219. The extent and significance of local involvement in the soldier settlement scheme

Previous posts have focused on how important the local, established farmers were in the operation of the soldier settlement scheme. They provided the references required to secure the all-important Qualification Certificate. They determined if successful applicants were to be advanced additional finance – and how much – to purchase stock, equipment, fencing, building materials, seed etc. They even determined matters like the selection of stock, and the decision on how many stock could be run on the property. They also judged if settlers were to be provided with ’sustenance’ payments before the farm returned any profit, and for how long. The scheme was very much one delivered at the local level with significant input from the local, farming community.

I have already mentioned the significance of the ‘local valuation committee’. It was a small committee made up of a local councillor and 2 or 3 local landowners. Typically the local councillor was also a local farmer or grazier. In the case of the Shire of Alberton, there were 3 such committees for each Riding, which came to a total of nine. Allowing for membership changes – for example, changes to councillor positions after local elections – it appears that over the period from 1919 to 1922 approximately 40 locals served on the committees. Obviously, the group as a whole took in some of the largest landholders in the district. For example, graziers – B E Buckley, A H Moore, R P Nicol and H G Bodman – were well represented. There were also the successful dairy farmers, with holdings typically between 100 and 200 acres. It is also worth noting the strong representation of local councillors. There were the nine required for the committee structure, but several others on the committees had also served as councillors. Overall, of the 40 members, no fewer than 13 had served as local councillors in the Shire. Also, within this group of councillors, 5 had actually served in the position of Shire President (Neils J Christensen, Thomas J McGalliard, Charles Barlow, William Bland and Henry G Bodman). Obviously, there was a strong representation of people heavily involved in local politics as well as those who had significant vested interests in the local rural economy.

The function of the local valuation committee was to inspect local land that was offered to the Closer Settlement Board (CSB). They had to assess both the quality and value of the land offered and their valuation was based on their experience of land values and sales in the local area. Each member of the committee had to sign the report submitted to the CSB. If the CSB found the report favourable and wanted to proceed, it would seek additional valuations from a CSB appointed ‘board valuer’ who operated on a state-wide basis and a CSB appointed ‘local valuer’ who was tied to a particular region. There is correspondence to Black, as Shire Secretary, in February 1920 advising him that the three ‘local valuers’ for the area were W Bland, Yarram; G Christensen, Welshpool; and A G McPherson, Toora. William Bland had also served as a former president of the Shire (1916).

In terms of remuneration. the two CSB appointed positions of valuer were paid for their work, but the work of those on the local valuation committees was honorary; although they could apply for some travel reimbursement. Black as Secretary for the Shire serving all local committees and dealing with the CSB was given an allowance of £50 per annum.

Written instructions for the local committees forwarded to Black, as Shire Secretary, from the CSB made it clear that there was some attempt to limit corruption. Regulation 10 stated:

No valuer or member of the Valuation Sub-Committee shall inspect and report upon any property in which he is directly or indirectly interested.

The reality was that friendships, business associations and family connections across the relatively contained geographic region that made up the local government area, meant that inevitably there would have been instances of at least ‘indirect interests’ affecting such a large group of 40 local landholders. Moreover, all 9 local valuation committees were effectively representing the interests of their smaller area. They all had a direct interest in at least maintaining the overall price of land in their locality.

The general business of making and defending valuations was supposed to be kept confidential, and there are many instances in the correspondence between Black and the CSB where this point is made. For example, the CSB advises Black by letter (11/6/19) that land offered for purchase by SCH Emmerson – 120 acres at Binginwarri – had been rejected. The letter noted … I have to inform you that the offer of this property has been declined as the Closer Settlement Board considers that more suitable properties can be purchased for the settlement of Returned Soldiers. It added,

As this matter is confidential, no press reports should be published.

Obviously, there was considerable scope for significant differences in the valuation of the land. There was the landholder’s asking price, the valuation given by the local valuation committee, additional valuations by the two CSB-appointed valuers, the price proposed by the CSB and, lastly, the price that the vendor was prepared to accept. Publicity on significant variations in all these values would not be helpful as it could undermine confidence in the system,

It is worth looking at the work of the local valuation committee in relation to actual property offered for sale. In September 1919, a land owner in the parish of Giffard offered 4 parcels of land for sale to the CSB. The land was inspected and valued by the committee (North Riding 1) consisting of Cr Nightingale, George Irving and Robert Lamb. The committee’s report made it clear that they had serious issues with the property being offered.

The land was divided into 4 parcels and each parcel was made up of two lots. Three parcels consisted of one lot of 640 acres and the second lot for each of these three parcels was 310, 315 and 202 acres. The fourth parcel of land being offered consisted of one lot of 582 acres and a second lot of 209 acres. The problem for the committee was that it rated the three lots of 310, 315 and 582 acres as ‘useless’ or of ‘no value for closer settlement’. According to the committee, the most valuable land was the 209 acres in parcel 4. This land was described as ‘black soil’ , as opposed to the ‘light, gritty soil’ of all the other land offered. It was suitable for ‘fattening or dairying’ as opposed to all the other land which was suitable for ‘sheep’. The committee valued this land at £8/5/0 per acre. The other land was only valued between £2/15/0 and £4/0/0 per acre. It is not clear if the land – or some portion of it – was purchased by the CSB.

At the same time, there is additional correspondence in the Shire Archives that indicates that land not rated as suitable for soldier settlement by the local valuation committee was in fact purchased by the CSB. For example, Black wrote to Cr Nightingale 0n 3/8/20 advising him that the CSB wanted a report on land that it had just purchased. In fact, it was land which Nightingale’s committee had previously found to be ‘unsuitable for the settlement of returned soldiers’.

There are several issues that stand out. The first is the possibility that vendors were taking advantage of the soldier settlement scheme, with its demand for land, to offload and make a profit on land that was rated as poor. The second is the significance of the individual vendor’s practice of parcelling up the land and, related to this, the CSB’s sub division of the land into settlers’ farms. For the vendor, the intention was to maximise profit and for the CSB the plan was to maximise the number of viable farms. We have already seen what could go wrong with such imperatives, including the creation of settlers’ farms that had no, or very limited, access to water. There was also the potential for significant variability in the quality of the soil across the newly created individual farms. The third issue relates to the differential between the vendor’s asking price and the committee’s valuation. Typically, the vendor’s price was significantly higher than the committee’s valuation. Again, the point needs to be made that while the soldier settlement scheme was routinely described in terms of a reward for the returning Anzacs and an expression of the Nation’s gratitude etc, the reality was that market forces, not altruism, drove the scheme.

There were occasions when the local valuation committee played a direct role in the actual subdivision of the land purchased for soldier settlement. This was the case with Scott’s Estate which was established at the end of 1919. This particular example shows how the local committee was first involved in the recommendation to purchase the land and then in the planning of the sub division.

The land in question was described as 3,200 acres belonging to Alex Scott, in the parish of Woodside. On 25/11/18 the local valuation committee (North Riding #1: Cr Charles Nightingale, George Irving, Robert Lamb) inspected the land and recommended its purchase. The committee determined that a fair price for the land was £9/10/- an acre. The land was declared to be ‘healthy’. The land was said not to be … infested with ferns, Canadian thistle, blackberry, or other noxious weeds. The committee believed that the land was suitable for ‘general farming’ and ‘dairying’ and recommended its purchase for the ‘settlement of returned soldiers’. The committee also believed that it was suitable for subdivision and, in keeping with the conventional wisdom of the time, gave the recommendation of ‘about 200 acres in each farm’. The committee finished with,

The land is at present fenced making it very suitable for subdivision and we strongly recommend the purchase of the land at about the price named above. [£9/10/- an acre]

Black forwarded the committee’s report and recommendation to the CSB on 18/12/18. He also noted in his covering letter that the value of the land had increased significantly since it was last valued by the Shire, eight years earlier:

The value of the land based on the municipal assessment is £5/6/- per acre. The last municipal valuation was made in 1910.

The CSB accepted the recommendation and the land was purchased; although the final price per acre paid is unknown. At the same time, it appears that the soldier settlers themselves paid between £9 and £10 per acre. The negotiations must have been drawn out because the purchase was not finalised until the end of 1919, 12 months later.

In early December (4/12/19) Black wrote to Cr Nightingale, as the convenor of North Riding #1 Local Valuation Committee, to advise him that ‘Scott’s Estate’ had been purchased for soldier settlement and that Council input was being requested by the CSB for the design of the proposed subdivision. Black advised that the committee for this task was to be the ’Shire President or his nominee, the Board’s Valuer and the District Surveyor’ (P Campbell). Cr Nightingale was to be the Shire President’s nominee. As things turned out, Cr Barlow also became involved in the work. Cr Charles Barlow was convenor of another local valuation committee – Central Riding #1 – and he had served as Shire President. Clearly, there was significant local input for the planning of the sub division.

After the inspection of the land (9/12/19) matters moved quickly and in early March 1920 a court was held in Yarram to determine the successful applicants for the sub division. Newspaper advertisements from the time described how Scott’s Estate comprised 3,096 acres and it was located 14 miles from the railway station at Yarram and 16 miles from the station at Port Albert. There was a state school and Post Office at Woodside, 2 miles from the estate. The land has been divided into 12 allotments from 206 acres to 346 acres. Prices for the blocks ranged form from £2,285 to £2,498.The sub division was suitable for mixed farming, and the rainfall was given as 28 inches.

It is also worth noting that the ‘court’ set up to determine the successful applicants was composed of 4 officers, with two of the four being local councillors, in this instance Crs O’Connor and Barlow. Again, this arrangement highlights just how intimately the local council was involved in the whole process: choosing suitable properties and providing valuations; being involved in the design of the relevant sub division; and being directly involved in the selection of successful applicants.

The successful 12 applicants – plus the acreage of their farm and the price paid – are as follows:

Victor Frederick Bird: 222 acres £2221
Geo Albert Cutmore: 243 acres £2284
John Fanning: 222 acres £2231
Ernest Arthur Heyfron: 222 acres £2321
Lionel James Keats: 206 acres £2317
William Mathieson: 206 acres £2317
Alfred Ernest Cecil Riddett: 232 Acres £2221

Geo Finlay: 246 acres £2491
Edward Herbert Hector Missen: 206 acres £2317
Simon John O’Neil: 333 acres £2497
Colin Robert Paterson: 333acres £2497
Percival Thomas Quinn: 326 acres £2490

The first seven men listed above were returned soldiers from outside the Shire, whereas the second list (five men) covered men who had enlisted from the local area. The difference points to the number of soldier settlers who attempted to set themselves up in districts where they had no ‘local’ connection. Sometimes the number of ‘non-locals’ taking up land under the scheme represented an even higher proportion. For example, Prospect Estate in the parish of Giffard, near Seaspray was set up in late 1919. There were 17 farms in the sub division but from what I have been able to uncover it appears that only two of the soldier settlers involved had lived and worked in the Shire prior to enlisting. On the other hand, there were estates where locals dominated. For example, there was a smaller estate – Nightingale’s Estate, Carrajung (1920) – where 4 of the 5 dairy farms established went to returned local men.

There are several points to note in relation to ‘outsiders’ attempting to become soldier settlers in the district. As already noted, men from outside the area lacked ‘local capital’. Whilst they might have had general farming experience, they were not intimately familiar with farming in the particular district. More significantly, they did not have the contacts and support that locals, whose families had been farming in the district for several generations, could call on. Not surprisingly, you had commentary in the local media that favoured the claim that the soldier settlers should farm in the areas where they were experienced. For example in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 26/11/20 there was an article quoting the claim from Woorayl Shire, South Gippsland that local men had … a far better knowledge of the conditions and methods of working land in this part of Gippsland than those from other parts. At the same time, there was obviously no preference given to locals and, presumably, the key reason for this was because of the number of returned men trying to set themselves up as soldier settlers. There was clearly high demand. For example, in relation to Scott’s Estate (above) newspaper reports (Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 5/3/20) indicated that there had been 50 applications in total for the 12 farms and that because of …. the very large number of applications for this court, we are informed that three other areas each over 1000 acres will shortly be subdivided. Such levels of demand from the returned men, fuelled by the availability of government finance, inevitably created a type of land scramble and supported an overall hike in land values. It also supported growth in all related economic activities – transport, sale of stock, building materials, seed, agricultural equipment etc – across the district; and this increased level of activity was more important than the issue of whether the new soldier settlers were locals.

So far the focus has been on the purchase of large ‘estates’ which were then subdivided into a number of small farms. Applications would then come from the broad pool of returned men. But there were also instances where a single property was purchased by a soldier settler. There was the case of John Clark who purchased land, via the CSB, from two brothers – Charles and Francis Beagley – of Devon North. John Clark was a local who had enlisted in March 1916 as a 25 yo. He was single and gave his occupation as farm labourer but his father (Owen Clark) was recorded on the electoral roll as a farmer of Devon North. According to the 1914 rate book, the father had a small holding of a few acres at Devon North. Clark was wounded in April 1917 – ‘gsw back’ – and repatriated to Australia in November the same year. One month later he was discharged as ‘wounded’. Presumably there was a period of hospitalisation or convalescence of some form in Melbourne because it looks like he did not return to the district until September 1918 when he received a very large welcome home at Devon. Black, as Shire Secretary, records in his summary of work undertaken with the CSB in 1918 that Clark had negotiated with Francis Hamilton Beagley, farmer of Devon North, and Charles Beagley, also farmer of Devon North, for the purchase of 2 allotments (113a and 115a) in the parish of Devon. Black noted:

I have assisted vendors and purchaser to complete the forms which have been forwarded to the Board.

It is not clear if the necessary valuation was completed by the local valuation committee or by the board-appointed local valuer. Presumably, all those involved in this particular transaction would have known each other and shared a long history with the same location.

While the above example shows how locals could negotiate directly with each other, there were other cases where the nature of the negotiated deal was even more intimate, involving the family of the aspiring soldier settler. Two examples are relevant. In relation to the first, Black received correspondence from the CSB (12/4/20) advising that it had agreed to purchase property – 193 acres – from Robert Lee of Wonyip. The applicant for the land was Lee’s son, Roy Edward Lee of Christies PO via Toora. There is a further note in the correspondence indicating that the son’s permit to occupy the property was dated 25/2/21.

The Lee family were pioneers in the district. The 1914 rate book has the father – Robert Lee, farmer, Binginwarri – with 3 properties. Two were in the parish of Binginwarri and one in the parish of Wonyip. The rate book also showed an older son – Robert Wallace Lee – with land in his own name – 20 acres – at Binginwarri.

The 2 Lee brothers had enlisted together in July 1916. Roy was 23 yo and Robert Wallace was 3 years older. Both brothers survived the war. Roy was gassed and hospitalised in UK but discharged as TPE in October 1919.

One possible explanation for the arrangement whereby the father sold part of his land to the CSB so that one his sons could become a soldier settler on the same land is that the father saw the opportunity to set both sons up on the land. Robert as the oldest son would be able to take over the family farm and Roy was able to be set up in his own right on land that had previously been part of the family farm. Effectively, government finance was making the arrangement possible. Further, when Roy took up the land there are records that show that he applied for advances for stock and also for sustenance for himself. Again, government credit was being accessed to set him up.

There was another example of this family dynamic in 1923. William Prout enlisted in April 1916. He was 34 yo and single. He was the son of a dairy farmer at Wonyip. He was farewelled for the Shire – and received his Shire medallion – in November 1916. He survived the War and returned to Australia in November 1916 and was discharged – TPE – in October the same year.

The shire archives show that the father – John Morse Powell Prout – sold 179 acres of land at Wonyip to the CSB in 1923 for £700. The land was allocated to his soldier settler son, William. It is not possible to know the exact motivation in such cases but it appears that some local farming families, with sons returning from the War, were keen to employ the scheme to assist with family succession planning.

Overall, there was clearly a very high level of involvement in the soldier settlement scheme at the local level. Local government was involved, as were community elders, successful local land owners and individual families. The motivation behind this involvement was complex and multi-levelled

Certainly, there was the very powerful motivation wrapped up in the altruism of the ‘Nation’’s debt of gratitude’. It was the key motivation that sat behind everything. Effectively, from very early in the War it had become established wisdom that a soldier settlement scheme would be essential both to ‘repay’ the men for their sacrifice and set them up for their future. Moreover, it would be a closer settlement scheme that would work – unlike many previous attempts – precisely because of the very nature of the men themselves: rugged and tough; individualistic but, at the same time, bonded by mateship; enterprising, risk-taking and strong on initiative; fatalistic and determined etc. These were men who had proved themselves in battle and who could now take on any challenge. The local community had to get behind them and support them, particularly those who had grown up and lived and worked in the district before enlistment. Even in cases where the soldier settler was an ‘outsider’ there was still the debt owed to the Anzac. All the soldier settlers had to be supported, even if that ’support’ often looked like tight control and close direction.

There was also more hard-edged motivation behind the involvement. For several generations, closer settlement had been an ongoing pursuit in rural communities such as the Shire of Alberton. But there was also a long history of problems and failure with such schemes. On this occasion, it was in the interests of both the Closer Settlement Board and the Shire to ensure success. For the Shire, the success of the scheme would boost the overall economic fortunes of the district. The plentiful government money backing the scheme would provide the essential capital to boost economic activity – in farming and all related industries – right across the community. It was essential therefore that the basics of the scheme – the selection of the land, the design of the estates, the setting up of the farms etc – were implemented with the best local advice and involvement. This local input had to be ‘honest’ and ‘critical’ in the sense that if the interests of the soldier settlers could not be represented and protected, and they failed, then the interests of the Shire would also be damaged.

Unsurprisingly, was also another level of more personal and self-interested motivation at play. Like any government scheme, there were individual parties keen to exploit opportunities that the scheme presented. The most obvious opportunity was to take advantage of the artificially created demand for land in the district.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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

1 thought on “219. The extent and significance of local involvement in the soldier settlement scheme

  1. Ken

    The emphasis on local knowledge suggests to me that the AIF education scheme set up by George Long after the armistice might not have benefited many soldiers when they applied for land grants. Touring English farms and attending agricultural shows probably wouldn’t convince councillors and local land owners that a soldier was capable of operating a farm in south eastern Australia. Have you noticed any references to the education scheme among the materials on soldier settler applications?

    Reply

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