Defin­ing mo­ments in Aus­tralian his­tory

Farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties based around re­turned sol­diers failed but had pro­found so­cial and eco­log­i­cal ef­fects.

Australian Geographic - - Contents -

IN THE 19TH CEN­TURY and well into the 20th, Aus­tralian pol­i­cy­mak­ers held fast to the ‘yeo­man ideal’.This was a some­what ro­man­tic be­lief in the virtue of agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­ity and the so­ci­etal value of small-scale farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties. (Yeo­man was a Bri­tish term for some­one with so­cial stand­ing who cul­ti­vated the land.)

Dur­ing World War I pop­u­lar im­agery of the sturdy, in­de­pen­dent yeo­man merged with that of the no­ble, pa­tri­otic dig­ger to cre­ate a pow­er­ful sym­bolic char­ac­ter: the sol­dier set­tler. He was a wor­thy fig­ure ca­pa­ble of pro­mot­ing so­cial sta­bil­ity and eco­nomic pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Af­ter politi­cians and bu­reau­crats se­cured the fed­eral–state agree­ment for sol­dier set­tle­ment in Mel­bourne in 1916, thou­sands of re­turn­ing sol­diers took ad­van­tage of new state-based sol­dier set­tle­ment schemes. From as far north as the Atherton Table­lands in Queens­land, to Kan­ga­roo Is­land in South Aus­tralia, every state saw new set­tle­ments de­velop.

The West Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment set­tled more than 5000 re­turned sol­diers, many from the Bri­tish Army, on farms. By 1929, lit­tle more than 3500 re­mained on the land.

Dif­fi­cul­ties en­coun­tered by sol­dier set­tlers across Aus­tralia dur­ing the 1920s sparked a Commonwealth in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In 1929 Jus­tice Pike iden­ti­fied the main causes of set­tler fail­ure as a lack of cap­i­tal and land, set­tler un­suit­abil­ity, and fall­ing prices for agri­cul­tural pro­duce.

The farm­ing dis­trict and small town of Car­namah is lo­cated near the edge of the WA wheat­belt, about 250km north of Perth. Af­ter WWI, the Repa­tri­a­tion Depart­ment of WA made land in the dis­trict avail­able to re­turned ser­vice­men and about 40 took up the of­fer. Car­namah grew into a thriv­ing ser­vice cen­tre as sol­dier set­tlers, many al­ready mar­ried, ar­rived to es­tab­lish farms and fam­i­lies.

The labour-in­ten­sive na­ture of farm­ing cre­ated de­mand for work­ers. As the pop­u­la­tion rose, the new ar­rivals formed sport­ing and so­cial clubs that met reg­u­larly at Car­namah or in smaller cen­tres else­where in the dis­trict.

When the sol­dier set­tlers first ar­rived, most of the Car­namah dis­trict was un­de­vel­oped bush and pas­toral land. Set­tlers made and bought de­vices to clear the scrub for crop­ping.

As in many parts of Aus­tralia, the sub­soils be­neath the slightly un­du­lat­ing coun­try of the Car­namah area are rich in salts. Set­tlers re­placed na­tive trees, shrubs and grasses – a plant com­mu­nity able to hold and use wa­ter ef­fi­ciently – with bare, cul­ti­vated earth and short-rooted an­nual crops. As a re­sult, wa­ter seeped be­low and brought de­struc­tive salts to the sur­face.

Re­turned sol­dier Tom White and his wife, Hilda, named their Car­namah dis­trict farm Rosedale. As decades passed, clear­ing and crop­ping on Rosedale had un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences.The creek run­ning past the home­stead turned saline, and any trees re­main­ing be­side the wa­ter­way be­came sick and died.

“Salt en­croach­ment is bad” in the Rosedale area, an in­spec­tor re­ported in 1948. Of the 997 acres (403ha) held by the White fam­ily, the in­spec­tor clas­si­fied 66 acres (27ha) as “salt use­less” and 196 acres (79ha) as suf­fer­ing from “ris­ing salt”.

Fall­ing wheat prices dur­ing the late 1920s and the eco­nomic de­pres­sion of the early 1930s caused hard­ship for many farm­ers in the Car­namah dis­trict. As fam­i­lies de­parted, mech­a­ni­sa­tion en­abled sur­viv­ing farm­ers to work much larger ar­eas.

To­day, the broad­acre re­al­ity of modern agri­cul­ture in the de­pop­u­lated, mar­ginal farm­ing dis­trict of Car­namah bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to the hope­ful vi­sions of a new yeo­manry that un­der­lay sol­dier set­tle­ment.

Tom White’s grand­son Bruce went on to farm 15,000ha in the Car­namah dis­trict – al­most equal to the en­tire area granted to 40 sol­dier set­tlers early last cen­tury.

Florence, Doris and Melvie Garth – daugh­ters of re­turned sol­dier Tom Garth and his wife, Kate – at their sol­dier set­tle­ment farm Glen­yarri in WA’s Car­namah dis­trict in about 1925.

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