Category Archives: Soldier settlement

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.


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.


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

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.


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

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.


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.


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

217. The significance of the reference in securing the Qualification Certificate, including a generational perspective

This post looks in more detail at the vetting process that underpinned the soldier settlement scheme post WW1. The analysis is based on correspondence and other files from the Archives of the Shire of Alberton and also the on-line records from the Public Record Office Victoria: Battle to Farm – WW1 Soldier Settlement records in Victoria.

The point has been made in previous posts that returning soldiers were promised so much in terms of repatriation. Schemes, such as settling returned servicemen on the land, were presented as a fitting reward for those who had ‘answered the call’ and proved themselves in battle. However, the reality was that there were significant limits placed on all the fine sentiment [Post 216]. This was very evident with the ‘qualification certificate’ which served as the key eligibility criterion. Without such a certificate, the returned soldier was denied access to the scheme. Moreover, as we will see, the qualification certificate was not easily secured.

George William Black, Shire Secretary

The key individual in the soldier settlement scheme at the local level was George William Black, Shire Secretary. Black had been appointed Shire Secretary in 1911 and he held the position throughout the post-War period. In fact, he served as Shire Secretary for 30 years, from 1911- 1941. As noted many times before, Black had been a key figure in the War effort and had acted as secretary of the local recruiting committee. He was a high profile, avowed Imperial Loyalist.

Specifically in terms of the soldier settlement scheme, Black took on the role of the principal administrative officer [‘Executive Secretary’] across the Shire and coordinated the work of the several local [land] ‘valuation committees’. While these committees, as the name suggests, were principally involved in land selection and valuation as part of the settlement scheme, they also played a broader role in overseeing the efforts of the individual soldier settlers and the operation of the scheme generally. They were also referred to as local ‘repatriation’ committees. The membership of these relatively small local committees consisted or two or three local landholders and a local councillor. There were 3 local committees for each of the three ridings (North, South and Central) in the Shire. Black dealt directly with the Victorian bureaucrats responsible for the soldier settlement scheme under the (Victorian) Closer Settlement Act and he was remunerated for his work. All the members of the local committees contributed their time and efforts on a honorary basis; although they could claim ‘reasonable car hire’ costs when inspecting properties.

Significance of the Qualification Certificate

Instructions under the Closer settlement Act made it clear that the local valuation committee was not to consider any potential land acquisition unless the individual ex-soldier concerned held a qualification certificate. Nothing could happen without such a certificate. Written instructions sent to Black by the ‘Discharged Soldier Qualification Committee” in October 1918, highlighted the critical importance of the certificate:

In connection with placing Discharged soldiers on the land under the operation of the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act, the first essential in every case is that the intending settler should obtain a Qualification Certificate. To do this he has to lodge an application and appear in person before the Qualification Committee when called on to do so, supporting his application by references showing that he has had previous experience on the land. One reference should be furnished by the Local Repatriation Committee and owing to the position local councillors occupy as men experienced in business and agricultural pursuits with frequently a personal knowledge of the applicant, this reference carries great weight when the matter is under consideration. It is desired that the reference from the Local Committee should be written on official paper, if possible, and signed by the Secretary on behalf of he Committee, also that it specially refers to the class of experience the applicant has had and the period of such experience.

To obtain a qualification certificate, a discharged soldier had to complete a detailed form, provide the essential references and then appear, in Melbourne, before the Qualification Certificate Committee. The applicant had to indicate which ‘class of holding’ the qualification certificate was to cover: dairy farming, mixed farming, wheat growing, irrigation, fruit growing or pig raising. When they submitted their application, they had to … solemnly and sincerely declare that I am the person making the application on the form herewith and that the replies to the questions hereinafter contained are true and correct in every particular.

The information sought by the Qualification Certificate Committee was detailed. Unsurprisingly, it covered the ex-soldier’s service history, down to questions as specific as, ‘‘How long were you actually fighting?’. There were also questions covering any ‘physical disability’ as a result of service and a focus on the former soldier’s present health. There were questions covering their employment history prior to enlistment and their occupation post discharge. There was an obvious focus on farming experience, even to the extent of wanting to know if the wife had had ‘experience in farm life’. Financial details included the ‘amount of capital at your disposal, whether in stock, cash or other accounts’. The authorities also wanted to know … if married, has your wife any separate means? They also wanted to know if the applicant currently held land in their own right or had any interest in land. And, lastly, the Qualification Committee was keen to know, if the applicant was successful, whether or not they would be applying for an ‘advance’. The advance was given to cover the cost of stock, building or farming materials and any other expenses in establishing the successful soldier settler on their property. It even covered the cost of food and other basic consumables. The relevant papers in the Shire of Alberton archives cover many cases where such advances were approved. Essentially, many of the ex-soldiers were trying to establish themselves with very little capital and very significant debt levels, with interest rates around 5%. And, of course, they were trying to establish themselves in a market where prices and land costs had been inflated because of the government scheme ostensibly set up to help them.

If the applicant’s references were satisfactory, and both the information they provided in their written application and their appearance at the interview with the Qualification Committee in Melbourne were also deemed satisfactory, he was given his certificate which declared that … he possesses the necessary qualifications entitling him to apply for land.

Percival Thomas Quinn

It is worth looking at a local discharged soldier who negotiated his way through the process to obtain first the qualification certificate and then the land holding.

Percival T Quinn was born at Tarraville in 1894. He grew up in the area and attended Balloong State School. His father, Patrick Quinn, was a farmer at Woodside. The family farm was approximately 600 acres.

Percival first tried to enlist, very early, in September 1914. He was a minor at the time and it appears his parents would not provide permission. One year later – 26/8/15 – he enlisted in Melbourne. He joined 4 LHR but subsequently transferred to 8 Battalion.

Quinn embarked from Melbourne on 9/3/16 and by this point he had married – Edith Pedley – and there was a child born later in 1916.

Over the course of his service – 1,236 days abroad – Quinn was hospitalised with first bronchitis and then scabies. He was also gassed. He returned to Australia in July 1919 and was discharged (TPE) on 18/9/19. It appears that immediately after returning to Australia he lived with his wife and child in Melbourne. There was a welcome home for him at Woodside in November that year.

Quinn wasted no time in applying for this qualification certificate. He presented before the Qualification Committee in Melbourne in late October, only one month after his formal discharge. In fact, matters moved very quickly for him and after he gained his qualification certificate, he secured his land holding in early March 1920. Presumably his father was helping him with the process.

Quinn secured allotments 2 and 19 of Scott’s Estate. It was an area of 325 acres and its capital value was £2,498-8-0. Scott’s Estate was a property of just over 3,000 acres, two miles from Woodside. The property was sub-divided into 12 farms which were between 200 and 325 acres. The land was classified as suitable for ‘mixed farming’. Quinn’s farm was the closest to Woodside. It was also one of the largest ones. At the time he secured his land, Quinn indicated that he would seek an advance for implements and stock.

On his application form for the qualification certificate, Quinn indicated that prior to enlistment he had been a farm labourer for 8 years. He had worked on his father’s farm and also the farms of other locals. Some of these local farmers provided written references. On the form he also noted that post his discharge he was back working as a farm labourer. On his form, he specifically cited, as experience relevant to his application, 8 years of ‘mixed farming’. He also noted that his wife had lived on a farm all her life.

In terms of personal finances, he wrote that he was not receiving any pension, his wife had no ‘separate means’ and his capital was about £130.

The application form also stated that he was not suffering from any ‘physical disabilities’ … by reason of wounds or disease resulting from your Naval or Military service. Quinn described his ‘present condition of health’ as ‘good’.

Overall, Quinn’s experience is setting himself up as a soldier settler was relatively straightforward. However, the ease of the process belied the enormous challenge that Quinn, and all other soldier settlers, faced. He had very little capital and a significant debt – the term was 36.5 years – with a relatively high interest rate (5%). Moreover, the level of debt in the short-term would increase because he would have to seek advances to set himself up on his mixed farm. Then there were the strict requirements under the scheme. He had to effect levels of ‘improvements’ – farm house, farm buildings and sheds, fencing, land clearing – which were closely specified. He would need to rely on his – and his wife’s – labour. He could do nothing with the land other than the specified mixed farming; and, lastly, he had to reside on the land until it became freehold.

However, this is not the post to assess the worth of the soldier settlement scheme; although it is clear that such men were taking on very high levels of risk with limited resources. Rather, what I want to do is focus on the issue of references.

References as part of the Qualification Certificate

Overall, the references Quinn used in his application were positive. He supplied four such references: three were from local landholders and the fourth was from Black, as Shire Secretary.

The first was from A Missen, ‘Farmer & Grazier’ of Greenmount, Yarram:

I hereby certify that I have known Thomas Quinn ten years he has been amongst all kinds of Stock & Farming all his life He is honest sober and industrious. I consider him a capable man to undertake Farming pursuits He is of a highly respected family living in this district.

The second was from Thomas Gasson,’Grazier’ of Huberts Corner via Yarram:

This is to certify
That I have known Percival Thomas Quinn from infancy

That he worked on a farm up to his enlistment in the A. I. F.
That he thoroughly understands farming
and that he is capable of working land satisfactorily

The third reference was identical – verbatim – to Gasson’s and came from W A Hunter “Farmer”, also of Huberts Corner via Yarram

The fourth reference was the one provided by Black as Shire Secretary. It was on Shire note paper and was dated 29/10/19.

Mr Percival T. Quinn, discharged soldier, has been a resident of the district all his life, and has been connected with farming pursuits all his working years. I have no hesitation in recommending him for a Qualification Certificate.

There is no significant detail in any of the references and they really only represent broad claims, on the the part of those providing them, that the applicant possessed both the general farming background and personal character required to become a successful soldier settler. As we will see, the in-person appearance before the Qualification Committee provided the opportunity to test the issue of relevant farming experience. However, what was critically significant was that several local landholders and the Shire Secretary attested to the applicant’s suitability.

Securing this level of local endorsement was not as simple as this particular case involving Quinn suggests.

Problems with references

Take the case of Edgar Lawrence Lear. Lear was born in Port Albert in 1895. He grew up in the district and attended Tarraville State School. He enlisted as a 20 year-old in July 1915, in Yarram, and was given a farewell and presented with the Shire medallion. He was married. His older brother – Issac James Lear – also enlisted in July 1915. The older brother was killed at Fromelles in July 1916 [Post 74].

Edgar Lear was wounded – bomb wound in his right foot, ‘severe’ – in 1916 but continued to serve. He returned to Australia in June 1919 and was discharged in August the same year as ‘medically unfit’.

In the Shire archives there is a letter from Edgar L Lear to Black as the Shire Secretary, dated 4/3/20, from East Warburton:

As I am about to purchase (through the Repatriation Dept) a block of land for farming purposes, I would esteem it a very great favour if you would supply me (at your earliest convenience) with a reference to the effect that you have known me for some considerable time, also to have a fair knowledge of farming.

No doubt you will be wondering why I make this request, but the fact of the matter is, it is essential I should supply a satisfactory reference from the Shire Secretary from where I enlisted, otherwise I will have rather a rough time of it in reaching my goal. Trusting you will see your way clear to oblige me in this matter & thanking you in anticipation…

Clearly, Lear knew of the importance attached to the reference form the Shire Secretary. He would have been disappointed in the response he received from Black. It was dated 5/3/20:

In reply to your letter of the 4th inst., asking for a reference, I have to point out that I know nothing about your knowledge of farming, and could not, therefore, give the reference. If you have any references from residents of this district, and supply me with their names, I might be prepared to give a reference on the strength of their recommendation. I would be pleased to oblige you, but a reference given under the circumstances would be worthless.

Black’s reluctance is obvious and there is no record of Lear being granted land under the scheme.

There were other cases where Black did provide a reference, but the Qualification Committee found his reference wanting. Karl Klu had been born in the UK but when War broke out he was living and working, as a ‘labourer’, in the district. He enlisted from Yarram with the very first group of volunteers in September 1914. He returned to Australia under the ‘special leave’ provision – set up for the original Anzacs – on 23/12/18 and was discharged on 21/2/19.

On discharge, Klu was living in Melbourne but he obviously contacted Black and requested a reference. However, it appears that when he fronted the Qualification Committee, with his references, concerns were raised about his suitability. Immediately after the interview he wrote to Black advising him of the Committee’s concerns. The letter was dated 11/3/19.

Today I have been before the Soldiers Qualification Committee, for land in connection with which you gave me a reference; but this did not state my ability to manage a farm successfully or what sort of worker I was and the Committee are writing to you for more particulars. I was working for Miss Jack, Madalya. Mr J. J. Kee, Yarram will also give you any information as he has known me personally for some considerable time. Trusting this will explain matters.

The Committee itself wrote to Black on the same matter. Their letter was dated 12/3/19:

Mr. Karl Klu has applied for a Qualification Certificate to enable him to take up land under the provisions of the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Acts. He appeared before the Committee on the 11th. inst. The references he produced were rather vague and the Committee would be glad if you could see your way to supplement your reference by a statement, if within your knowledge, that Mr. Klu gave satisfaction to those who employed him in farm work and if, in your opinion, he would be likely to to be successful if placed on a dairy farm of this own.

Black replied immediately (14/3/19). It was clear that even though he had provided a reference for Klu, Black was now raising significant qualifications:

In reply to your letter of the 12th inst., re Mr Karl Klu, I have to state that I have not sufficient knowledge of Mr Klu to be able to express an opinion as to his prospects if placed on a dairy farm of his own. I understand Mt Klu gave every satisfaction to those who employed him, but a communication to Miss Jack, of Madalya, Jack River, or Mr J. J. Kee, of Yarram, both of whom, I understand, employed him would settle that question, as their testimony could be relied upon with every confidence.

For all the ambivalence, in the end, Karl Klu, in association with his brother, another ex-soldier, did receive land in the district under the scheme.

Leslie Henry Hole was another former soldier from the district who sought a reference from Black. He was also another young English immigrant. When he first tried to enlist he was only 19 years-old and his occupation was ‘farm labourer’. He was rejected by the local doctors in Yarram because of his eyesight. Then in January 1916 he was successful. On his service overseas he suffered from a heart condition and he was eventually discharged as medically unfit in July 1918. He was actually discharged in the UK and on discharge he became an Australian Munitions Worker in the UK. He subsequently returned to Australia and was living at Albert Park when he applied for his qualification certificate.

Hole wrote to Black on 1/11/19 advising him that he had been instructed to secure a reference from him, as Shire Secretary, to include with his application for the qualification certificate. In the letter, Hole claimed he had had experience in dairy farming and that he had worked for several local farmers: W Vardy of Carrajung, A Vardy (a brother) of Alberton, A H Stephenson of Alberton and H Ferris, late of Mr Lucas’s farm at Carrajung.

A few days later (4/11/19), Black wrote to one of the men mentioned – A H Stephenson – seeking information:

A returned soldier, Leslie H. J. Hole, has written to me for a reference in connection with his application for a qualification certificate to enable him to take up land under the soldier land settlement scheme. He mentions that he worked for you amongst others in the district. As I do not know him, I cannot give him a reference without making inquiries, and I would, therefore, be obliged if you would inform me if, in your opinion, he is the (sic) man who would be likely to make a success of a dairy farm. Anything you tell me will be treated as strictly confidential.

Stephenson replied to Black on 11/11/19:

Your letter of the 4th inst. to hand.
Leslie Hole was in my employ for some time and I found him in every way trustworthy and I think him quite capable of taking on a dairy farm on his own.

On the face of it, Stephenson’s reference was definitely positive; and it appears that Black forwarded this reference directly to Hole on 13/11/19. Presumably, Black would have also written to the other farmers mentioned by Hole, but there is no record of any other references received by Black.

Hole must have appeared before the Qualification Committee in Melbourne in early December (1919). Following the interview, the Committee wrote to Black as Shire Secretary on 17/12/19. The Committee was clearly unhappy with Hole’s performance at the interview and sought more information:

With reference to Mr. Leslie H. J. Hole, who has applied for a Qualification Certificate. I may state that this man produced several references, among them being one from Mr. W. Vardy, Musk Grove, Carrajung South and Mr. A. H. Stephenson of Yarram. His evidence before the Committee was very unsatisfactory and in his answers to questions showed very small knowledge of practical farming. He has probably been working on a farm as stated by him, but would seem to have very little idea of farm management.

Would it be possible for you to obtain some further information in regard to this man as it seems highly desirable in his own interests that he should have considerably more experience before he could be entrusted with a farm of his own.

Black followed up with a further letter to both Albert Herbert Stephenson (Stacey’s Bridge) and William Vardy (Carrajung). The Shire archives retains the letter sent to Stephenson. It was dated 20/12/19:

Re Leslie H. J. Hole, to whom you gave a reference some time ago, I have received a letter from the Discharged Soldiers Qualification Committee stating that his evidence before the Committee was very unsatisfactory, and his answers to questions showed very small knowledge of practical farming. The Committee ask (sic) me to obtain further information about Hole as they consider he should have more experience before he could be entrusted with a farm of his own. Could you refer me to anyone in the district besides Mr W. Vardy, who, like yourself gave Hole a reference. I would be obliged if you could put me in the way of getting any further information about this man.

In a handwritten note on his copy of this letter, Black wrote that neither Stephenson nor Vardy was able to to … give any further information regarding Hole. Stephenson’s reply was dated 24/12/19 and Vardy’s 9/1/20. It appears that neither Stephenson nor Vardy was prepared to challenge the assessment made by the Qualification Committee. Consequently, on 9/1/20 Black replied to the Committee:

In response to your letter of the 17th ult., re Mr Leslie H. J. Hole, I have made inquiries, and am unable to obtain any further information about him. He seems to have been a new arrival in the district when he entered Mr Vardy’s employment, and went from there to Mr Stephenson, and on leaving the latter went to Melbourne where he enlisted soon after.

There is no record of Hole obtaining land as a soldier settler.

Not all those applying for land as soldier settlers in the Shire of Alberton had been working in the district prior to the War. Edward Francis Grainger was from NSW. When he enlisted in Sydney in October 1916 he gave his occupation as clerk. He served in France and was finally discharged (TPE) on 25/3/20. At some point over the next couple of years he moved to Victoria and worked on farms in the Shire of Alberton. He then sought a qualification certificate with the intention of becoming a soldier settler in the district.

Black received a letter from the Qualification Committee in Melbourne in early April 1924:

An ex-Imperial soldier named Edward F. Grainger, who states he has been employed by Mr. D. Belcher of Yarram and Mr. S. W. Parsons of Woodside, has appeared before the Qualification Committee in furtherance of his application for a Qualification Certificate.

He is a married man and states he has been getting farming experience since he arrived in this State with a view to taking up land on his own account. he has not, however, been able to save any money to assist in establishing himself and, in these circumstances, a settler needs to be a thoroughly capable man to enable him to work his farm in such a manner he will provide himself with a living and meet his financial obligations to the Board.

My Committee will deem it a favour if you would make some inquiry in regard to him and favor me with your opinion in regard to his ability as a farmer. Your reply will be treated as confidential.

Black replied a few days later on 11/4/24:

In reply to your letter off the 9th inst. (19863).
I have referred your request re E. F. Grainger to Cr Barlow who is in touch with that portion of the district where Mr Grainger states he worked. Cr Barlow does not know of him, and considers it would be difficult to obtain an opinion as to his abilities excepting from those for whom he worked.

There is no record of Grainger obtaining his qualification certificate.

There was at least one case where Black, as Shire Secretary, and other local farmers did challenge assessments made by the Qualification Committee. The person involved was John McLeod. While the name ‘McLeod’ was very common in the district at the time, i have not been able to trace this particular John McLeod. It is possible that, like Grainger, he came into the district after the War; but the following suggests that he was very well known in the district and therefore more likely to have been a local before the War.

On 5/1/23, Black as Shire Secretary wrote to the Qualification Committee in Melbourne:

Some time ago Mr John McLeod, discharged soldier, applied for a Qualification Certificate. He presented three excellent references from local farmers; he has had considerable experience on district farms, and has a very lengthy war service to his credit. He has informed those who gave the references that his application was refused. This has caused them much surprise, and they have requested me to inquire if you would kindly state the reasons for the Committee refusing the application.

The response came a few days later (9/1/23):

I am in receipt of your letter of the 5th instant relating to the above named man [re John McLeod] who appeared before the Qualification Committee on 2nd August last. He presented only two references, one from Mr. J. Sweeney and the other from Mr. C. Barlow both of Yarram

At the time of his appearance he was unemployed and he stated he had been doing casual work in the Railway Department and had been working for farmers around Yarram. He had not, however, worked for Mr Sweeney, had saved no money, and his case was deferred to enable him to produce further references in regard to his farming ability and some written confirmation of his statement that he would receive financial assistance in the event of his obtaining land. Nothing further has been heard from him since the date above mentioned. If he complies with the Committee’s requirements his case will receive further consideration.

Please treat this information as confidential.

Black must have then sought and received additional references from local farmers. He replied to the Committee on 6/4/23:

Referring to your letter of the 9th January last, I am forwarding herewith the references Mr McLeod has obtained. His address is c/o Mrs Hoban, Centennial Hotel, Kensington.

Black wrote on his copy of the letter a list of ‘references forwarded’: G Shaw, Charles Barlow, J J McKenzie, John Cotter jnr, Shire Secretary. Presumably, the 5 references forwarded, including one from him as Shire Secretary, were supportive of McLeod’s application. I have not been able to establish if McLeod was successful in his application.


The foregoing account has identified how fundamental references were in the process of obtaining the qualification certificate, where the qualification certificate was the essential documentation required for the soldier settlement scheme. Without adequate references – covering both character and farming experience/expertise – particularly from the Shire Secretary, there was effectively no chance of success. There was no automatic right to participate in the scheme, applicants had, effectively, to win a place. The analysis has also highlighted the extent of effort involved in securing such references, on the part of both the ex-soldier seeking the reference, and individual local landholders, and, most significantly, the Shire Secretary, in producing the references.

There is another key insight here. The use of the local reference underlined the extent to which the soldier settlement scheme was tied to the ‘politics’ of the local area. The thinking was that the scheme would only be effective if it had the full support and involvement of the local community. Consequently, the scheme was engineered to force the involvement of the local community in two critical areas: the purchase and then allocation of suitable land, and the selection of ex-soldiers who had the greatest chance of being successful. The key institution in this twin intention was the local (land’) valuation committee’ – also commonly referred to as the local ‘repatriation committee’ – and the key local official tying together the operation of the scheme at the local level was the Shire Secretary. It was true, as seen above, that at times the bureaucracy in Melbourne overruled the local officials and committees – we will also see this in relation to land valuations in future posts – but it was the efforts at the local level that largely defined the success or otherwise of the program.

Politically, the locals had always championed the ideal of repatriation and demanded that the State and Commonwealth Governments act decisively. They had also long supported the general idea of settling ex-soldiers on the land, in their specific district. Existing farmers and landowners saw significant benefits for themselves, the ex-soldiers and the wider community in the scheme. For its part, the State Government ensured that the scheme was ‘owned’ at the local level. It ensured that locals were involved in the significant decisions and it demanded an enormous amount of largely unpaid work from them. Locals could and would still complain about the excessive and overbearing direction of the state bureaucracy but the reality was that they too had to accept responsibility for its success or failure. Their motivation for supporting the scheme and the quality of their work were instrumental in determining overall success.

There is one last critical perspective worth mentioning. References inevitably involve one person’s assessment of another. The exercise is, by its very nature, a ‘personal’ one. However, it is worth broadening the focus and making the case that this particular exercise of reference-making had a ‘generational’ dimension to it. The basic reality was that the generation that had stayed at home was passing judgement on the generation that had fought in the War.

The generation of the Shire Secretary, civic elders and prominent townsmen, established landholders, graziers and farmers was the one that, by and large, had promoted the War effort and exhorted the youth to enlist. It was the one that had claimed the patriotic high ground. It had promoted conscription and demanded enlistments. It had praised the valour of those who joined the AIF, and the sacrifices made of both the dead and those who survived. It had lauded the military exploits of the ‘diggers’ and badged their efforts as proof of Imperial loyalty. It wanted not just to celebrate the greatness of the younger generation of soldiers but to live it vicariously. It had promised repatriation for every returning soldier.

On the other hand, the generation of the soldiers, particularly at the start of the War, was considerably younger and also naive. It was the generation of farm labourers, many of them newly arrived English immigrants, and the sons working on family farms. Few of them held property in their own right. This was the generation that had experienced the War, horror and suffering on a scale that was effectively beyond people’s imagining. In many cases they carried the wounds scars and disabilities home with them. Even though they were still relatively young, the rest of their lives would be profoundly shaped by the years of war. They came back different people, even if they looked the same. It was also the generation that had bonded in the shared experience of the War and the AIF and their sense of ‘mateship’ was an exclusive one. Most importantly, it was the generation that was expected to return from the War and simply take up again where they had been before enlisting. The wheel, as it were, had turned full circle and things would be the same again. The conventional order, including the generational respect for and subservience to your elders, was to be restored.

Obviously there was bound to be tension. There was much that was irreconcilable. Indeed, we have seen evidence in earlier posts. There was the conflict over what constituted an appropriate memorial [Post 211] , where a community-focused amenity was rejected in favour the returned men’s insistence on an exclusive ‘diggers’ club’. There was the criticism by town elders over the apparent lack of patriotic fervour on the part of the returned men. They were not living up to the expectations of their elders. Also, as the soldier settlement scheme took effect, it was clear that all the risk lay with the generation of ex-soldiers, while the generation of established landholders stood to profit.

So there was what can be termed ‘generational tension’ and, clearly, the issue of references highlighted this significantly. In effect, the references were being written by the older generation on the younger and, clearly, the power resided in the pen of the older generation. It was hardly a match of equals. The young absolutely relied on the word of their elders.


Archives, Shire of Alberton
Box 432
Four of 7 volumes numbered 2-8
Volume 2: October 1918 – July 1919
Volume 3: July 1919 – Nov 1919
Volume 4: Nov 1919 – March 1920
Volume 8: 1922

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

216. Sentiment vs the market: Archie Morley’s failed bid to become a soldier settler

Archie Morley was born in Gormandale in 1889. He grew up in the town and attended the local state school.

Archie married Olive May Scarborough in 1914 and by the time he enlisted in 1916 there were two children: Rupert George Morley (1915) and Arthur Robert Morley (1916).

Archie Morley enlisted at Sale in early February 1916. He was 26 years old, and he was leaving behind a wife and two very young children. His religion was given as Presbyterian and his occupation as farmer. As we will see, he and a brother were farming on land leased from W E Cumming.

According to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (8/3/16) Archie was farewelled from Gormandale, with another 5 local men, at a social in early March 1916. Each of the men was presented with a fountain pen and an indelible pencil ‘for writing many messages home’.

Archie Morley joined 21 Battalion and embarked from Australia on 3/10/16. After training in England, he finally reached France in mid February 1917. His service on the Western Front was relatively short because he was wounded on 28/4/17. He was hit in the left shoulder by what was described as either (gsw) gun shot or shrapnel. It was a serious wound: ’shrapnel’ / ‘gsw left shoulder severe; fractured clavicle’ and it marked the end of his service. After hospitalisation, he was returned to Australia (21/11/17) and discharged as ‘medically unfit’ (26/12/17).

He received a welcome home at Gormandale – along with 3 other men – in early March 1918. Again, it was written up in the local paper. The account described the men being … welcomed home in a right royal way. Each man was presented with … a gold medal, bearing the inscription, with name, “Service abroad, A.I.F., 1914-17. For duty bravely done. Awarded by residents of Gormandale and district.”

Obviously, Archie Morley returned from the War with a serious disability. He was in his late twenties, married with two young children. A third child – Vera May Morley – was born in 1918. On discharge, his pension and the allocations to his wife and children came to £6/5/0 per fortnight. Back in his local community, not surprisingly – and not withstanding his significant disability – Archie was keen to take advantage of the government scheme to place returned men on the land. On the face of it, he was the perfect match for the scheme.

But there was more to Archie Morley’s background, specifically his family background, that, at least in the eyes of the locals, boosted his entitlement to become a soldier settler in the local area. Indeed, there was considerable support for him right across the Shire of Alberton, not just in the Gormandale district, because of the widespread conviction that the Morley family had well and truly ‘done its duty’.

Five of the Morley boys had enlisted and three had been killed. Of the two who survived, Archie Morley, as already noted, had been discharged on medical grounds, and the other brother – Charles Victor Morley – served until September 1918 when he was returned to Australia to be discharged on ‘special’ grounds. The official record covering his early discharge described the circumstances thus: for sake of family; widowed mother; three brothers killed in action. One disabled on active service. It also noted that ‘two sisters and one brother died’ in the time Charles Morley had been in the AIF.

The three brothers killed were: George Thomas Morley, August 1916 (see Post 79), Ernest Edward Morley, May 1917 (see Post 119) – strictly speaking, he was a nephew – and Robert Herbert Morley, October 1917 (see Post 141). The two sisters who died were Mary Elizabeth Morley (1916 aged 35 years) and Annie Morley/Esler (1917 aged 45 years); and the brother who died was Jesse Morley (1917 aged 35 years). He left behind a wife and three small children; and in fact this family had lost an infant son in 1916. By any standard, the years 1916 and 1917 had brought enormous grief to the Morley family; and their tragic story was well known throughout the Shire.

The father of the Morley family (Jesse Morley) had died, aged 53, in 1897. The mother – Sally/Sarah Dove – died at Gormandale in 1939 aged 83 years. Over the War years, the mother was praised in the local press for offering solace and support for grieving families and also for her involvement with the local Red Cross. As an indication of her position in the local community, when the Gormandale memorial was unveiled by the long-serving federal politician G H Wise in December 1923, the Gippsland Times (24/12/23) reported that Wise readily assented to the suggestion that Mrs Morley – five members of whose family had served at the war, three of whom, alas! had fallen in battle – assist him in the unveiling.

With this background, it was hardly surprising that Archie Morley enjoyed considerable community support in his bid to become a soldier settler in the district. His extended family was well known and had lived in the local community of Gormandale for many years. Locals knew of the sacrifices the family had made in the War. They knew of the tragedy that had fallen on the family over the War years. They knew that Archie was returning home from France with a significant disability. They knew he had a young family to support. They knew he had had considerable experience in farming in the local area. They knew he was hard working and independent. They wanted to support him to take up his former life as a farmer.

But while Archie Morley was the perfect match for the soldier settlement program, his attempt proved unsuccessful. It is instructive to learn why his attempt failed. It certainly highlighted one of the inevitable checks on the grandiose program of repatriation at the end of WW1: market forces proved stronger than civic sentiment.

The account of Archie’s failed bid comes from newspaper reports from the time as well as papers from the archives of the Shire of Alberton.

Archive papers of the Shire of Alberton indicate that in early 1919 the various local repatriation committees set up across the shire, as part of the attempt by the Closer Settlement Board to promote soldier settlement, had become exasperated with what they saw as the faults of the state bureaucracy based in Melbourne. The local committee covering the Gormandale district was particularly critical. It formally raised a series of complaints with the Shire of Alberton Council and the Council in turn took up these concerns with the State body. The chief concern was that so few returned men were actually being placed on the land. In fact, the Gormandale committee claimed that despite all its work no soldier had been settled on the land in the district to that point. There was also ongoing criticism of the work of the (land) valuers appointed by the Government. The key issue here was that the local committees involved in the scheme considered that they had the critical local knowledge of both the suitability of land and local property values; but their advice and assessments were generally ignored and that of non-local, government-appointed valuers accepted.

Archie Morley’s case attracted a lot of attention and, by early 1919, it had even made it into the Melbourne papers. For example, an article in The Argus on 12/2/19, under the headline: ‘District Committees’ Powers’, specifically referred to it. The article covered the same general criticisms being made of the Closer Settlement Board across the Shire of Alberton.

One case in particular was cited, that of a soldier named Morley, who, on his return from the war, desired to take up a property which he had worked successfully for three years before enlisting. It was stated that he even went so far as to build a house on the property, and that one man had offered to buy it [the land] back from the Government in three years’ time at the present price. Morley has a qualification certificate, and is one of five brothers who enlisted, three of whom made the supreme sacrifice.

The ‘qualification certificate’ referred to was a formal certificate that established that the individual had the necessary farming background and character to succeed in the soldier settlement program.

There was another article, two months later, in the Morwell Advertiser (18/4/19) that gave more details on the case. Again, the general tenor was one of criticism of the Closer Settlement Board operating from Melbourne.

Before the war Mr Arch Morley and one of his brothers had a six years’ lease of a farm, compromising 105 acres, from Mr W. E. Cumming, Gormandale. Mr. A. Morley was one of the early volunteers, but returned invalided in November, 1917, and he decided to ask the Repatriation Board to purchase the farm for him. The six years’ lease expired the following February [1918], but in view of the negotiations with the Board, Mr. Cumming extended the tenancy for another 12 months, and the other brother went to Queensland. When the soldier returned from the front the owner of the property asked what he was prepared to pay for the land, and he told him £16 per acre all round. The owner agreed to accept the figure, the local valuers and the local repatriation committee said the price was a fair one. Negotiations have been in progress for 12 months, and the soldier is no nearer to getting possession. Four Government valuers have been over the property, and a certain member of the Closer Settlement Board. The latter came with an augur under his arm, for the purpose of testing the soil. The same gentleman, seeing a fine fruit tree on the farm, remarked, “What a pretty tree of quinces,” but it happened to be a pear tree. At first the Board offered £12 an acre for the property, and have since advanced the price to £13 10s and the owner has come down to £15, as he would like the soldier to get the farm, but has been offered £17 an acre by a resident of Gormandale. Mr. Morley was so confident of getting the farm that he has put an additional building on it. The extended lease has just expired and Mr. Morley wants to know what the Closer Settlement Board is going to do. It is cases like the above that have caused the public to lose confidence in the Repatriation and Closer Settlement Boards. It might be added that “The Courier” has communicated with the Minister for Lands (Mr. Clarke) for an explanation in connection with the above, and bringing under his notice the threatened resignation of the Gormandale repatriation committee, but up to the present no reply has come to hand.

Clearly, the Morley case was being used to show how ineffective the soldier settlement scheme had become. The clear suggestion was that external valuers were the key problem; and that negotiations at the local level, where those involved had a better, more informed view of values and other relevant issues, would produce better outcomes. There was also a dig at the supposed expertise of the external officers, who could not tell the difference between a pear and a quince tree! The article also highlighted the degree of frustration weighing on the local (Gormandale) repatriation committee members who were then threatening to resign. These local committees were active in each of the three ridings of the shire. They were small and usually consisted of 2 or 3 successful landholders with a local councillor. They were unpaid positions and often involved a great deal of work – another reason why the members became so frustrated when their advice was apparently ignored.

Beyond the local newspaper reports, Council correspondence from the time provides some additional detail. There is letter dated 20/3/19 from T G Anderson on behalf of the local (Gormandale) ’Shire Repatriation Committee’. The letter noted that Morley had made application for the land 12 months earlier (early 1918). The land itself actually consisted of 2 parcels: one allotment of 74 acres and another of 31 acres. The local valuers determined an average price for the 105 acres of £15/16/9 per acre. The vendor had indicated that he would accept £15/5/0 per acre. The letter noted, re the vendor’s offer: … and this is considered by local land valuers as a reasonable price.

The letter also noted that Morley had rented the land for 3 years before enlisting and that … ever since he returned 16 months ago has been renting and working on this place. There was clearly an expectation on Morley’s part that he would be able to secure the land. The letter noted that, on the assumption that he would get the land through the ‘Government scheme for returned soldiers’, Morley had erected a house and outbuildings for a dairy farm.

Morley was described as married … with three children and a good wife to help him. He was also described as someone who had spent his whole in the district and was respected by all. He was an industrious young man and the committee was confident that he would be successful. The letter also included the reference to a ‘respected valuer’ (W Pentland) who was willing to act as some of guarantor, in that he was prepared to repurchase the land from the Government – at the current value of £15/5/0 per acre – at the end of 3 years if Morley’s venture did not succeed.

The letter also noted that Morley had also built a house for the widow – and her 3 children – of one of his brothers who had been killed in the war. This must have been the family of Ernest Edward Morley, killed 14/5/17. It was not clear where the house was; but possibly it too was built on the land in question.

On the basis of all this background information, the Gormandale Repatriation Committee requested in the letter that the Shire of Alberton take up the issue and urge the Closer Settlement Board in Melbourne to re-open and review the case. In fact, the Shire itself had already formally decided – on 13/3/19 via a successful council resolution – to request that the Closer Settlement Board re-open the case.

The Alberton Shire formally wrote to the Closer Settlement Board on 25/3/19. The Shire Secretary (G W Black) stated:

The Council has given this case careful consideration, and I am directed to ask if the Board will re-open it.

Black continued,

The Council is of opinion that if the proposition has been turned down, as has been alleged, it must have been due to some misapprehension, and it, therefore urges that the case be re-opened, and full consideration given to the representations as set forth in the accompanying letter. [Anderson’s letter of 20/3/19]

The response from the Closer Settlement Board was immediate – the reply was dated 26/3/19, the next day – and it was as definitive. As far as the Closer Settlement Board was concerned the matter was closed and the decision was not going to be reviewed in any way. The tone was as curt as the reply was prompt:

The vendor was offered a price by the Board which was declined, and no further action will be taken in the matter.

There are many unanswered questions here. For example, was Archie Morley encouraged – by the landowner or others in the community – to make the significant improvements to the property in the belief that this would increase the pressure on the Closer Settlement Board to agree to the sale? Similarly, was there an assumption held by Archie Morley, and the local community generally, that, in effect, the Closer Settlement Board was bound to support him and that the actual cost of the land was of secondary importance, particularly given that the local committee had effectively negotiated a ‘reasonable price’? From another perspective – was this a defining case for the Closer Settlement Board, which was determined to uphold its authority in view of all the criticism it was attracting? And, of course, there were the more technical questions: what was the price offered by the Board and how close was it to the price negotiated by the local committee at Gormandale?

Sitting behind all this is another key question. It is one I hope to pursue in coming posts: were the local repatriation committees, intended to work closely with the Closer Settlement Board in Melbourne to support the soldier settlement scheme, keen to drive up the price of land in the district? After all, the committees were made up of significant landholders in the community and they knew that the Government had become a key player in the local land market. The Government needed land for the soldier settlement scheme; and the market now offered considerable potential for profit. And there are some darker questions to do with who really profited from the scheme to put returned soldiers on the land.

But, beyond all the conjecture, there is little doubt that the case highlights the inevitable clash between sentiment – everyone agreed that Archie Morley deserved to become a soldier settler – and market forces. Archie Morley’s dream was denied because the Closer Settlement Board was not prepared to meet the price requested by the vendor. For his part the vendor was not prepared to accept the price offered by the Board because, presumably, he had had a better offer from some other local party. The vendor was not prepared, as it were, to incorporate a ‘discount for public sentiment’ in his selling price.

Archie and the wider Morley family might have done everything for the War effort – certainly they committed to it and sacrificed a lot more than most – but, in the end, market forces proved more powerful than sentiment.


The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Morewell Advertiser

Gippsland Times

Archives, Shire of Alberton
Box 432
One of 7 volumes numbered 2-8
Volume 2: October 1918 – July 1919

214. Repatriation: bold promises and real limits

Repatriation was one of the greatest challenges facing post-War government in Australia. More pointedly, it is fair to argue that the real challenge was managing the virtually unlimited expectations to do with repatriation that had been created over the period of the War. This post looks at the situation in the Shire of Alberton in the early 1920s.

Repatriation was an issue from the very beginning of the War. At the countless farewells organised for local men, or ‘boys’, who had ‘answered the call’ and volunteered, there were as many pledges from local elders and civic leaders to ‘look after’ the same ‘heroes’ when they returned. Every speech promised that their sacrifice and bravery would always be acknowledged and repaid in full. All such promises coalesced around the notion of ‘repatriation’. The broad idea of repatriation covered not just the material programs put in place to support the returning men – in terms of health care, employment, training, housing, soldier settlement schemes etc – but also the recognition and special status that was to be accorded to the returning men.

Importantly, over the course of the War the status of the men who enlisted in the AIF increased significantly. In part, this was because of the failure of the two conscription referenda. The failure meant that the AIF remained a volunteer force and this had the effect of raising the status of those who had volunteered. Also, from 1916, as recruiting became more and more difficult, there was ever more focus on emphasising the higher character of those who did volunteer. Opposed to the selfless and loyal volunteers there were the ‘slackers’ who refused to volunteer: cowards who stayed at home and hid behind the bravery of others.

And there were other ways in which the status of those who served in the AIF was elevated. As noted previously, there was a constant media narrative that portrayed the AIF as not just another highly valued, integral unit within the broader British Army but as a unique, elite fighting force that had played a critical – if not the most critical – role in the final battles of the War. Additionally, men in the AIF routinely regarded themselves as better than all the other Allied conscript soldiers. The unique character of the AIF, the mateship and larrikinism that defined it, its battlefield successes and its role in shaping the nation’s character and identity were themes that would be taken up in the post-War period by C E W Bean as the official War historian.

Some sense of the special status accorded to returned men can be picked up in routine newspaper reporting from the time. For example, the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – always featured a summary of cases held in the local court. From 1918, there were cases where returned men who appeared in the local court were given favourable treatment because of their war service. Often they were represented by B P Johnson, one of the most vocal and prominent Imperial Loyalists throughout the War, and he would invariably refer to the men’s war service. The local justices would then make it clear that their determination did reflect recognition of this service. Presumably, the police who had arrested the men and brought the charges would have been unimpressed. Often the charges involved public drunkenness and fighting. For example, a report in the paper on 9/5/19 noted that two former soldiers – Patrick Martin O’Loughlin and W Johnson – were discharged with just a caution following a punch up in the main street of Yarram. W Johnson cannot be traced but O’Loughlin was a local. He had been born in Ireland and had enlisted as a labourer from Yarram in January 1916. At the time he was 38 yo and single. He spent the last year of the War as a POW in Germany and was repatriated to the UK in December 1918. He had only returned to Australia in April 1919 so he could only have been back in the local area a couple of weeks when he was involved in the fight. In fact, he was not officially discharged as ‘medically unfit’ until the start of June 1919.

There was another case reported on 9/1/20. This one involved one soldier (Claud Garfield Brown) trying to break into the lock up at Yarram to ‘liberate’ two mates (Cann and Pope). Brown had been drunk at the time. The report noted that Brown, defended by Johnson, got off lightly because of his war service. Only one of the three soldiers involved – George Abraham Cann – was a local.

Two months later (5/3/20) there was another report of a brawl between two soldiers – Harry Roberts and Jas Burlis, neither of whom appeared to be local – and again the justices were lenient because of the men’s service history. The report noted that the police on this occasion were keen to make an example of the men because the brawl occurred on a Sunday morning in front of children going to Sunday School.

There were other cases reported where the ex-soldier’s law breaking was more colourful. For example, earlier (11/12/18) there had been a report of William Owen Sutton receiving a caution and a small fine for speeding on his motor bike through Yarram. Significantly, Sutton’s licence was not taken. The report noted that Sutton had been a despatch rider in France. Sutton had enlisted as a 19 yo in 1914. At the time of enlistment, he was working at Head’s Garage in Yarram. During the War he had had a serious motor bike accident – fractured skull – and had been hospitalised for 4 months.

Of course, these are only several cases drawn from a single location over a short period of time but they do at least suggest that there was an understanding in the community that some sort of special allowance had to be made to accommodate the anti-social behaviour of returning men. At the same time, there were bound to be limits to such accommodation. Some behaviour could be explained away, at least initially, as something like exuberant larrikinism but, inevitably, there was going to be increasing community tension over just how much, and how often, such behaviour could be tolerated.

Beaumont (Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War) makes the point that concerns about the behaviour of ex-soldiers went well beyond the style of larrikinism described here and that, from1915-16, the progressive return of thousands of men ‘unfit for military service’ raised fears of the former soldiers becoming ‘a disruptive and subversive force in Australian society’ (524). Essentially, unbridled wartime adulation of the Anzacs was always going to have be tempered by the realities of their return to civilian life and re-engagement with all the conventional challenges of family life, work and civic responsibility.

Just as there were always going to be limits to the celebrated status accorded to returned men, particularly when they went beyond acceptable community behaviour, there were inevitably going to be failures associated with the formal scheme of repatriation. The expectations set down during the War had been too great – in a real sense, the promises had been made without any practical sense of limits – and the actual level and range of repatriation services that would be required over an extended period had been greatly underestimated. There was also the issue of the costs involved. Naively, Hughes and his government had believed that German reparations would cover the cost. However, the Treaty of Versailles effectively denied Australia this source of funds; and it was clear that the costs of repatriation would have to be met by at least the next generation of Australian tax payers.

Consequently, with the idealisation of repatriation you also had this ongoing sense of frustration, anger and disillusionment. And it was there right from the very start, as soon as wounded men began to return home. As already noted, speeches at welcome-home functions in the Shire of Alberton would always refer to the government’s responsibility – and promise – to look after the returning men; and, from the time of the first such welcomes, there were references to the government not doing enough, not understanding the men’s needs and being too slow to organise support.

There were other relevant dimensions to this widespread community belief that the government was constantly failing with repatriation. No matter what services were provided, some returned men were always going to find it difficult to settle back into civilian life. Quite apart from physical injures, many men were mentally damaged. This was at a time when there was no real sense of ‘mental health’ or specific conditions such as PTSD. But it was not just a question of mental or emotional damage because, as we have seen in earlier posts, many men tried to hang on to the ‘mateship’ that had been forged in their time in the AIF. They wanted, as it were, for the shared experience of the AIF to continue after demobilisation. Post 211. Club rooms for the returned men or a memorial hall for the Shire? described how this was an issue with the creation of the Diggers’ Club’ in Yarram. The returned men wanted an exclusive meeting and social place for themselves; and many in the local community accused the returned men of wanting to keep to themselves and not committing to their community. Of course, the reality was that the men were no longer in the AIF, and they found themselves re-bound to their families and communities, and even competing against each other for employment and services. Overall, the potential for frustration, anger and the perceived loss of recognition amongst the returned men was very high. Inevitably a lot of this negativity was subsumed within the universal belief that repatriation was failing the men, even if, in the strictest sense, some of the particular challenges were not tied to the mechanics of repatriation. The reality was that a system of repatriation was never going to be enough to handle the multiplicity and complexity of issues that came with the War’s legacy.

It is also important to note that prior to the formal system of repatriation there was not a long history – at either the state or national level – of government involvement in, or responsibility for, what we would regard as ‘social welfare’. Prior to WW1, returned service men relied on the help of their families, local communities or charitable institutions. The scale of repatriation required post WW1 was such that this traditional approach would never work; and, early on, the Commonwealth Government recognised that a formal, Commonwealth public department would be required. Arguably, there were at least two critical consequences of this new approach. The first was that support for the returned men, and their families, shifted from the status of ‘benevolent’ or ‘charitable’ voluntary support to ‘social entitlement’. This sense of entitlement obviously shaped people’s dealings with the new department. The second consequence was that as a ‘public service’ the new Department of Repatriation had to establish a universal, codified system of entitlement. The system was to be administered objectively and impartially. There had to be rules, regulations and most significantly, ‘eligibility criteria’ and ‘cut-off points’ and ‘levels of benefits’. Inevitably, the bureaucratic regime and approach would mean that some men or families ‘missed out’ and this, in turn, gave rise to high levels of disputation, frustration disillusionment and anger. It is also worth noting another – somewhat counter-intuitive – consequence. As soon as the federal Department of Repatriation was established, responsibility, as well as all associated blame, for the welfare of returned men – and the widows and families of those men killed – was shifted from the known, immediate and local community to an impersonal, anonymous and bureaucratic government department. The ‘Repat’ became everyone’s target and everyone’s scapegoat. This reality tended to minimise the value of the extraordinary work achieved by the Department of Repatriation post WW1.

It is also important to acknowledge that even with an extensive government system of repatriation, a good deal of the support that was offered to the returned men – and the hardship and suffering involved in this support – was private, if not hidden. The great majority of men who enlisted, served and then returned were single and relatively young. It fell to their families, and particularly their parents, to care for them. Families had to manage the trauma, depression, alcoholism, violence and despair. Beyond the level of formal assistance offered by the Repat, there was an extraordinary, and ultimately unquantifiable, amount of unpaid and unacknowledged support offered by families.

The broad sense of repatriation in the local community

To give some sense of how the general issue of repatriation played out in the local community I want to look at two cases in the Shire of Alberton. Both had considerable coverage in the local paper at the time. One case (Mrs Murray) involved a widow and her three children facing serious financial hardship, and even homelessness, who made direct appeals to the local community for help. The second case (St Margaret’s Island) involved a call, widely supported by the local community, for some sort of special provision to enable a group of 4 returned men from Woodside to set themselves up on the land. The significance of their particular initiative was that it did not fit the conventional soldier settlement arrangement which was then being implemented in the district. Together, the two cases tease out both the complexities – and shortcomings – of the system of repatriation and, as well, local attitudes towards the same system.

Mrs Murray

The plight of Mrs Murray has been raised in an earlier post (Post 176). She was the wife of John Bridge Murray who had enlisted at Yarram in August 1915. Murray was definitely local and he was given a formal farewell from the Shire. He also received the Shire Medallion.

Murray was originally from Scotland. The couple had been living in the local area prior to his enlistment and both names appeared on the 1915 Electoral Roll. He (John Murray) appears as a ‘labourer’ of Yarram and she (Esther Murray, nee Coghill) as ‘home duties’, also of Yarram. There were three young children, all born in Yarram: William Coghill Murray (1910), Helen Gina Murray (1913) and Johannna Bridge Murray (1915).

Murray was killed on 11/8/18. His body was never recovered. His name is recorded on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial and the Shire’s Roll of Honor.

As a widow with children, Esther Murray would have received a war pension, as per The War Pensions Act 1914-1916. The base rate of the pension – for a soldier on 6/- per day – was £ 2 per fortnight. There was an additional 20/- per fortnight for the first child, 15/- per fortnight for the second child and 10/- per fortnight for each additional child. This would have given her a total pension of £ 4/5/0 per fortnight. There would also have been an amount of deferred pay – at the rate of 1/- per day of service – which would have come to approximately £ 50. Many soldiers also held insurance policies on their death, with various friendly societies; but in this instance there does not appear to have been any policy.

There were indications that Mrs Murray was struggling well before her husband was killed. While Murray was alive, the family would have been receiving an ‘allotment’ of 4/- of his 6/- per day pay as a soldier. In the archives of the Shire of Alberton there is correspondence from May 1917 (1) involving a request from Mrs Murray for financial support to pay rent (£12). It appears that the request had been made directly to the (Victorian) State War Council and this body then referred it the local recruiting committee at Yarram in the belief that the recruiting committee was acting as the local branch of the War Service Committee. In his response, the Shire Secretary pointed out that there was no local committee of the War Service Council and, in any case, he believed that Mrs Murray had applied to the wrong body, given that her husband was still overseas on service. The background was that the State War Council, acting through local committees, was able to provide limited financial assistance where the the returned soldier and his family were facing financial difficulties. The process involved having the local police make enquiries as to the individual circumstances and the local committee had to vet the application. There is no indication of the outcome of Mrs Murray’s request but it seems clear that even before the death of her husband she was in financial difficulties and that she was reaching out for help.

The archives also feature further relevant correspondence from the end of December 1918 (2). The gist of the correspondence was that Mrs Murray was to lodge an application with the Closer Settlement Office in Melbourne to ‘take up land’. The correspondence makes it clear that Mrs Murray was a ‘soldier’s widow in this district’ and that she wanted to know the steps required to become eligible for the scheme. She was advised to complete the application and that, once completed, she would be informed when she would be required to appear before the relevant committee. There was a handwritten note on the correspondence stating that the ‘application form and particulars’ were handed to Mrs Murray on 20/1/19. It is unclear if the application was ever lodged and I have not found any indication that Mrs Murray received any land grant. If her application was lodged, it would be the only instance I have come across in the district where a soldier’s widow applied under the scheme (Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement Act 1917). The detail does suggest that, once again, Mrs Murray was reaching out for any form of support being made available.

The next item in relation to Mrs Murray came in an editorial in the local paper on 9/7/19. There was a report that Mrs Murray’s house at North Devon had been destroyed by fire. She was described as a widow whose husband had been killed in the War. She was said to be looking for help from the local branch of the RSSILA. The editorial set the report of her hardship against the general claims of failure to look after the interests of the ‘returned boys’.

Just over year later (6/8/20), the following letter appeared in the paper:

Will you through the medium of your paper let the public know how the Alberton Shire Repatriation Committee treat a soldier’s widow and children. I am, I believe, about the only widow in the district. It will be remembered that in June, 1919, I was milking a few cows on a small place in North Devon, endeavouring to get a living for myself and three little children, when I had the misfortune to be burnt out. The night after the fire the Repatriation Committee held a meeting, and they took up my case. M. Newland came round to where I was staying and told me not to worry, that they had held a meeting last night, and that they were going to get me a home. A year and two months have passed since then, and they have not fulfilled that promise yet. Of course I believed them when they made that promise, or I would have tried to get a bit of land through the Repatriation, or got a home through the housing commission. Instead, I have waited for them to make good their promise to look after me and get me a home, and in the meantime I have had to use the money I got for my cows when I sold them, to keep my children decently clothed and fed. A certain section of the people did not go far wrong when they said to the soldiers that if they went out to fight that they would not get looked after when they came back. The grateful country gives the widow 10/- for the first child, 7/6 for the next, 3/- for the third [per week]. I have three children, and that sum of money works out at about 10 1/2d a day each to feed and clothe them, I am now faced with being turned out in the street with my three little children, as the house that I occupy is to be sold. My present landlord told me some time ago that he would raise the rent on me from 15/- to £ 1 a week, but under the Moratorium Act this was prevented. I again appealed to Mr. Newland, after the rent trouble, and asked him if he had done anything for me. He said yes: that he had consulted with Mr. Benson and Mr. Johnson, and they said that as I was not in this house when my husband had enlisted that perhaps they could not do anything for me. I then went to Melbourne, and went to the Returned Soldiers’ League, and stated my case to them. They gave me a letter of introduction to the State War Council and told me to state my case to them. I went to the War Council. Mr. Lillywhite, the secretary, wrote a letter in my presence to Mr. Newland, asking him that if they in the Yarram branch would raise a fund to get a home for this widow, Mrs. Murray, they in the State War Council would meet them half way out of the Soldiers’ and Widows’ Fund. It was on the 15th of June the letter was written and sent to Mr. Newland, and he has taken no notice of it yet. Before I went to Melbourne I told Mr. Newland that I would go to Melbourne and try to get a home there. He said alright, that he would fill in a form and send it down to the Repatriation, and that would get me a soldiers widow’s home. He filled in the form and I signed it, and seven weeks later, when I went to Melbourne, I called at the Repatriation office in Melbourne. They informed me that they never had any enquiries about me, and that they never had received any form from Mr. Newland for a home for me. The secretary of the State War Council was astonished to find that in such a wealthy district one war woman should be looking for a home in vain. There are all the loyalists and flag wavers’ promises to the soldiers and their dependents. Deeds, not words, count.
Mrs J. B. Murray Yarram, 3/8/20.

It is not possible to test the claims made in the letter. The ‘M Newland’ referred to in the letter would have been William Andrew Newland. Newland had returned to Australia at the end of 1915 after having been wounded at Gallipoli. He had served as one of the recruiting sergeants in the district during the War. After the War, he was involved in the establishment of the local branch of the RSSILA and had served on the original committee. He had also been very involved in establishment of Diggers’ Club in Yarram. Both Benson and Johnson – both referred to many times previously – were also every involved with the welfare of the returned men. It is easy to understand how Newland and the local branch of the RSSILA would have been affected by Mrs Murray’s plight after her house was destroyed by fire. Almost certainly they would have given some undertaking to try to help. But it is difficult to follow the specifics of promises made and, possibly, not kept. Also, the lines between the various organisations mentioned are unclear. Possibly, Mrs Murrray was confusing repatriation agencies at the state level with returned soldiers’ organisations at the local level. At the same time, the episode highlights the acute vulnerability faced by widows like Mrs Murray and their desperate attempts to secure support. It also revealed the difficulties in negotiating the relevant bureaucracy. In terms of her claim, it is important to note that there were other war widows in the district.

The letter also reveals a moral dilemma being played out at the local level. Mrs Murray was highly critical of the lack of the support that she considered was her due. Her appeal for help touched on all the past promises. She questioned whether the soldiers had been lied to, as some had warned even during the War. She accused people of hypocrisy. She could not accept that the local community would not help her.

One week after the letter, there was an in memoriam for Murray in the local paper (11/8/20). It was the second anniversary of his death. Presumably, the timing of the letter to the paper – one week before the in memoriam appeared – was deliberate.

In sad and loving memory of my dear husband and our dear daddy, Lance-Corp. John Murray, who was killed in action south of Lihons, France, on 11th August, 1918.

This day recalls sad memories
of a loved one gone to rest.
Ever remembered.
There is a grave in far off France
Where our dear daddy lies at rest.
God called him home to be with Him.
How hard it seemed, but he knows best.

A memory prized more than gold,
A daddy’s worth can never be told.

Inserted by his loving wife and children, Yarram.

Ordinarily, with letters such as Mrs Murray’s there would have been an immediate response, particularly given the serious charges she had made and the references to specific people. And, clearly, she was calling for some response. She wanted to know why she was not being supported and why her pleas were being ignored. But there was no response. Consequently, two weeks later (25/8/20) she wrote again.

It would be interesting to know why a reply to my letter is not forthcoming, and why the challenge to offer certain explanations is still unheard. It is (sic) because those holding responsible positions are afraid of exposure that they can pass over such a letter with apparent contempt? It is scandalous to reflect that in such a wealthy district as this that the rights of a soldier’s widow are utterly ignored. Australia owes a debt of gratitude to those who paid the sacrifice for her freedom. Such a debt is difficult to find expression in mere words and is much more difficult to repay. Is no one willing to come forward to support the rights of one who has sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty? All are glad to enjoy the freedom which is their birthright, but how many remember the debt of gratitude they owe to those who are purchasers of that freedom? Why should anyone in an official capacity neglect to fulfil the duties of that position? It is quite time the country should realise how sacred are its promises to fulfil, and no one should be obliged to fight for what is their right. There should be no difficulty in arranging and settling such matters in the shortest space of time.
Mrs J. B. Murray 19/8/20.

However, once again, there was no reply. Obviously, we do not know the full details associated with this particular case: the specific promises made; whether, in fact, various kinds of support had already been given to Mrs Murray; whether she had attracted a lot of negative attention to herself because she was seen as too ‘pushy’ and too public in her calls for support and the criticism levelled at well-known local figures etc. At the same time, it is possible to make the following points. First, the fate of war widows like Mrs Murray – and their families – was always going to be hard. Even with pensions and access to other services via the system of repatriation, their financial position was marginal and there was always the fear of poverty, homelessness and even destitution. Second, this harsh reality was at odds with the universal promises that had been made through the War to ‘look after’ the men – those who returned wounded or disabled and those who made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ – and their families. Third, there were very real limits to the level and nature of repatriation benefits and services that could be provided by the government and, equally, there were equivalent limits to the amount of empathy, and the length of time such empathy could be sustained, in the general community. War weariness was a reality and people did not appreciate constant reminders of what was expected of them and how responsible they were for the suffering of those around them. Last, the state system of repatriation, based on a codified system of ‘entitlement’ and administered via a professional bureaucracy had the effect of removing – or, at least, reducing – the local community’s sense of responsibility. In effect, the local community could represent Mrs Murray’s fight as one not with the local community but with the Reparation Department.

St Margaret’s Island

St Margaret’s Island was located just off the coast near Tarraville. It was crown land used for stock grazing, mainly sheep. One of the people who had held the lease for the land in the period before WW1 was J J O’Connor who in 1919 was the Shire President. In the same year (1919) four returned service men from Woodside applied to the government to take over the lease which was then expiring. What was significant about their claim was the fact that they wanted special provision on account of their war service. This particular initiative of the four men was outside the ‘soldier settlement’ scheme then in play throughout the district. The episode again highlighted the idea of ‘entitlement’ and it also showed how sentiment – the sense of duty owed to returned men – played out against the economic realities of the time.

The matter was first raised publicly in a letter to the local paper 0n 12/9/19. The letter called for public support for the men’s initiative, making it clear that without some form of special provision, the men had no chance of securing the lease; and that if the men were not successful the lease would go … to wealthy land owners, or speculators or [land] grabbers or even … hungry land sharks.

We are, all four of us, returned soldiers, having had from three to four years service respectively. One of us enlisted at the age of nineteen, and has been right through the whole war campaign. We are not saying this in any spirit of boasting or bravado, but we are merely stating a fact which has an essential bearing on our case. The lease held from the Government by those who at present have the use of St. Margaret’s island will shortly expire. After a personal interview with the State Minister for Lands we, at his suggestion, made joint written application for a lease of the 4000 acres which comprise the island. We have been informed that our application has been refused, and that the future lease will be let by tender. This means, in effect, that we have no possible chance of success. We cannot expect to compete against wealthy land owners, or speculators or grabbers. Owing to drought conditions in other parts of Gippsland, land is being eagerly sought after by hungry land sharks and speculators with an eye to profiteering. We now appeal to the patriotic public to interest themselves on our behalf. We are not asking much, merely permission to rent Government land to help make a living. Our stock is guaranteed, and our credentials are also guaranteed.

The men involved included two of the O’Neil brothers from Woodside. Simon John O’Neill and Joseph Jeffrey O’Neill had enlisted in June 1915. The third, middle, brother – Maurice Edward O’Neill – who had enlisted with them, had been killed in France in June 1916. The O’Neill brothers are significant because in 1915 they had come under a lot of pressure to enlist, via a series of anonymous letters in the local paper that accused them of a lack of patriotism. The details are covered in Post 41. Pressed to enlist in the first half of 1915.

Of the other two men, John Francis Lawton had been born in Ireland and, like the O’Neill brothers, was Roman Catholic. Elias Warburton Squires was the fourth man and he had been born in the UK and gave his religion as Church of England. Both Lawton and Squires had been discharged on medical grounds. Lawton had suffered a gun shot wound to the head and Squires a gun shot wound to the thigh. In fact, Squires had been wounded in a live firing drill with a lewis gun. The person who shot him, accidentally, was another local from the Shire of Alberton in the same unit: Edgar John Appleyard, who himself died of wounds in August 1917. To round out the picture of the 4 men’s war experiences, Simon John O’Neill had suffered shell shock and his brother, Joseph Jeffrey O’Neill had been gassed. Clearly, the four men were well known locals, and their war service deserved recognition.

Not surprisingly, the letter prompted expressions of support for the men. There was a letter, dated 15/9/19, which appeared the next week (19/9/19). It was signed ‘Justice’. Justice believed the men’s plan would succeed, saw no reason why it should not be supported and contrasted the proposal with what he saw as the excessive costs associated with the far more problematic soldier settlement scheme:

I know this island well, and a better proportion for three or four men who know anything about sheep farming it would be hard to find. It belongs to the state, and therefore costs the Government nothing, while they are spending millions buying high priced estates for soldier settlement, where they have not half the chance as they have in this case of making good.

Another letter, singed ‘Father of Soldiers’ appeared on 24/9/19. The correspondent was keen to remind readers of the pressure put on young men to enlist during the War. In fact, the detail is close to the experiences of the O’Neill brothers in Woodside:

Now, during the progress of the war, recruits were applied for, and even rounded up by the recruiting officer. Promises were made to them that they would be provided for in the event of their return, and should they not return, their dependents would have provision made for them. Eligible young men were called shirkers, Huns, and every conceivable name, and that they were unpatriotic if they refused to enlist.

The writer then turned to what he referred to as the ’sequel’. It was a case of men returning with the loss of limbs and eyesight; and even those … who have come back to us whole have their nerves shattered. He then made the claim that the civic leaders who had made all the promises during the War were now neither seen nor heard. In his view they were doing nothing to help the returned men.

He also claimed that the men would never win in the conventional market place because land values had increased so much from before the War. He claimed they had doubled. Presumably, he was convinced that leases had also correspondingly risen.The high price of land in the district was an ongoing concern and many blamed the soldier settlement scheme for this situation. The claim was that once government money was made available for land purchases in relation to the scheme, the value of landholdings throughout the district increased. This was in the interests of existing local land owners who were keen to sell land to the government for the soldier settlement scheme.

The writer wanted the local Returned Soldiers’ League to take up the men’s claim. But he was not hopeful:

Although I have suggested the local League make a move on behalf of these men, I do not think it would be possible to move them, unless it was with a bomb, as the composition of the managing staff has very little sympathy with the general run of diggers, but rather inclined towards the money bags.

He even claimed that the recent purchase of the property for the Diggers’ Club had significantly financially benefited a relative of one of the management committee of the club. The clear suggestion was that not only were locals not sufficiently helping the returned men, they were also keen to exploit the various appeals, services and programs that were put in place.

Still more correspondence ensued. On 1/10/19 there was a letter, signed ‘Labor omnia vincet’, that again supported the returned men. It was critical of the local Progress Association and called on the body to support the men.

In fact, the same edition of the paper featured a public notice from the Progress Association advising of a public meeting to be held at Woodside (4/10/19) on the very matter:

A Public Meeting will be held at Woodside, in the Mechanics’ Hall, on Saturday, 4th Oct., at 3 p.m., to discuss the advisability, or otherwise, of having St. Margaret’s Island made available for soldier settlement.’ D. Lancaster. Convenor.

Then in the edition of 3/10/19, Lancaster had a letter reminding people of the public meeting. He hoped … to see a large gathering of local residents with a knowledge of the island, also some members of out local repatriation committee, to go thoroughly into the matter.

Lancaster finished with support for the men’s claim:

I am sorry to hear that the soldiers’ appeal has not been inquired into, but I hope that people who have our soldiers’ welfare at heart will take a more lively interest in this and other matters concerning their welfare.

There was a report of the meeting in the edition of 3/10/19. Lancaster was in the chair. Several locals with extensive experience of the island – including the Shire President, J J O’Connor who had held the lease before the War – spoke in favour of running sheep there. In the end, the meeting supported the soldier’s proposal. The following resolution was sent to the relevant state (T Livingston) and federal (G H Wise) representatives.

That this meeting supports the application of the three returned soldiers for an extended lease of St. Margaret’s Island. We furthermore agree the the granting of St. Margaret’s Island to these soldiers should not prejudice their claims for a local repatriation block.

In the same edition of the paper, immediately under the report of the meeting, there was a short account of the monthly meeting of the Woodside Progress Association. This meeting was held immediately after the public meeting. At this meeting it appears that one of the soldiers presented the letter they had received from the PM’s office about their unsuccessful bid for the land. The PM’s letter indicated that some 20 other ‘prospective settlers’ had subsequently applied for the lease. The Progress Association then agreed to support the bid of the returned men from Woodside and work to the resolution of the meeting held earlier that day.

However, there was another interesting detail to emerge at the meeting of the Progress Association. The secretary of the group was a Mr Hardwick. In all likelihood, this was Henry Hardwick of Woodside who had enlisted at the same time as the O’Neill brothers. Hardwick, who had risen to the rank of sergeant-major, had been discharged on medical grounds – gun shot wound, left arm – in August 1918. Hardwick had been born in the UK but he had been working in the district as a labourer, like the O’Neill brothers, before the War; and he obviously returned to the district after his medical discharge. There was a strong suggestion at the meeting that Hardwick, and possibly other local returned men had also applied for the lease and that his application was one of the 20 additional applications to which the PM’s letter referred. At the meeting Hardwick reportedly … disclaimed any connection with such application [for the lease] on behalf of himself and all present settlers. The whole episode demonstrated two critical issues. The first was that of whether the government should interfere with the function of the existing market place. The second was the challenge of determining the relative worth of conflicting bids from the returned men. In the case of the lease for St Margaret’s island – an initiative which fell outside the soldier settlement scheme of the time – the simplest and most neutral solution for the government was not to interfere in the market; and this appears to have been what happened.

Interestingly, it appears that most of the returned men involved in this episode did end up with soldier settler selections: S J O’Neill (Woodside), J G O’Neill (Woodside and Balloong), E Warburton (Woodside) and H Hardwick (Balloong). There is no indication that J F Lawton became a soldier settler.


These are only two cases drawn from one regional community in Gippsland. However, they do illustrate the tension between the idea of ‘repatriation’ as some form of sacred bond made during the War with the men who enlisted – the promise always to honour their service and sacrifice, ensure that their celebrated status was forever recognised and, essentially, always ‘look after’ them, and their families – and ‘repatriation’ as a government service that had to operate in the real world of market-driven economics, finite resources set against increasing levels of need, complex regulations and necessarily constrained objectives. The mismatch between the two realities created significant levels of hardship, anger, frustration and disillusionment right across Australian society. As we will see later, the mismatch was particularly acute for many of the soldier settlers in the district.


Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.

Archives, Shire of Alberton

(1) Box 379

File: Correspondence etc of Recruiting Committee Formed, April 26th 1917

(2) Box 432

Volume 2, Documents 36, 57

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative