previous
next



  ― 8 ―

2. Chapter II First Days in Australia

AS I have stated, we landed in Melbourne in 1852. In 1836 it numbered only thirteen buildings, eight of which were tiny huts. In 1841 it had a population of 11,000. In 1851 discoveries of gold in Victoria and New South Wales were announced to the world. The first discovery in New South Wales was made near the Fish River about 130 miles west from Sydney, in 1823. Another discovery was made, not far away, by Count Strzelecki in 1839. Sir George Gipps, the Governor of that day, persuaded the Count to keep his discovery secret, as otherwise the news might prejudice the interests of the settlement! In 1851 Hargreaves, a returned prospector from California, made discoveries on and near the Fish River which could not be suppressed.

There was no such delay in Victoria. Soon after the finds of Hargreaves a gold discovery committee was appointed in Victoria, and a series of splendid results at once followed, which completely overshadowed the yields in New South Wales. The following figures show the value raised in the early stages of the “gold-digging” days:—

1851.—New South Wales, £468,000; Victoria, £851,000.

1851—60.—New South Wales, £11,500,000; Victoria, £93,500,000.




  ― 9 ―

The difference in those first ten years of £82,000,000 in favour of Victoria helps to explain the dazzling rise of Melbourne, which soon eclipsed in importance the capital of New South Wales, though it could never equal in natural beauty the site of Sydney.

The gold fever seized every class. The ordinary callings were deserted. A vigorous tide of immigration set in. Happily, those who arrived were mainly of a fine type—men who could turn the gold to good account if they won it themselves, or if they failed on the gold-fields could make good money out of the success of the more fortunate. The gold often changed hands, but those who came in search of it proved first-rate colonists, whether they settled in the interior or in the rapidly growing towns. There was a quick rise in the social scale as the adventurer turned into the merchant, the farmer, or the “squatter.” The last was a term of reproach at first, but the squatting class soon became the aristocracy of the Colonies.

In the new land of gold and every other kind of promise there were some who brought with them unlovely tendencies from which the old world had long suffered. If there is one weakness from which “the cloth” of every creed and country cannot quite escape it is the jealousy bad preachers feel when new arrivals who can preach well come to settle down amongst them.

In my father's case the climax of clerical ill-feeling came when, in 1856, he resigned from a most successful Church he had established at Essendon—then called Moonee Ponds—because he disapproved of the existing system of State aid to religion.




  ― 10 ―

Shortly afterwards my father accepted an invitation from the oldest Presbyterian congregation in Sydney, to become the colleague of the Rev. Dr. Lang, who rendered many public services in those early days in the cause of religion, industrial immigration, education, and by the publication of a newspaper. Dr. Lang was also for many years an active member of the Legislature. “The Doctor,” as he was called, was “a man of war from his youth,” and had a knack of quoting the Scriptures in a manner entirely favourable to himself. He had a masterful spirit and many colleagues who could not stand it. My father was able to remain with Dr. Lang longer than any of his predecessors. When at last a separation came the Doctor wound up a very friendly pulpit announcement in words which I never forgot: “In these painful and difficult circumstances I left my dear friend and brother to the freedom of his ain will—as God did Adam in the Garden of Eden!”

At the time of our arrival in Sydney—1858—the new system of responsible government was less than three years old. The stages from the absolute rule of the Governor, which in its turn was subject to the absolute control of the Colonial Office, down to the grant of local self-government, were few in number.

In 1823 an advisory council was nominated. In 1842 a legislative council numbering some thirty-six members was established: one-third official nominees, twenty-four elected. In 1850 the Imperial Parliament passed “The Australian Colonies' Government Act.” Its main object was to establish a liberal plan of self-government. Incidentally, provision was


  ― 11 ―
made for the separation of Victoria from New South Wales.

The Legislative Council of New South Wales at that time had on its roll a considerable number of very able men, and was altogether at a level of ability which was, I think, never afterwards excelled.

The gold discovery had quickened the existing desire for complete autonomy, and the Legislative Council urged that the Imperial Government should grant responsible government in a more complete form than that provided for in the Act of 1850. The Governor, they claimed, should cease to be controlled in local affairs by the Secretary of State, and should act on the advice of his Ministers. With wonderful amiability and readiness the Imperial Government suggested that the Council should itself draft a Constitution. This suggestion was welcomed, and a Select Committee proceeded to form a draft. In 1853 the draft was considered and amended by the Legislative Council and transmitted to Downing Street. With some changes it was embodied in an Imperial Act, which received the Royal Assent in May, 1855. Such measures laid magnificent foundations for liberty and expansion, and have enabled the Australian Commonwealth to become perhaps the most prosperous community on the face of the globe.

It is really worth while to mention one remarkable feature of the New South Wales rough draft of the Constitution. It was proposed by the committee, on Mr. Wentworth's suggestion, that the Upper House in the new scheme should consist of hereditary peers! This suggestion provoked a lively


  ― 12 ―
agitation which proved fatal to the proposal. The substitute was nomination for five years by the Governor in Council, and if no other plan were adopted during that time, then that of nomination for life was to be followed. In 1861 the life system became law. The Constitutional safety-valve which enables the Crown, in the case of the House of Lords, to create an indefinite number of new Peers, was adopted in New South Wales, as the Governor was entitled to summon an unlimited number of new men to the Legislative Council.

The first great political movement under the new Constitution aimed at the removal of the existing limitations upon the franchise. Manhood Suffrage and Vote by Ballot were demanded. Australian Radicals perceived that these were the corner-stones of all their projects.

As a schoolboy I had no triumphs. The methods of teaching are far from perfect now. In my young days they were wonderfully unenlightened. I had no sort of appetite for that wide range of metaphysical propositions which juveniles were expected to comprehend in the middle of last century. “Paradigms” were not included in the grammars of that period.

When thirteen years old I entered a Sydney merchant's office as a junior—very junior—clerk. I could read, write, and count fairly well, but that was all. I could not parse a sentence. I don't know that that was a serious misfortune, because the stilted sort of diction in which schoolmasters excelled in my days was a parody on the English language.




  ― 13 ―

My first year in an office gave me a real start in life. I seemed to relish knowledge and to respect authority for the first time. Like many another foolish boy, I used to regard the school as a treadmill. When I climbed an office stool I felt as if I had been emancipated from aimless drudgery, and had come amongst people who could really teach me something worth learning.

I had formed definite ambitions and indulged in high expectations some years before. When the mind is very young, and is developing in an intellectual atmosphere, the ambition to excel mentally is the most natural result possible. The eloquence of my father's sermons gave me a bias for public speaking, and I joined a debating club when I was fifteen. There was at first an enormous gap between the speeches of the other members—who were much older—and my own. I was tongue-thrashed for some months without mercy, and in standing up to punishment until I could fight on equal terms, I fought and won, I think, the most important battle of my life. A thinner skin, a keener sense of shame, a less resolute endurance, a more diffident estimate of my abilities, might have spoilt my chances for life. If veterans would only remember their own beginnings, and the quicksands that beset youth, they would surely do more to encourage their juniors to engage and persevere in laudable studies. A more crude novice than I was never began the practice of public speaking. To others who may begin as badly as I did I would like to offer this piece of friendly advice: never give up your efforts to improve your mind; they must


  ― 14 ―
increase your power. Always remember two things: you can never know the highest possibilities of your nature until you have tried your hardest, and that your efforts must aid you in an upward climb, even if you do not reach any summit of success. May I add a third observation: there is a nobler aim than the world's applause. Moral excellence stands for more than worldly success in the world that lasts longest.

As a boy I attended many of the meetings held in Sydney for and against Manhood Suffrage. Here I received my first impressions of the unbridled eloquence of which political reformers are capable, and the gloomy forebodings which haunt the imaginations of some of their Conservative opponents.

Shortly after the Manhood Suffrage and the Ballot Acts came into force the Land Laws and their working placed political strife on a new footing.

No country, ancient or modern, has had a more dismal record of disastrous blunders in dealing with the public lands than New South Wales. All the other causes of misrule combined were not fraught with so many evil consequences as the law legalising “free selection before survey” over the Crown lands held under pastoral lease. It often happens that there is a real grievance at the bottom of a violent agitation. It was so in this case. The “squatters” had monopolised the vast sheep and cattle “runs,” and those areas included all the best sites for closer settlement belonging to the Crown. Practically the whole available acreage, vast as it was, was locked up in the pastoral leases, or in the shape of freehold grants.




  ― 15 ―

The process of surveying public lands for purposes of settlement was wholly insufficient for a rapidly increasing and legitimate demand; and men of small means could not cope with the competition of wealthier men when blocks of land were surveyed and offered for sale. The class at the top foolishly tried to prevent the classes below them from getting a footing on the public lands. Pastoral enterprise had done wonders, and the pastoral pioneers were public benefactors; but sheep walks must gradually yield to closer settlement if a country is to advance. Unhappily, the conflict became a bitter struggle between the rich and the poor. Extreme measures were the natural result of a stubborn resistance to just demands.

A vigorous survey of smaller areas best suited for closer settlement, especially farming, and the alienation of these areas, to agricultural pioneers, would have saved the country from terrible mistakes. But the advocates of “free selection before survey” were able, with some truth, to point out that as matters stood only extreme measures could really “unlock” the public estate, then as large as Great Britain and France combined. The question had suddenly become acute, partly because the gold fever was subsiding, but more largely because of the transfer of political power from the classes to the masses. Sir John Robertson was the champion of the “people's cause.” In spite of difficulties of utterance he became immensely powerful, especially as he really belonged to the class he was denouncing.

In 1860, a year before the Robertson Land Acts were passed in New South Wales, free selection of


  ― 16 ―
surveyed country lands was allowed at the price of £1 per acre. The Alienation Act of 1861 embodied “free selection before survey,” and the Occupation Act of the same year limited the tenure of the pastoral leases which the other Act exposed to the invasion of a new army of free selectors.

The maximum area each selector could purchase was 160 acres, and that carried a pre-emptive right to lease 480 acres adjoining. A man's wife and his children, even infants, could each acquire similar areas. The four corners of a selection could be roughly marked, and every Thursday the local Crown Lands Offices were bound to receive the applications. The price of the freehold was £1 an acre, of which one-fourth was payable as deposit, the balance, with interest, being spread over a term of years.

The two main conditions were actual residence for a period of years and improvements of a certain value per acre; and the selectors, or in the case of those under age their natural guardians, had to swear to the performance of these conditions.

The immediate effect of this law upon the pastoral leases can be easily understood. The vast acreage, often highly improved, over which the herds and flocks of the lessees had roamed without interference, became exposed to sudden and indiscriminate alienation, and security of tenure was destroyed. The more valuable the holdings the more exposed they were to danger, and an army of blackmailers was let loose and had to be “squared.” Can we wonder that the lessees often tried to fortify their position by “dummy” selections taken up in their interests? Can


  ― 17 ―
we wonder that on all sides the sworn declarations as to the fact of residence, the value of improvements, and the good faith of the occupancy, became articles of commerce?

This brief sketch is given because a very large part of my public life in later years was devoted to the reform of the Land Laws of New South Wales and of their administration, which at the period I entered politics had become the worst in the world, in spite of ever so many good intentions.

In 1869 the demand for land was so great in Victoria that the principle of selection before survey was copied from New South Wales.

The altogether unusual conditions existing in Australia, both natural and artificial, led to the most elaborate methods of tempting land settlers to commit themselves to one form or other of land purchase or lease. The demand for good agricultural land in New South Wales and Victoria has for fifty years been greatly in excess of areas offered. In later years that became equally true in every part of Australia within a reasonable distance of railway or navigation. But there was something to be made out of inferior lands under favourable conditions, and in such cases larger areas and more liberal terms were granted. This has been the case in every quarter of the continent. For instance, in Queensland “scrub” leases could be got of 10,000 acres for thirty years at a rental ranging up to a maximum of 1d. an acre.

Fortunately, there were no complications in regard to title; the aboriginals were as incapable of bargaining successfully as they were of fighting successfully.


  ― 18 ―
The Maoris of New Zealand were quite the opposite. They were just as keen in making a bargain as they were valiant in warfare. Hence this noble native race still possesses some of the most valuable estates in New Zealand. The disputes over land dealings in that Colony from 1815 down to 1840, led to extraordinary confusion, which even Imperial legislation could not overcome.

The contrast between the expansion of land settlement in the United States and our own land troubles is immense. In North America the backwoodsmen had to carry their rifles in their hands. In Australia life and property were safe, but no one knew in those early days whether the title to his land was equally secure. In New South Wales, at any rate, under the Land Laws of 1861, that was how matters stood.

The spread of indiscriminate settlement caused ill-feeling between the large landholders and the small ones, some of whom took advantage of the absence of visible boundaries. Beginning in blackmailing, and sheep or cattle stealing, a few were ready for more dangerous offences. That state of things was the origin, in my opinion, of the “bushranging” which flourished between 1861 and 1864. The “bushranger” of Australia was a Colonial edition of the highwayman of England and the train-robber of the United States. Some of them had chivalrous ideas, others were the deadliest of ruffians. All were splendid horsemen, well mounted and armed, with sympathisers and hiding places and “bush telegraphs.” The more notorious outrages were prompted by the large quantities of gold


  ― 19 ―
conveyed along lonely bush roads from the “diggings” to the nearest bank. Others, of even greater daring, reached the length of raids upon towns and villages. The Australian only carried firearms for purposes of sport. Fists, not revolvers, were his fashionable weapons. This gave “robbery under arms” a very good opening.

The most interesting and successful bushranger of those days was a man named Gardiner, who was in many desperate encounters as the leader of several gangs; yet he kept his neck out of the noose when arrested long afterwards in Queensland, where he was running a respectable country store. In 1864 he was convicted in Sydney and sentenced to thirty-two years' hard labour.

Many brave troopers—we had and have as fine a body of mounted police as any in the world—many innocent persons, and suspected spies, lost their lives before bushranging ceased.

previous
next