The Group Settlement Scheme in the south-west of Western Australia was a government venture designed to establish a dairy industry. Settlers were recruited from elsewhere in Australia and from Britain, given land and subsidised for stock and expenses. Many holdings were uneconomic and settlers endured great hardship. After two Royal Commissions, the schemes were abandoned in the early 1930s.
The Group Settlement Scheme was an initiative of the Premier of Western Australia, Sir James Mitchell. The scheme operated by allocating an area of forest, divided into blocks, to a group of settlers who worked together to clear the land. As 25 acres of one block were cleared it was allocated by ballot to one member of the group. This process continued until an equal area of each block was cleared, ready for settlers to take occupancy. Cottages, yards, fencing and stock were also supplied. A subsistence wage was paid to men during the clearing operation and in the initial establishment period.
The first of the groups was established at Manjimup in March 1921, while the first group of immigrants from Devon and Cornwall arrived in Albany in 1924. The Group Settlement Scheme had been heavily promoted in England where it was seen by many as a solution to overcrowding and unemployment. The Cornwall and Devon group were given an official farewell, departing from the same wharf as the Mayflower.
The reality they faced in Western Australia fell far short of the dream. A Royal Commission in 1926 found that, while some of the land was suitable for dairying, much poor land had been included in the allocations. It also found that a herd of fewer than 23 to 30 cows would not provide a farmer with a livelihood, but most settlers had fewer than ten. The Commission recommended that the scheme be suspended until it could be reorganised in a way that would not put such a drain on state resources.
There were other problems with the scheme. Most settlers had no agricultural background and found the work difficult. Many abandoned their holdings or were dispossessed for failing to meet their obligations. The areas chosen for settlement were not served by railways and roads were difficult to navigate in bad weather. Without easy access to markets, what goods were produced could not readily be sold.
The Group Settlement Scheme became the subject of ongoing controversy, with Mitchell and his ministers defending it in Parliament. A further Royal Commission was appointed in 1932 and heard from the Minister for Lands that many settlers had become dependent on government support or had not been prepared to do the work necessary to maintain their farms. However, it’s clear that many suffered through no fault of their own and their situation deteriorated as the depression years of the early ‘30s began to bite.
In a letter to “Virgilia” of the Western Mail in 1935, one of the settlers described life on “the Groups”:
“We were just dumped down in a small clearing in the bush-20 families-miles from anywhere, two families in a small tin shack; no stoves to cook with; at first, a very limited supply of provisions, no conveniences of any kind; and, worst of all, nearly everyone down with dysentery. There was only a very limited number of beds, and many had to sleep on the ground; no floor boards, of course, at first.
This was all so entirely different from what we had been led to expect, that disillusionment was bound to follow. There was a good deal of sickness; my baby girl, and my husband too, were extremely ill, when they recovered, it was my turn; then my son’s. It was very, very hard on the children.
…looking back over all these years of toil and endeavour, setback after setback, I ask myself, taking into consideration our precarious position today, “Has it been worth while?” First – hope and enthusiasm, then – disillusionment, sickness, poverty, heartbreak and finally despair. No,” ”Virgilia,” a thousand times. It has not been worth while. It just means nearly 12 of the best years of our lives flung away in useless endeavour, and – this is worse than all – no assured future for our children.”
Despite the setbacks, the Group Settlement Scheme was successful in establishing a dairy industry in Western Australia. By 1926 a cheese factory had been established at Manjimup and by 1931 the state was self-sufficient in butter, even exporting to Britain.