Saturday, 27 February 2010

A struggle to survive and to prosper

Just before Charlie and Mary were married South Australia celebrated its golden jubilee, but, by 1890 the State had experienced several years of economic depression and the general mood was gloomy. There was some optimism because of the rich, new silver-lead mines at Broken Hill but that was far to the east of Gladstone and just over the border in New South Wales.

There had been a surge of settlement into the northern wheat-lands where Gladstone was situated, in the 1870’s but it had been halted by three years of severe drought during 1880-1882. Good seasons had returned in the middle of the 1880’s but climatic uncertainty was recognised as part and parcel of rural life. These days we call climatic uncertainty global warming. For the early settlers it was just fate, destiny and life. However, when rural life was struggling, so were the towns.

The drought had also brought a stop to the practice of selling Crown Lands which had provided funds for building the railways. What made it all much worse is that along with climatic uncertainty there was a growing recognition that soil exhaustion was a reality. Average wheat yields had moved down and down from 0.39 tonnes per hectare in the early 1870’s to 0.28 tonnes by the early 1890’s and this would impact upon Charlie’s customers. Wheat yields would not begin to climb again until 1905, just two years before Charlie’s death.

South Australia’s Goyder Line would become a famous reminder of the need to respect Mother Nature. During the worst of the drought in the mid 1860’s, the surveyor-general, George Woodroffe Goyder went north to investigate the complaints of pastoralists and to re-assess their properties. He travelled nearly 5,000km on horseback, marking as he did the line of drought, which became known as Goyder’s Line of Rainfall. His ‘line’ indicated the limit of rainfall, which, not surprisingly, co-incided with the southern boundary of the saltbush country. He marked areas of reliable and unreliable rainfall and distinguished those suitable for agriculture and those which would only be fit for pastoral use.

Not everyone agreed with him however and when conditions improved in the early 1870’s the farmers crept north once more. No doubt such risks were taken because farmers were as desperate as they were optimistic. Within ten years however poor seasons proved Goyder to be right and farmers packed their bags and moved back south of the Line. The unreliable lands north of Goyder’s line sprawl toward the horizon in a roll of scrub, dotted with the mast-like shapes of old palm trees which tower above the shadowed and crumbling ruins of stone huts. There is an acquiescent beauty in these brown-stone remains as they slowly fold themselves back into the earth. So many dreams and hopes, so much sweat , so many tears and so much disappointment weave their way through the images which these remains evoke. Life was hard enough in such times when one succeeded; crushing in the face of failure. Modern farming methods have allowed farmers to move into the area once again but it remains, as ever, unpredictable.

From the very first days of settlement the fragile land and fickle rainfall pushed the people of South Australia to be innovative. Time and effort went into developing new technologies to clear the mallee scrublands, experiment with superphosphate on wheat crops and to develop systems of fallowing and dry farming. SA is still one of the world leaders in dry-land farming methods and advises on it around the world.

While times were hard and people were required to be resilient, South Australia offered benefits which many other places did not have. Areas which were settled were relatively compact in a geographic sense in a way which they often were not in other States. Even more important, the government had been active in terms of developing communications and services for most of the State’s population. Some 2700 kilometres of railway line had been built at a cost of £10 million and there were 3220 kilometres of macadamised roads. Few farms were more than a day’s return-dray ride from a railway siding or coastal jetty. For every 1000 people, South Australia had 7.2 kilometres of railway opened, compared with the 3.2 kilometres of railway per 1000 people in Victoria and New South Wales.

All of this made it easier for Charlie Ross to set up and maintain his fishmonger’s business in Gladstone. He did not even have to drive to the railway station but could walk across the road to catch the train to Port Pirie. And in 1892 Port Pirie was the largest centre outside of Adelaide, boasting a population of some 4,000 people. Port Pirie, where I would live for four years in the early 70’s, was, in Charlie Ross’s day, a boom town operating as a wheat port and smelting centre for the silver-lead mines at Broken Hill. By the time I arrived there it was less of a boom town but the Smelters were still active.

While SA may have been the colony with the least timber resources it also became the State which pioneered forestry in Australia. The Act of 1873 , passed when Mary Atkins was growing up in the Wirrabarra Forest, granted landowners a tree planting subsidy. More important was the declaration of Forest Reserves of which there were 91,000 hectares by 1890, with 4000 hectares enclosed for forest planting in several districts, especially in the southern Flinders Ranges east of Port Pirie, where lay the town of Gladstone.

By 1890, when Charlie Ross was getting his family and his business underway, there were also some 9,000 kilometres of telegraph line in South Australia, with 220 stations, including the international link to Darwin via Alice Springs. Perhaps Charlie had read the ‘signs’ of prosperity and progress when he first visited the new colony, or perhaps he had heard stories, back home on Ithaca, of how well a man could do in the great Southern Land.

No other colony depended as much on coastal shipping for transporting farm produce as did Charlie’s new home. It was the railway system which connected Charlie and all South Australians with the rest of the country and the world. Looking back some 120 or more years ago, life seems primitive but Australia and the world were upon the brink of a century of development which would dramatically change the way people lived and worked.

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