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Extending the farmlands

Extending the farmlands

Examines the development of Australian agriculture.

Many early European settlers in Australia believed that a stable, prosperous and respectable society was one with a high proportion of families living on their own farms. From the mid-19th century, governments sought to break up large holdings to promote closer settlement and extend agriculture.

Production of wheat and other crops boomed, but a variable climate, relatively poor soils and economies of scale meant that few small farms survived. In 2011 most Australian agricultural produce is grown on large, highly mechanised farms.

Carnamah, Western Australia

Rosedale metal gate

Gallipoli shrapnel

Sculpture depicting a farmer with a sack of grain. 'Carnamah, Rock Solid' is written on the base
Carnamah town sculpture, 2007. Photo: George Main.

The farming district and small town of Carnamah is located near the edge of the Western Australian wheatbelt, about 250 kilometres north of Perth. The town formed after the Midland Railway Company, based in London, built a railway line from Perth to Geraldton in 1894. During the first decades of the 20th century, the company sold farms along the line, each with a small house, partly cleared of bush, and fenced.

After World War One, the Repatriation Department of Western Australia made land in the district available to returned servicemen. The Department established four soldier settlement estates in the district: Yarra Yarra, Carnamah, Winchester and Inering.

In the early 1920s Carnamah grew into a thriving service centre as soldier settlers arrived to establish farms and families. The labour intensive farming created demand for workers. As the population rose, the new arrivals formed sporting and social clubs that met regularly in the district. Falling wheat prices in the late 1920s and the economic depression of the early 1930s caused hardship for farmers in the Carnamah district. Many families sold or abandoned their farms.

Rusted metal gate at the front of old house foundations. A brick chimney appears at the rear of the image.
The Rosedale metal gate and the remains of the White family homestead. Photo: George Main.

Rosedale metal gate

Returned soldier Tom White and his wife Hilda settled on the Winchester estate, south of town, and called their farm Rosedale.

Rosedale is now incorporated into a much larger farm owned and managed by their grandson, Bruce White.

The front gate which stood beside the remains of the White family homestead was hinged on a post made from an iron section of track laid by the Midland Railway Company in 1894.

In 2008 Bruce donated the gate to the National Museum for safekeeping. It is on show in Landmarks.

Gallipoli shrapnel

Also on show in the gallery is a piece of shrapnel embedded in Tom White's foot when he served at Gallipoli. It was only removed in 1948.


Keith, South Australia

Diesel tank sledge

The town and district of Keith are located at the far southeast of South Australia, about 100 kilometres northeast of the Coorong. Until the 1940s, Keith was a small farming community amid an expanse of heathland and mallee scrub sometimes called the Ninety Mile Desert. Unlike other parts of southern Australia, the sandy soils around Keith did not respond to methods developed in the 1920s and 1930s of cropping and pasture establishment reliant on heavy applications of fertiliser and the sowing of clover.

Keith district farmland viewed from Mount Monster, with scrub in the foregrourd and green plains beyond
Keith district farmland viewed from Mount Monster, 2008. Photo: George Main.

Experiments by the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO) at test plots in the Ninety Mile Desert in the 1940s yielded improved results.

The AMP Society, a major Australian insurance and investment firm, took an interest in the CSIRO findings. The Society had funds to invest and was seeking to broaden its portfolio. On staff were a number of rural valuers with experience in farm mortgage loans. Hugh Robinson, chief pastoral inspector and valuer at AMP in Sydney, devised a scheme to transform the Keith region into productive farmland.

The AMP invited men to spend five years helping the firm develop the heathland and scrub into farms, before acquiring their land by ballot. While the AMP played a significant role in the transformation of the Ninety Mile Desert, other companies and individuals also contributed. Wealthy businessmen and graziers across southeast Australia took advantage of tax incentives to acquire and develop land.

A rusting tank on a sledge
The tank sledge used by Clarrie Hutchins to transport fuel while clearing land near Keith in South Australia. Photo: Jennifer Wilson.

Diesel tank sledge

Clarrie Hutchens ran a large scrub-clearing business at Tintinara, north-west of Keith in the 1950s.

The AMP Society regularly engaged Hutchens to prepare country in the Keith district for sowing.

The Mobil Oil Company supplied diesel tanks on sledges to Hutchens and other contractors on condition that they purchase diesel only from Mobil.

The use of sledges allowed diesel to be transported across trackless sandy country littered with stumps and roots.


Wagga Wagga, New South Wales

Prize-winning wheat samples

Dame Mary Gilmore's typewriter

The Wagga Wagga district of southern New South Wales is renowned for its productive farmlands. In 1878 the extension of the Great Southern Railway to Wagga enabled the dramatic expansion of agriculture across the region. Wheat and other heavy produce could now be transported swiftly and cheaply to Sydney markets. Under the free selection acts of 1861, and in response to later legislative developments also designed to encourage closer settlement, selectors secured relatively small acreages on which to establish farms.

Prize-winning wheat samples

Wagga district farmland, with wire fence in the foreground and green crops to the horizon
Wagga district farmland, 2007. Photo: George Main.

James Hately and his family farmed wheat and sheep north of Wagga, near Cootamundra. In the 1880s, at agricultural shows throughout the region, Hately began collecting samples of prizewinning wheats. Each sample was placed in a jar and displayed in a specially made oak-framed stand.

The collection remained in the lounge room of the Hately family homestead until 1965, when it was donated to the Horse Era Museum in Canberra. The National Museum acquired the Horse Era Museum collections in the 1980s. The wheat samples are on show in Landmarks.

Dame Mary Gilmore's typewriter

In 1874 Donald and Mary Cameron moved to Brucedale, just north of Wagga, with their children, including Mary, their eldest and later the famed poet and political radical Dame Mary Gilmore. Mary Gilmore's grandparents had earlier selected land in the Brucedale area, then part of Eunonyhareenyha, a vast pastoral station stretching north from the banks of the Murrumbidgee River.

Black painted steel-framed typewriter with circular keys
Dame Mary Gilmore's typewriter. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Mary attended school at Brucedale and Wagga.

In the late 1870s, and throughout most of the following decade, she worked at schools in the region while studying to become a teacher.

Mary's father paid close attention to the dramatic social and ecological changes imposed by agricultural colonisation in the 1870s and 1880s.

Mary was close to her father, and learned much from him.

Later, she used this typewriter to record stories of local history and folklore.