The first series of applications for Special Surveys were not made until the beginning of 1839, none being during the time of Hindmarsh. Governor Gawler, who replaced Hindmarsh, was given emergency powers to fix up the backward state of the surveys after Light and his staff had resigned. The very first Special Survey was made available to W.H.Dutton, D.McFarlane and John Finnes in the Mount Barker district on 11 Jan. 1839.
Unfortunately this meant that the claims made by J.B.Hack, who was already living there on a farm, were not accepted as he was 'squatting' and therefore had no legal title to the land. This first survey caused a sudden rush for many more. Within that very week, five other Special Surveys were taken out. A further two were bought before the end of that month. By the end of August 1839, sufficient money had been deposited to warrant the survey and sale of as many as thirty-two compact districts of 15.000 acres each, requiring the marking out of nearly half a million acres.
Seven of the surveys were in the Mount Barker District, six along the Murray River and Lake Alexandrina. One each at Victor Harbor and Port Victoria with the remaining thirteen to the north and north-east of Adelaide. It can be argued that through this little exercise the majority of the half million acres were made useless to anyone else by the purchase of only 128.000 well-selected acres.
Early in 1839, Flaxman, acting chiefly on advice of Johannes Menge, had preceded to use the method of selecting Special Surveys, which his employer, G.F.Angas, had gained from the Commissioners a few years before. Flaxman bought in his own name, but on Angas’ account, seven Special Surveys each of 4000 acres at the sources of the Gawler and Rhine Rivers, paying for some of it with PLOs. When Flaxman was recalled to London in 1840, and in severe financial trouble, it was G.F.Angas who bought all his land. To be able to do this Angas had to relinquish many of his British investments.
In a district specially favoured with fertile soil and rainfall, there were now some 105.000 acres in one single compact block for which only 28.000 Pounds were paid in cash and PLOs. Flaxman had chosen well. Pastor Kavel wrote later to him in England saying that the area consisted of 'the best land for agriculture and pastoral purposes discovered until now besides the Mount Barker district'.
Most of these surveys taken up by Flaxman and Dutton were meant for farming, grazing, settlement and further development, not like so many others that were purely taken up as speculation. Apart from these Special Surveys, Angas also acquired 104 acre lots in the Three Brothers, 57 acre lots in the Lyndoch and 125 lots in the Mount Barker Special Surveys.
On 25 October 1839 the Commissioners issued Revised Land Regulations, which among other things increased the maximum area that could be selected to 16.000 acres instead of the 15.000 previously allowed. Later buyers of Special Surveys were given the additional right to select from different parts of the country, providing they took not less than 500 acres in each selection.
An excellent example of this was the Special Survey for Sir Montaque Lowther Chapman from Ireland, who acquired his 4000 acres in five different Hundreds. This practice provided an ideal opportunity for the wealthy selectors, to even more blatantly pick the eyes out of the country. No wonder that more and more people voiced their concern upon the whole system of Special Surveys.
On 26 February 1840, Governor Gawler wrote to Colonel Torrens; 'From my arrival in the country to the present date, about 200.000 acres have been actually surveyed; viz.113.000 acres in preliminary and ordinary sections, and 90.000 acres in special surveys... In the present state of the colony, the employment of private surveyors has been found to be peculiarly disadvantageous and unsatisfactory, except in the particular cases of the proprietors of special surveys deciding on laying out secondary towns at their own expense'.
Neither Torrens nor anyone else in England seemed concerned with this method of land-disposal in South Australia. As late as 11 December 1840 they wrote to J.Stephen, re-stating almost word for word the original instructions of 25 October 1839. One wonders if this was an example of the evils of 'long distance government' or a 'case of apathy and lack of direction from home'?
The next Governor, Captain Grey, had equal misgivings about the subject of special surveys. Even before he left England for South Australia to take up his appointment, he wrote to Lord John Russell on 19 December 1840....From the lands so surveyed the purchasers selected 4000 acres where they think best, culling the choicest lands...This is often done in such a manner as to render the 11.000 acres, for which they do not pay inaccessible to the future purchasers...therefore, the purchaser obtains the occupation of 11.000 acres more than he has paid for... Thus the Government, in reality, give a purchaser 4000 selected acres from a chosen track of 15.000 acres, with the occupation of the remaining 11.000 acres.
Later that month, the Board ordered the suspension of these surveys, having finally acted on his advice, and Lord John Russell wrote to Grey: 'with regard to what are termed Special Surveys, it has been decided that no new surveys of that description should, for the present at least, be undertaken. When Governor Grey received his letter he inserted the following note in the Government Gazette of 6 May 1841; Until further advertisement, no more tenders for the purchase of Special Surveys can be accepted.
Up to that time 36 Special Surveys had been bought, but only 20 had been selected, still covering an area of over 100.000 acres. The 16 Special Surveys not yet selected accounted for an area of 89.416 acres. Only 12 of the total 36 Special Surveys had been taken up by resident proprietors, mostly settlers who had clubbed together to find the capital needed.
Now the floodgates of protest had opened, and many people had their say. According to Charles Mann, Special Surveys not only marred the sacred rights of preliminary purchasers but also the clear purpose of the founders to oppose unequal opportunities and the building of large estates.
Frome described them as a vicious system of cutting up the country, and Sturt found them the most dreadful things that could be imagined. The Select Committee on South Australia, stated in their second report in June 1841, that Special Surveys were open to the most serious objections. When questioned by the Committee, Wakefield had to concede that the Special Surveys system did give a false appearance of prosperity. Even so, he still thought that they might be permitted if purchasers paid for the surveying and were not allowed to have the mouths of harbours, and forks of rivers.
G.F. Angas was of the opinion that the system had been beneficial to a certain extent;(his own?) but if continued it would be injurious. Finally the committee recommended that the system of Special Surveys should be permanently abandoned, but at the same time allowed companies or individuals to buy blocks of 20.000 acres or more, by private contract at not less than the minimum price, and providing, if necessary, for the special survey of such blocks. This was later made possible by the Waste Lands Act of 1842, which provided for the appropriation of 20.000 acre sections in unsettled districts without survey.
Several of these 20.000 acre blocks were later bought and surveyed, particularly for mining purposes. Within six years however Governor Young forwarded the following petition from magistrates, land holders, flock masters and merchants to the Imperial Government, 'that the resumption of the system of Special Surveys is strongly urged by the colonists, and I may add that it is also warmly advocated by the local press'. Unfortunately for the petitioners its reply on 21 June 1849, was that 'Special Surveys were decidedly injurious to the public interest'. No further attempts were made after that in South Australia to revive the selling of large blocks as Special Surveys. However when the Northern Territory was being opened up, preliminary land orders and Special Surveys of 10.000 acres were again used as added inducements. Clearly, the province’s rulers had not yet learnt the folly of squandering land.