Thursday, February 28, 2019

Life on the Swamp in the early days - from newspaper reports

In 1893, the Koo Wee Rup Swamp was opened for settlement and this created some interest in the newspapers. In fact, a report in the Warragul Guardian of February 6, 1894 starts off with So much has been said and written about Koo-wee-rup Swamp, its reclamation works and its people, that it would almost appear that the subject was worn threadbare. 

The settlers were under the Village Settlement Scheme - a scheme where unemployed men from the cities were given a land allocation (usually 20 acres) on the Swamp and they then spent two weeks clearing drains for wages paid by the Public Works Department and two weeks working on their block with the hope of becoming self-sufficient. They also had to erect a dwelling on their block. The first 103 blocks under this scheme were allocated in April 1893.  This didn’t always work as one of the correspondents pointed out that The men are mostly raw to cultures of any kind, and inexperienced in the matter of cutting drains, at which they are to be found employment every alternate week, in order to obtain the wherewithal to procure the necessaries of life. (Australasian June 3, 1893)

The fact that the settlers had some assured wages was a clearly a benefit to the settlers, many of whom had been unemployed. A reporter from The Argus July 11, 1893 interviewed a woman and she had this to say about her new life -

On one of the side drains I met a decent old dame who was busily engaged in stacking driftwood alongside her tent. She explained she was laying in a stock of firewood from what had been brought down by the flood. "Yes," she said, "it's a damp place and a dismal; but what are you to do? My husband is a plumber, and you could count the number of days he was working at his trade last year on one hand. We've been here nine months, and although it's rough enough, we're not going to leave it, especially now when we are getting the chance of a bit of land. There's my daughter, too, and her husband, who is a house-painter. They are living up at the top end (near Bunyip), and their children that were always sickly in Melbourne are fine and healthy. I didn't like the life, and I don't like it now; but where the fun comes in is on Monday morning, when there's no landlord.

One issue the settlers had to face was the lack of schooling. The Warragul Guardian reported on February 6, 1894 - As yet the Government have not seen fit to provide schools for the children, who are running about in scores, and it is estimated that there are 150 children of school ago at the Bunyip end. The neglect to provide school accommodation is a serious reflection on the Education department. The Iona State School and the Koo Wee Rup North State School were both opened in July 1894. Read about them, here.



Iona - looking to the south side of the Main Drain.
Berwick Pakenham Historical Society photo

The Age of Jan 22, 1894 had a glowing report about the fertility of the soil All down the line of the main drain are settlers' houses of canvas, felt, or weatherboard, and around them are vegetable gardens of luxuriant growth. Nearly every settler is already practically independent of the rest of the world in the matter of food. They would certainly be entirely so if vegetarians. They have potatoes in abundance and of most excellent quality, cabbages weighing from 10 to 15 lb. apiece, turnips of prodigious size, and a multitude of other garden products of really superior quality, and when you taste them you have to confess that the sour land yields very palatable food. [Sour land is a term for acidic soils]

There were a few shops on the Swamp including a store run by the Government, however for the women used to the range of shops available in the City, they had a very limited choice. Farther on we arrived at a store run by the department in the interests of the settlers. As is known the settlers are allowed to earn certain amounts per month, according to the numbers of their families. The amounts are small and have to be made the most of. It was found that local price for necessaries were beyond their slender means, so this store was opened under the management of the department to supply groceries, clothing, &c., at the lowest possible prices. It is State Socialism without disguise. The goods are retailed at a profit only sufficient to meet the expenses. (The Age January 22, 1894) Another report said All the provisions are distributed from the various stores by hand, the storekeepers or their assistants plodding manfully through the heavy mud every afternoon with baskets on their bucks, containing from 90lb, to 100lb. weight of provisions. (The Argus, July 11, 1893) The same report said that Sly grog-shops and beer shanties are numerous, so the settlers didn’t miss out there.

Public transport was also another benefit of living in the City - however a report in The Australasian of September 29, 1894 seemed to think that the horse tramway was a good alternative to the train and tram network in the City At each end from the railway station along the side of the main channel a horse tramway has been constructed and in this respect few places in the colony, both for railway and postal service, are better served. All these conveniences are appreciated by people who have previously lived in town, and without which some of them would probably not stay at all.

So, what was the reality– many of the blocks were too wet to make a good living, some were too small – only five acres and even the 20 acre blocks were not necessarily large enough to make a living. The work was hard The men work up to the knees in slimy mud. The surface roots of ti-tree are very numerous, but a second and far more troublesome layer of roots is met with about three feet down. As well, many of the settlers did not re-locate voluntarily – A large proportion of the colonists are artisans from the cities, and the wife of one of these men expressed to us her disgust of her present surroundings, and preference for her old home in one of the suburbs, and there are, doubtless, many others who find the situation trying. Some few have joined the settlement from choice, seeing in it a means of ultimately rendering themselves practically independent. (Warragul Guardian February 6, 1894) It would appear that the settler’s willingness to move in the beginning had an influence in the success of the scheme.

Many of the settlers relied on the wages they received for working on the drains, however this work finished in November 1897, so unless they could find other employment, or their farm was enormously successful this would have been another reason to leave. The Village Settlement Scheme on the Swamp was abandoned in 1899 and the land was opened for selection in the regular way.

I have created  a list of articles, on Trove,  from 1893 and 1894 which describe life in the Village Settlements on the newly drained Koo Wee Rup Swamp.  You can access it here. All the articles referenced here are on the list.

I must acknowledge the book  From Swampland to Farmland: a history of the Koo Wee Rup Flood Protection District by David Roberts. (Published by Rural Water Commission in 1985) in preparation of this blog post.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Minister of Lands visits the Koo Wee Rup Swamp January 19, 1894.

On Friday, January 19, 1894 the Minister of Lands, Mr M'Intyre, the Chief Surveyor, Mr Callinan and the Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department, Carlo Catani, visited the Koo Wee Rup Swamp. It was reported in The Age of January 22, 1894. It is transcribed below and you can see the original on Trove, here. It is a good description of life on the Swamp.


THE KOOWEERUP SWAMP.  
VISIT BY THE MINISTER OF LANDS.
BY OUR SPECIAL REPORTER

Mr. M'Intyre, Minister of Lands, accompanied by Mr. Callinan, chief surveyor of his department, and Mr. C. Catani, engineer in charge of roads, bridges and reclamation works, made a visit of inspection on Friday to the Kooweerup Swamp. In 1890 this particular area was 52,900 acres of water 2 to 3 feet deep, shaded by scrub.In 1892 a drain had been constructed to 4 miles from Western Port. Bloomfield Brothers then contracted to carry the drain 2 miles further inland, and subsequently (when the unemployed difficulty had to be faced by the late Ministry) that contract was extended indeinitely on condition that no fewer than 400 men were employed on the work. In March, 1893, the arrangement was terminated and the 400 men were thrown out of employment.Next month the new and present Minister of Lands appeared on the scene, and he found the men clamoring for work. "Look here," he said, "if I give you a block of land each and employment at the drainage every alternate week, you to work every other week on your own land, will that suit ? " The answer came immediately in loud cries of "Yes!" Mr. M'Intyre had no legal power to do this, but he believed it to be a right thing, and took the chance of Parliament ratifying his action. The land along the main drain was duly plotted out in 20 acre lots, and the men returned to work under the new system.

 It is no exaggeration to describe what has followed as a wonderful transformation scene. The water has been gathered into channels, and the main channel forms a rapid little river, whose velocity has to be checked by means of artificial "drop downs " or falls every mile or so. The reclaimed land is of very extraordinary richness, having some 6 to 9 feet of vegetable mould on a bed of clay. The mould is no longer actually boggy, but it is nearly as pervious as a snow drift. You can easily push a walking stick into it to the handle, and it is quite elastic or springy under the feet. It Is evident that this is soil which is not only in want of the sweetening influence of the sun, but that it is very much in need of compression. It is also evident, however, that it is not necessary to wait for the sweetening and the compression before putting this land to a good use.

All down the line of the main drain are settlers' houses of canvas, felt, or weatherboard, and around them are vegetable gardens of luxuriant growth. Nearly every settler is already practically independent of the rest of the world in the matter of food. They would certainly be entirely so if vegetarians. They have potatoes in abundance and of most excellent quality, cabbages weighing from 10 to 15 lb. apiece, turnips of prodigious size, and a multitude of other garden products of really superior quality, and when you taste them you have to confess that the sour land yields very palatable food.


The Koo Wee Rup Swamp - a settler's home.
A vegetable garden of luxuriant growth as described in the article.
ImageThe Illustrated Australian news, February 1, 1894.
State Library of Victoria Image IAN01/02/94/4c

The settlers' houses are well scattered, but those of them on the main channel standing in line seem to form at one place a street three to four miles in length. Then comes a break in the settlement due to the reservation of land for sale by auction, and nearing the Great Southern railway primitive houses again come into evidence scattered broadeast over the reclaimed swamp. To Mr. M'Intyre it was truly a very gratifying sight.

At the Bunyip railway station Mr. M'Intyre was interviewed by Mr. Charles Wilson on behalf of himself and 11 other men who desire to form what they would call the Blue Gum Valley Land Settlement Association It was stated that the men were all hard workers and residents about Longwarry and Drouin, and they coveted 2000 acres on the highest part of the swamp to the south of Longwarry. Mr. M'Intyre asked that the names should be forwarded to him, and promised to give the matter consideration. He however pointed out that Parliament had determined that in future swamp land should be sold. Mr. M'Intyre and party next embarked on a very primitive but serviceable tram car which was drawn by a reinless horse over a tram line built by the settlers, with timber provided by the Government at the small cost of about £50 per mile. The car was loaded with bags of flour, boxes of provisions and eight passengers ; and although the progress made was slow, it was safe and sure. At the end of a mile and a half we came to a locality known as the Bunyip Junction, where there is a general store and an experimental garden - the latter being a departmental affair.

Behind the store half a dozen men were working one of Davies and Company's Bennett American stump pullers. This seemed rather slow work, but the settlers said it was very effective and satisfactory. The machine is provided by the department, and the settlers are charged about 1s a day for the privilege of using it. The experimental garden is a plot of 2 acres, and it is a complete success. It was only started in August last, but it is already covered with all kinds of vegetables, fruit trees and grasses. Apricots and cherries are doing remarkably well, cabbages are as big as cheddars and as hard as boulders ; there are heavy crops of very toothsome peas and beans ; also splendid samples of sugar beet, lint, maize, buckwheat, clover, &c.




The Koo Wee Rup Swamp - Settlements on the bank of the Main Drain.
This is the serviceable tram car which was drawn by a reinless horse over a tram line built by the settlers, described in the article. 
Image: The Illustrated Australian News, February 1, 1894.
State Library of Victoria Image IAN01/02/94/4a

At the Minister's request some potatoes wore dug up; and there was a pot full at every root; although they were only planted four months ago. A medium sized cabbage weighed 10 lb.This garden has  served its purpose. It has demonstrated what the soil of the Kooweerup swamp is capable of in the immediate present, and it will now be disposed of by the department, probably to the gardener, a Mr. Pincott, who is one of the settlers.

Two houses, alleged to be sly grog shanties, were called at, and the occupants received what should prove vary salutary warnings from the Minister. A settler named West, who has 20 acres allotted to him in one part of the Swamp and who has cleared several acres there, expressed a desire to change his 20 acres for 5 acres nearer Bunyip. There are about 30 others anxious to make a similar exchange. The complaint is that the land they hold is not yet sufficiently dry for cultivation. The land they now desire is part of an area on a slightly higher level reserved for sale ; but no sooner did Mr. M'Intyre see the land objected to than he jumped at the proposal made. "Five acres elsewhere for 20 acres here? Yes," he said, " It's a bargain." There could be no doubt that the despised country was of immense value, which was indicated by luxuriant crops of thistles wherever clearings had been made, and that the bargain, although it may suit the present settlers now, will be to the ultimate advantage of the State.

Farther on we arrived at a store run by the department in the interests of the settlers. As is known the settlers are allowed to earn certain amounts per month, according to the numbers of their families. The amounts are small and have to be made the most of. It was found that local price for necessaries were beyond their slender means, so this store was opened under the management of the department to supply groceries, clothing, &c., at the lowest possible prices. It is State Socialism without disguise. The goods are retailed at a profit only sufficient to meet the expenses. The consequence is an all round reduction in prices by about 33 per cent. Boots for which 16s. had to be paid elsewhere are here obtainable at 9s. 6d. ; mole trousers are sold at 5s. instead of 6s. 6d., ling at 5d. instead of 1s. per lb., soap at 4½d. instead of 6d., tea at 10d. instead of 1s. 6d., sugar at 2d. instead of 3d., and so on. The amount of business done by the store is about £30 a week, and it has been in successful operation since November last.

Close to Kooweerup railway station a stump extractor was examined with much interest. It is a heavy triangular structure with two steel edged beams, and is pulled by a team of oxen. It tears up every root. The department have provided this implement; and let it out at a price equivalent to 8s. an acre. Some of the local settlers asked for the construction of a bridge over the main drain on the ground that they had been debarred from using the railway bridge. Mr. M'Intyre seemed rather indignant at the action of the Railway department in this matter, and he promised to provide the material for a small bridge if the settlers would erect it themselves. This was eagerly agreed to. On the whole of the swamp there are now 368 settlers, representing about 2000 souls, and it was estimated by a local official, who has full knowledge of them, that at least 70 per cent, are permanently fixed on the soil. As to what might happen to the reclaimed swamp in case of a phenomenal flood, time only can reveal. It was pointed out to the visitors that whereas the water in the main channel is only from 6 to 18 inches in depth it ran a banker in the flood of last year, but that it only overflowed and caused damages at certain points, where flood gates to keep the water back have now been constructed. Mr. M'Intyre and his party returned to town on Friday night by the Great Southern line.