Pioneering Families of Australia

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Life on the land

Melbourne started as an illegal settlement. Despite opposition from the government in Sydney, sheep farmers from Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) crossed Bass Strait in search of new pastures.


In May 1835, a syndicate led by John Batman explored Port Phillip Bay, looking for suitable sites for a settlement. Batman claimed to have signed a 'treaty' with Aboriginal leaders, giving him ownership of almost 250,000 hectares of land. Three months later, another syndicate of farmers, led by John Pascoe Fawkner, entered the Yarra River aboard the Enterprize, establishing the first permanent settlement.


New South Wales Governor Richard Bourke declared Batman's treaty illegal and the settlers to be trespassers. But within two years, more than 350 people and 55 000 sheep had landed, and the squatters were establishing large wool-growing properties in the district. Bourke was forced to accept the rapidly growing township.


by John O'Brien


"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,

In accents most forlorn,

Outside the church, ere Mass began,

One frosty Sunday morn.


The congregation stood about,

Coat-collars to the ears,

And talked of stock, and crops, and drought,

As it had done for years.


"It's lookin' crook," said Daniel Croke;

"Bedad, it's cruke, me lad,

For never since the banks went broke

Has seasons been so bad."


"It's dry, all right," said young O'Neil,

With which astute remark

He squatted down upon his heel

And chewed a piece of bark.


And so around the chorus ran

"It's keepin' dry, no doubt."

"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,

"Before the year is out.


"The crops are done; ye'll have your work

To save one bag of grain;

From here way out to Back-o'-Bourke

They're singin' out for rain.


"They're singin' out for rain," he said,

"And all the tanks are dry."

The congregation scratched its head,

And gazed around the sky.


"There won't be grass, in any case,

Enough to feed an ass;

There's not a blade on Casey's place

As I came down to Mass."


"If rain don't come this month," said Dan,

And cleared his throat to speak--

"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,

"If rain don't come this week."


A heavy silence seemed to steal

On all at this remark;

And each man squatted on his heel,

And chewed a piece of bark.


"We want a inch of rain, we do,"

O'Neil observed at last;

But Croke "maintained" we wanted two

To put the danger past.


"If we don't get three inches, man,

Or four to break this drought,

We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,

"Before the year is out."


In God's good time down came the rain;

And all the afternoon

On iron roof and window-pane

It drummed a homely tune.


And through the night it pattered still,

And lightsome, gladsome elves

On dripping spout and window-sill

Kept talking to themselves.


It pelted, pelted all day long,

A-singing at its work,

Till every heart took up the song

Way out to Back-o'Bourke.


And every creek a banker ran,

And dams filled overtop;

"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,

"If this rain doesn't stop."


And stop it did, in God's good time;

And spring came in to fold

A mantle o'er the hills sublime

Of green and pink and gold.


And days went by on dancing feet,

With harvest-hopes immense,

And laughing eyes beheld the wheat

Nid-nodding o'er the fence.


And, oh, the smiles on every face,

As happy lad and lass

Through grass knee-deep on Casey's place

Went riding down to Mass.


While round the church in clothes genteel

Discoursed the men of mark,

And each man squatted on his heel,

And chewed his piece of bark.


"There'll be bush-fires for sure, me man,

There will, without a doubt;

We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,

"Before the year is out."


John O'Brien

fire1 flood1 drought2

The first Europeans to venture into the vast mountain forests north and east of Melbourne did not stay. The size of the trees, the darkness and dampness of the fern valleys, and the denseness of the vegetation made the mountain ranges unattractive and forbidding to those who were looking for land to farm; they preferred to settle the lesser-timbered land to the north and west.


Gradually, European settlers began to explore the foothills, and eventually the ranges themselves; they carved narrow tracks and then roads through the valleys and hills, exploring for gold and other minerals, in search of pastoral land, and in search of the timber wealth of the forest

By the mid nineteenth century, all the 'easy' land in Victoria had been appropriated, and selectors began to take up land in the ranges and to start the long process of 'clearing' the Mountain Ash forest.


It was hard work to clear the land, and many settlers fought a losing battle with bracken, saplings and other scrub. They often wrongly assumed that tall trees guaranteed rich and fertile soil. The farmer had to overcome wild pigs, horses, cockatoos, kangaroos, wombats and wallabies, and many blocks were abandoned, sometimes after a generation's work. It was quickly understood that not all the forest was suitable for agriculture or pastoral activities, so areas were reserved for timber.


Later settlers utilised new and developing technologies to harvest the resources of the forest. They took pride in their ingenuity as they found new uses for the land; they rejoiced in the increasing level of technical and engineering development; and they saw the changes in the landscape as evidence of the abilities of British settlers to turn a wilderness into a profitable land.


Nineteenth century colonists perceived their settlement of the land as 'improving' it; they used words like 'tame' and 'subdue' to describe what they were doing to the land. Their work in clearing the land was praised as a public good: in 1855 Howitt wrote that '...the axe, the plough and the fire of settlers will gradually and eventually remove' what he termed 'the evils' of the dense forest undergrowth.


Yet the pride in progress was tempered often by a sense of regret. Attitudes to the tall trees were ambivalent. After the 1939 bushfire, the Royal Commission was told that 'After the gold rush was over, the white man had to make use of the land and he had to get rid of the timber.


But the Australian bush can be relentless and is not easily tamed.  Our climate is such that extremes are common; how often do we hear  "...the hottest day since.." or "...the worst drought since ....".


The following poem is one I have loved all my life, and I often use the phrase "we'll all be rooned" the poem describes exactly the extremes of this country and the affects these have on the land, but the poem goes further - into the pysche of the Australian farming community, with their stoism in the face of "everyday" adversity.  As well as "We'll all be rooned, their other catchcry is "she'll be right, mate".

bush hut hay-1