218. The soldier settler’s dependent relationship on the local committee

Previous posts have highlighted the very close working relationship between the Closer Settlement Board based in Melbourne and the local council (Shire of Alberton). The key local official involved in the coordination of the soldier settlement scheme was the Shire Secretary (G W Black) but beneath this level of responsibility there was a series of nine local committees – referred to variously as ‘local valuation committees’, ‘local repatriation committees’ or simply ‘local committees’ – where each committee was made up of one councillor and two or three local land owners. Each of the three ridings in the Shire had three such committees which meant that, in all, there were approximately 35 local landowners involved in the administration of the scheme. The local committees were directly involved in the selection and valuation of suitable properties. Together with Black, as Shire Secretary, many of the individual committee members were also involved in providing references for ex-soldiers seeking to obtain the all-important qualification certificate (see Post 217). Many of the applicants had worked on the farms of these land owners before the War, as farm labourers. Some had taken up the same work after discharge.

This particular post looks at another key responsibility undertaken by the local committees: the provision of financial assistance – advances – to the soldier settlers as they sought to establish themselves on their new holdings.

Clearly, the overall soldier settlement scheme was designed to represent and respond to the expertise of established and successful land holders in the local community. There were points of difference and conflict between the Closer Settlement Board, based in Melbourne, and local interests but, overall, the soldier settlement scheme relied heavily on the support it received from the local community. While this emphasis on local involvement and support was crucial for the operation of the scheme, it is important to understand the effect it had on the relationship between the soldier settlers and the local, established, land owners, serving on the committees. As already argued, there was a significant generational divide involved. On one hand, there was the older generation of successful farmers, well established in the local area, who, in general, had been keen supporters of the War. In fact, the district had been a stronghold of Imperial Loyalists. It had, for example, prided itself on its support for conscription. This generation had urged its sons to enlist. At the same time, the dominant narrative surrounding the younger generation who had enlisted was that they had made enormous sacrifices, proved themselves in war and were now owed much, if not everything. The soldier settlement scheme was itself presented as a means of expressing the gratitude of the Nation. But, in practice, the administration of the scheme meant that the power rested with the older generation and even if this group had described the men as ‘heroes’ and campaigned for their access, as a right, to the soldier settlement scheme, the reality was that the soldier settlers found themselves under the very close supervision of their elders.

The following cases that illustrate this complex relationship have been drawn from correspondence files in the Shire of Alberton archives and, where available, files from the Public Records of Victoria (Soldier Settlement Scheme).

Archibald Murdoch Forsythe

Forsythe first enlisted at Bendigo in November 1914 in the Australian Naval Forces. He gave his age as 28 years old; but it appears he was born in 1890 (Vic BDMs). He was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ at the end of July 1915. He then re-enlisted immediately in Melbourne in the AIF (29 Battalion). For both enlistments, he indicated that he was not married. However, his embarkation form for later in 1915 indicates that he was married (Ada Forsythe, living in South Melbourne). I have not been able to find any record of the marriage. He was again discharged as medically unfit in September 1916 and returned from Egypt to Australia.

On his application for land, Forsythe gave his occupation as ‘farm labourer’ and his current address as Jack River. In response to the specific question on relevant experience, he wrote:

28 years in Gippsland at Yarram Yarram. Dairying & mixed farming.

However, I have not been able to verify this connection to the local area. He was born at Nurrabiel (near Horsham) and I have not been able to link him to any of the conventional references: school honour rolls, the electoral roll, local newspaper etc. Obviously, under the scheme, he did not need to have lived in the local area to apply for land in the district. Also, he was able to convince the Closer Settlement Board of his farm experience. But the specific reference to having spent 28 years – his entire working life – in Yarram appears incorrect.

Forsythe was given land under the scheme – 402 acres in the parish of Tarra Tarra – in August 1922. His application stated that he was single but that he was intending to marry within six months. There was a reference to the fact that he was to marry a widow. However I have not been able to establish if he did marry.

Forsythe’s land was valued at £2,056 and under the agreement he was committed to a six-monthly repayment of £61. The application also indicated he had very little capital (£190). There was no house on the property and he stated that he would be applying to the Closer Settlement Board for financial support for a house. But he did indicate that the widow he was to marry had sufficient furniture for the house. He also indicated that he would need financial support for stock, equipment etc. There were no improvements on his property other than fencing. At the time he made his application, Forsythe was not on any pension but he was in employment.

Clearly, the challenges facing Forsythe were major. He was, apparently, by himself. His health was likely compromised. He had limited capital. His property was essentially unimproved, and he was starting from scratch in setting up his farm. There was no house. In fact, he only lasted until March 1923 when his occupation permit was canceled for ‘non-payment’.

The issue of Forsythe’s financial position was an obvious concern for the Closer Settlement Board. In December 1922 – this was just a few months after he received his property – the CSB wrote to Black, in part calling for very close monitoring of Forsythe’s spending. The local committee was also involved, even to the extent of determining which items of furniture Forsythe could purchase:

This settler has applied for an advance for furniture and as the Inspector reports that he is without any means of buying it himself it has been decided to grant the advance not exceeding £35 for necessary articles only. It is desired to exercise strict supervision over this settler’s expenditure and he [Forsythe] has been instructed to consult your Committee in regard to the matter. I will be pleased if you will see that a pro-forma invoice for the articles recommended by the Committee is forwarded to this office.

it is a striking example of how dependent the soldier settlers were on the local committees and, of course, Black as the Shire Secretary and formal link with the CSB.

James Croy

On the face of it, the future for Croy as a soldier settler looked more promising. In 1920 he acquired a property of 123 acres at Binginwarri. A house and sheds were included. It was to be a mixed-farming venture, with 50 acres suitable for cropping. William Bland, a local valuer approved by the CSB, gave a positive assessment (20/3/20):

A well improved block of land which raises a good rate of grass & grows good crops Parts of it are rather steep which detracts from its value, otherwise a very nice dairy farm. Well subdivided & everything necessary for the successful working of the place in good order. Within half a mile of good main roads to Yarram, Toora or Welshpool. Cream carts call for produce 3 times weekly.

Bland also noted:

All heavy work in regard to clearing has been done and very little expense is necessary now to keep place in good order.

The cost of Croy’s property was £1,412 and he was committed to a half-yearly payment of £42/6/-. He stated his own capital to be £150 in a savings account. Like similar soldier settlers, Croy needed stock for his dairy farm and in September 1920 the CSB gave him permission to purchase stock locally. The permission was for 16 cows @ £12/5/- per head, for a total of £196. Clearly, establishing even a small dairy farm with the requisite amount of stock was an expensive proposition. Black, informed by the CSB of the approval for expenditure, wrote to Croy informing him that he had to provide him with the ‘full description of these animals’ – the 16 cows purchased – on the form he supplied. Black then forwarded all the paper work to the CSB.

Again, it is a clear example not just of the extent of the finance that needed to be provided to the settlers to establish their farms, but also of the very bureaucratic process involved and the degree to which the men’s spending was monitored.

Nightingale’s Estate 1920 and the role of the local committee

Nightingale’s Estate – parish of Carrajung – was set up in 1920 when a large landholding was subsided into several smaller farms. This was a case where stock and other buildings and equipment associated with the previous operation could be sold to the individual soldier settlers. On this occasion, there were dairy cows @ £16 per head. There were horses – typically the average cost was £20 per head – and there were even (transportable) buildings, for example a store room and ‘men’s hut’. There was also equipment, such as separators. Obviously, these new farms involved considerably more work – and expense – in setting up than the existing farms some soldier settlers managed to take over.

As an example of such arrangements, one of the settlers on the estate was James Gunn. He was working in the local area – Blackwarry – after the War as a farm labourer and he had spent some of his early life in the district. He was single and he had been a prisoner of war. He did at least have some capital, made up of about £500: savings £80, land in city £300, and war bond £128. His land was valued at £2,078. As part of the division of the previous farm’s stock, Gunn was advanced £320 to purchase ’30 dairy cows’. Again, it was a very significant additional cost in establishing his dairy farm.

Not surprisingly, given the amount of money involved and the significance of such purchases in the overall success or otherwise of the farms being established, the CSB wanted tight control over the whole process. It wrote to Black and requested that the Shire supervise the acquisition of the stock, equipment and buildings. There was an understanding that the Shire … would appoint a committee to inspect and approve of same. Basically, the stock, equipment etc all had to be inspected and approved by the local committee. The same committee would also have to ensure that all particulars in relation to any stock or equipment or plant, for which the CSB had advanced money for purchase, would be recorded and sent to Melbourne. It was a significant exercise in record-keeping. But, more significantly, the whole process would have underlined for the soldier settlers how important it was to ensure that they maintained a positive relationship with their local committee. The popular image might have been that the soldier settlers were forging new lives for themselves as independent farmers, relying on their own toughness, endurance and personal initiative – all attributes of the Anzacs – but the reality was that they were locked in a highly regulated bureaucratic process; and as part of this process, they needed to accept the close supervision of the local committee.

Robert Allen Neilson

Some of the requests from the soldier settlers for advances were for absolutely essential farming needs. Take the case of Robert Allen Neilson. Neilson was a local – born at Port Albert – who did not enlist until April 1918. At the time of enlistment, he was married and 34 years of age. He reached the UK in September 1918 but then became seriously ill with influenza and pneumonia and spent 2 months in hospital. When he returned to Australia in May 1919, he was discharged as medically unfit.

Neilson received land – 300 acres – when Ness’s Estate (Parish of Balloong) was established in late November 1920. It appears that while his farm – of the 5 created – had the largest acreage, it was also the cheapest (£2,100). There were much smaller holdings (for example,140 acres) that were valued far higher (£2,450) The significant difference in cost related to water. All the other 4 holdings had access to Bruthen Creek. Neilson’s holding was effectively cut off from access to the creek by the configuration of the other holdings. The only water on his property was a ‘windmill’ located in an extreme corner. It seems incredible that his holding was even created and the situation highlights the limitations involved in creating such ‘estates’. Not surprisingly, the issue of water became acute and in June 1921, Black, as Shire Secretary, wrote to the CSB requesting that Neilson be given an advance of £25 for the creation of a dam. Councillor Barlow as the council member in charge of the relevant local committee (Central Riding #1) had obviously raised the matter with Black. Black wrote (25/6/21):

I am forwarding herewith application for advance of £25 for excavation of dam. Cr Barlow recommends that a dam be put down in the middle of the property, at a cost of £25, as the only water on the place is in one corner of the property, which cannot be properly worked without water in another part. If this application is granted Cr Barlow will give full particulars as to size and depth later on.

Authority for the advance was given on 7/7/21.

Herbert J Harrison

The case of Herbert Harrison illustrates how seriously the local committee took their responsibility to monitor the soldier settlers. The key issue in this case turned on who was responsible for the monitoring.

The issue arose when Harrison approached his local committee for an advance. He wanted £60 for purchase of stock (cows). But Harrison had dealt directly with the CSB to secure his property. Further, he had also previously negotiated advances – for the purchase of farm equipment – directly with the CSB. Now he was approaching the local committee; and they wanted some essential background. Cr McLeod, the relevant councillor on the local committee, approached Black as Shire Secretary. McLeod had had no prior dealings with Harrison and he wanted to know how much money had already been advanced to Harrison, how he was considered by the CSB and ‘his financial position with regard to his land’. Consequently, Black wrote to the CSB on the issue of responsibility. He noted that McLeod … does not feel justified in recommending a further advance to this settler unless he has something to go on, and at present he is in the dark. Black argued that if Harrison was to be the local committee’s responsibility then they needed the background information on his position. Overall, the case was an indication of how seriously the local committees took their responsibility. And behind this, of course, is the further observation that the efforts, success and requests of individual soldier settlers were very closely monitored.

Issue of ‘sustenance’, an allowance to provide for living expenses

So far the focus has been on the provision of additional finance so that soldier settlers could purchase stock, plant, equipment etc to establish their farms. There were instances where a soldier settler was able to acquire what was effectively a working farm but more commonly they faced significant challenges in establishing their holdings. This meant that it was bound to take some time before any sort of income could be generated. Therefore, it was not just a question of providing funds for the establishment of the farming operation but also of providing a level of ‘sustenance’ to cover the living costs of the settler and, where relevant, his family, until the farm generated income. Once again, it was the local committee that supervised this part of the overall scheme.

George James Austin secured land at North Devon in 1919. On 10/7/19, the Closer Settlement Board wrote to Black requesting his advice on whether sustenance should be offered and for how long. Black, presumably based on advice from the relent local committee, replied on 14/7/19:

… Austin has a lot of work to do on his land and that it will be about four or five months before he gets any return. The Council, therefore, recommends that sustenance be granted to him for a period of four months.

Frederick John McKay

The situation involving Frederick McKay offers another example of how sustenance was granted. It is an interesting case because even though McKay was moving onto what could be described as an established farm he also required sustenance.

McKay took on 100 acres in the parish of Binginwarri. The land was described as being 1 mile from the Wonyip PO. From the PROV (Battle to Farm) file for McKay, we know some detail about the farm. His permit to hold the lease and occupy the land was issued in May 1920. The capital value of the land was £1,111. McKay’s assets were declared to be £100, but only £20 was cash, with the rest made up of furniture (£40) and stock (£40). The property was described by the local CSB appointed valuer (William Bland) in positive terms. Bland had written earlier (31/1/20):

A well improved little dairy farm with all necessary buildings for use, the buildings are all in good repair & most of the boundary fencing – cream carts pass the door & collect all cream.

Bland also noted that the farm was … within half a mile of good roads to Yarram, Toora or Welshpool … and that … all heavy work in regard to clearing has been done and very little expense is necessary now to keep place in good order.

Further, there was good feed for cattle on the property. Bland estimated that about 40 acres of the 100 acre property could be cultivated – oats, maize – and he noted that at the time there were potatoes and peas being grown. There was a 6-room wooden house on the farm as well as a cowshed. There was permanent water from a creek and springs. The rainfall was given as 45 inches per annum.

Overall, Bland considered that the farm was a desirable one and he estimated that it was capable of returning £300 per annum.

McKay himself was from outside the local district. He had been born at Meredith. When he enlisted at Geelong in July 1915 he gave his uncle as next-of-kin, noting that both parents were dead. He was 19 years-old and single. He was working as a farm labourer. He went on to serve in both Egypt and France.

From his service file, McKay was wounded twice. The first time – ‘GSW, arm’ – was in July 1916. As a result he was hospitalised in the UK. He did not rejoin his unit (58 Battalion) until mid March 1917 and then, just a few days later, he was wounded again: ‘SW Lt (fore) Arm’. He was again sent to the UK for treatment, but then this time repatriated to Australia for a medical discharge (30/11/17). He was on a pension of 7/6 per week. Interestingly, on his paper work for taking on the land, he declared that he was suffering from no ‘physical disabilities’ from his war service. On the face of it, it is hard to believe that someone wounded and hospitalised twice and discharged as ‘medically unfit’ would not have been carrying some significant physical disability. A single person in this condition, taking on the onerous demands of mixed farming, would have struggled. Indeed, McKay left the farm – the lease was transferred – in 1927, on the grounds of ‘ill health’.

When McKay took on the farm in 1920 he had very little capital and requested sustenance. In July 1920 the CSB contacted Black to seek his assessment. In turn, Black contacted the councillor (T J McGalliard) from the relevant local committee (#3, South Riding). The formal response to the CSB was that … Sustenance should be paid until his cows are bringing in a return, probably early in September. The CSB then advised Black that McKay was to be given sustenance (15/- per week) for two months from 9/8/20.

It is also worth noting that the next month (September 1920) McKay was also given permission by the CSB to purchase additional stock (cows) to the value of £74. Once again, the CSB insisted that the purchase was dependent on the direct involvement of the local committee and that full records had to be completed. the CSB wrote to Black:

The purchase of the animals is subject to the approval of a representative of your Committee who should approve only of the number for which feed is available. Full description and brands should be furnished on the enclosed form.
Mr Mckay has been advised to get in touch with you.

Overall

The above cases illustrate, again, that for all the high sentiment expressed about the soldier settlement scheme being a just reward for the brave and heroic boys who had sacrificed so much for the young nation, the application of the scheme itself was highly bureaucratised and tightly supervised. It is also clear that many soldier settlers had limited financial capital and as limited experience in the financial management of a farm. Certainly, in taking on the role of soldier settler they also took on very high levels of debt. The debt related not just to the acquisition of the land but also the significant establishment costs involved. Additionally, some soldier settlers were new to the district and did not have access to the essential ‘local capital’ – knowledge of local farming, contacts, family support etc – that family and friends could provide. Some of the returned men also struggled with significant physical disabilities. Critically, it was also the case that they were heavily reliant on the older generation of established farmers and landowners who were charged with managing the scheme locally and who were constantly called on by the Closer Settlement Board to monitor, assess and report on their individual efforts as soldier settlers.

References

Archives, Shire of Alberton
Box 432
Four of 7 volumes numbered 2-8
Volume 3:July 1919 – Nov 1919
Volume 5: March 1920 – August 1920
Volum6 6: Sept 1920 –
Volume 8: 1922

Battle to farm: WW1 Soldier Settlement records in Victoria
Public Record Office Victoria

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