220. Soldier settlement: a scheme of best intentions designed with inherent weaknesses

This post basically looks at the unfolding problems that came from the very design of the soldier settlement scheme. In particular, the focus is on the mismatch between the best of ideological intentions and the historical and economic realities of closer settlement.

Misplaced optimism at the start of the soldier settlement scheme

At the start of 1921 there was a generally optimistic assessment of the soldier settlement scheme. However, within just a few years circumstances changed dramatically; and the Victorian Government established a Royal Commission (1925) to investigate the scheme, against the consensus that it faced major difficulties, if, in fact, it had not failed completely.

An article in the South Gippsland Chronicle in January 1921 (21/1/21) summed up the optimism at the start of the third year of the scheme. There was positive commentary on the quality of the men themselves:

In districts where returned soldiers are settled, they have created a highly favorable impression. They are showing a marked aptitude for their new calling, and working earnestly and energetically with a fixed determination to succeed.

There was the conviction that the scheme was going to be a success and that the level of inevitable failures in any form of closer settlement would be manageable:

From present indications the percentage of failures will be small, much smaller than might be expected. The State will greatly benefit by the increased production that will result from placing returned soldiers on the land.

Overall, in a time of good seasons and strong demand for more land to accommodate the great number of potential settlers, the future of the scheme looked very positive:

A satisfactory feature of the good season is that it will enable returned soldiers who have gone on the land to make an auspicious commencement in farming. Those who have embarked on either wheat growing or dairying, and they constitute the majority, could not have done so at a better time. These industries are enjoying a year of unprecedented prosperity, and both are in a buoyant condition, as up to the close of 1920,1,419,589 acres was purchased for repatriation purposes, at a prime cost of £10,821,676. At the end of November 6,540 men were placed on farms, and land is available, or is being made available, for 2,268 more.

Notwithstanding the optimism, there were also hard lessons from the long history of closer settlement schemes in Victoria generally and Gippsland specifically. True, the soldier settlement scheme post WW1 had two major positives associated with it. The first was the high degree of government – at all three levels of commonwealth, state and local – support for and encouragement of the scheme, where the support was driven by what amounted to ideological conviction, with a strong sense of a national debt being repaid. The second, and it obviously related to the ideological conviction of the first, took in the make up of the settlers themselves: the soldier settlers embodied all the attributes, experiences and skills that had created the success of the Anzacs. They were the best of the best. This was a closer settlement scheme that could not fail.

But there were plenty of warnings and, specifically, the history of closer settlement in the Shire was not something that could be ignored. In fact, at the time, there was a very obvious example of settlement failures in the district. It was the focus of much attention. The local papers featured stories through 1921 about settlers abandoning their blocks in the ‘Hill Country’ in South Gippsland. This area had been opened up to closer settlement from the late 19C. The settlers found the clearing of the land – it was very hilly with enormous gullies; and covered in massive eucalypts with a dense understory of smaller trees, shrubs and ferns – extremely difficult, and far more demanding than that involved in the earlier history of selection in the Shire, dating from the 1860s. The Hill Country took in settlements at Woorarra and Gunyah from the 1890s. In the first decade of the 20C it also included settlements such as Binginwarri, Wonyip, Whitelaw’s Track, Womerah, Fairview (Hiawatha), Madalya and Lower Bulga/Mack’s Creek. But, as noted, even as these new settlements were being established, earlier settlers in the Hill Country were abandoning their blocks.

In April 1921 (29/4/21), the South Gippsland Chronicle ran a story under the headline, Abandoned Hill blocks. It reported on a deputation of settlers from the Gunyah area who wanted the Minister of Lands to take action over what was described as ’34,000 acres of land that had been abandoned by the original holders’. One of the key issues was that the abandoned land was now held by financial institutions and private mortagees who were effectively under no compulsion to maintain it, in the sense of controlling noxious weeds and vermin. The deputation believed that the land in this abandoned state, without new settlers to take it up, would continue to degrade. They wanted the vacant blocks picked up by either soldier settlers or immigrants:

It was urged that this land was valuable for the settlement of returned soldiers or immigrants, and that if an area of 7500 acres recently swept by bush fires and now ready for sowing were not taken up and cultivated out kept cleared it would go back to the virgin state and be difficult and expensive to reclaim.

Even though the blocks had been abandoned by the original settlers, the deputation was still convinced that a new group of settlers could succeed. They argued that the soil was fertile and that 150 acres was sufficient land for a successful holding. What was needed was ‘the right class of man’. The deputation from Gunyah also drew attention to the need for government support with the provision of adequate roads. Both the lack of roads, and the poor quality of the existing ones, were constant concerns throughout this period.

later in 1921, there was legislation to encourage closer settlement in South Gippsland, in what was described as an area of 40,000 acres. Essentially, it was land that had been abandoned by settlers who had struggled for ten to fifteen years. In line with what historians refer to as the ‘Agrarian Myth’ of colonial Australia, the target audience for the new scheme were immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland and British Dependencies. Principally, the myth was underpinned by the belief that there was a symbiotic relationship between Australia and Britain, one stream of which involved the excess population of Britain serving as the essential labour force for Australia’s rural industries to help boost primary production.

The critical observation here is that at the very time the soldier settlement scheme was implemented in the Shire of Alberton- and Victoria, generally – there was direct experience of significant failure associated with very recent and ongoing attempts at closer settlement. Admittedly, the soldier settlement scheme was different, chiefly because the settlers were Anzacs and, also, there was such a commitment to its success from all levels of government and the local populace. However, sitting behind such ideological conviction and commitment, there were very powerful forces and limitations that had compromised all previous instances of closer settlement.

Based on recent history, people at the time knew the complex and interrelated host of factors that determined success or failure in terms of closer settlement. Briefly, there was a set of ‘natural’ factors that took in characteristics such as the quality of the soil, the rainfall, the nature and degree of the essential land ‘clearing’ required. Then there were the issues specific to the individual farm selected. These included such as the size of the holding, the topography, the way the sub division had been created and what that meant in terms of such basic issues as the individual farm’s access to water and roads. There was another set of factors in relation to the individual settler and his family which covered characteristics such as the level of experience and expertise and the amount of family labour available. There was also the issue of the level of support from the wider family or local community that the individual settler and family could call on. Related to such personal factors, there were issues to do with the proximity to local townships and community facilities, particularly to local state schools. The quality of the season(s) obviously played a role. So too did the reality of changing markets for farm produce. And, critically, there was the issue of capital. Limited capital – and this was a very common experience – meant that there was no ‘buffer’ to absorb any of the inevitable financial shocks that occurred. And just as there was no capital to absorb any losses, there was also no capital to invest in essential stock, seed, supplies, farming equipment, fencing ….. which were all required for the farm to grow, or even survive.

Abandoned blocks in the Shire of Alberton

The following section examines several specific examples of individual soldier settlers in the Shire of Alberton who, for one reason or another, abandoned their blocks. The cases show the myriad of factors that drove such a fateful decision.

John William Cantwell (607)

Sometimes, there was no indication why the block was abandoned, just a reference to the fact that it had happened. Consider the case of the local ex-soldier John Cantwell. In the Shire Archives, there is a letter (9/4/23) from Black to Inspector Ford, who was based at Foster, advising him that urgent action was required in relation to the block that Cantwell had abandoned:

The house on Cantwell’s abandoned block in the Parish of Bulga is in danger of destruction by fire. Cr Barlow recommends that Mr. Robt. McKenzie, who is an applicant for the block, be placed in charge of the property.

Cr Barlow was in charge of the relevant local evaluation committee. In this instance the recommendation was adopted by the CSB, with the proviso that McKenzie paid rent on Cantwell’s former property at the rate of 10/- per week.

John William Cantwell was a local from Stacey’s Bridge who had enlisted as a 21 yo in September 1914. He had worked on his father’s farm. His service overseas (4 LHR) was extensive and he returned to Australia at the end of 1918 on Anzac leave. He was discharged in early 1919. There was a significant service history of sickness and hospitalisation, and he had suffered no fewer than 3 bouts of malaria over the course of his overseas service.

Files in the Shire Archives indicate that Cantwell received land – 169 acres – in Sutton’s Estate, Bulga in December 1920. One year later, there is correspondence relating to his request for an advance to purchase essential dairying equipment: a ‘separator’ for £30 and ‘cream cans’ for £5/15/-. As was usual with such requests, the chair of the local valuation committee – in this case, J H Connor of Woodside (Cr O’Connor, North Riding #2) – was asked for his assessment of the request. In a letter to Black (16/12/21) he replied:

I have no hesitation in recommending the advance [for separator etc] mentioned for Cantwell as he is a good doer & would not go in for anything that was not necessary.

Clearly, the start of Cantwell’s stint as a soldier settler was promising and he had support from the local valuation committee, but for whatever reason, just two years later, his block had been abandoned.

Reginald Box (4577)

The case involving Box, serves as a stark example of the level of debt that soldier settlers had to service. It also shows how such debt continued to follow them even after they had abandoned their block.

Reginald Box was born in Kent, UK. He enlisted as a 21 yo in Melbourne in June 1915. He gave his occupation at the time of enlistment as ‘motor driver’. He was not local to the Shire of Alberton.

Box was discharged from the AIF as ‘medically unfit’ (neurasthenia) in October 1916. He first appears in the soldier settlement files of the Shire Archives in February 1922 when he was allotted land in the parish of Tarra Tarra. The files also show that he was given advances to set himself up in mixed farming. In fact, the files show exactly what sort of advances were given by the Closer Settlement Board, with the approval of the local valuation committee. They also indicate the extent of debt that could be very quickly built up. In the case of Box, there were advances for cows (£96), horses (£45), a disc plow (£45/10/-), cream cans and buckets (£13/2/-), a spring cart (£20), a separator (£20), harrows (£9/5/-) and a harness (£15/17/-). With little or no capital, the soldier settlers were forced to take on very high levels of debt simply to begin farming. With Box, the debt continued to grow because later (October) that same year he needed further advances for grass seed (£3/15/- ) and manure (£2/18/9). At the start of 1923, there was even approval of an advance for the purchase of ‘light lorry’. The acquisition of the vehicle had been recommended by the CSB Inspector. But this advance was later cancelled. Presumably, Box had found the ever increasing level of debt unsustainable. Or perhaps Black, as the middle-man who was overseeing the advances and the one with an awareness of the farm’s success or otherwise, began to raise concerns. It is also worth noting that, at least for the first part of 1922, Box was also receiving sustenance.

It appears that Box gave up his block towards the end of 1923. In effect, he lasted less than two years.

As an indication of how close the relations were between the individual soldier settler and local officials, Box actually wrote to his local valuation committee, via Black as Shire Secretary, in March 1924 (25/3/24). He was hoping to enlist help in his dispute with the CSB over the size of his debt. At that point, Box was living in Sydney. He explained that after giving up his block he had been unable to find work, first in Yarram and then Melbourne. In Sydney, he and his wife were running a small shop, thanks to family contacts, but they were ‘only struggling along’.

In his letter, Box explained that on the farm he had been assisted by his brother and wife, and that none of them had taken any holidays. He also made a point of stating that he had tried to avoid debt, noting that … all I was able to repay I did so, as we were very anxious to keep out of debt.

Box suggests in the letter that towards the end of 1923 it was made clear to him that he would have to quit his block. But there was an issue with the the harvesting of his crop(s). He states that he was given to believe that if he stayed and harvested the crop then he could leave the farm pretty well debt-free. However, because he stayed on to do this he had been charged with another year’s insurance:

Owing to my having to wait for the Board to decide about the crop we were unable to leave by the end of the year, this is evidently the reason a second years insurance has been put down to me.

After being given to understand that if I waited to cut the crop that I would come out equal, you may imagine this huge bill has come as a great shock.

In his conclusion, Box expressed gratitude to the local valuation committee and noted the effort and savings that had gone into his attempt to become a successful soldier settler:

We did not get more than absolutely necessary implements etc, which were all left on the farm. If you make enquiries around the district I think you will hear we were hard workers all three of us.

I spent all our hard earned savings to get the farm.

I wish to thank the Local Committee for their kind help and advice.

Box included in his letter a copy of the notice he had received form the CSB detailing the debt he owed. The request for payment was dated 13/3/24. The itemised account included advances for stock (£227/7/0), implements (£86/19/3) seed, even an architect’s commission for house plans (£3/6/0). There was also a separate item for interest on advances ( £20/19/10). The same account also detailed credits for Box. These included improvements he had carried out to the property (approx. £200) and the sale of his assets that had been left on the block (approx. £200 ). The transfer of equipment on Box’s property to other settlers brought in another £100. In all, Box was left owing approx. £300, an amount which he stated he could not repay.

Black felt the need to respond to Box and, presumably after contacting Cr Christensen who chaired the relevant local valuation committee (South Riding #2), he replied on 4/4/24. Black offered some hope, but it is not known how the matter was resolved.

Your letter of the 25th ult., together with the copy of the Closer Settlement Board’s letter of the 13th ult. which you enclosed, was brought under the notice of Cr Christensen. He advises that you write to the Board on the same lines as your letter to the Local Committee, and feels sure that when the Board is aware of your circumstances they will not deal harshly with you.

The case highlighted how even after abandoning the block, the very real consequences of the failure dogged the former soldier settler: abandoning the block did not mean abandoning the debt. This was to be an issue the 1925 Royal Commission struggled with.

James Tyson Seagrave (51468) and Thomas Stanley Stubbings (2325)

Amongst other matters, this case highlights how major adjustments and improvements could be made after a block was abandoned. In a real sense it was a case of taking advantage of an abandonment to fine tune original decisions.

Neither Seagrave nor Stubbings was local to the Shire of Alberton. Seagrave was born in Tasmania. When he enlisted in Ararat, in December 1917, he gave his occupation as bank accountant. He was single and thirty-six years old. He did not reach France until October 1918. After the War, in the UK, there were several periods of hospitalisation with mental health issues (’delusional insanity’). He returned to Australia in late January 1920 and was discharged in mid April 1920 as ‘medically unfit’: ‘psychasthenia (post Influenza)’ [obsessive-compulsive disorder].

Stubbings was born at Taradale, near Castlemaine. He enlisted in Melbourne in December 1915. He was twenty-two years old and single and he gave his occupation as ‘farm labourer’. He served in the Middle East throughout the War. He was returned to Australia in August 1919 and discharged (TPE) the next month.

Both Seagrave and Stubbings received land in the parish of Tarra Tarra in March 1922. They were to farm on neighbouring properties.

Seagrave did not last long. He had abandoned his block by mid October 1922, not much more than 6 months after it was allocated. We know he had abandoned the block from a letter Black wrote to the CSB on 18/10/22. It appears that Seagrave had contracted to erect a house on his allotment. But now that he had abandoned his block, Black was keen to have the same house erected on Stubbings’ block. In the letter, Black specifically noted that Seagrave had ‘abandoned his block’. Black wrote:

It is believed that the contractor is agreeable to carry out the contract, erecting the house on Stubbings’ block instead of on Seagrave’s. Carting is a big item on account of the wet weather, and it would therefore be difficult for Stubbings to cart material at the present time. He and his wife are living in great discomfort, and appear to be people who are trying their hardest to make good. For these reasons Cr Barlow [chair of relevant local valuation committee] directs me to state that he strongly urges that Stubbings’ request be acceded to, and the house erected his block at the earliest possible date.

The following month, Black wrote another letter to the CSB (20/11/22). Black explained that Cr Barlow had informed him that there was … no permanent water on the block held by Mr Stubbings. Given that Seagrave’s block had been abandoned, Stubbings had requested that he be allowed … to access water in one of the springs located on Seagrave’s (adjoining) block. It appears that there were 3 such springs on Seagrave’s block but none of Stubbings’. In fact, Cr Barlow had gone further and argued that 10 acres needed to be taken from Seagrave’s allotment and transferred to Stubbings’ allotment. The 10 acres would cover one of the springs. According to Barlow … there will be about sufficient fresh water from this spring to supply the stock on No. 2 [Stubbings], and the other two springs on No.1 [Seagrave] will leave an ample supply for that allotment. Black closed his letter to the CSB with the request that they … give this proposal consideration, as the provision of permanent water on no. 2 [Stubbings] will be a matter of some difficulty. On 3/1/24 the CSB advised Black that the matter had been referred to the District Surveyor.

Harry John Jenkins (1537)

Jenkins was another soldier settler who was not local to the Shire of Alberton. He had been born in Tasmania and he enlisted there as a 21 yo in November 1914. At the time he gave his occupation as ‘sailor’. In France, in July 1916, he was badly wounded – GSW right thigh, severe – and repatriated to hospital in the UK. He was then returned to Australia in mid 1917 and discharged as medically unfit in February 1918.

He was allotted land – 188 acres – in the parish of Tarra Tarra in March 1922. However, within just three months he had abandoned his property.

In the Shire Archives there is a note by Black dated 22/6/23 in which he outlines the situation with Jenkins. The detail is obviously based on a conversation with Jenkins’ wife:

Mrs Jenkins called and stated that Jenkins’ war wounds had broken out again, and he had to leave for hospital that day. She thought he would have to give up his block, and stated they had written to the Board about a fortnight ago and given them the information, and asked what they would do with the purchase. There were two horses on block and one at Alberton, harness on block, and some at Waddington’s, ordered but not taken delivery of, and plough and harrows which were at Alberton Station. Told her to wait a few days before any further action was taken, as she might hear from the Board in the meantime.

Four days later there is another note (26/6/22):

Inspector Ritchie called, and went to see Mrs Jenkins. Called next day and said Jenkins was giving up, and asking if plough & harrows could be left at Shire Hall. Agreed to suggestion. On June 19, 1922, Jenkins left harrows, which were placed in shed at corner of Shire Hall.

It appears that Jenkins formally started to transfer his holding in late August 1922. Documents in his PROV file include a medical certificate dated 21/8/22 indicating he was ‘unfit for farm work at present’. There was also a note from Jenkins himself:

H. J. Jenkins
Allot 19

Tarra Tarra – O’Connors & Matches land
Owing to ill health (doctor’s certificate attached) I am compelled to give up my block. I am going into the Caulfield Military Hospital on 26th inst to undergo treatment for my leg and foot. My intention is to pay the deficiency on my block when I am well enough to work; possession of the land can be given at any time as I left the block about 5 weeks ago.

The last reference suggests Jenkins abandoned the block in mid July 1922. There was another note in the file, dated 25/8/22:

Mr Jenkins states horses are still on the allot. Plough harrows & swings are with Shire Secretary, Yarram. Buggy Harness with F Woods adjoining settler.

The Closer Settlement Board accepted Jenkins’ ‘application to surrender the above mentioned allotment’ on 31/8/22.

One obvious question to emerge from this case is why Jenkins, with significant wounds, was even considered for the scheme. By any measure, the odds were stacked against his success. It was an issue everyone at the time was aware of; and it was definitely not restricted to only a limited number of cases. In its findings, the 1925 Royal Commission highlighted both the issue, including the rationale for including men like Jenkins:

The cry was that every soldier should get a chance if he desired to go on the land, especially if he were suffering from war injuries, it being supposed that his health would benefit by living in the country. (p8)

Samuel Francis Coulthard (2159)

Coulthard was a resident at North Devon, and had lived in the district all his life. He was 33 yo when he enlisted in April 1916. He had also served in the Boer War. He gave his occupation as labourer. He completed 713 days of service, 586 of which were served overseas. He was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ – chronic bronchitis – in April 1918. He received a pension of 15/- per week. On his application for soldier settlement he had stated that he was ‘fit to do ordinary farm work.’

Coulthard was granted land – 100 acres – at Ballooong (Creedmore Estate) in April 1919. He requested funds to erect a 3 roomed house. He also requested advances to purchase stock – dairy cows – plus utensils and farm implements.

There is no indication of what went wrong but Coulthard had abandoned his block by January 1921. In the Shire Archives, there is correspondence from Black to the CSB, dated 26/1/21, indicating that he had had word that Coulthard had left his block. Black recommended that another soldier settler be appointed as caretaker of the property.

Cr Barlow has heard that S. Coulthard has finally left his block, 3 Creedmore Estate, Balloong, and that no one is in charge. He suggests that James Austin, who is on the adjoining block, Allotment 2, be appointed caretaker until further arrangements are made. As far as Cr Barlow is aware nothing belonging to the Board has been removed from the property.

The last reference in the brief note highlights the difficulties authorities had in terms of tracking plant, equipment, stock etc when settlers, in effect, walked off their holdings and just left everything as it was.

Despite Black’s recommendation, Austin was not appointed caretaker. Instead the land went to C. S. Cooling. Black noted that … this property was transferred to C. S. Cooling.

Carl Seale Cooling was not a local. He has a PROV file and in it is a letter he wrote to the CSB applying to be caretaker ‘of the property forfeited by S. F. Coulthard of Woodside’. Cooling indicated that he was an applicant for the land, and that he was married and that he and his wife were currently ‘living under great inconvenience’ in Woodside. Cooling also claimed that if the land was not looked after it would deteriorate very quickly. This was another case where the failure of one soldier settler was quickly followed by yet another attempt.

All the above cases sketch some of the reasons for failure. The health of the soldier settlers was clearly an issue, particularly where they carried serious wounds or other debilitating sickness from the War. It seems remarkable that men discharged as ‘medically unfit’ could even be considered as capable of handling the physical effort. At the same time, given the rationale behind the very scheme – a reward for those young men who had given so much – it would have been difficult to deny the involvement of those who had sacrificed even more than others. The accumulation of debt was also another clear problem. All those involved, at the level of both the CSB and the local valuation committees, wanted the scheme to succeed and the individual men to be able to make a go of it, and therefore they were keen for the men to be set up as best they could be. But the setting up – in a market where prices had been inflated by government money – required the men to incur levels of debt that were, in effect, unsustainable. Other essential problems with the scheme highlighted in the cases above include the very creation of the sub-divisions, whereby some blocks posed far greater risks than other, for example, blocks that had limited access to water.

One feature that the above examples also demonstrate was that even though failure was an ongoing reality there was always another soldier settler prepared to take on the failed block and try to make a go of it. Moreover, the very process of failure actually provided some limited ‘correction’ process where local authorities provided the CSB with recommendations to improve the actual holding and increase the chance of the new settler’s success.

Commonly experienced problems raised by soldier settlers

While all the above cases represent individual failure, each with its own particular combination of factors, there were instances where the soldier settlers presented a common voice on the problems they faced with the scheme, and where they called for structural and system-wide improvement.

There was a Soldier Settlers’ Association in place in Woodside by 1921. In March that year the association highlighted the problem of falling prices for stock and produce. There was a report in the South Gippsland Chronicle on 16/3/21that indicated the soldier settlers knew that … the only means by which soldier farmers could hope to be successful was by raising more and better (especially better) stock and growing heavier crops. The association believed that ... Farming in the Woodside district was of a low order, and to ensure success it was necessary to bring more thorough and scientific methods of soil treatment into use, than had ever been attempted. What was significant was this realisation by the soldier settlers that farming practices in the district needed to improve if they were to succeed. They wanted support from the Agricultural Department. The same article also featured more general criticism of the Closer Settlement Board. There were complaints about letters not being answered in a timely manner. In fact, there was a claim that the way the CSB dealt with the soldier settlers was so unbusinesslike that the men were sometimes forced to … to break the regulations under which they were settled in order to avoid monetary loss.

An earlier article in the same paper (4/2/21) made it clear that the soldier settlers in Woodside had significant issues and were keen to lobby government. On this occasion, Thomas Livingston – he was, at the time, the State minister in charge of agriculture – and officers from the ‘Crown Lands Investigation Committee’ were visiting the Shire:

Quite a number of returned soldiers have taken up areas of resumed lands round about Woodside, and they have been nursing their grievances for some time, waiting a favourable opportunity for their ventilation.

Principally, Livingston was there to promote the government’s extension of the railroad to Won Wron. Yet another article in the South Gippsland Chronicle from the time (11/2/21) highlights how the soldier settlers at Woodside had been lobbying for the extension of the railway not just to Won Wron but to Woodside as well. Won Wron required another 15 miles of rail from Yarram; and Woodside would require a further 9 miles. For the soldier settlers at Woodside, the hope was that the railway would cut transport costs. Current transport costs meant that it was uneconomic to cart produce to Yarram. And even if the settlers could afford the exorbitant costs, the existing road system meant that there was no guarantee that the produce could be moved.

At the public meeting at which Livingston spoke, the settlers at Woodside lobbied him for the railway extension to Woodside on the basis that while the district had so much potential to thrive, it was being held back by the lack of the railway. For his part, Livingston promised the meeting that he would look at the claims, with the interests of the soldier settlers in mind. But he pointed out that the current priority was to complete the 15 miles to Won Wron. He also indicated that the cost of this railway extension had doubled from 1915 and that the current estimate was £100,000. At the end of 1921 the extension of the railway to Won Wron was completed; and eighteen months later (June, 1923), the line did reach Woodside. There was even talk of extending the line through to Sale but the proposal was never seen as viable; and, in fact, losses on the Woodside line began to accrue soon after it opened. Indeed, notwithstanding the demands of locals and the significant expenditure of public money, from the mid 1920s the history of railway in the Shire of Alberton was essentially one of service cuts and line rationalisation.

Another example of the soldier settlers publicly raising concerns about the soldier settler scheme came in a letter to the editor in The Argus on 25/4/24. It was from the sub branch of the Mirboo RSSILA and it appeared under the heading, Soldier Settlers in Gippsland.

The group was critical of the CSB and its perceived indifference to the plight of the soldier settlers. The letter claimed that … the agitation amongst soldier settlers has arisen because they are not progressing under present conditions and cannot see any hope in being successful. On this occasion, the key problem was seen as the price of land. the claim was that the land had been purchased by the CSB at too high a price, and it was often unsuitable for dairying and mixed farming.

The contention is that much land has been purchased at too high a price. Some of it is quite unsuitable for dairying and mixed farming and some is in such a bad state that capital is needed before it will become productive.

The letter also identified the problem with abandoned blocks:

Abandoned blocks are going back, and ferns and rabbits are taking possession.

It also gave a very negative prediction of the overall success of the scheme:

Leave things as they are and our contention is that more than 50 per cent of the men will be compelled to leave their holdings, and the land will go back to a quarter of its present value if left alone for any length of time.

And it posed a question that was taxing everyone:

Will the country, we ask, allow its heroes to fail?

The Royal Commission investigates

The Royal Commission visited many rural areas to gain a first-hand experience of the problems of the scheme. It visited Seaspray (Prospect Estate, Curtis Estate) in May 1925. The visit was written up in the Gippsland Times on 4/5/25. Not surprisingly, one of the major problems raised with the commission was the ‘lack of good roads and railway facilities’ . The soldier settlers complained of being 21 miles from the nearest railway station and … the condition of the road [to Sale] added materially to the cost of cartage.

Besides this basic issue of transport, the settlers also claimed that they had been misled about the average rainfall rate. They claimed they had been told it was 24 inches but the reality was that from 1920 it had not been more than 18 inches and that as a result … there is insufficient grass feed for nine months of the year.

There were some specific concerns raised in relation to Curtis Estate. The settlers told the commission that the land could carry only one sheep per 3 acres and that it needed to be improved, but that this was very expensive. Also, there were major issues with the amount of vermin.

In addition to the transport problems, the poor rainfall, the inferior quality of the land itself and the problem of vermin, the soldier settlers at Seaspray also pointed out that they were at the mercy of the market place. Specifically, they cited the problem for dairy farmers where the current value of butterfat was less than the cost of producing it. The article noted that the men had calculated that an income of £400 per annum was required to ‘keep the farm going’; but they could not achieve this figure and consequently their financial position, year by year, was deteriorating. This downward spiral also meant, of course, that they could not repay the Closer Settlement Board. They were effectively trapped by debt.

The 1925 Royal Commission: metaphors on the tangled fishing line and unchartered seas

Certainly, by the point the Royal Commission (Royal Commission on Soldier Settlement) was set up, the many problems associated with the soldier settlement scheme were well known. For a start, there was the very problematic history of previous (closer) settlement ventures; and the level of abandoned blocks in South Gippsland was commonly highlighted. Specifically in relation to the soldier settlement scheme, there was the fundamental issue of the suitability of the men involved. Then there were all the issues to do with the land: the quality of the land purchased for the scheme; the size of the holdings; the creation of the estates and the viability of the individual blocks; the price paid by the CSB for the land and the related cost passed on to the settler. There was also a raft of interrelated economic issues covering everything from the (over) availability of credit to changing market conditions, limited access to labour, unmanageable debt accumulation and, most significantly, the lack of capital the men were able to bring to the enterprise. And there were even more specific, and often more localised, issues such as the challenge of clearing land: the incidence of vermin and weeds etc. The lack of transport was another well known problem and it covered everything from the lack of access to the railway to the appalling condition of local roads. There were issues driven by the distance the men and their families had to live from townships and essential services. And there were environmental issues including rainfall, bush fires etc.

One of the more interesting aspects of the findings of the Royal Commission was the assertion that the scheme had been set up with so many inherent contradictions, and the problems that had arisen were interrelated in such complex ways, that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to identify solutions, or even improvements. The majority report of the commissioners included significant qualifications on any immediate solution and pointed to a very long future of remediation:

The process of bringing Soldier Settlement into a solvent and satisfactory position will be a long one. There is no easy road by which that end can be attained. The difficulties to be surmounted are great, and it will mean long, patient, and anxious toil on the part of those to whom the task is committed, if great injustice to individual settlers is to be avoided, as well as large preventable financial losses to the State. (p19)

In other parts, the commissioners were even more direct:

There is a widespread opinion in the community that the ills of soldier settlement will be cured if only some scheme can be found, bold in conception and simple in execution, involving of course the expenditure of a large sum of money. Find the plan, let Parliament in a generous way throw a few more millions into the Soldier Settlement Fund, and we need no longer lend an attentive ear to the complaints of soldier settlers.

If we could satisfy this demand, we would no doubt deserve and receive the grateful thanks of our fellow countrymen. The possibility of a solution of the problem on these lines has been explored to the best of our ability, but we have been reluctantly forced to the conclusion that there is no such practical plan that would not create in its application as many anomalies as it would remove. Unfortunately, the nature of the facts rules out such treatment. The position may be likened to a tangled fishing line which is to be straightened out, not by violent and impatient tugs, but by the appropriate handling of each knot, with infinite care to avoid making new ones, while the sharp knife of the irresponsible onlooker is kept at a safe distance. As to the cost of unravelment, it is futile to pretend that it can be ascertained now.

There are several classes of cases where the proper remedy for one group would be quite ineffective in others. Here the price charged for land should be reduced, there an extension of time to repay advances and arrears would be sufficient. In many cases the claimant need is more land; in others relief might best be given by a re-adjustment of the settler’s total indebtedness to the Board. In some cases two or more of these remedies may have to be combined. (p18)

In fact, there were many metaphors to describe the difficulties of the challenge. Faced with the issue of men who had accumulated so much debt that there was no hope of them ever being successful, the commissioners had to balance the reality of the men’s position, including both the hardship they faced and their service to the Nation, with the integrity of debt, legally and knowingly incurred. They came up with another metaphor to describe what they referred to as a ‘contradiction’:

In a sense soldier settlement is not solely a business proposition, and cannot be dealt with as such. At the same time it would be disastrous for our country if it were admitted that contracts should be treated as scraps of paper whenever they become difficult to carry out. We are thus confronted with a contradiction, and the way to reconciliation lies somewhere in between. Hence the unavoidable vagueness of some of our recommendations. The course lies across an imperfectly charted sea, through many reefs and shoals, and shifting sands called prices. The ship was hastily equipped, but it is well manned, and we believe will ultimately be brought safely into port. (p27)

The Royal Commission was keen to line up the soldier settlement scheme with earlier closer settlement schemes. In its report, it specifically included the following brief history:

When the question arose of establishing discharged soldiers on the land the Closer Settlement plan then existing in Victoria was simple in theory.

The State was called upon to finance that scheme only indirectly. The cost of the machinery by which suitable men who had saved a little money were helped to become small land-owners, was to be borne by themselves. The State merely lent the strength of its credit and organised the undertaking.

In other words, the scheme was financially self-contained and self-supporting. The State borrowed the money required at a low rate of interest, directed the purchase of the necessary lands, and allotted them amongst the chosen applicants, who were charged with all the costs, including principal and interest and the services pertaining thereto.

The repayments were spread over a long period of years, carrying a rate of interest and a loading calculated to cover the cost of administration, as well as the principal and interest the State had to pay to the bond-holders who supplied the money.(p6)

As already noted, it was hardly the case that earlier closer settlement schemes had been problem-free. But the point the commissioners were labouring was that previous schemes had carefully managed the State’s exposure to financial risk. The soldier settlement scheme, on the other hand, significantly shifted the risk to the State. The Commission went to lengths to explain why this transfer of risk had occurred.The scheme was conceived, both politically and socially, as a means of repaying the enormous debt owed to the men who had volunteered and served overseas. It was assumed that, as yet another form of closer settlement, there would be significant benefits in terms of the growth of settlement, increased primary productivity, reduced unemployment and the overall generation of wealth; but the commonly understood rationale for the program, at all levels of government, across all parties and in the community generally was that the scheme represented a ‘reward’ for ‘service’.

This focus meant that the requirements of eligibility in the scheme – critically, the need to secure the all-important Qualification Certificate – were administered ‘liberally’. The argument, referred to earlier, was that all men should have the chance. As the Commission itself put, specifically in relation to the issuing of the QC:

The cry was that every soldier should get a chance if he desired to go on the land, especially if he were suffering from war injuries, it being supposed that his health would benefit by living in the country. At the same time there was strong public demand that the work should be done quickly; and it is surprising, not that there have been many mistakes, but that there were so few.(p8)

Data that the Commission included in its report showed that 21,086 (Victorian) ex-soldiers applied for the QC and 16,633 (79%) were successful in securing it. However, the same data revealed that the number of men who went on to become soldier settlers was 10,565 which meant that nearly 6,000 men who gained the QC did not pursue the scheme or were unsuccessful in their bid to secure a block. Interestingly the number of soldier settlers on the land – and this was up to 1924 – represented only 13.5% of all the (Victorian) ‘returned men’ (77,850).

The Commission also argued that the focus on the best interests of the returned men was also behind another inherent weakness of the scheme. Basically, the State was required to purchase properties which in any other closer settlement scheme it would not have considered because of the cost involved. The soldier settlement scheme featured a significant, inbuilt additional cost, one that was ultimately passed on to the men. In the words of the Commission … it was decided that, as far as possible, a soldier desirous of settling on the land should be given an opportunity to establish his home among his relations and old associates, and not have to seek a selection in perhaps some remote part of the state. This entailed the purchase of lands in all parts of the country where no Crown lands were available. (p8)

The claim is interesting for two reasons. First it assumes that the soldier settlers were coming from a farming background. Second it suggests that soldier settlers were granted blocks in the areas where they had grown up. However, my research on the Shire of Alberton, as limited as it has been, indicates that certainly not all soldier settlers came from a farming background. Also, while there were many locals who returned to the Shire as soldier settlers, there were many other soldier settlers in the district who had no local background.

As far as the Commission was concerned, another key failing of the soldier settlement scheme, compared to previous closer settlement schemes, involved the question of capital. Whereas previous schemes had been based on the assumption that the settler would have some personal capital to bring to the enterprise, the political imperative for the soldier settlement scheme was that the lack of such capital could not be used to deny any former soldier the chance to participate. The Commission noted the inherent problem:

The second important fact to bear in mind is that it was the deliberate policy of the country then deeply moved by a feeling of gratitude, that lack of capital was to be no bar to a soldier’s chance of getting land, should he prove himself to be otherwise suitable. The teaching of past experience of Closer Settlement, that most of their troubles arose through settlers starting with too little capital, was quietly ignored. (p7)

Overall, the problems faced by the soldier settlement scheme stemmed from the fact that, as a form of closer settlement, it had ignored previous critical learnings. Principally, this failing had come from the manifestly political, if not ideological, rationale for the program. Moreover, as the commissioners well knew, the problems inherent in the scheme were not amenable to any quick or easy political resolution: a dilemma they expressed in terms of metaphors. In fact, the problems were to persist well beyond this Royal Commission, for another two decades.

One final, interesting insight from the Royal Commission touches on the sensitive issue of the character of the soldier settlers. Effectively, the 1925 Royal Commission represented the first, formal and considered assessment of the quality of the returned men who became soldier settlers. The background, of course, was the universal conviction that all the returned men, the Anzacs, were the best of the best Australians. They all deserved the chance to become soldier settlers and the success of the scheme would come down to the outstanding quality of the men who took up the blocks. Typically, the commissioners were prepared to push this line:

We have met many of the settlers in different parts of the State, and have been highly impressed by their general bearing. They are a fine body of men of whom our country can justly be proud, and it will not be their fault if a large majority do not win through to success. (p9)

But in all the forms of failure associated with the scheme, as highlighted by the Royal Commission, there had to be some analysis of the quality of the men themselves. While it was not a key focus of the report, there is some indication of the importance of the issue. For example, there was a detailed table that examined the number of men who ‘had gone off their blocks’ over the period from 1917 to 1924 . The simple analysis employed 4 categories to cover the circumstances: abandoned, surrendered, forfeited and transferred. In all, the 4 categories came to 1,870 men.

Each of the four categories appeared to represent different types of men. The ‘transferred’ category (395) were men who transferred blocks, and as the report put it … nearly always did so to their own advantage. These were enterprising men capable of taking initiative and using the system to their advantage. The abandoned category – the largest category at 893 – took in those men who … went out entirely of their own accord. Admittedly, as the commissioners noted:

The abandonments include cases resulting from death, ill-health and causes beyond control. Not a few are attributable to recurrent disabilities contracted on active service. In certain localities poor land or crop failure contributed.

But the commissioners also noted significant personal failings or character deficits:

In a considerable number of cases, however, the Board is of opinion that the personal factor, lack of adaptability, or instability of temperament on the part of the settler or his wife, contributed in some measure to his decision to quit.

The language was carefully chosen, but the more important point was the acknowledgement of some personal failing on the part of some settlers.

With the other two categories, the claims of personal failing were far more direct. The surrendered category (230) were described as … weak men and were doing no good. While the forfeited category (352) covered … men found to be unreliable and unsatisfactory.

Presumably, the politics of explaining that at least some of the failure of the soldier settlement scheme could be traced to personal failings on the part of some ex-soldiers was a highly fraught challenge. It was one that was at odds with so much of the Anzac myth that prevailed.

Finally

As we have seen, the dream of some form of soldier settlement scheme to repay the sacrifice of the men who had volunteered and served their country overseas had become a universal expectation by the end of the War. In the Shire of Alberton the scheme was strongly supported, and the generation of locals who had sent their sons to the War now acted as the key backers of the scheme, and also the ones who took on custodial and managerial roles, principally via the local valuation committees that were set up, to ensure the smooth operation of the scheme and the provision of support and direction for the soldier settlers. Everyone was invested in the success of the program. However, notwithstanding the highly problematic history of closer settlement schemes in Victoria (Australia generally), the soldier settlement scheme was conceived within an ideological perspective which guaranteed, in the longer term, significant financial loss to the State, high levels of frustration and anger in rural communities and for many of the ex-soldiers directly involved, crippling levels of debt and a profound sense of failure.

References

The Argus

Gippsland Times

South Gippsland Chronicle

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

Fry, K “Soldier Settlement and the Australian Agrarian Myth after the First World War.” Labour History, no. 48, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Inc., 1985, pp. 29–43

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

Volume 6: Sept 1920

Volume 8: 1922

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

Report of the Royal Commission on Soldier Settlement, Together with Appendices, H J Green, Government Printer, Melbourne 1925

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