Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir Robert Richard Torrens (1814–1884)

by Douglas J. Whalan

This article was published:

Robert Torrens, by John Upton, c.1880

Robert Torrens, by John Upton, c.1880

National Library of Australia, 2284297

Sir Robert Richard Torrens (1814-1884), public servant, politician and land titles law reformer, was born in Cork, Ireland, son of Colonel Robert Torrens and his first wife Charity Herbert, née Chute. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1835), in 1836 he became a landing waiter in the Port of London. In 1839 he married Barbara Ainslie, widow of George Augustus Anson and niece of Mungo Park. On 12 December 1840 in the Brightman they arrived in South Australia; Torrens became collector of customs, probably through his father's influence as chairman of the colonization commission for South Australia; his salary was £350 (later £500). He lived handsomely, yet within a few years had acquired substantial assets.

Torrens soon established a pattern of unorthodoxy in his office. In his first year he was censured for reducing wharfage rates without authority, for carelessness with pay lists, for unauthorized absence and for not supporting some of Governor (Sir) George Grey's policies. Grey reported that Torrens had not shown that 'cheerful acquiescence in my views which I have received from the other Government officers'. In 1841 controversy surrounded Torrens's arrest of the Ville de Bordeaux when he became involved in an extravagant chase to prevent her escape. But he probably acted correctly, for in November the vessel was forfeited to the Crown though the Treasury later had to compensate the French owners.

Torrens was often censured for irregularities. In 1845 he was sued successfully by crew members of the Hanseat for false imprisonment, and in 1848 was involved indirectly in a pitched battle fought for control of the Emma Sherratt and directly in libel actions arising therefrom. He was reprimanded the same year for discourtesy to the advocate-general for declining the advocate's help in a legal action; the advocate-general declared that it was a pleasure to be relieved of the duty. His chief clerk Henry Watson complained about him to the English authorities but a board of inquiry neither condemned nor cleared him. George Stevenson lampooned this result and Torrens assaulted him in the street; lengthy civil and criminal proceedings ended with Torrens paying £250 damages, being convicted of common assault, but 'winning' a libel verdict of one farthing damages. He was appointed colonial treasurer and registrar-general in 1852, and in these offices, too, he was often censured by the governor. In 1851-57 he was a nominated member of the Legislative Council and he became a member of the Executive Council in 1855. Next year he joined in the land titles registration crusade.

The South Australian Register published an outline of a Torrens bill on 17 October 1856. Other bills were being publicized, indicating that the development of registration of title to land was not Torrens's achievement alone but the culmination of an evolutionary process. Intense interest was generated, for in South Australia titles were in an unsatisfactory state and, as he put it, land was no longer 'the luxury of the few', therefore 'thorough land reform … [was] essentially “the people's question”'. He stood for Adelaide in the House of Assembly elections of 1857 and, almost entirely because of his espousal of land titles reform, topped the poll. Treasurer from 24 October 1856 to 21 August 1857, he published a further draft of his bill on 14 and 15 April and introduced it as a private member's bill in yet a third form on 4 June. He was premier from 1 to 30 September, but no action was taken on the bill until 11 November, when the second reading was carried. Despite very strong opposition, mainly from the legal profession, it passed through both Houses and was assented to on 27 January 1858.

The basic principles of what was to become known outside South Australia as the Torrens system were: land titles no longer passed by the execution of deeds but by the registration of dealings on a public register; once registered the title of a purchaser became indefeasible unless he was guilty of fraud; and innocent dealers with interests in registered land were guaranteed either their interest in the land or monetary compensation therefor. Torrens explained the system's operation in The South Australian System of Conveyancing by Registration of Title (1859); although he 'claimed authorship' of the system, it is clear that many people and influences helped considerably, including Ulrich Hübbe, Richard Bullock Andrews, George Fife Angas, Anthony Forster, William Burford, and, later, R. D. Hanson. Torrens conceded the significance of the opportune arrival 'on the eve of the day appointed for the [bill's] second reading' of the report of the English royal commissioners, 1857, which recommended the adoption of registration of title to land in England.

Torrens resigned his seat in 1858 on becoming registrar-general under the Real Property Act at a salary of £1000. From that year to 1862 he helped to turn the Act into a workable and working system, manipulating public opinion and organizing meetings and petitions to parliament. He also travelled to other colonies successfully advocating the adoption of the system. These endeavours in 'the Cause', as Torrens so often calls it in his writings, undermined his health and amid enthusiastic farewells he sailed for England on leave without pay.

He lectured on the system in England, Scotland and Ireland in the next three years and vacillated about returning to South Australia. When nominated as a candidate for the borough of Cambridge in 1865, Torrens resigned as registrar-general; failing to be elected that year and also the next, he complained bitterly about 'intimidation practised by Heads of the Colleges' and bribery which turned voters against him. He won the seat in 1868. He had entered politics in England largely to sponsor his titles system; but despite some slight success in Ireland, the South Australian methods could not be applied because land holding was not 'the people's question' in England.

Torrens largely withdrew from public life when he was not re-elected in 1874 and, although he continued as a director of several companies, spent most of his time at his country home, Hannaford, near Ashburton. He was created K.C.M.G. for his services 'especially in connection with the Registration of Titles to Land Act' in 1872 and was made G.C.M.G. in 1884. Leaving personal estate sworn for probate at £17,292, he died of pneumonia at Falmouth on 31 August 1884, aged 70, and was buried in Leusdon churchyard on the edge of Dartmoor. His wife (d.1899) is buried with him.

Despite his tempestuous career in South Australia Torrens was not quite the charlatan that Governor Sir Dominick Daly called him. He had a propensity for arousing animosity and sometimes undying hatred. When the attorney-general (Sir) William Bundey moved in the House of Assembly in 1880 that a pension of £500 should be granted to him chaos broke out in the House. After bitter personal attacks on Torrens the proposal was dropped. He had been happy to use the full pressure of public opinion to achieve land titles reform, but he opposed an elected legislature and the secret ballot. The mainspring of the last thirty years of his life was his espousal of land titles reform. He did not acknowledge publicly the assistance that he received, but it was his dedication, bordering on zealotry, for 'the Cause' that initiated the Real Property Act in South Australia and the spread of the Torrens system to other Australasian colonies. It has sufficient identifying features to be regarded as an important legal reform that is indigenous to Australia.

There is a portrait in the National Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, and a fine drawing by C. Hill in the South Australian State Archives.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Whalan, ‘The origins of the Torrens System and its establishment in S.A.’, Law Council of Aust, Souvenir … XIV Convention in Adelaide (Adel, 1967)
  • D. J. Whalan, ‘The origins of the Torrens System and its introduction into New Zealand’, G. W. Hinde (ed), The New Zealand Torrens System Centennial Essays (Wellington, 1971)
  • R. Mitchell, ‘The Torrens System of land titles — its development in the land of its birth’, Commonwealth and Empire Law Conference Record, vol 1 (1955)
  • D. Pike, ‘Introduction of the Real Property Act in South Australia’, Adelaide Law Review, 1 (1960)
  • D. J. Whalan, ‘Immediate success of registration of title to land in Australasia and early failures in England’, New Zealand Universities Law Review, 2 (1967).

Citation details

Douglas J. Whalan, 'Torrens, Sir Robert Richard (1814–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Torrens, by John Upton, c.1880

Robert Torrens, by John Upton, c.1880

National Library of Australia, 2284297

Life Summary [details]


Cork, Ireland


31 August, 1884 (aged ~ 70)
Falmouth, Cornwall, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.