Our Fathers Cleared the Bush
Remembering the Eyre Peninsula
by Jill Roe
Historian Jill Roe’s grandparents were among the early settlers on Eyre Peninsula, which was first occupied by the Aborigines some 50,000 years ago. Accessible mainly by sea, the peninsula remained one of the least settled parts of Australia. Eyre Peninsula was for a long time South Australia’s most violent frontier. Aborigines, who were in the majority, made numerous attacks on pastoral outstations killing several settlers and visitors. There was also the Elliston massacre and the general poor race relations which lasted for a long time. According to Roe, what happened there came closer to European-style warfare than anything else that occurred at that time in South Australia.
Eyre Peninsula was not fertile or watered enough to attract many European settlers. Lack of sufficient water has been, and still is, a major problem. There are few surface waters and only one river worth its name. The River Tod was discovered by Robert Tod in 1839 but the Tod reservoir was not completed until 1922. One town in particular has had its problems. Whyalla with a population of 22,000 had to rely on water brought in by bullock drays from Iron Knob or by barges from Port Pirie. Water brought in as ballast from Newcastle was a bonus. It was not until 1944 that the city was connected to the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline.
One of the first to have a closer look at Eyre Peninsula was Edward John Eyre in 1839. He was not very impressed. Pastoralists and farmers were and soon formed small and close knit communities. After the tense beginning of the 1840s Eyre Peninsula, an area of some 70,000 square kilometres, with a coastline of more than 3000 kilometres and 39 jetties, the first one built in 1857, has become a stable and mostly prosperous region.
It was along the coast where early settlement and development was most pronounced, followed later by the inland railways and settlement. In this book Roe has written about the changes she has observed, some for the better, others for worst and given reasons for them. She has done this in a pleasant, sympathetic mixture of history, memoir and personal ideas and opinions, making for enjoyable and interesting reading.
Like the rest of rural South Australia, Eyre Peninsula has changed slowly but considerably. Fewer jetties, no more boats bringing the mail or fresh bread. No more grain ships or Gulf Trips, no more horses or buggies or the yearly army of bike-riding shearers. Mechanisation has resulted in a decrease of farm labour but an increase in city based employment. Today with bigger farms and large machinery small towns have disappeared or become welfare sites. Tourism and fishing have become major sources of income.
Our fathers may have cleared the bush but it was often the mothers who made it possible. Roe has noted many examples of women’s work and achievements which helped the men, the farmers, schools and churches. Church going was a community activity. Every settlement had at least one church, even though there may have been more than one religion.
Most churches were galvanised iron structures built by the settlers themselves but some were impressive stone buildings such as St Augustine’s and St Canute’s of Streaky Bay and St Mary of the Angels of Port Lincoln. Both the Poonindie Aboriginal Mission, established in 1850 near Port Lincoln and the Koonibba Mission near Ceduna, established in 1898, have stone churches.
Women were far and few between in the very early days of settlement as a result of pastoral policy, which preferred single men. After the start of closer settlement and agricultural expansion many women were willing and able to continue the work, farm or business after their husbands had passed away, often at a fairly young age, even at that time. They were valued for these and many other reasons. Children too performed their share of work. They collected eggs, firewood, rounded up and milked the cow(s) and even helped with separating the cream from the milk.
Establishing a farm after having cleared the bush was hard work at the best of time. However from a child’s point of view it could be fun and was often more interesting and attractive than going to school. Most children of rural Eyre Peninsula would have attended One-Teacher-Schools. By the 1920’s there were more than 20 within 40 kilometres of Kimba alone. Most of these schools were run by young females who stayed for only one school year, although there have been some notable exceptions.
Enrolments at these schools were low. At the Koppio School 26 students were on the roll in 1905. This had fallen to 11 in 1932, 7 in 1942 and 5 in 1951. The Yallunda Flat School had 8 students attending in 1944 and 12 in 1948. Attendance was often irregular at best with allowances made for farm children to help with the harvest or at any other busy times. Eventually these schools were replaced by Area Schools. Cummins Area School was one of the first on the peninsula. One of the last one-teacher-schools was Mount Hill which closed in the 1980s.
Jill Roe was born at Tumby Bay in November 1940 and spent her early and formative years in the farming communities of Eyre Peninsula. Her mother died when she was barely 14 months which resulted in her being brought up by family members as her father had to look after three daughters already. She attended a one-teacher primary school at Yallunda Flat and moved to Adelaide to complete her education in 1955.
Roe has included her own experience where it seemed relevant or to capture some key aspects of and moments in the regional experience over time, making it a kind of family history set in a wider historical context. She has also made use of personal diaries, which make interesting reading. Joan Airy who lived just north of Cowell wrote in her diary, ‘We are on a farm because we like it and hope that the rural recession (1930s) will never beat us.’
It did not beat her or her parents. Her father never owned the land, nor did he make any money. But the way he and his wife managed their mixed farm through hard times is impressive. Nothing was wasted and whatever food would grow they grew. Joan’s mother could make soap and vinegar as well as meals and clothing. Her father cut the family’s hair, mended their boots and nursed sick animals along with all the other farm work.
Local and family histories have been another source for Roe’s story. They can add new building blocks or even layers to our understanding and appreciation of regional history. There is the story of Mrs Sylvia Birdseye, born in 1902. For more than 30 years she drove a passenger and freight bus from Adelaide to Port Lincoln and later, on to Streaky Bay. She often clocked up 3000 kilometres a week. When she died in 1962 her daughter maintained the business until 1980.
In Our Fathers Cleared the Bush, Jill Roe AO and now Professor Emerita in Modern History has also considered the future of Eyre Peninsula and its role in South Australia.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Our Fathers Cleared the Bush PB 250 pp, with B/W photographs,
index and end notes is available at $29.95, from
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