Yarn spun of family’s hardships on the land
Author Alexander Campbell traced the footsteps of his family back to 18th century Europe — Denmark and Ireland — before the time his great-grandfather arrived in Australia.
It was the beginning of a new life for the Campbells, who through four generations in their new land endured the joys and hardships of farming life.
After selling his farm in 2013, Campbell then wrote and published, in 2017, Of Sheep And Other Things, a 346-page biography of his family, including a memoir of his own personal rural and political life experience.
“I refer to the book as a yarn about how one Australian family survived the odds on the land, spanning 170 years, and in doing so became a major contributor to the farming industry and wider community,” he said.
In writing the book, Campbell said he became more aware of the “importance” of Merino wool to his Australian ancestors and of its historical role in shaping the early Australian economy.
He corresponded with more than 100 sources during a year-long information gathering process and also took another year to publish the book, which features 85 photos and illustrations.
“The front cover photo is of my grandmother holding a gun as dead rabbits were being collected, illustrating the hard times, particularly for early pioneer women who faced severe isolation,” he said.
As written in the book: “Evelyn was a woman to be admired, she stood straight as a ramrod, was dressed immaculately at all times, could handle a firearm and was a good horsewoman, with a perfect seat in the saddle.”
Campbell summed up the early challenges of agriculture, noting variable climates, the rise and decline of the Merino industry, bushrangers, dingoes, rabbits, blowflies, bushfires — all with constraints of distance and isolation.
“Many still apply today with the additional complexities of salinity and climate change, which have been overcooked politically,” he said.
Campbell’s father, Don, was born in 1907, while the family was living at north Adelaide.
“After joining Dalgetys’ head office and finding out he wasn’t a pen pusher, Dad worked as a jackeroo,” Campbell said.
His father then traded South Australia for the outback of WA, where he became an offsider to Millstream Station’s camp boss.
Millstream was running about 25,000 sheep at that time.
“Dad later became overseer, then manager at Lake Violet Station, near Wiluna, and at 32 years of age married my mother, Thelma,” Campbell said.
“After our family relocated to Perth in 1951, my father worked as a station property manager and spent the last few years of his working life with Dalgetys NZ in their wool department from 1968 to 1971.”
Reaching his school years, Campbell and his brother Tim were sent off to the East Claremont Practising School.
“After achieving a six-subject leaving certificate, through being taught well and also given clear direction on how we should lead our lives, Dad came straight to the point,” Campbell said.
“Now, are you sure about farming as your future career?”
Fresh for the challenge, Campbell acquired his first farm through allocation of land in WA and named the Borden property Tillgaree in 1964.
After turning virgin bush into a viable farm with both good and bad harvests over the years, Campbell and his wife, Jenny, and their children Anna and Jock, marked another generation of agriculture survivors.
Their dream took them from the mallees to the red gums of Narrikup in 1976 when they relocated to Townsend’s Place and in 1987 added Crystal Brook.
Campbell was elected WAFarmers Federation State vice-president in 1989 and was motivated to purge the growing crossover of representation of the two WA farm organisations, Pastoralists and Graziers Association, being the other.
“It was unlikely WA would ever achieve a single voice at a State level as compared to the successful unity of the National Farmers’ Federation,” he said.
“I came to greatly respect the vast majority of members who were ‘doing it tough’ with poor seasons, lost wool income and deteriorating terms of trade.”
Serving a term as WAFF president and NFF executive, Campbell said it was his contribution to rural politics, but was pleased he had a farm to go back to instead of being held hostage to the demands of an electorate.
The Campbells’ children are now intertwined in agriculture, with Anna, who married Dandaragan farmer Hugh Roberts in 1999, and Jock, who moved to develop a career in the Eastern States on several stud and commercial sheep enterprises.
Of Sheep And Other Things is available at the Williams Woolshed, Albany’s Paperbark, Boffins in Perth and Claremont’s Theatre Lane Bookshop.
Alexander Campbell reflects on his farming life at his Dalkeith ‘shed’.