Founded in 1859 and abolished in 1983, responsible for the survey, management and alienation of Crown land, the Lands Department was colonial Victoria's most important government agency. It was created by merging the surveyor-general's office and the Occupation Branch of the Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands. It was supervised by a Board of Land and Works (1857-1964). In an age when land settlement was believed to be the means to individual and colonial prosperity, successive colonial governments instructed the Lands Department to facilitate the transfer of land from Crown to private ownership. A network of surveyors, bailiffs, regional land agents and above all clerical officers located in Melbourne worked to this end. The volume of work proved overwhelming, to the extent that the Department won a reputation for complexity and chaos. In Melbourne especially, this perception was reinforced by repeated attempts of departmental heads such as Clement Hodgkinson and Charles Whybrow Ligar to impose order, by the fractious behaviour of officers such as Ferdinand von Mueller and Alexander Wallis, and by parliamentary, newspaper and personal accounts of disordered offices, inept management, convoluted regulations and endless red tape. New chums and land barons alike were left baffled and frustrated.
Reforms instituted in the early 1870s and a lessening demand for land helped somewhat, but ongoing survey and land transfer programs combined with numerous other responsibilities - waste land and Crown land reserve management, thistle and rabbit control, State forestry, agricultural extension - ensured that the Department always worked under pressure. Further efficiencies were won during the early 1880s when the Department's various city offices were centralised at Treasury Place. Through it all, the Department persisted, crafting in Melbourne, as in the rest of Victoria, a cultural landscape of survey grids and property lines, parklands and placenames, reservations and regulations.
Although the Department's influence began to wane from the 1880s, it continued to oversee the survey and sale of land, closer settlement, vermin and noxious weed control, irrigation, water management and, from 1917, soldier settlement. With time and greater understanding of environmental processes, more dedicated land management duties were assumed by specialist agencies: examples include forestry (1907), soil conservation (1940), national parks (1957), environmental protection (1971), regional land-use assessment (1971) and conservation (1973).
In 1983 the Lands Department was merged with the Forests Commission and the Ministry of Conservation to form the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands. Survey and land sale responsibilities were transferred to the Department of Property and Services.