other lots being in the names of numerous people and entered on the assessment roll as “care of Stephenson and Gunn” and those persons, it was alleged, were dummies”.2

Indeed a highlight of the Royal Commission was that Thomas Gunn, Stephenson’s partner admitted openly that the firm had used dummies.  According to an account in the Mercury, Gunn told the Commission:

The firm wanted a fairly large area for its operations but the Act limited it to 320 acres. They, therefore, took up land in the names of members of their family and their employees.3

Gunn added that he had paid some of the application and survey fees and many times these had been paid in cash and not by cheque.  The application forms had been signed by nominees. As Gunn was a member of the Launceston timber milling family a considerable number of the King Island selections ended up being “owned” by Launceston residents.

However not all employees knew that they had land taken up in their names.  One witness said at the Royal Commission that a Mrs Goldby, who was in the employ of Stephenson and Gunn, only found out that land had been taken up in her name when she decided to go to England and “she was asked what she was going to do with her selections”.

As an indication of the amount and complexity of dummying that was occurring on King Island, the witness who had recounted the story about Mrs Goldby, WJ Parkinson Camine, admitted to having taken up a considerable amount of selections himself.

One block of 300 acres he had transferred to Stephenson and Gunn for 50 pounds although it had only cost him 11 pounds 10 shillings.

The Von Bibra involvement in dummying on King Island was less spectacular than that of Gunn and Stephenson and it involved the taking up of numerous selections in the names of family members.  Land had also been transferred to Von Bibra as a free gift “indicating he was all along the owner and not the nominal applicant”.

Another question about the Von Bibra selections was that before land could be transferred there had to be evidence supplied to the Lands Department that a certain amount had been spent on improvements.  The Von Bibra selections were all sold as the one property and evidence had not been supplied of improvements to all blocks.

“Worst of all, von Bibra had actually sold out of King Island when the question was put, the amount received being 9,000 pounds”.4

The Report on the Royal Commission into the Lands Department was handed down on 16th June 1910 with Commissioner Crisp finding all allegations “unfounded”.  According to the Examiner:

Another supposed sink of corruption has been laid bare to the public eye, and has been found to be perfectly clean and healthy.

Cheek was subjected to a considerable amount of criticism from various sectors about his pushing for the Royal Commission however the North West Advocate and Emu Bay Times was supportive:

In the case of Stephenson and Gunn a breach of the law as at last proven, and there is provided a very heavy penalty.  One would have imagined that the department, after seeing this firm evading the Act for years and building an estate of many thousands of acres in extent would have some penalty.  But no.

…Mr Cheek has made some loose charges, evidently, but he has proven dummying, and proved that the Department and the Minister have condoned breaches of the law.  In the fact of this we say the Royal Commission’s report is unsatisfying and disappointing.5

Cheek himself did not see the actions of the Lands Department in turning a blind eye to dummying as arising from bribery or corruption.  He said:

“I don’t think that anyone has ever been bribed in this regard.”  Continuing he said that what was the trouble as the exercising of family influences, and the influences of friendship.6

While dummying may seem to be a thing of the past it is still possible that dummying can affect us today.  For instance a developer with a new subdivision to sell could use dummies to “buy” a few initial properties to set a higher price for the subdivision.

Other uses of dummies could be where properties are sold to nominees in order that the vendors escape the provisions of the divorce or bankruptcy courts.  Therefore it is probably a good idea to keep in our minds when purchasing property that dummies are still about and that not all property transfers are genuine or at arm’s length.


1North West Advocate and Emu Bay Times, Tuesday October 5 1909 p 2.
2The Mercury Saturday 3 October 1908 p6
3The Mercury Hobart Tuesday 5 April 1910 p 5
4North West Advocate and Emu Bay Times 1 June 1910 p2
5North West Advocate and Emu Bay TimesThursday 6 June 1910 p2
6The Mercury Friday October 1 1909 p6