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Village Settlement: What went wrong?

The village settlement scheme suffered from the start from negative perceptions. Even after the act was passed, some parliamentarians criticised the scheme as being a form of slavery or too communistic. Some thought that it encouraged the 'loafers' of society to join and continue to live off government benefits. As more and more government money was poured into the scheme over many years, taxpayers became discontented and landowners, particularly, felt aggrieved that they had worked for their land and these settlers just had land handed to them. There were claims that the Kingston government had rushed the legislation through parliament and then did not follow the guidelines set, most significantly by spending far more money on the scheme that was originally allowed by the legislation. As the settlements failed, there was frustration from the public that government officials kept reporting that all was well with the settlements, whilst villagers who left and returned to Adelaide told a very different story.

The sites for the settlements were often selected by people unqualified to evaluate land for irrigation settlementsand the locations generally proved to be quite unsuitable - soils were inappropriate and villages were often set too high above river level for the small and ineffective pumps available to settlers, so irrigation systems were unproductive. Those selecting the sites and the villagers themselves had no knowledge of the climatic conditions of the area and little concept of the extent to which irrigation would be necessary. The settlements were established in 1894, an unusually good year for rainfall, so an unrealistic idea of the climate was produced. The villagers were totally unprepared for the particularly dry years of 1895, 1896 and 1897 that followed their settlement.

Most of the settlers had no agricultural knowledge or experience. Their prior occupations ranged from wharf labourers and engine drivers to stone masons and miners. There was no balance between the skills of the settlers. A village might have several general labourers, but no-one who knew how to tend to livestock or repair the pump so vital to the irrigation of the settlement. There was also a lack of knowledge of the management of irrigation systems. The government provided little guidance to the settlers on irrigation and agricultural matters. The 'village settlement expert' Samuel McIntosh was not appointed until February 1896, almost two years after the village settlements began to be established. McIntosh's expert advice came too late for several of the settlements. Unfortunately, McIntosh's guidance was not always that well received by the villagers who at times resented the recommendations and treated them with suspicion.

The communal system failed to reward settlers in proportion to their effort. The theory of share and share alike gave no incentive for initiative or hard work, as all extra products or proceeds were automatically absorbed into the communal funds. The system allowed some workers to slack off and still gain the same benefits as those who worked hard. Independent work was not allowed by the rules and those who preferred to work on their own were often dissatisfied with the restrictions.

The settlers had no market for any surplus produce. Produce had to be transported to Morgan by steamer, then by rail to Adelaide. By the time it reached the city, it was no longer fresh and prices were high compared with local goods because of the cost of transport.

The settlements were given insufficient land to sustain their populations or support any further growth. Poor wheat varieties were also provided and pests such as rabbits ravaged many crops.

Faced with this multitude of problems, it is little wonder that the village settlement scheme was unsuccessful. Conflicting attitudes of the settlers, little government infrastructure and limited knowledge of agricultural and irrigation matters could not be overcome to make the settlements work. However, whilst the settlements failed to succeed in the manner in which they were originally conceived, the scheme was not a total loss. Several of the villages continued as privately owned and managed settlements or were later resurrected as such. From 1909, the government established irrigation areas along the upper Murray River and the experience of the village settlement scheme guided their management. After the First and Second World Wars, government schemes were established to settle returned soldiers on these lands and the mistakes made and knowledge gained from the village settlements of the 1890s informed these subsequent schemes.

Fruit growing, Murtho
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Our village settlements
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The Murray settlements : some facts and figures
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The village settlements
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Village settlements : to the editor
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Village settlements sensation
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