Twelve months ago today we commemorated the centenary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops on the shores of Gallipoli. 25th April 1915 marks the birth of the ANZAC legend and the forging of the character of our young nation.
The evacuation of all the troops from Anzac Cove, was completed by dawn on 20 December 1915. By then, the Australians had sustained 26,000 casualties, of which 8,000 were killed in action or died of wounds or disease.
Gallipoli was just the beginning. Over the next three years Australians would engage in several battles before the war ended on 11 November 1918.
It was the on Western Front where the ANZAC Legend became etched in stone; on the memorials and gravestones that dot the battlefield sites in France and Belgium and in those memorials, such as the one behind us, erected in nearly every city and country town in Australia.
Fromelles was the first major Australian operation on the Western Front. Five and a half thousand Australians were killed in the battle, making 19 July 1916 the worst day in Australian military history.
Many engagements were to follow. According to the Australian War Memorial, in the war over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
The Anzac spirit was born on 25 April 1915, and reaffirmed in the carnage of the First World War, where the Australians displayed great courage, endurance, initiative, discipline, and mateship. Such qualities came to be seen as the Anzac spirit.
That spirit was evident in the many battles fought in subsequent conflicts, during the Second World War, in Korea, Vietnam and most recently Afghanistan.
Today we remember them and pay our respects to the fallen and all those who served.
Today we can also celebrate that same Anzac spirit displayed in an engagement that began 70 years ago.
It was in 1946 when the Soldier Settlement Commission began operating and was authorised to advance money to former members of the forces for single unit farms.
The Soldier Settlement Scheme from 1946 followed an earlier one following World War 1. That scheme is generally regarded as a failure. The Settlement in the Darlington-Dundonnell area is a case in point as that scheme in 1923 failed miserably. The blocks on Mount Violet estate were too small, liabilities too great, houses too dear, supervision lax, and a desire to recognise a debt of gratitude for war-service, resulted in many inexperienced and unsuited men being allocated blocks. Many would be settlers simply walked off the blocks losing all they had invested in money, time, sweat and blood towards improvements they had made to the properties.
The measures adopted in 1946 were designed to avert the failures of the inter-war years. These were for the most part very successful.
After World War Two, the former Mortlake Shire had, for any municipality, the highest number of Soldier Settlements in Australia. According to the Rural Finance Commission 248 holdings were created from a total of 157,767 acres on 29 “estates”.If you include those properties on estates just outside the boundaries of the old Mortlake Shire such as Barwidgee near Hexham, the estates near Caramut, Darlington, and south of Ballangeich, the number of soldier settler families in the district easily exceeds 300.
The resulting increase in the populations of Mortlake and our neighbouring villages was very significant.
The Woorndoo area, where Soldier Settlements were most numerous had, according to the census, a population increase from 92 in 1947 to 376 by 1961, a fourfold increase in just 14 years.
Hexham. Caramut, Darlington, The Sisters and Ellerslie where the settlements occurred had major increases of up to 75%.
The Mortlake township itself rose from 976 to 1248 in the corresponding period.
The need to support the growing number of farmers and their families resulted in an ever increasing demand for goods and services.
One of the direct drivers of the local Mortlake economy during the 1950s was the requirement for the construction of new housing and farm buildings on the various estates with a spin-off of a demand for new buildings in the town itself.
Eric Golsworthy and Frank Seiver Snr were responsible for the construction of most of the soldier settlement homes in the district. Seiver’s constructed the majority. Frank Seiver had three crews working full time on the various projects and had acquired a bus to transport the crews to the building site.
Goldsworthy’s were also heavily involved in settler housing construction, building a significant number of homes. Being the local hardware merchants they supplied building material and equipment to the local tradesmen. Rod Golsworthy says that the soldier settlement scheme really made the company, leading to the firm’s new premises in Dunlop Street being built in 1964.
The late 1950s and early sixties saw a rapid expansion of the Mortlake economy.
Commercial developments included:
- Goldsworthy’s new premises,
- the ES&A (now ANZ) Bank building and the CBC Bank on the other side of Dunlop Street,
- Vales Motors opposite Market Square
- Frank Seiver Jnr’s garage and roadhouse in Dunlop St.
- Jamie Cameron constructed his new showroom next to his stock and station agents in the historic Penrose building and
- what is now the Elders building was constructed as three shops, Muriel’s Footware, Denny Lasselle’s Stock agents and Jack Ritchie’s Café and residence.
New service centres were constructed as the growing population demanded, including:
- new Shire Offices,
- the Kindergarten,
- Infant welfare centre,
- new hospital and nurses’ quarters.
- St Colman’s School opened and expanded
- Mortlake High School, the alma mater of many a soldier settler child, started and grew with an increasing need to educate the settlers children and the progeny from the baby boom of the fifties.
While I was a child of the fifties and sixties I was a towner with tenuous ties to the land.
However, the influence of the soldier settler kids was palpable. On numbers alone, looking at my old Mortlake State School Grade 6 photo from 1963, almost half the class were from local soldier settlements. At the High School, kids from those now disappeared one or two teacher schools took the daily commute to Mortlake from the outlying estates.
While I found it hard enough riding the bike through the park to get to school on time I cannot imagine getting up before dawn to bounce around in an early model bus for over an hour just to get to school.
Football, tennis, netball and cricket flourished with the influx of young families from the estates. Whether it was the settlers or their children, the soldier settlements provided the essential nucleus for sporting teams throughout the district.
The story of Soldier Settlement, in the Mortlake District as well as the rest of the nation, is essentially a human one.
The time we have now only allows for a mere glimpse at the human drama that is the story of soldier settlement in the district. I am sure that far more expansive stories will be told later this morning at the Soldiers Memorial Hall.
I am grateful to all those people who lived through the experience who offered me invaluable snippets of information and to those who have left behind a record of their experiences:
- Merv McRae for recording his story and the stories of his soldier settler neighbours in his book On The Block,
- Tom Draffen for his autobiography Draffen’s Way and
- Syd Grant who for over three years before his passing in 1990 recorded his memoirs on a series of tapes which have been thankfully transcribed by his daughter.
Before facing the challenges of life on the land the settlers had first to get a “block”.
Potential settlers could submit applications for farms and the selection process began with an interview and then classification into one of four grades:
- Suitable for farm ownership immediately
- Suitable after a short specialised course
- Suitable with further experience
- Unlikely to be suitable
In 1947 the first settlement estates were advertised, with classified applicants required to put their names forwards for blocks on particular estates. Applicants were graded using a 100 point system:
- War service (20 points)
- Farming experience (30 points)
- Personal attributes (30 points)
- Evidence of thrift and financial responsibility (10 )
- Marital status (10 points)
Personal information like discharge papers, bank details and work references from several people in rural industries were requested. At an interview before three Commissioners applicants were asked detailed questions about their farming knowledge and experience.
After ratings were given, a process of elimination was applied and an allocation plan drawn up. Once that decision had been made leases were granted using a two-tier system, leading to freehold.
Competition for the blocks was stiff. There were 60 applicants, who were all required to face the Commissioners, for the four blocks on the Merang estate.
It is little wonder that many successful applicants for a block felt it was as good as winning “Tatts”.
Tom Draffen had done his homework and had undertaken wool school training which together with his experience stood him in good stead. So along with his mate Jack Wynd, who became his next door neighbour, Tom took possession of his block on the Merrang estate in November 1948.
Tom Draffen was very happy with his block on the Merrang estate as was Syd Grant with his at Salt Creek estate near Woorndoo.
Syd and his wife Marie applied for a Soldier Settlement block in 1953 and we were successful with block number two on part of ‘Salt Creek’ Woorndoo. Syd Said: It was in about October 1953 that I heard that I had got this block. I’ve always loved trees and Salt Creek had red gums on it. Actually, I’d only applied for the blocks that had red gums on them.
In 1948 Tom Badham was offered block 3 on North Station at Mortlake, and while unimpressed with the bleak 640 acres boasting a small gum plantation as its only asset, he accepted the completely unimproved property. This largely swampy square mile, described by a prominent local grazier at the time, as merely “gum leaves and sheep shit” appeared to offer few prospects.
The challenge transitioning to life on a settler block was often most challenging for the wives from the very beginning.
Syd Grant brought Marie from their home in Geelong to Salt Creek have a look at the block at the end of January 1954. It was a big transition for Marie to come into a country style of life, a pioneering life. All that Marie knew about the Western District before was really what she had learnt working at Dalgety’s in Geelong working in accounts …Syd recalls: I think I might have frightened the wits out of her when we eventually got this block. … And when we got to the great big city of Woorndoo, it was a bit of a shock! Not many traffic lights or department stores like Myer Emporium and I said to her, ‘Well this is our address, Woorndoo!’
In March 1950 Tom Badham on North Station married a 35 year old confirmed city girl Greta Vincent. Greta, a cellist with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra and a woman with a professional career of ten years standing. After a short honeymoon, the two set off in convoy to the newly completed house at block 3. The 150 miles drive from Melbourne saw Tom in the truck with some odd pieces of furniture, and Greta in an old Sunbeam car packed with largely inappropriate city clothes, their wedding presents and her cherished ‘cello. One could say that Greta had swapped her evening shoes for gum boots.
Bill and Molly Lyon, like all the Mt. Fyans settlers, were among the First World War 2 settlers to come to the Mortlake district. Molly, like many of the settler wives came to terms with the terrain:
“It was an exciting adventure and rather an unnerving experience when I saw this part of the Western District for the first time. I had always thought the country would be rather like Bowral in NSW; beautiful trees, green valleys, and lush growth.
However, I soon began to love the flat plain land which can be quite beautiful with its funny little volcanic mountains and strange gossamer fogs, the sun or moon rising out of stark earth, with not even a tree to frame them.”
Once they had secured their tenancy and they had been given their instructions, the settlers had to establish their enterprises and find a roof over their heads.
For many settlers, like Frank and Emily Kennedy of Barnie Bolac estate, the temporary housing consisted of a steel garage approximately 20 feet X 12 feet. Kerosene was used for lighting and refrigeration, and there was a wood stove for cooking and heating. Rain-water from the one tank had to be rationed during dry periods.
Overcrowding was for some a major challenge. With a similar structure as the Kennedy, the Harris’s at Salt Creek had to accommodate two adults and five kids.
Bob and Marj Biggin arrived at their block on Jellalabad estate in April 1958. Marj recalled their sanitary facilities: “Our toilet wasn’t the best invention, but with much practice we did manage it. It was only chest-high, the front faced open paddocks (no door) with back to road; one had to stand up to prepare oneself to back in; it was much easier getting out.”
On Myrngrong Estate Ernie and Doris Brewer, Jim and Joan Kidman had moved onto the estate in mid-1959. During the first stage of development the men batched in the cottage and shearers’ quarters. Later, when some settlers moved into garages, Ernie and Doris and Jim and Joan along with Stewart McLennan, set up house in the shearers’ quarters until their houses were ready. Doris recently likened the shearers’ quarters to a motel compared to the garages others called home.
For many a settler family this temporary accommodation was for several months, sometimes stretching into years. No running water, electricity, telephone and only rudimentary sanitary facilities. Fences and farm infrastructure were the first priorities over home comforts.
The Commission had engaged Buchan, Laird and Buchan, Architects to design houses for the settlers. While there were there were several options in the architect’s portfolio it appears that the actual choice was limited.
Tom and Nettie Draffen moved into their house at the end of 1950. They had no choice of plans, theirs only had two bedrooms and a skillion sleepout whereas other plans offered a 3 bedroom option.
However, for Tom and Nettie and all the other settlers, obtaining the house after enduring the challenges of the shed was a welcome highlight to life on the block.
The Commission kept a careful watch over all construction on the blocks and pegged out the location for the houses. Tom was not the only settler to surreptitiously shift the pegs to a more suitable location or outlook.
The Commission was sometimes seen as over bearing in the supervision of the settlers. Syd Grant, by his own admission always seemed to have been running foul of the Soldier Settlement Commission in the early days.
He had modified the design of his woolshed much to the annoyance of the local Commission representative only to have it approved by the Commonwealth supervisor.
He was also required to personally report to the Commission in Melbourne for installing a septic tank without approval. He clashed with the Commission’s Ted Chancellor about spending this money on the septic toilet as the Commission didn’t consider that sort of thing as a necessity but more of a luxury.
The main thrust of Ted Chancellor’s argument was that he wanted to see that the settlers looked after the blocks and didn’t owe the wool firms, the banks or any other lending institutions any money so that they could enjoy the benefit of the Scheme and when they got old and couldn’t work, would be free of debt. When Ted Chancellor died, Syd wrote and told his wife how grateful he was to Ted for his advice and guidance to get Syd and Maree established on the block and to get themselves free of debt.
Courage, endurance, initiative, discipline, and mateship were all in evidence in the stories of the district’s soldier settlers.
However, for the most part, from often quite inauspicious beginnings, through perseverance, hard work, guts and determination the settler families proved resilient. As one of the kids has said “We must have been poor but didn’t know it because life was so good.”
But the overriding quality displayed by the settlers was mateship. The kind where neighbours supported each other, sharing the difficulties, and joining in the celebrations of the many milestones they achieved.
I would like to finish with a verse by Alison McRae.
Memory is selective; it tends to veil the bad times in a merciful mist, but depicts the good times in exaggerated glowing colours.
How did we cope in those early years
In a bare little hut with a baby son?
With a lot of laughs, and not many tears,
For we were young, and it seemed like fun!
And we shared with neighbours our hopes and fears,
And the many urgent jobs to be done.
We had no road, no phone, no power.
Money was scarce, and water was too.
But we filled kero-tins from each passing shower,
And lived very cheaply on rabbit stew.
And we made the most of each precious hour,
And worked like beavers the long day through.
Then the road went through, and our house was complete.
The mail-man and school-bus came to our gate.
The phone was connected and, that was a treat.
The power was switched on, and wasn’t it great?
We felt like lords in our country seat,
And sheep replaced rabbits upon our estate.
There are new owners now on the farm out there.
But we well remember the things we have done;
We talk with our friends of the memories we share,
And we all agree, regrets we have none.
Sometimes it was hard, but we didn’t care,
For we were young, and wasn’t it fun!