Repat and Rabbits: WW1 Soldier Settlement in the ACT
Duntroon Officer Cadets 1918
The implementation of a Soldier Settlement Scheme for Australia's repatriated World War 1 soldiers was designed as a mechanism to create employment opportunities for returned servicemen, open up new land to agriculture and to grow the economic wealth of Australia. During the decade prior to the commencement of the War, agriculture had expanding world markets and migrants had managed to be settled onto the land with a degree of success. The formation of a similar scheme for returned soldiers seemed appropriate.
Soldier Settlement Schemes were established in all States and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), now the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Land used in the schemes was primarily the subdivision of Crown land that had previously been unsettled or used on a leasehold basis, although purchases of large estates were made and turned into smaller farms. Also, some individual farms acquired by the State Land Settlement Authority were made available to soldiers.
Rabbits, weeds, isolation, financial hardship along with the high prices of stock and equipment, compounded by the lack of transport infrastructure in the FCT, were continual problems. Also, the new Commonwealth Public Service as landlord set unrealistic lease conditions on the Soldier Settlers. The small size of rural blocks allocated, along with falling commodity prices throughout the 1920s followed by the Depression saw most Soldier Settlers struggle to make any sort of profit from their leases. However, the leasehold system in the FCT did enable struggling lessees to transfer or consolidate their leases, allowing those who wished to leave the land to do so with relative ease.
On this site, you can research how the Soldier Settlement Scheme was implemented in the Canberra region.
Creation of a Soldier Settlement Scheme
The creation of a Soldier Settlement Scheme for repatriated soldiers became the subject of a number of debates early into World War 1 between the Commonwealth and State governments. The Commonwealth had the overall responsibility for the repatriation of returned soldiers, although State governments considered their own plans in relation to repatriation. Opinions by State and Commonwealth representatives were divided on the most appropriate method to manage a coordinated Soldier Settlement Scheme for Australia. The proposals included:
- the Commonwealth Government assume full responsibility for all aspects of the Scheme, requiring the States to provide land for this purpose; or
- the State governments carry out the settlement of soldiers onto land while the Commonwealth Government finance the Scheme as part of repatriation.
South Australia was the first to enact legislation with the Returned Soldiers Settlement Act 1915 which considered compensation for returning servicemen, including the provision of Crown land. During 1916 and 1917, all of the remaining States enacted some form of repatriation and land settlement legislation ahead of any final decision from the Commonwealth.
In January 1916, a four member subcommittee of the Federal Parliamentary War Committee was commissioned to report on repatriation. They made a number of recommendations relating to the creation and management of a land settlement scheme, including State run administration and the provision of agricultural training. The subcommittee also recommended that:
"In order to provide for the subsidiary requirements of returned soldiers, the citizens generally be invited to subscribe to a special repatriation fund, this fund to be raised by appeals from the Federal Parliamentary War Committee and State War Councils etc."
The Commonwealth Government approved the subcommittee's report in principal and referred it to the next Conference of Premiers and Ministers in Melbourne during February 1916.
A number of resolutions relating to a Soldier Settlement Scheme were passed at the 1916 Conference, including that the Commonwealth and States governments should cooperate in the promotion of a settlement scheme for "willing and suitable returned soldiers upon the land". Resolution three stated:
"That the Federal Government provide funds by way of loans to the States for the purpose of making advances through the agricultural banks or similar governmental institutions against improvements, and for stock and implements, the State institutions to advance to soldier settlers such money at cost plus reasonable working charges."
In line with the subcommittee's recommendation on the creation of a repatriation fund, legislation was immediately drafted for the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Fund Act 1916 and was assented on the 30th May 1916. The Act created a repatriation fund to be controlled by Trustees and a body called the State War Council. The Act was repealed and replaced with the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act 1917 which created a seven member Repatriation Commission to replace the Trustees.During the Premier's Conference on the 5th January 1917, Prime Minister Billy Hughes claimed that the settlement of soldiers was entirely the responsibility of the Commonwealth, while the States reminded the Commonwealth that this would be impossible as they had the necessary land. The Commonwealth Government appointed a Soldiers' Settlement Board of Australia but due to a level of dissent from Premiers about interference with the machinery of government, it was shortly disbanded. Ultimately, the States refused to surrender their constitutional powers in relation to the control of land settlement to the Commonwealth.
In 1918, the Repatriation Department was established to oversee a national undertaking for repatriation of returned servicemen. A returned servicemen was defined as: "a person who is or has been a member of the Australian Naval or Military Forces and who has returned from Naval or Military service outside Australia." Returned service personnel applied for leases of specific blocks and were notified of the block allocated to them. Features of the Soldier Settlement Scheme included:
- the Commonwealth Government supplying loan funds to the States and Territories for a maximum £500 per soldier settler (increased to £625 in 1921);
- the States making land available for sale to returned soldiers and administering the Scheme within their jurisdiction;
- an initial period of low interest charges to settlers; and
- a sustenance payment made to soldier settlers during the establishment period.
Are You a Farmer?
Thousands of applications for land were received across the country. The application form included questions regarding war service, occupation prior to the war, marital status and previous farming experience.
The Scheme included a qualification test, assessed by qualification committees, and was intended to ensure each Soldier Settler had the appropriate knowledge and skills to be a farmer before being allotted a block of land. The farming experience detailed on the application was used to determine suitability. But the common opinion held at the time was that farming is an occupation requiring little training, so committees accepted the poorest of documentary evidence for suitable proof of qualification.
The Scheme also outlined that all, except the most experienced of men, should first be tried out at training farms to determine their suitability for agricultural work. But this advice was not taken by the State administrators, leading to many applicants receiving land who were never likely to succeed due to lack of experience and inadequate skills.
Often Soldier Settlers faced both agricultural and financial tasks that would have been challenging for even the most experienced of farmers. The assigned blocks were frequently small in size and not always of the best soil quality. Making a living under these circumstances was not going to be easy and the lack of experience made life more difficult.
"Thousands of Acres in the Federal Capital Territory Unoccupied Except by Rabbits"
On the 12 June 1918, in the House of Representatives the Member for Eden-Monaro, Mr Austin Chapman, asked two questions of Mr Patrick Glynn, Minister for Home and Territories:
"1. Is it a fact that thousands of acres in the Federal Territory are at present unoccupied except by rabbits, and that much of this land has been enclosed and wire netted, and if placed under occupation would be suitable for afforestation and cultivation, and would make suitable homes for many returned soldiers?
2. If so, will he take steps to bring this land into use and occupation, so that homes may be established there?"
The Minister provided the following answers:
"1. There are practically no lands suitable for grazing or agriculture in the Federal Capital Territory, which are not held under lease for varying terms.
2. The question of making suitable areas available for permanent settlement by returned soldiers and resident lessees has been under consideration for some time and plans are being prepared showing what land could be annually made available, and the classification of the same. These plans are nearly completed, and I am in touch with the Minister of Repatriation regarding the settlement of soldiers on suitable areas."
Land in the new FCT was leasehold. While older leases fell away and were therefore potentially available, the Commonwealth Government had made a decision not to grant any permanent tenure until the war was over. In the meantime, the above questions arose regarding the settling of returned soldiers onto Federal Territory land.
In September 1918 the Surveyor-General, J.T.H. Goodwin, wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Home and Territories explaining that there was no available land for soldier settlement at that time. Plans had been provided to the Minister for Repatriation detailing areas that were expected to become available during the next five or six years. Goodwin also requested a definite plan be submitted providing the conditions under which land may be made available for the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The Territory for the Seat of Government : Regulations Under the Leases Ordinance 1918-1919 was gazetted on 29th November 1919, allowing for the implementation of a Soldier Settlement Scheme in the FCT.
Federal Capital Territory Land Ballots
By the start of 1920, the Commonwealth Government had acquired 9,000 acres of land that had been surveyed into two subdivisions for soldier settlement. Unlike the States, the land in the FCT would be granted to the Soldier Settlers under a leasehold tenure system of periods ranging from five years to twenty-five years.
All leases granted would come with conditions attached in regarding the destruction of vermin and weeds. The Rabbit Destruction Ordinance 1919 was the short title for an ordinance that covered the destruction of all noxious animals in the Territory. This included wild dogs and any other “animal or bird declared by the Minister by notice in the Gazette to be a noxious animal”. The Noxious Weeds Ordinance 1921 placed similar burdens onto potential lessees’ in relation to eradication.
The first release was of twenty-four blocks in Ainslie-Majura in Gungahlin District, with applications closing on the 30th September 1919. A second release of twenty-seven blocks in Jerrabomberra-Tuggeranong, part of the districts of Woden, Lanyon, Paddy's River and Stromlo, had applications closing on the 28th February 1920. A further sixteen blocks in Woden District were made available as Soldier Settlement blocks with applications closing on the 16th October 1920. In 1922, there was a large-scale release of Soldier Settlement blocks in the District of Belconnen with applications closing on the 17th February 1923.
While it is not clear how the assessments for Ainslie-Majura Subdivision Blocks were made, advertisements for the second release appeared in the Queanbeyan Age and Queanbeyan Observer on the 13th February 1920. Posters were placed on notice boards in the Queanbeyan, Ainslie and Hall Post Offices. The Board managing the sale of lease applications met with most of the applicants on the 8th and 9th March 1920. Applicants were expected to provide evidence supporting their application in relation to farming experience. Those selected by the Board as most suitable were then placed in a ballot for their chosen block. A list of the successful applicants for Jerrabomberra-Tuggeranong Blocks was published on the 19th March. Possession of the blocks began on the 3rd April 1920.
1920 conditions of lease notice extract. Click on image for larger view.
Despite leases ranging from five years to twenty-five years, very few remained unchanged over the term of the lease. Many leases were renegotiated as a result of alterations to the blocks area, this occurring several times for some leases. Many changed hands when less successful lessees ultimately left the land, often selling their blocks onto more successful neighbours.
A Modified Scheme
By 1927, the Federal Capital Commission (FCC) had effectively shelved the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The Canberra Times, reporting on Annual Meeting of the Federal Territory Lessees' Association on the 10th February 1927 wrote:
"With regard to advances to settlers, the matter was brought before the Federal Capital Commission and injustice was pointed out of making advances to the early settlers and not to the later ones, and the Commission was asked to make representations to the Treasury. Meanwhile, the soldier settlement repatriation scheme has been re-introduced into the Federal Territory, apparently over the heads of the Federal Capital Commission, and this seemed to be due in some measure to a member of the association making direct representation to the Federal Government. "It is not very reassuring to note," the report states, "that concessions can be thus obtained direct from the Government which cannot be obtained by making application through the Federal Capital Commission."
This resulted in the Soldier Settlement Scheme becoming a subsidised loans system where returned servicemen could apply for Government loans to purchase rural leases directly from existing lessees.
The Commonwealth Government was gradually terminating leases for the development of new Canberra suburbs. Again in 1927, The Canberra Times reported a speech made by J.T.H. Goodwin during the Federal Territory Lessees’ annual dinner:
“It has to be remembered that the Federal Capital Territory was not required for the purpose of closer settlement, but for the seat of Government. We expect that the Commission will be able to ascertain requirements for 15 years ahead and all lessees hope that for a very considerable time we will be able to remain in the Federal Capital Territory and to carry on the industry in which we are engaged.”
By the 1980s, most of the Soldier Settlement blocks had been resumed for suburban development with only a handful of these blocks remaining today.
- Rural Reconstruction Commission (1944). Settlement and employment of returned men on the land: The Commission's second report to the Honorable J.B. Chifley, M.P., Minister for Post-war Reconstruction, dated 18th day of January, 1944. Canberra: L.F. Johnston, Commonwealth Govt. Printer.
- Pike, George Herbert (1929). Report on Losses Due to Soldier Settlement by Mr Justice Pike. Canberra: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.
- Scott, Ernest (1936). Australia During the War, Volume XI Official History of Australia in The War of 1914-18. Sydney: Angus and Robertson Ltd.
- House of Representatives Official Hansard No. 24, 1918. Parliament of the Commonwealth, 12 June 1918.
- Pfanner, Susan (1996). Soldier settlement subdivisions in the Federal Capital Territory after World War 1. Canberra Historical Journal, No. 37 March 1996. Canberra: Canberra & District Historical Society Inc.
- Soldier Settlers Attack Administration. The Canberra Times, 10 February 1927, p.3: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1210920
- Federal Territory Lessees Meet - Second Annual Dinner: The Canberra Times, 19 July 1927, p.1: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1215286