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New South Wales - Concept

Colony of New South Wales (1788 - 1901)

Alternative Names
  • Crown Colony of New South Wales (also known as)
  • Penal Colony of New South Wales (also known as)

The Colony of New South Wales was established in 1788 as a penal colony. It originally included the areas that became Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. In 1823 the New South Wales Act was established and passed by the British Parliament and a level of autonomous government was set up within the colony. In 1855 New South Wales attained self-governance with the British Parliament granting New South Wales its own constitution. With Federation on 1 January 1901,the colony became the State of New South Wales.


The penal colony of New South Wales was founded as a way for the British Government to deal with the massive overcrowding in British prisons and prison ships. When the 'First Fleet' arrived it included about 850 convicts and their Marine guards and officers. Sydney Cove was settled on 26 January 1788, what is now referred to as Australia Day.

The Documenting a Democracy website states:

'The Aborigines' lives and livelihoods were to be protected and friendly relations with them encouraged, but the Instructions make no mention of protecting or even recognising their lands. It was assumed that Australia was terra nullius, that is, land belonging to no one. This assumption shaped land law and occupation for more than 200 years.'

The military Governors of New South Wales, until 1824, were the absolute rulers of the colony. The British Parliament was the only superior power and the Governors were given their power by a 1787 Act of British Parliament. The Governors were to put into effect the Statute and Common law of England. However much of the effective power resided in the military particularly New South Wales Corps officers who sat as members of the first court of law and controlled much of the trade.

In 1823 the British Parliament passed what is commonly referred to as 'The New South Wales Act' and it called for a Legislative Council of colonial residents to be appointed to advise the Governor. The Act also provided for a court system and judiciary. However the Governor continued to have overall power and could reject what the council suggested.

The Governor's power was progressively diminished by Acts of of the British Parliament that expanded the Legislative Council and created an Executive Council. The judiciary was also extended with judges now considering bills before they were introduced to the Legislative Council and the Chief Justice needing to certify that the Acts were consistent with the Laws of England. That same year Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania) separated from the Colony of New South Wales. In 1828 the laws of England were officially "received" as the laws of New South Wales, where applicable. In 1836 when European settlers first arrived in South Australia it became its own colony.

In October 1840 transportation to the Colony of New South Wales ended and the public no longer wanted be a penal colony. In 1842 the New South Wales' first Constitution Act was passed in the British Parliament and the colony took its first step towards responsible and representative government. The Legislative Council included elected members, with the first ever elections in Australia in New South Wales in 1843 and a Speaker. However the Governor retained more power than the Council and could dissolve the council and refer a bill to the British Parliament.

In 1849 the British Government attempted to renew convict transportation, however there was a mass protest when a convict ship docked and after this no more convicts were sent to New South Wales. In 1850 the district of Port Phillip separated from New South Wales and became the Colony of Victoria. In 1851 the gold rush began, causing a dramatic increase in the population and with it the demands for better education, trade, transport and public works.

In 1855 the Constitutions Act was passed meaning the Colony had a responsible self-government. An upper house, the Legislative Council, a lower house, the Legislative Assembly and a Prime Minister of New South Wales were elected. The Executive Council continued to exist to advise the Governor. The District of Moreton Bay became the Colony of Queensland in 1859.

Overall New South Wales was pro Federation and had many important figures that promoted the idea including Edmund Barton who became the Commonwealth of Australia's first Prime Minister. A referendum was held in 1898 and did not succeed because the Prime Minister had set the majority needed for a yes vote as higher than a simple majority. Another referendum was held in 1899 and the majority was reached.

On January 1, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed in Sydney and the Colony of New South Wales became the State of New South Wales.


Online Resources

Sources used to compile this entry: New South Wales documents, Documenting a Democracy, Commonwealth of Australia, 2011,; 'History of democracy in NSW', in Parliament of New South Wales, State of New South Wales, 27 October 2014,

Prepared by: Nicola Laurent