5. The Shire’s sense of its history at the outbreak of the War – Part 1

Effective European occupation of Gippsland began in the Port Albert area in the early 1840s which meant that the collective historical memory of people living in the Shire of Alberton in 1914 went back not much more than seventy years. At the same time, there was the Indigenous (Gunaikurnai) history that went back for thousands of years; but this history was largely unrecognised. It was not part of the Imperial narrative.

Those aged in their twenties in 1914 would have experienced, either directly or vicariously through their parents, the rise of Yarram as the chief town of the Shire. They would also have been aware of the ongoing efforts to extend settlement in the Hill Country of the Strzelecki Ranges, which was pursued relentlessly, under very difficult conditions, long before there was any modern sense of ‘Environment’. They would have followed keenly the work to improve roads, both within the Shire and across the Ranges to towns like Traralgon and Rosedale. They might have even started to think about the likely impact of the gradually increasing number of automobiles on the Shire’s roads, most of which were expensive and difficult to maintain. They would have been aware of the extent to which the Shire’s boundaries had been consolidated, with sections shifting across to both the Shire of South Gippsland (1894) and, only very recently, the Shire of Rosedale (1914). They would have known about the 1890s Depression and the abandonment of selections; but they would have been buoyed by the dramatic growth in the dairy industry – kick-started by new technology – which had been able to turn round the local economy and make a name for the district in terms of the excellence of its dairy produce. There was also the success of the timber industry. The extension of the southern railway to Alberton would definitely have been seen positively; but there was also the decline in the townships closer to the coast – Port Albert/Palmerston and Tarraville – and even in Alberton buildings had been dismantled and shifted to Yarram. Also relevant would have been the experience of the Boer War and pride in the small number of local men – probably no more than 10 – who enlisted and served in South Africa.

At the same time, even though the likes of town elders, local businessmen and successful dairy farmers would have taken pride in what had been achieved in such a comparatively short time they would also have been aware that there was much unfinished business and progress could be slow. For example, the foundation stone for the Yarram hospital was not laid until October 1914 and it would be another seven years before the train was continued from Alberton to Yarram. There was also the realisation that while the Shire had acted as the original gateway for Gippsland’s development, by 1914 the focus for regional growth had shifted beyond the Shire of Alberton and towns like Sale and Traralgon were larger than Yarram.

Moving back a generation to those of the Shire in their forties, recollections would have covered the original bush tracks that were hacked across the Ranges, and the settlement of places like Carrajung, to link with Central Gippsland. They would have recalled 1864 when the Shire of Alberton was proclaimed. They would also have recalled the various Selection Acts of the 1860s and 1870s that initially opened land in the lower parishes of Darriman, Woodside, Devon etc but which also, over time, led to holdings in the steeper, less accessible and progressively more impenetrable country in the Ranges. Settlement – always against the odds – spread from centres such as Binginwarri and Stacey’s Bridge right along the limits of what became the Grand Ridge Road to Gormandale. From this period of settlement there would have been memories of the many selectors who struggled with limited capital, limited experience of farming in such difficult country, and the seemingly overwhelming difficulties in just clearing the densely wooded land. There were many who abandoned their holdings. People would also have known of the pastoralists who used the same land legislation to consolidate their holdings. They would also have remembered all the various economic ventures that were pursued at the time: the shift from sheep to quality cattle; and success stories with mining – at Foster and Toora for example – and the timber and fishing industries.

Move back another generation and those in their sixties or older would have been able to add to the collective history of the Shire memories and impressions of the 1850s Gold Rush and the flight of labour from the district. There would certainly have been stories of the early pastoralists and their expansive runs which, effectively fenced in by the coast and the Ranges, stretched east to Merriman’s Creek and beyond. They would have known the origins of this industry in Gippsland, driven as it was by the profits associated with supplying meat to the convict settlement in Van Diemen’s Land. Port Albert was the critical shipping port for the trade and, fortuitously, it was at the very time the convict population was increasingly sharply. Perhaps this generation knew too of the frontier conflict between the squatters and the Indigenous people. But they might also by then have slipped into a form of collective amnesia on these matters, or glossed the whole business with reference to the Imperial narrative on ‘inevitability’. Some might even have been old enough to hold personal memories of the very beginning of European settlement in Gippsland, centred round Port Albert/Palmerston and Tarraville. There were probably also memories of the multiplicity of failed ventures, damaging rivalry between townships and the isloation and attendant lawlessness that characterised the first decade of settlement.

Overall, the common history shared by people in the Shire at the outbreak of WW1 was dominated by the theme of pioneering. At the start, the Shire had been geographically isolated. The bush and scrub were apparently impenetrable. The financial risks for squatters and other speculators had been great and, in time, everything would be stacked against the struggling selectors. There had been isolation and lawlessness, and services like education and health had had to be created from scratch. Families had had to rely on themselves and the family functioned as both a social and economic unit, with children’s labour – outside the requirements of compulsory schooling – a critical element in the success of the farming venture. Life for children, especially for children of dairy farmers, was particularly physically hard. Beyond the family, in the face of common hardships and extreme events like bushfire and flood people relied on their close neighbours and the local community. Life had always been a struggle, but as things then stood in 1914, the land had been conquered, settlements had been established – and they were generally successful and still expanding – the outlook both economically and socially was positive and, overall, the spirit of the pioneer had triumphed. The Shire’s success stood as a proud copy, although obviously on a smaller scale, of the very triumph of the Empire itself.

Even though short in years, the collective history of European settlement in the Shire of Alberton was a powerful one, and it is hardly surprising that the essential characteristics of the ‘pioneer’ or someone of ‘pioneer stock’ – toughness, resourcefulness, independence etc – were shifted so easily to the shoulders of the men from the Shire who enlisted.

However there is one significant qualification. Taken together, the generational memories outlined above shaped the Shire’s history; and, in turn, this shared history of the Shire fashioned people’s sense of responsibility and duty when the war began. But this dynamic relates exclusively to those of the Shire: those who were born and grew up in it or those who had been there long enough to identify with it. At the same time, there were many others in the Shire: the large group of itinerant rural workers, many of them immigrants, who made up the paid labour force. And men from this group – they described their occupation on enlistment forms as ‘farm labourer’ or, more commonly, just ‘labourer’ – enlisted in very large numbers. The complex relationship between these two groups – pioneers and labourers – living in the same location but not sharing the same history will be tackled in future posts.

For a general, comprehensive history of the Shire see:

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria) Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria.

It was published just a few years before the Shire of Alberton was amalgamated within the new, larger Shire of Wellington (1994).

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