Group VRG 16
Colonial Secretary
About this Group Related Agencies Related Functions
Date Range: 1851 - 1855
Description of this GroupDescription of this Group
Appointment of Colonial Secretary

Charles Joseph La Trobe remained Superintendent of the Port Phillip District (VRG 11) until 1850 when he was re-appointed Lieutenant-Governor in the new Crown Colony which came formally into existence on 13 January 1851. The Colonial Secretary was the Chief Official of Government during 1851-1855.

Functions Administered by the Colonial Secretary

Functions inherited from the Superintendent and administered directly through the Colonial Secretary's Office included:

census and statistics
goldfields administration, including the Chinese on the goldfields
police administration and prisons
protection of Aborigines
management and sale of Crown Lands
public works and buildings
roads and bridges

The Colonial Secretary also came to have responsibility for the care and control of lunatics, recording births, deaths and marriages, the registration of theatre licences, and the Colony's first art gallery and museum. From 1854 to 1855 the Colonial Secretary also was responsible for the Gold Office.


The Protectorate system established in 1839 under Chief Protector George Robinson (VA 512) continued until 1849 when The Guardian of Aborigines (VA 513) was appointed following a Select Committee report which recommended the abolition of the Protectorate. The Guardian was solely responsible for providing "protection to Aborigines" and the Crown Land Commissioners were appointed as honourary protectors, their duties being to visit reserves, report on the condition of Aborigines and supply Aborigines with food and clothing "in cases of extreme emergency".

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

Census and Statistics, Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages

Collection of statistics and periodic census taking was at first the responsibility of the Statistics Branch of the Colonial Secretary's Office (VA 856). In 1853 compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages was introduced under the Act 16 Vic., No.26 and the Registrar-General's Department (VA 2889) was established to administer this function. It also took over responsibilities relating to census and statistics. Prior to 1853 the births, deaths and marriages records were maintained by the churches. For a brief history of these functions, see VRG 69 Property and Services and the relevant agencies.


Early schools were run by religious organisations. In 1848 a Board of National Education (VA 920) and a Denominational School Board had been established in New South Wales (see List of Holdings 2nd edition 1985, section 3.8.2) to regulate denominational schools and provide for government funded education. In the Port Phillip District a Denominational School Board (VA 703 - see List of Holdings 2nd edition 1985, section 3.8.3) had been set up in the same year to regulate and inspect the secular aspects of denominational schools supported by public funding. In 1852 the Victorian National Schools Board (VA 919 - see List of Holdings 2nd edition 1985, section 3.8.1.) was established with responsibility for regulating government schools, appointing teachers and maintaining school buildings.

Note: For further information about the history of education, see VRG 35 Education.


A small general hospital had been established in Melbourne in 1841 under Assistant Colonial Surgeon Cussen. By 1851 following separation from New South Wales, the civil establishment for the Medical Department, which was responsible to the Colonial Secretary, included the Colonial Surgeon, Melbourne, who was also Surgeon to the Gaol and Surgeon to the Lunatic Asylum, the District Surgeon, Geelong, a Dispenser and the Superintendent and staff of the Lunatic Asylum (VA 2839). By 1852 there were also Assistant Colonial Surgeons in Melbourne, Geelong, Williamstown and Ovens and by 1854 District Surgeons had also been appointed to Portland, Belfast, Castlemaine, Sandhurst, Ballarat, Avoca, Beechworth, Kyneton and Kilmore. Other medical staff were based at Pentridge and at the hospitals established on the goldfields at Castlemaine, Sandhurst and Ballarat.

The Chief Medical Officer and the Medical Officers in Melbourne were responsible for immigrants, from the time of their landing until their departure from the Immigration Depot, the police, and the officers and prisoners in gaols and stockades. In the seaport towns and the goldfields they were responsible for immigrants, police, military, prisoners and the gold commission.

The Health Officer, who was primarily concerned with quarantine, was Superintendent of the Sanitary Station which had been established in 1852 at Ticonderoga Bay, Point Nepean, until 1853 when he was transferred to Queenscliff and ordered to board every inward bound ship and ascertain the state of health of its passengers and crew and where necessary to place the ship in quarantine.

In 1855, under the provisions of the Public Health Act 18 Vic., No.13 (1854), the Central Board of Health was established and became responsible for the prevention, containment and treatment of infectious and contagious diseases; the construction and maintenance of adequate drains and sewers; the regulation of noxious trades; the enforcement of standards of proper sanitation; regulation of the preparation and sale of food and drink; the compulsory vaccination of children; and the registration and control of common lodging houses. Local Boards of Health, which were effectively the municipal councils, also had a significant role in the administration of public health. (See also VRG 12 Municipalities.)

Prior to 1848 lunatics were detained in the District's gaols or sent to the asylum in New South Wales.

The first permanent asylum in Victoria was built at Yarra Bend in 1848. When it first opened it was officially a ward of the Asylum at Tarban Creek in New South Wales. However responsibility for the administration of the asylum was shared between the Superintendent of the Asylum and the Colonial Surgeon as part of his general responsibility for Health. They reported to the Colonial Secretary.

Note: For a brief history of the administration of health from 1836 to 1989 see VRG 39 Health and VRG 8 Health and Welfare Agencies.


The Colonial Secretary was responsible for administering immigration in conjunction with the British Emigration Agent in London, who supervised the selection of applicants and arranged for their passage. In carrying out this function the Colonial Secretary was assisted by locally appointed Immigration Agents. Between 1851 and 1855 over 350,000 migrants arrived under government funded and ly sponsored schemes, as well as unassisted. During the Gold Rush period, 1851 to 1861, most migrants paid their own way and Government Schemes were largely eclipsed. The Colonial Secretary's responsibilities included local administration of government funded assisted immigration schemes, reception and initial settlement of immigrants, as well as monitoring immigrant arrivals including inspection of ships and certification of passenger lists, and regulating alien immigration.

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

Management and Sale of Crown Lands

Commissioners of Crown Lands were appointed to regulate the use of Crown Land under licence, manage Crown Lands and supervise their sale. The Commissioners reported to the Colonial Secretary and received administrative support from the Land Branch of the Colonial Secretary's Office until 1853 when the Department of Crown Lands (VA 2878) was established (see VRG 18 Lands and VRG 27 District Land Offices for further details).

Public Works and Buildings; Roads and Bridges

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 and the first Overseer of Roads in September. Plans for the settlement's early public buildings were prepared by the Colonial Architect in Sydney but the locally appointed Clerk of Works took direction from the Police Magistrate and subsequently the Superintendent.

A Superintendent of Bridges was appointed in 1844 with responsibility for overseeing a range of public works, including roads and bridges. In May 1846, Henry Ginn was appointed Clerk of Works and by 1850, the civil establishment for public works included the Clerk of Works, Superintendent of Bridges, six overseers and clerks, a clerk and a messenger.

The period between separation from New South Wales in 1851 and the achievement of responsible government in 1855 was characterised by a large expansion in revenue, population, the size of the colonial administration and the need for public works and buildings. During this period the structure of the administration was re-organised a number of times. In 1851 the Colonial Architect was responsible for the construction, maintenance, rental and furnishing of public buildings while the Superintendent of Bridges was responsible for roads and bridges and other public works. By October 1852 a Colonial Engineer had been appointed at a salary twice that received by the other two officials and appears to have exercised joint responsibility with them. By 1854 there had been an amalgamation of the functions of the Colonial Engineer and the Colonial Architect, the latter position having been abolished and while the position of Superintendent of Bridges remained, it was clearly sub-ordinate to that of the Colonial Engineer. Each of these officials was responsible to the Colonial Secretary.

In 1853 under the provisions of An Act for making and improving Roads in the Colony of Victoria, the Central Roads Board (VA 2803) was established and assumed responsibility for the construction and maintenance of proclaimed main roads and bridges. The Act also provided for municipal responsibility for local roads and bridges, subject to the general superintendence of the Board, and District Road Boards were established. Under the provisions of their own Acts, the towns of Melbourne and Geelong were also responsible for the construction and maintenance of local roads and bridges.

The Returns of Public Works, Civil Establishment lists (see VPRS 943 Blue Books) and Finance Statements for the years 1851 to 1854 give some indication of the very rapid expansion in the administration of the public works function. In 1851, the civil establishment for public works was thirteen and by 1854 the combined establishment of the Colonial Engineer and the Central Roads Board was seventy-four. Appropriations for the six months from July to December 1851 totalled 13,372 pounds and by 1853 the appropriations for public works and buildings and roads and bridges had risen to 1,314,056 pounds for the year.

On the achievement of responsible government in 1855, the Commissioner of Public Works (VRG 28) assumed responsibility for all public works functions and the Central Roads Board (VA 2803) continued to be responsible for roads and bridges until its abolition in 1858.

Theatre Licences

Under the provisions of An Act to amend the Law for regulating places of exhibition and entertainment 1850 14 Vic., No.23, the Colonial Secretary was responsible for all theatrical and artistic performances involving profit or gain, or to which admission was charged. The Superintendent (VRG 11) may have administered theatrical licences prior to 1851.

Functional and Agency Groupings 1851-1855

The Lieutenant Governor (later Governor) remained head of Government until the proclamation of the new constitution conferring full responsible government in November 1855 (see VRG 17 Executive for details).

During the years 1851 to 1855 chief executive authority rested with the Governor advised by the Executive Council. The main departments of government were those of the Colonial Secretary and the principal colonial officials or principal officers of government, including the Treasurer, Auditor-General, Surveyor-General, Collector of Customs (later the Commissioner of Trade and Customs) and Postmaster-General. The Colonial Secretary was the chief official and all other colonial officials communicated with the Lieutenant-Governor (later Governor) via his Office.

A number of Ministerial Groups covering the responsibilities of the principal colonial officials have been dated from 1851. The Superintendent (VRG 11) is shown as passing responsibility for the functions listed below directly to these Groups. They are:


VRG 18 Lands Survey and Mapping
VRG 19 Law Crown-Solicitor's Services
VRG 21 Postmaster-General Post Offices
VRG 22 Trade and Customs Trade, Customs, Ports and Harbours
VRG 23 Treasurer Finance and Revenue Collection

All other functions - census and statistics, health, immigration, police and prison administration, the "protection" of Aborigines, education, goldfields administration, public works and buildings, roads and bridges, and the management and sale of Crown lands (until 1853) - and the responsible agencies have been included in the Colonial Secretary's Group, unless an agency clearly belongs to one of the categories covered by the Non-Ministerial Groups - VRG 3 Armed Forces, VRG 4 Courts, VRG 5 Cemeteries, VRG 8 Health and Welfare Agencies, VRG 9 Prisons and Youth Training Centres, VRG 10 Police, VRG 12 Municipalities, VRG 24 Educational Institutions, and VRG 27 District Land Offices. The Auditor-General's Group (VRG 15) has also been dated from 1851. Although the Colonial Engineer was a Government nominee in the Legislative Council from October 1854, the Public Works Group (VRG 28) has been dated from 1855 when the first Commissioner of Public Works was appointed - being the former Colonial Engineer, Charles Pasley. The Colonial Engineer has been included in the Colonial Secretary's Group. As the entire business of the colony was conducted either directly or indirectly through the Colonial Secretary, the Colonial Secretary's records reflect not only the functions of the Colonial Secretary but also those of other colonial officials.

The executive arm of government was not during this period subject to parliamentary control. The principal officers of government were appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor (later Governor) and were responsible through him to the British administration. Government nominees to the Legislative Council and Executive Councillors were appointed from their ranks, but their executive positions as colonial officials were not dependent on their retaining their seats in Parliament (then the Legislative Council only), as was the case after 1855. The Colonial Secretary was a member of both the Legislative Council (VA 471) and Executive Council (VA 2903) in the 1851-1855 period.

Ministerial appointees after 1855 were for a time also effectively heads of their Departments and it was not until the 1880's that public service structures as we know them today began to emerge. However after 1855 the chief colonial officials or principal officers of government can be considered to have achieved Ministerial status and their executive positions (as Ministers and Executive Councillors) were dependent on their retaining their seat in Parliament and the support of the majority in the lower House.

Responsible Government 1855

The majority of functions administered by the Colonial Secretary passed to the Chief Secretary (VRG 26) in 1855, notable exceptions being immigration, inherited by the Commissioner of Trade and Customs (VRG 22), geological survey, which passed to Lands (VRG 18) and the Gold Office, resumed by the Treasurer (VRG 23).

Location of Records

There are substantial holdings for the 1851-1855 period at the Public Record Office, including the Colonial Secretary's correspondence.

See also List of Holdings 2nd edition 1985, sections 3.3.0. (Library, Gallery, Museums), 3.4.0. (Prisons and Gaols), 3.8.0. (Education), 3.10.0 (Immigration), 3.11.0. (Health), 3.16.4. (Colonial Secretary's records), 3.19.0 (Public Works), 16.5.0. (Aboriginal Affairs).

Other InformationOther Information
Agencies within this GroupAgencies within this Group
Display entries per page
Date within Group Agency Title Agency Number Agency Hierarchy
1851 - 1855 Denominational School Board VA 703 Statutory Authority
1851 - 1855 Colonial Secretary's Office VA 856 Dept. of State
1851 - 1855 National School Board VA 919 Statutory Authority
1852 - 1855 Geological Survey of Victoria VA 4118
1853 - 1855 Commissioners of Sewers and Water Supply VA 2802 Statutory Authority
1853 - 1855 Central Roads Board VA 2803 Major Statutory Authority
1853 - 1855 Registrar-General's Department VA 2889 Sub Department
1853 - 1855 Buckland Gold Office VA 2950 Sub Department
1853 - 1855 Victoria Police (including Office of the Chief Commissioner of Police) VA 724 Major Statutory Authority
By 1852 - 1855 Department of Commissioners for the Gold Fields (also known as Gold Commissioner's Department) VA 4951
Functions related to this GroupFunctions related to this Group
Displaying 1 to 20 of 25  Go To First Page Of List Go To Previous Page Of List of 2 Go To Next Page Of List Go To Last Page Of List 
Display entries per page
Date within Group Function Title Function Number
1851 - 1853 Crown lands (public) VF 309
1851 - 1853 Crown lands (government) VF 310
1851 - 1855 Census and statistics VF 3
1851 - 1855 Immigration (nineteenth century) VF 8
1851 - 1855 Police VF 10
1851 - 1855 Prisons and youth training centres VF 13
1851 - 1855 Buildings, government (design and construction) VF 14
1851 - 1855 Roads and bridges VF 15
1851 - 1855 Education VF 19
1851 - 1855 Goldfields administration and mining VF 20
1851 - 1855 Library, State VF 22
1851 - 1855 Botanic gardens VF 27
1851 - 1855 Health, public VF 125
1851 - 1855 Aboriginal affairs VF 175
1851 - 1855 Agriculture VF 245
1851 - 1855 Public works VF 404
1854 - 1855 Gold office VF 23
- 1855 Geological survey VF 24
- 1855 Herbarium VF 26
- 1855 Births, deaths and marriages VF 39