The Vanished Land

The Vanished Land

The Vanished Land
Disappearing dynasties of Victoria's Western District

by Richard Zachariah

Zachariahís account of the ups and downs of the Western District of Victoria has broken new ground in explaining why rural towns or even whole areas have been declining over time. Many of the causes could and have applied to rural towns and areas in South Australia as well. His story is not just a general account; it is also a highly personal one as he goes to describe some of the fortunes of individual pastoralist families who have been in the area for some 150 years when for most of that time wool was king and gold.

The melancholic exodus of these once wealthy and powerful pastoralists can be seen as just a matter of economics, supply and demand, government action or inaction, national and international forces or just another rural region at the mercy of city-based speculators and international marketeers. Whatever it was it has ended the Western Districtís ruling class, its social elite that for 150 years, or five generations, bestrode an Australia riding on the sheepís back, who have now departed for their own reasons.

Zachariahís human tale talks about shrivelled communities and dying towns. There are no heroes in his story which is more about human loss and the demeaning of country as home. It is about changing land uses, buying and selling of land, foreign investment, soldier settlement schemes after both wars, changes in social attitudes to land and the problems associated with inheritance, succession and probate.

The Western District was first settled by displaced Scots with the help of the Highland and Island Emigration Society. It was an act of economic terrorism when they were driven from their tenant farms during the Highland clearances, starved of food and denied the opportunity to practice clan traditions. When they could stand the degradation no longer, they came to Australia. These free Highlanders and their families liked the volcanic plains stretching from Werribee to the South Australian border.

Doing it the hard way they lived in logs and under drays, scrounging a life in harsh conditions. Having been displaced in Scotland, it took them only six years to displace and dispossess the local Aborigines and destruct their way of life. The Scots had now become a law unto themselves. However there were some who attempted to develop a sphere of peaceful co-existence and mutual acceptance.

Not all Scots wanted their Scottish heritage to be known. James Griffith and Jane Brisbourne, both ex-convicts from Van Diemenís Land, changed their names by deed poll, adapted an Irish persona, concealing their Scots and Welsh origins and settled in Dunkeld. One of their descendants is Allan Myers, pastoralist, large shareholder of a Polish brewery, QC, philanthropist and Chancellor of Melbourne University.

The first generation of squatters were wild men, driven by survival and the pursuit of money and not caring about much else. Although many of them built large impressive houses, there was nothing sophisticated about them. Most of the properties were not very profitable. The real money came from the meat sold on the goldfields or from off farm. But within 30 years the Scots, with the help of the Duffy legislation and through some crafty wheeling and dealing had become an economic, political and cultural force to be reckoned with.

As early as 1863 the squatters/pastoralists of the Western District, led by Edward Henty, proposed seceding from Victoria and form a separate state called Princeland with Mount Gambier as its capital. It didnít come to anything but the pastoralists soon gained economic power as Australia was Ďriding on the sheepís back. Woolgrowers became an elite class with a grip on power far in excess of their electoral members.

Good rainfall, excellent soils and high wool prices from the 1860s to the 1890s resulted in prosperity, enlarged holdings and often very big homesteads. Many pastoralists really lived beyond their means. With two world wars followed by the Korean War many thought that the good times were there to stay. Unfortunately as the British government bought up all the wool to keep the soldiers warm, woolgrowers were assured of and relied on a guaranteed income.

By 1950 Hamilton had become the wool capital of the world and the value of stock had increased more than ten-fold. Wool cheques often were a million dollars or more. No wonder several of the pastoralist went around in Rolls-Royces or similar expensive cars. For many it was non-stop party time too. Many were hit hard when they lost land for the Soldier Settlement Scheme for which they were compensated at a price well below the market rate.

Others were hit by probate costs of 50 per cent which had to be paid within a year. Having enjoyed almost 100 years of economic and social dominance, some were unable to change after the bottom fell out of the market at the end of the Korean War when wool was no longer required and fell to disastrously low levels. It also reduced the willingness of sons to take over from their fathers. With heavy debt and continuous dwindling wool prices the districtís commercial dominance was dismembered.

The changes during the next 50 years have been dissected by Zachariah and backed up with many examples. As the son of a headmaster he got to know the families of his mates who attended the same college during the eight years he was there. They were not educated at the local state school. They were little princes who went to boarding school in Melbourne of Geelong.

While wool prices were down and no improvement expected for a long time many left the area, including Malcolm Fraser who sold Nareen and moved to Melbourne. They in turn were followed by large numbers of townies, for whom there was no work. They were prised from their hamlets and villages by economic rationalists who decided that time had run out for the wool towns.

Between 1961 and 1996 more than 60,000 people had left the area. The squatters of the Western District, who formed the core of the ruling class in the worldís richest nation in the 1870s, have been replaced. By 2014 only four properties were still in the hands of founding families. Blackwood, started by James Ritchie in 1842 was sold to Chinese interests in 2014. Other properties were sold to Qatar and South Australian interests.

Because of this population drift, deserted communities suffer from desperately low house prices and give-away rents, which often attract those who canít afford to live elsewhere and create social problems of their own. The Vanished Land is a different kind of the usual local history. It is a History From Below, of anguish and grief told for the first time by an outsider with insider connections.

Review by Nic Klaassen

The Vanished Land, PB 316 pp,
with BW photographs, and index is available at $34.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455

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