Defining moments in Australian history
Farming communities based around returned soldiers failed but had profound social and ecological effects.
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.