The early 1890s were hard times for most South Australians. Severe droughts, low prices for most of what they produced, a high rate of unemployment and the start of the depression made life very difficult for many families. For some families conditions were so difficult that they decided to leave South Australia and settle in Victoria, Western Australia or even in Paraquay, South America, where William Lane tried to establish his Community settlement of New Australia in 1893 which included some thirty South Australians.
Social unrest produced more than a passing interest in Uthopian schemes and socialistic ideas were popular. One attempt by the South Australian government to keep men of capital, energy and talent from deserting South Australia, and at the same time provide some sort of relief for people hit hard by the depression, resulted in the establishment of the Village Settlement Scheme, mainly along the River Murray to utilise 'waste lands for irrigation'. It was also an attempt by the unemployed to solve their own problems in a time when emphasis was on self-sufficiency. The idea of irrigation along the Murray was first proposed, and applied, by Edward John Eyre in 1842 while living on his property at Moorundie.
Government legislation, initiated by the Kingston Ministry and passed in 1893, provided for associations of twenty or more settlers to be formed to hold and work land as a community. No doubt the government was influenced and inspired by the Renmark experiment, started in 1887. Land was set aside where soils were supposed to be fertile and timber, water and food, like rabbits and fish, would be readily available. Settlements were started early in 1894 at Gillen, named after Peter Paul Gillen Commissioner of Crown Lands, Holder, Kingston, Lyrup, Moorook, Mount Remarkable, near Melrose in the Flinders Ranges, Murtho, Nangkita, about halfway between Adelaide and Victor Harbor, New Era, New Residence, Pyap, Ramco and Waikerie,
It was hoped that the Village Settlement Scheme would support the unemployed, remove them from the city and at the same time open up new areas along the Murray and other places in South Australia. Each settler over the age of eighteen years could have 65ha if he could contribute $100 towards the association. The government waved the first year's rent on the leases and guaranteed a grant of $100 to the assiciation for each settler once he was established. Later, as a result of the deepening depression, men without any capital and many of the Adelaide unemployed were also settled in the villages. Few of the original villagers had much, if any, agricultural experience.
On 22 February 1894, the first group of nearly 250 people, including 114 children, disembarked at Lyrup to start their communal village. On arrival the settlers, several of whom were already forty or more years old, had to cut timber for makeshift homes or live in tents. The next month, groups of settlers left Adelaide for Holder and Gillen followed in April by a group of twenty-two families from Port Adelaide for New Era.
At Pyap good sandy soil gave rise to a substantial village, including a store, bakehouse and school. Among some of the early pioneers were, Boyle T.H. Cox, postmaster, John W. Bankhead bootmaker, John Bowes harnassmaker, Frank Duke painter, Jason Holt blacksmith, Charles J. Lanthois boxmaker and Ernest Robinson carpenter. However lack of later cooperation amongst settlers and the drought left only seventeen members by the end of 1899 and the Pyap settlement was dissolved in 1903, as was Holder. New Residence, downstream from Pyap, was settled in 1895 but abandoned within two years.
The Village Settlement Scheme, based on the idea of sharing, attracted international interest and wide public support at first. It even led to the formation of a Land Settlement Aid Society to provide moral and material support for the new settlers. The villagers were meant to work on a 'ration' basis. Each worker would be paid in ration cards which could be exchanged in the local store. Bachelors, although working just as many hours as married men, would get fewer cards which naturally caused major grievances.
As a result of their inexperience, high cost of land clearing, lack of water, irrigation equipment and administrative experience, medical facilities, and capital, human nature, poor soils, small farm sizes and unsuitable climate, the population dropped from 600 in 1893 to 440 two years later. Living conditions were harsh and spartan with many families living in humpies or tents. Later they would have iron roofs and hessian walls. Mrs G.A. Wilson, one of the original Lyrup settlers, lived under a tarpaulin spread over two forked sticks. Others had to use their umbrellas in their tents when it rained to keep the water of the beds.
Not all villagers had enough stamina to see the experiment through. Some seceded and formed new settlements, as was the case with Ramco, whereas others, like Frederic and Mary Starr and their seven children moved from Gillen to Waikerie. Many just went back to Adelaide and complained to the newspapers. As early as 1895 a Select Committee was appointed to look into the running of the Village Settlement Scheme followed by an inspection tour of Samuel McIntosh, Village Settlements Expert, in 1896 and a Royal Commission in 1900.
However matters were not helped by the strong opposition of newspapers and influentual people in Adelaide, nor the lack of government support. By 1900 Gillen, Mount Remarkable, Murtho, Nangkita, New Era and New Residence had been desolved and the land allocated to individual leaseholders. In 1901 the Royal Commission recommended that the settlements should be subdivided into blocks of at least ten acres and be leased to individual settlers instead of Village Associations. With the passing of the Village Settlement Act, in October 1901, all previous legislation relating to the settlements was repealed. Four years later only Kingston, Lyrup, Ramco and Waikerie remained of the original settlements with a total population of just over three hundred. Eventually Waikerie, Holder, Moorook and Kingston became government irrigation areas and only Lyrup survived as a Village Settlement.
The settlements were not as successful as hoped because many of the settlers had no agricultural or horticultural experience. Of those fifteen per cent who did have some experience many had only worked as farm labourers, gardeners, station hands, dairymen or bushmen. Where everybody is supposed to be equal, nobody wants to take orders from anyone. Even so, the Village Settlement Scheme gave for some time hope and a living to some 1800 people and laid the basis for the region's very successful horticultural industry.