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Closer Settlement at Mordialloc

From 1842 to 1852 Alexander Macdonald had a cattle run known as Mordiallock No2 which was to the East of the Mordialloc township. [1] This run of five square miles was conducted in conjunction with Hunter from November 1848 to January 1850 and with Ballingall from 1850 to 1851. [2] Then followed the creation of the colony of Victoria. The new government withdrew the leases held by these men, who were squatters, surveyed the land, divided it into portions and offered it for sale by auction. Alexander Macdonald took the opportunity to purchase 453 acres of his original run. He did this on 24 September 1855, paying the substantial sum of five hundred and sixty seven pounds six shillings and five pence for the land which today is between Lower Dandenong Road and Governor Road, adjoining land purchased by members of the Keys family, now known as Braeside Park. It was sold to Macdonald as Lot 43. In the 1890s the Macdonald family, some years after Alexander’s death, sold this land to William Harkness McLorinan, a Mordialloc contractor, for £100, but with McLorinan taking responsibility for the mortgage held over the land by Alexander Balcombe’s estate. In 1906 the land was acquired by the Government under the Small Improved Holdings Act for seventeen pounds one shilling and six pence half penny per acre providing a very substantial profit to McLorinan. [3] The Government then subdivided the land into 38 allotments ranging in size from 10 to 12 acres. This was part of the Government’s plan to settle more people on the land. [4]

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Part of the map of the Parish of Mordialloc showing Allotment 22 Section 1 purchased by Alexander Macdonald. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

The Victorian Government introduced legislation into the parliament in 1904 called the Closer Settlement Bill. [5] The aim of this bill was to give the government authority to purchase and sub-divide large estates to facilitate the more intensive use of land through closer settlement. The land purchased by the government at Mordialloc was seen to be most appropriate for this purpose as it was assessed as being naturally fertile and was close to city markets. It was noted that William McLorinan, the previous owner of the land, had successfully harvested a crop of oaten hay of the first quality, filling his barns and outhouses to the roof. [6]

As many more applications for land were received than the number of blocks available, ballots were held to allocate the 38 blocks at Mordialloc. The expectation was that the successful applicants would take up their allotted blocks by the beginning of 1908. Materials had been ordered for the erection of houses. Carpenters amongst the unsuccessful applicants were offered employment. The plan was to put one carpenter and one settler together to work upon each house. Many of the applicants were workmen wanting to gain a home of their own while augmenting their income by keeping a few cows and raising poultry.

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Part of the Parish of Mordialloc showing recipients of land in the Mordialloc Closer Settlement Project. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

Table: Successful Applicants for Land at Mordialloc Settlement showing size of allotments: acres, rods and perches.

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Towards the end of 1908 the Mordialloc settlers unanimously agreed to work together to purchase necessities and where possible sell their produce in a co-operative manner. They formed an association which they named the Mordialloc Small Holdings’ Association and adopted rules of conduct. Jorgen Anderson was elected president and H Barlow secretary. Their expectations of success were very positive as they believed the easily worked light loamy soil was very suitable for milk production, raising poultry and market gardening. [7]

At the beginning of 1910 the majority of settlers met with the Premier, Mr Murray, and Mr Keast MLA, in the home of Jorgen Anderson. Anderson had come to Victoria from Denmark, where the notion of ‘improved small holding’ originated. He cited the Danish outstanding production of eggs, butter and bacon on small properties due to the existence of government assistance and expressed the belief that Victoria could achieve equivalent results. Five of the settlers then explained to the visitors the amount of assistance they required to achieve success at Mordialloc. [8]

•The first request was for an advance of £50 for each settler to enable him to purchase a horse, cart and implements. While the settlers had access to five horses managed by a government department, they claimed the system did not work. When the time arrived to cultivate the land and plant crops only a small number of settlers could access the available horses and equipment. As a result some crops were not planted at the opportune time, leading to a great deal of failure. It was argued that if they had their own horses, carts and implements they could work the land and market their produce to a much better advantage.

•Secondly, to allow them to become established, by deferring the repayment of government loans for two years. Settlers claimed they had been misled about financial assistance. They had been told that they would receive financial assistance for eighteen months when in fact the advances stopped after three months.

•Thirdly, settlers said roads between the blocks should be made and drains cut. The condition of roads in winter made communication impossible with water lying a foot to two feet deep on the land.

•Fourthly, people asked for a school to be provided urgently for the education of the children of the thirty seven families living on the estate. [9]

The Premier responded to the requests and agreed that the Minister for Lands and his officers would take the matters raised into consideration. He acknowledged the government expected to be called upon for help for a time, until settlers were able to get along by themselves. He agreed that a settler needed to be able to cultivate his land at a precise time. The provision of five horses for 38 settlers was something like the provision of loaves and fishes for the multitude with the difference the department could not perform miracles. [10]

A year and a half later problems with roads, drains and the provision of schooling persisted. Mr Keast MLA was again involved, promising to bring the matters before the notice of the government and liaising with Cr Groves to gain the assistance of the Shire of Dandenong. Settlers were finding it impossible to send their children to school at Mordialloc owing to the flooded state of the roads. Keast said they had to wade through the water knee deep in places and sit in school all day with wet feet. [11]

Towards the end of 1911 there was growing recognition that the heavy indebtedness of a number of settlers for rent and work done by the Government upon the land, made it practically impossible for them to succeed, even under lenient conditions. The Closer Settlement Board, the controlling administrative body, decided to sell plant and stock it maintained on behalf of the settlement at fair market prices. Settlers were given the opportunity to increase the size of their allotments. Where families were previously only able to keep one cow and had to seek outside employment, with the increased size of blocks they were able to milk six or eight cows, raise pigs and run poultry, thus enabling them to maintain their families with the assistance derived from a little outside work at odd times. While the Board acknowledged not every person would be successful, they claimed there was evidence that an industrious man could be successful under conditions existing at that time. Earlier, in 1909, the Manager of Small Holdings reported to the Minister of Lands that ‘settlers, as a rule, are more fully alive to the benefits that have been conferred upon them than they were a year ago. Unfortunately there is an agitator class that requires very firm handling and when they have either been removed or reformed, a far better feeling will exist. I have no doubt whatever as to the ultimate success of all the settlements.’ [12]

Concerns persisted. The Government established a Royal Commission on Closer Settlement early in 1914 to investigate the condition and success or otherwise of the program. Issues the commission was to report on included selection of settlers, allotment of blocks, value of land, terms of payment, residence provision, mortgages, terms and conditions of advances to settlers and, in general, to consider the operation of the Closer Settlement Acts and the extent to which such acts had promoted settlement and what modifications or amendments were required. [13]

The Royal Commission found that the scheme was seriously flawed. Water, sewerage, roads, schools and other infrastructure lagged behind the construction of homes, and the blocks of land were often too small to be viable as farms. Several of the original settlers at Mordialloc gave up the struggle and surrendered their leases. Questions were also raised about the quality and suitability of the soil for a variety of agriculture pursuits. The operation of the Closer Settlement Board was considered unsatisfactory by the Commission. The Board had expended large sums of money on doubtful lands paying high prices without achieving the expected successes, and its management strategies were defective. The Royal Commission concluded that under the Board’s management and control, the closer settlement program was a failure. [14]

In March 1915 a meeting of women in the Melbourne Town Hall formed the Women’s Rural Industry Company with the aim of training unemployed women in rural industries. With Miss C John appointed manager and Miss L Dickins secretary, the Company acquired a lease of land in the Mordialloc Settlement. There, with six trainee girls, it was resolved to initially plant potatoes, fruit and onions with the intention of later establishing a poultry farm. [15]

It was in May 1915 that the Education Department responded to the request made four years earlier and through the representation of Mrs J Follett, for a school to serve the children of the settlement. Building commenced on a wooden structure capable of seating about fifty students thus saving a walk of a considerable distance to the primary school in Mordialloc. [16] The school, initially called the Mordialloc Settlement School, was built on land owned by the estate of Count Edward Fonceca in Boundary Road and leased by the Department at an annual rental of £3. Although teaching commenced on 25 September 1915 with Margaret Dickson as head teacher, the school was officially opened by Director Frank Tate on 11 October 1915. Jorgen Anderson was the chairman of the school committee and F Sillitoe the secretary. Both were landholders on the settlement. Later the school was renamed Braeside State School No3910. [17]

With the return of men from the Great War conflict in Europe and the Middle East from 1917, efforts were made to help them return and to settle back into civilian life by placing them on the land. Six soldiers were assigned leases at the Mordialloc Settlement. This was despite reservations expressed by some about the quality of the soil and the potential of lease holders to earn a suitable income. Three of the soldiers assigned to land on the Mordialloc Estate wrote to Cr Groves, of the Dandenong Shire Council, agreeing with him that the land assigned to them was not good. They also drew attention to the fact that they had asked the Minister of Lands, Mr Hutchinson, when he visited Mordialloc eight months earlier, to provide them with teams of horses to break up the ground so it could be used, and to supply manure and plenty of lime. The Minister had said he would see what could be done but nothing had happened. All they could see on their holdings was failure. [18] The Mordialloc Progress Association wrote warning the State War Council about placing returned soldiers at the Mordialloc Settlement as the place did not offer suitable facilities for settlement. [19]

A W Jones, a member of the Dandenong Shire Repatriation Committee, visited the Mordialloc Settlement with Cr Groves, now the Minister of Lands, and members of the Closer Settlement Board, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the six soldier settlers. Jones said the land was of such poor quality that success was impossible. He pointed out that it had not been possible for strong men to make a living on that land and wondered how returning physically wrecked soldiers could be expected to do so. The Minister thought that doubling the quantity of land for each returned man was the answer but Cr Groves warned that without a water supply and large quantities of stable manure it was impossible even with additional land for them to succeed.

Of the six soldier settlers visited by the Minister and others, Jones claimed that only two were able to make even the faintest effort towards success. One man was away rabbit trapping at Yea, another was dealing in vehicles, while another, a former fellmonger, was helpless from rheumatism and struggled to get out of bed for a short time to meet the visitors. [20]

W T C Kelly a Mentone resident and a person active in local affairs, wrote to the Weekly Times submitting a proposal he thought worthy of a trial regarding the repatriation of returning soldiers. He wrote of his vision of a settlement of approximately sixty families, preferably but not necessarily, all returned soldiers, each given twenty acres of land. This he suggested would enable a man to make a comfortable living through the labour of himself and family. Further, he proposed the establishment of industries that provided higher yields per acre than those previously adopted, such as meat, wool, wheat and butter. He pointed to tobacco, vegetable oils, and the fibre industries like cotton, silk and linen as possibilities. The Federal Government, the repatriation committee and the state government all had a part to play in this scheme, he suggested. Money and tariff support to protect the fledgling industries should come from the Federal Government, the repatriation committee was to select suitable men, while the State Government was to provide the land and supply men and materials to do all the preparatory work. Leases were to be fenced, houses built, teams of horses with up to date farming appliances provided, and a man employed to instruct the settlers how and when to plant. The proposal was not taken up. [21]

By September 1918 it was claimed the Mordialloc Settlement was a failure. Mr Groves, now a member of parliament, led a deputation to the Minister for Lands, Mr Clarke, objecting to the proposal that the Dandenong Council should contribute to the maintenance of roads leading to the soldiers’ settlement at Mordialloc. Why spend money on roads when the settlement was doomed to failure, he asked? Mr Clarke acknowledged that some mistakes had been made. The land at Mordialloc should not have been purchased, the allotments were too small, and the individuals granted a lease lacked the agricultural skills necessary for success. The Minister indicated that a number of soldiers complained they were not able to make a living at Mordialloc and revealed a promise he made to find them alternative placements. [22]

Because of changes in regulations in 1924 which enabled separate titles to be issued for allotments, soldier settlers were able to sell their land at considerable profit. Where allotments were being used for dairying and other purposes they then became valued as building sites and according to The Argus, settlers were being offered amounts three and four times greater than the original cost of the land. [23]

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Aerial view of Mordialloc/Braeside showing Woodlands Golf Club and part of the land used in the Mordialloc Closer Settlement Project marked in red c1956. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

Reports on soldier settlement from advisory committees in 1928, advised that many settlers were in serious financial trouble, being in arrears in repayments for leaseholds. The land had been purchased by the government at a time when values were high and income from primary produce was correspondingly high. Subsequently, when the value of production dropped significantly, farmers struggled to make a living. Substantial concessions were made in interest payments but it was not sufficient to guarantee success. Many who took up holdings were not experienced farmers and had no reserves to carry them over a difficult production period. Moreover, some lacked the qualities necessary for success. [24]

Gradually the occupiers of the land at Mordialloc sold their land for industrial development. This was land previously purchased by government as a site for the Closer Settlement project and later a place to settle returning soldiers. Today the school that served the children of the settlers has also gone and the land sold to industrial enterprises. The land found to be unsuitable in providing a living for families when it was used for market gardens, poultry and dairying is now successfully providing a base for a variety of industrial activities. There is no evidence remaining of Mordialloc’s earlier role as an element in the government’s Closer Settlement Program.

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Aerial View of Braeside, Mentone and Port Phillip Bay with the Moorabbin Airport. The section marked in red was part of the original Mordialloc Closer Settlement and now is part of Braeside’s Industrial Development. 2014. Courtesy Campbell Nolte - Morrison, Kingston Collection.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. See, Whitehead G J., Alexander Vause Macdonald: Mordialloc Pioneer, Kingston Historical Website.
  2. Billis R & Kenyon A, Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip, 1974.
  3. Land Victoria - Document 8676a - Rennison.
  4. Hibbin G, A History of the City of Springvale: Constellation of Communities, 1984 page108.
  5. Gippsland Times, 14 July 1904.
  6. The Argus, 12 December 1907.
  7. The Argus, 30 October 1908.
  8. J Ellis, A Shfreer, H Dunn, G Banbrook and J Tink.
  9. The Argus, 24 January 1910.
  10. The Argus, ibid.
  11. South Bourke and Mornington Journal, 20 July 1911.
  12. The Small Improved Holdings Act 1906. Report for the financial year ended 30th June, 1909.
  13. Colac Reformer, 2 April 1914.
  14. Royal Commission on Closer Settlement as relating to the Working of the Closer Settlement acts in the Non-Irrigable Districts, 1915.
  15. The Argus, 31 March 1915.
  16. Moorabbin News, 22 May 1915.
  17. Vision and Realisation, Vol 3, Education Department of Victoria, 1973.
  18. Moorabbin News, 6 October 1917.
  19. Moorabbin News, 13 October 1917.
  20. Moorabbin News, ibid.
  21. Weekly Times, 6 July 1918.
  22. The Argus, 12 September 1918.
  23. The Argus, 12 August 1924.
  24. The Argus, 16 March 1928.

Category: Did You Know?
Reference Number: 617
Date Created: 18/07/2015
Date Revised:

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