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.
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.