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Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia



In the early twentieth century, Australian progressive intellectuals were encouraged by their American contemporaries to believe that the steady drift of population to the coastal cities could be slowed, if not arrested, by alleviating the disadvantages of rural life while retaining all that was best in it. This essay examines the historical antecedents and intellectual context of this program to conserve Country Life, the opinions of its critics and supporters, and the response of country people themselves to the forces that were steadily undermining it. The rural crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, it is argued, was but the acceleration of processes underway for more than a century.

When Europeans came to Australia they carried with them a strong belief in the virtues of country life. At the threshold of the nineteenth century, England was already the most urbanised society in Europe, but the heart of England, so people believed, was the countryside. It was the source of the nation’s best virtues and most enduring institutions (Williams 1981; Wiener 1981 pp. 46–47). The villages and small towns had grown first, and cities developed only later as smaller settlements coalesced into larger ones. Many newcomers to Australia retained an idealised memory of England as a land in which the swelling population of the large cities rested on this solid base of farms, villages and small towns.

This ideal – a green, well-watered land of farms and villages – lodged deep in Australian collective consciousness. It is one feature of the ‘default country’ that, Jay Arthur argues, has shaped European thinking about the continent for more than two hundred years (Arthur 2003 p. 26). If Australia was characterised as ‘brown’ and ‘sunburnt’, sparse and sprawling, it was always in contrast to the greener, more densely populated land from which the settlers had come. In the lexicon of Australian settlement, the words ‘country’ and ‘bush’ were often used in opposition, to contrast the ideal landscape of cultivated farmlands with the sparsely settled grazing country beyond. Making ‘bush’ into ‘countryside’ was what colonial Australians often aspired to do.1

It was always a daunting prospect. Almost from the beginning Australia was a land polarised between the city and the bush, with little ‘countryside’ in between (Davison 2005a; Williams 1975). Forty years after the foundation of New South Wales, more than 40 per cent of the population was located in Sydney and the next seven largest towns contained between them less than half the population of the capital itself (Butlin 1994 pp. 152–156). Yet contemporaries were reluctant to conclude that this unnatural state of affairs would be permanent. The most influential theorist of colonial development, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, believed that the principles of ‘concentration’ and ‘dispersion’ could be harmonised by adjusting the supplies of land and labour so as to create a society of small farms and towns spread evenly across a prosperous countryside. Hard-headed colonial administrators, mindful of geographical and political realities, sometimes took a more sober view. Commissioner JT Bigge had concluded, as early as 1823, that the ‘future condition [of New South Wales] will be that of pasturage rather than tillage’ (Waterhouse 2005 p. 20). In 1836 Lord Glenelg, Secretary of State for the Colonies, observed that the colony appeared to be ‘marked out by nature for a Pastoral Country’. Its geography presented a ‘physical impediment to the close concentration of its inhabitants with which it would be only futile to contend by human laws’ (Hamer 1990 pp. 99–103, 111). Bigge and Glenelg were among the first to articulate what would become the pessimistic side in the long debate between rural romantics and environmental determinists over the shape of Australian rural society.

Optimists believed that the gap between town and bush was symptomatic of an immature stage of colonial development. In his Analytical View of the Census of New South Wales (1841) Ralph Mansfield, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, noted the steady growth of inland and coastal towns, which had recently outstripped the growth of Sydney. The increase of the other towns, he believed, illustrated ‘that peculiar principle in the political economy of Australia, so imperfectly understood in the mother country, that dispersion is the natural means to healthful concentration’ (Mansfield 1841 p. 28). The Australian bush might be sparsely settled for now, but one day it would become settled countryside.

The 1850s goldrush gave new impetus to this hope. Mining, which drew large numbers of toiling men to the rivers and reefs where minerals were deposited, was a powerful, but volatile, force for concentration. The two decades between 1851 and 1871 was the only period in Victoria’s colonial history when the steady movement of population towards the metropolis was reversed. Ballarat and Bendigo quickly became Australia’s largest inland towns and themselves became mini-metropolises for a host of other mining towns. The gold towns in turn became the spearheads for the free-selection movement, the first of several political attempts to promote closer settlement of the rural interior.

The expectation that the coastal concentration of population would be reversed was short-lived. By the end of the nineteenth century, as reef mining peaked and began to decline, the gold towns faced a new threat to their future. Despite their success in establishing new secondary industries, and in persuading the Victorian government to create new sources of local employment through the establishment of gaols, lunatic asylums and hospitals, the towns were unable to provide employment for all their young people (Bate 1993 pp. 35–47). The locomotive with its iron rails, as Henry Lawson famously observed, was tethering the Bush to the wider world. While farmers welcomed the approach of the railway, and the opportunities it brought for cheaper travel to Melbourne, country townsmen feared the loss of patronage to their big city competitors. The railway not only threatened the prosperity of country towns, it also began to undermine their distinctiveness. Up the railway from Melbourne came the commercial travellers, itinerant lecturers and showmen, spreading word of city fashions in dress, food, health, art and public opinion, creating a taste for urban ways of life (Davison 1987 pp. 229–251).

In 1891 as many Australians lived in non-metropolitan communities of between 500 and 20,000 population as lived in the capital cities or the bush. The typical country town still retained a degree of social and economic autonomy. As well as its own local industries, it might also have its own flourmill, brewery, newspaper, fire brigade, mechanics institute, agricultural showgrounds, retail stores, hotels, clubs, churches, racecourse and sporting clubs. Ellen McEwen, who studied country towns across Australia in the late nineteenth century, found that the webs of institutional affiliation were most intense in mining centres, both gold and coal, less so in farming centres, least intense in pastoral service centres. Most towns had a clear social hierarchy, headed by the largest local land or mine owner, if there was one, with the next rungs occupied by clergymen, doctors, lawyers, bank managers and newspaper proprietors. Further down came teachers, policemen and local shopkeepers and tradesmen (McEwen 1987 pp. 345–364). Many of these local leaders were actually sojourners, representatives of larger city-based institutions stationed in the town, usually during the early part of their careers, until promotion to higher office and the needs of their children’s education recalled them to the metropolis. This constant circulation of bankers, policemen, teachers, doctors and other professionals from city to country and back again – in the twentieth century it would also have included shire engineers, irrigation experts, veterinarians, bush nurses and many others – must have done much to provide local leadership and, in turn, to make country ways known to city people (Davison 1987 pp. 229–253). Through much of Australia’s history, from the 1870s to the 1960s, many, perhaps most, city families had relatives or friends in the country and would often have spent time holidaying with them.

In spite of these links, however, most people regarded the ways of life of city and country people as quite distinct. Country people considered theirs a more wholesome, independent, genuine, sociable and satisfying existence than the rushed, artificial, unhealthy and nervous life of the town-dweller. Many city people agreed with them, lending support to the set of popular beliefs characterised by the political scientist Don Aitkin as ‘countrymindedness’(see Introduction). ‘The natural conditions of country life tend to better health than those of the city’, a New South Wales inquiry into agriculture concluded in 1920.2 Doctors confirmed their opinion by pointing to the superior physique and mental powers of country children, and the higher birthrate of country families than their city cousins. Country life, it was argued, bred a more down-to-earth and self-reliant people than the cities. ‘The farmer’s knowledge of life is more fundamental, and it is more solid [than the city-dweller’s]’, declared Dr James Barrett (Barrett 1917 vol. 2 p. 57) ‘Farm life permits an independence which is not found in the city’, the Rural Reconstruction Commission agreed in 1945. ‘The tempo of life is more peaceful; there is often the opportunity to produce many essential foodstuffs – eggs, butter, milk, fruit and vegetables – and of consuming them fresh’ (Rural Reconstruction Commission 1945 p. 3).

But while experts thought that country life was superior to city life, a growing number of country boys and girls evidently disbelieved them, and were heading in their thousands down the railway to Sydney and Melbourne (Davison 2005b). In 1914 the Victorian parliament established an official inquiry into what it called, ominously, ‘the drift of population to the city’. ‘A spirit of restlessness is abroad, the “townward tendency” being manifest in all parts’, it reported.3 President Theodore Roosevelt had recently appointed a Commission on Country Life to investigate the causes of the even more catastrophic movement from America’s towns and farms to the great cities. ‘The underlying problem [of country life]’, Roosevelt’s commission decided, ‘is to develop and maintain in our farms a civilisation in full harmony with American ideals. To build up and retain this civilisation means, first of all, that the business of agriculture must be made to yield a reasonable return to those who follow it intelligently; and life on the farm must be made personally satisfying to intelligent, progressive people’ (Commission on Country Life 1909 p. 24).

Progressive reformers in Australia, as well as the United States, took up the cause. ‘Country Life’ (now capitalised to signal its ideological force) became the slogan of a movement to reinforce what it saw as the moral superiority of rural life. At its heart was a paradox. Country life, it contended, was better, physically, socially and morally, than city life, and some of its virtues derived from the farmer’s arduous struggle with the elements. Yet in order to make it attractive enough to hold onto the next generation, farming had to be made more prosperous and more ‘civilised’ - that is, made more like the city, in some respects at least. ‘The good institutions of the city may often be applied or extended to the country’, Roosevelt’s Commission had suggested (Commission on Country Life 1909 pp. 104, 114). If young people were forsaking rural life, it was either because they were seduced by the meretricious attractions of urban life, or because the advantages of country life were somehow offset by disadvantages, not intrinsic to the life itself, which could be overcome.

Victoria, where the drift had first become apparent, was also the state where promoters of the country life ideal gained greatest influence. The physician and medical politician James Barrett, the organisational lynchpin of progressive reform in Melbourne, also became a forceful advocate of rural reform. No Australian reformer, claims Michael Roe in his study of the Australian progressives, demonstrated greater faith in developing ‘Australian variants of the Country Life movement’ (Roe 1984 p. 69). Barrett had travelled in the United States and was familiar with the writings of American and European observers of rural life. If Americans had cause to be alarmed by ‘the rush from country to city’, Australians, he claimed, should be even more perturbed.

Whatever may be the position in other countries, it is abundantly clear that in Australia, the destruction of country life, or the diminution of its importance, is a disaster of the first order. Any check on rural development, any relative inferiority on the part the farmer, must be followed by grave results in the cities. The best way to help the Australian States, and the best way to help Australian civilisation, is to develop country life (Barrett 1917 vol. 2 p. 76).

Because Australia was so heavily dependent on rural exports, the economic and social vitality of rural life was critical to its future. While repudiating the Physiocratic doctrine that all wealth derived from the soil, Barrett nevertheless insisted that the decay of Australia’s rural industries might threaten its military as well as it economic security. Like many of his contemporaries, Barrett viewed national development through Darwinian eyes: since country people were superior, physically and mentally to city-dwellers, the future of the countryside was of the greatest importance to ‘every Australian who wants to ensure the development of a vigorous race, both from the physical and mental standpoint’ (Barrett 1917 vol. 2 p. 75).

But how was the drift to the city to be arrested? The solution, Barrett argued, was essentially a matter of adequate ‘organisation’. City people had learned to combine in order to advance their interests. Their trade unions were able to push wages well above those of rural workers while city manufacturers secured railway tariffs that disadvantaged their country competitors. The centralisation of population, he concluded, was ‘very largely the product of the political dominance of the city’ (Barrett 1917 vol. 2 p. 65). Only if country people developed their own political organisations would their disadvantages be overcome. But even Barrett did not pretend that the drift to the city was entirely a product of political contrivance. To reverse it would also require improvements in the amenity of rural life. ‘The country must be made attractive, the countryman must be well educated, for by this means, and this means only, can the rush from the country to the city be diminished.’ This would require strong cooperative action in the form of bush hospitals, rural schools, town planning and rural banking institutions. Barrett had already led efforts to abolish city slums and improve the health of slum children (Davison 1983 pp. 155, 163). Now he joined forces with educationalist Frank Tate to advocate the creation of agricultural high schools designed to provide a practical, scientific education to farm youth (Selleck 1982 pp. 151–152, 163–165). He also enlisted his doctor sister Edith in an energetic and successful campaign to establish a chain of bush nursing hospitals across the state. He toured Britain on a recruiting campaign for nurses, presenting a glowing picture of Australian rural life that belied the very anxieties that underlay the movement. Australian country townships, he assured the prospective bush nurses, were not wild and uncivilised places but more up-to-date than many English villages.

Barrett was a man of almost terrifying will-power (‘a despot who was not always benevolent’, says one historian) and in less than a quarter of a century he and his supporters went far to reduce the physical hazards of life in the bush (Priestley 1986 p. 76). This was the golden age of what another Victorian, Frederick Eggleston, called ‘state socialism’, the growth of state bureaucratic power in the cause of social betterment. A new breed of bureaucrats – men like education director Frank Tate, Victorian chief railways commissioner Harold Clapp, State Rivers and Water Supply Chairman Elwood Mead, and State Electricity Commission Chairman Sir John Monash – had begun to mobilise the formidable resources of the state to break down the isolation and improve the economic prospects of rural Victorians. Over the first half of the twentieth century they created a vast apparatus of boards and commissions, departments and funds, charged with the task of supplying rural Victorians with roads, railways, dams and irrigation canals, schools and hospitals. Eggleston characterised it, with perhaps a little exaggeration, as ‘possibly the largest and most comprehensive use of State power outside Russia’. Its centrepiece, ‘the most characteristic example of State Socialism’, was the program known across Australia as the ‘closer settlement movement’. Beginning in the early years of the Commonwealth, and accelerating after the Great War when thousands of ex-servicemen were offered the opportunity to become ‘soldier-settlers’, closer-settlement was the boldest attempt since the free selection movement of the 1860s to realise the yeoman ideal in Australia. By 1932, Eggleston, a former Victorian Minister for Railways and for Water Supply, believed he had seen enough of the effects of state intervention in agriculture to know what he thought of it. ‘The closer settlement activity is a constant record of failure... half-baked policy, uncertain objectives and faltering application.’ ‘Most of the conspicuous successes of land settlement’, he concluded, ‘took place in spite of the State’ (Eggleston 1932 pp. 69–71).

Whether closer settlement was to be regarded as a mixed success or a qualified failure often depended on the expectations contemporaries and historians applied to it. By the exalted standards of rural utopians, almost any efforts to promote Country Life were likely to fall short of the mark. ‘Somehow all our efforts at decentralisation seem to have failed’, the rural paper the Leader concluded in 1927.

Millions of pounds have been spent in providing railways and other facilities which were designed to make life in the country more congenial but despite that fact the bulk of the people in rural districts seem to have only one aim in life – to accumulate sufficient money to enable them to migrate to the city. As it is most of the country districts lose their young folk, who find life there too drab by comparison with what they imagine to be a bright and easy life in the city.4

But there were many factors behind the drift of population to the metropolis, and not all of them reflected rural poverty or failure. While its historians have generally considered the closer settlement experiment, and its cousin soldier settlement, as failures, they have been less unanimous about the extent and causes of their shortcomings. In the short-term, these experiments certainly increased the number of Victorian farmers, and, although many eventually walked off the land, a fair proportion – perhaps as many as half – seem to have made a go of it. Some historians, like Marilyn Lake in her study of soldier settlement, The Limits of Hope, see state bureaucrats as either oppressive or ineffectual, and sometimes both; but others believe that, on balance, they did more to assist settlers than to hinder them (Lake 1987).5

At the end of the Great Depression, and in spite of a long drought, Australians were still reluctant to surrender their vision of a more populous and prosperous countryside. Many people believed that science and technology could achieve what state bureaucrats could not. The most influential spokesmen for scientific agriculture in this period was an Englishman, Samuel Wadham, who had arrived in Australia in 1928 to take up the newly established chair in Agricultural Science at the University of Melbourne. The selection committee had at first baulked at the idea of appointing an experimental soil scientist from Cambridge. ‘They felt that he would never be anything more than a laboratory man whereas we want a man who will get among the farming community’ (Blainey 1957 p. 4). They need not have worried. Over the following three decades, Wadham travelled the length and breadth of Victoria, often in his own car, eventually acquiring an unrivalled knowledge of Australian farm life, both scientifically and practically. Geoffrey Blainey, who edited a collection of his papers in the 1950s, painted a vivid picture of the peripatetic professor ‘yarning with farmers, his foot propped on a fencing wire, his shirt tail waving in the breeze’ (Blainey 1957 p. 11). In 1929 he became a member of the Royal Commission on the Wheat Industry, the first of the many official inquiries on which he served during the 1930s and 40s. Though he had begun as a soil scientist, Wadham was steadily driven to the conclusion that many of the most significant problems in rural Australian were not scientific, but economic and social. In the early 1940s, influenced by contemporary studies of rural society in the United States, and by his own involvement in the Rural Reconstruction Commission, he commissioned an important series of social surveys of Victoria’s farming regions and country towns that provides the most comprehensive picture of Country Life, as it was lived in that period, (Wadham 1943 pp. 63–66; Davison 2003a pp. 153–154).

Wadham was a staunch friend of rural Australians and a strong advocate of the Country Life ideal. ‘Countryside’, rather than ‘Bush’, was his favourite word for the rural areas, one that perhaps reflected an English-derived desire to civilise as well as to settle the hinterland. He was a Christian Socialist with a strong belief in ideals of co-operation and mutual assistance. But Wadham’s idealism was seasoned with a salty realism. To those who spoke expansively of the need to populate the great inland, he replied: ‘We have been bamboozled by empty spaces and the size of the continent.’ Only if Australians began with a clear understanding of the limits imposed by their variable rainfall and shallow soils, and the harm they had already done to the land through over-grazing and over-cropping, would they come to a proper understanding of the possibilities of agricultural expansion. He shared Eggleston’s concern that state support might fetter individual initiative and self-reliance, and took a cautious approach to ambitious schemes of rural reconstruction, but he recognised that, without the judicious application of government assistance, agriculture might falter. He sought to improve the social as well as the economic condition of farming life, recognising that unless it was made congenial to the farmer’s family, and especially to the farmer’s wife, they would not wish to persevere in it. When young people moved off the farm, he realised, it was not always because the farmer was doing badly: sometimes it was because he was doing so well that he could afford the labour-saving machinery that dispensed with the hard, and often under-paid, labour of his sons and daughters.

Figure 1.1 Samuel Wadham.

Photograph courtesy of Ben Wadham.

As an unashamed moderniser, Wadham had little sympathy with those, including some exponents of the ‘pioneer legend’, who equated the virtues of country life with the hardship of subsistence agriculture. ‘Ever since 1860 numerous attempts have been made to introduce subsistence farming in this country’, he noted. ‘They have always failed, and there is no reason whatever for supposing that it will not fail again’ (cited Humphreys 2000 p. 126). He reserved his most withering criticisms for those, like B.A. Santamaria and his Catholic Rural Movement, who believed that rural seclusion and hard labour would produce a spiritually and morally superior society.

People seem to think that the fresh air of the countryside, the views, the landscape, the trees and clouds drifting across the summer sky are adequate compensation for a low cash standard of living. I think perhaps a taste of sitting on a tractor with the outside temperature in the 90s... or the dusty job of cultivating a dry fallow or taking off a crop, or the bliss – the soul-thrilling inspiration – of milking... in the early morning hours of a wet June day, might, perhaps dispel these illusions (Wadham in Humphreys 2000 p. 125).

Promoters of the ‘country life’ ideal believed that it was possible to preserve the best of rural life while introducing the higher level of amenity that went with city living. Modern technology and labour-saving devices would ease the backbreaking and monotonous labour of the farmer and his wife, while modern transport and communications would reduce the ‘social sterility’ of rural existence. Wadham’s social surveys give a vivid impression of the amenities, or lack of them, in Victorian and New South Wales farm households in the early 1940s (Wadham 1944 p. 13).

Figure 1.2 Samuel Wadham on tour in rural Australia with his wife and son.

Photograph courtesy of Ben Wadham

In some respects, such as radio, telephone or piano ownership, the condition of farm families was probably not significantly different from that of city families in the same era, though in others, such as the provision of running water, sewerage and electricity, it was certainly inferior. By the end of the 1950s, however, it is likely that the differences, at least in household amenities, between city and country were narrowing fast.

Farmers’ wives writing to the rural press often cited the lack of electric home appliances among the reasons for their discontent with farm life. ‘In my opinion a car, wireless, phone and refrigerator are essential’, one correspondent insisted.6 At the top of most rural families’ list of priorities was a motor car. In 1948, when fewer than one Victorian household in four had a car, 88 per cent of fruit-growing families in the Mildura area had a vehicle. ‘A car, they consider, enables them to enjoy the services that only a large town can provide, and gives them a wider selection of friends and entertainment’, a study of the area noted (McIntyre 1948 pp. 111–113). Cars, telephones, and radios each had different effects on country life (Davison 2003b). Cars enabled farm families to reach the big stores in larger towns or in the metropolis itself, hastening further the decline of smaller centres that had begun with the arrival of the railway half a century before. Telephones probably enhanced ties of mutual dependence among farm families and strengthened community ties, although farmers in the Victorian wheat-belt often cited it as the reason why the habit of informal visiting had fallen away. ‘We don’t visit one another like we used to. We only met to have a yap, and we can do it by the telephone’ (Holt 1947 p. 100).

Table 1.1 Amenities in Victorian and New South Wales farm households in the early 1940s.

By the 1940s, most country people continued to express satisfaction with their lives. Over 80 per cent of wheat-farmers in the Wimmera and the Mallee said they liked farm life. ‘You’re independent and free. No one to crack the whip over you’, said one farmer. Among farmer’s wives, however, opinion was more equivocal. ‘It’s a great life in spite of its drawbacks’, one woman replied. ‘I’ve gotter like it. The old man thinks farming’s Christmas. I don’t’, was another’s resigned response. ‘No! Definitely not!’, declared a third. ‘It’s legalized white slave traffic.’(Holt 1947 pp. 33–34).

In the towns the attractions of country life were now often asserted, defiantly, against the supposed defects of life in the city. ‘I’d hate to live in the city!’ was the most common response recorded in a survey of Victorian country towns by the sociologists AJ and JJ McIntyre in 1941-42. ‘I know everybody here. When I walk down the street I can have a word with everyone I pass. In the city, nobody knows who you are and nobody cares ‘(McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 p. 258). A few years later ‘Miranda’, the women’s editor of the agricultural paper the Weekly Times, invited readers to compare city and country life. Most of those who replied were country people complaining of the loneliness and alienation of the big city. ‘I’m just home from the city and I’m glad to be back’, wrote ‘Footsore Fred’. ‘The city’s alright for them that likes it, but there’s too many dang strangers there for me. Even the people you don’t know in the city look and seem to act differently from the people you don’t know in the country.’7 ‘I still live in the city but long to go back to the country’, another correspondent confessed. ‘I know I very rarely saw our neighbours when I was in the country, but I never knew the lonely days I have known in the city’.8

Figure 1.3 A man riding a horse through a country town, c 1955.

Photograph courtesy of Museum Victoria.

The belief in the moral and social superiority of country life died hard, but it had now to be asserted, as an article of faith, in the face of much evidence to the contrary. When locals described their everyday lives, they often dwelt on the bitter class, sectarian and personal animosities that disturbed the placid surface of country life. They worried about the continuing drift of their sons and daughters to the metropolis. ‘Insecurity is one of the most dominant emotions in country towns’, the McIntyres reported. ‘The overall impression which we ourselves got from this medley of kindliness, bitterness, generosity, meanness, community effort and struggling for individual gain, was of anxious and to some extent thwarted people’ (McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 pp. 268, 271).

Looking backwards in the early 1950s, a veteran Tasmanian farmer JR Skemp saw the Great War as marking the end of ‘the pioneering days’. Previously, he noted, ‘the settler in the backblocks lived in a little world of his own. The state left him to his own devices and nothing short of murder or highway robbery brought him under its notice’. The car, the radio and the aeroplane had ended this isolation. Now, he argued, the ways of life of city and country people were almost indistinguishable.

It is impossible, except perhaps for his horny hands and weather-beaten complexion, to distinguish the country dweller from the townsman. They are moulded to a common pattern. They read the same comic strips, see the same film stars, hear the same serials and sporting broadcasts and have the same ready-made ideas and ideologies’ (Skemp 1952 pp. 201–202).

Yet, even in the early 1950s country life remained very different from city life. At least that’s how it seemed to me, as a city boy, when we holidayed with our country cousins at Jeparit, in the Wimmera, where my uncle Bert was the accountant in the local branch of the National Bank. Country life meant lamplight, party lines, tank water, sanitary pans, Coolgardie safes and hillbilly music on the radio. Like other bank officers, my uncle was expected to play an active role in town affairs and the entire Horsburgh family seemed to be immersed in a busy round of social activities. Uncle Bert, who had played A grade for Carlton, was captain of the local cricket team, treasurer of the local hospital board and a Trustee of the Methodist Church while Aunty Grace played croquet and baked cakes for school fetes on her one-fire stove. (Asked in old age to name the biggest change she had experienced in her life, Aunty Grace had no hesitation in answering: ‘Electricity’.) The early 1950s, the time of the wool and wheat booms, were prosperous years in Jeparit. The local football team, which had won a series of premierships in the 1930s, regularly appeared in the Wimmera District finals and the district contributed a steady stream of outstanding recruits to the Essendon Football Club. Football however, was not the only local religion: in the 1950s, the town supported Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and two Lutheran Churches. There was still a bit of life left in the Country Life ideal.

But over the last twenty-five years its slow decline has accelerated. Drought, declining export prices, and environmental degradation have compounded the historical difficulties of the inland towns, especially those in the old sheep-wheat belt. For more than a century, politicians believed that country life was a national good that should be supported by the taxpayer. Later they had believed that the state could promote and strengthen it. Since the 1970s, however, as the country’s reliance on rural exports has lessened, and both the major parties have embraced neo-liberal doctrines of smaller government, the subsidies for rural communities have been quietly withdrawn. Not all regions have suffered alike. Buoyed by tourism, retirement and disenchantment with the city rat race, coastal towns and picturesque country areas have enjoyed encouraging growth, but places like Jeparit have been doing it hard. Over the past 20 years its population has declined by more than 40 per cent from 550 to 350 while its unemployment rate has increased from 5 to almost 20 per cent (Towns in Time 1999; Census 2001). The Wimmera River, the humble and always intermittent stream that gave birth to the town, has been slowly dying and even Lake Hindmarsh has often dried up. The river has long ceased to provide water for the town and now even the supply piped from the Grampians no longer meets acceptable standards for household consumption and has to be boiled before use. With the slow erosion of the town’s environmental and economic base, its community institutions have also been decaying. The branch of the National Bank in Roy Street that once supported a manager, accountant and two counter staff has been downgraded to an agency, with no ATM or business advice. Of the half dozen churches that flourished in the 1950s, only the Lutherans maintain a local pastor. In 1995, the same year that the state government opened a new aged care facility in the town, the Jeparit Football Club, which had once fielded several teams, amalgamated with their old rivals Rainbow.9

Figure 1.4 Jeparit. Wimmera–Mallee Pioneers Museum, 1973

Photograph courtesy of the State Library of Victoria. John T. Collins, photographer.

Against the odds, Jeparit struggles gamely on. A 198 foot spire in the main street asserts its presence and honours the town’s most famous son Sir Robert Menzies. Its main tourist attraction, the Wimmera Mallee Pioneer Museum, displays the obsolete technology of more prosperous times. In 2003 it won the North-West’s Tidy Town Award for centres within the 200–750 population range, but maybe there wasn’t a lot of rubbish to clean up. The mayor of Hindmarsh Rob Gersh continues to talk up the attractions of the region:

Come and visit our fabulous communities in Nhill, Dimboola, Rainbow and Jeparit. You will find a tremendous range of sporting facilities, housing opportunities, community services, medical facilities and much more. You will meet the friendliest people in Victoria.

No crime, no unemployment, fresh air, open space, wide horizons – come and visit! We are on the Western Highway, half way between Melbourne and Adelaide. You can go four wheel driving in the Little Desert National Park, experience true wilderness in the Big Desert National Park. Go boating on the Wimmera River. Explore the best collection of vintage farm machinery in Australia, at Jeparit. Catch a bucket of yabbies in our lakes!

Hindmarsh – lifestyle, environment and opportunity – what are you waiting for!10

The mayor appeals to many of the qualities – fresh air, open space, sporting and recreational opportunities, friendly people – that have always drawn people to country life. It’s the attractions that he conspicuously doesn’t mention – jobs to go with those housing opportunities, growing communities to go with the ‘community facilities’ – that have taken the gloss off the country life ideal. Many of the people who once provided community leadership in towns like Jeparit – the bank managers, school teachers, clergymen, nurses, policemen and state government and municipal officials – have disappeared as the neo-liberal agenda of down-sizing and contracting out has been enacted across rural Australia.

Where inland towns are growing and prospering now, it often seems, it is by assimilating themselves to a metropolitan ideal. Walk down the main street of Daylesford, Beechworth or Castlemaine and it’s the sweet aroma of coffee and incense rather than the pungent tang of sheep and horse manure that you are most likely to notice. Country life now comes attractively packaged with many of the cultural attractions of the big city – cafes, bookshops and health resorts. At the beginning of the twentieth century progressive Australians feared for the health of a nation that lacked a vigorous country life. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, some parts of the country continue to thrive, but country life, in its original sense, is now pretty much finished as an ideal.



Fifth Interim Report of the Select Committee on Agricultural Industry Dealing with Health and Hygiene in the Country, NSW Parliamentary Papers, vol 1, 1920.

Report of the Select Committee Upon the Causes of the Drift of Population from Country Districts to the City, Victorian Parliamentary Papers, vol 1, 1918.

Weekly Times.



1     Usage of the words ‘bush’ and ‘country’ varied across Australia. In South Australia, where the relations between Adelaide and its mainly agricultural hinterland were close, people usually referred to ‘the country’ rather than ‘the bush’, as they did, for the most part, in Victoria, although the drier and more sparsely settled northern regions were sometimes called ‘the bush’. In New South Wales, where pastoralism was in the ascendant, and there were few large towns beyond the coast, people spoke of ‘Sydney and the Bush’. In Queensland, where the hinterland was drier and the coastal regions were lushly tropical, the word ‘country’ was seldom used. For a valuable discussion of Australian usages see Ramson 1991.

2     Fifth Interim Report of the Select Committee on Agricultural Industry dealing with Health and Hygiene in the Country, NSW Parliamentary Papers, vol 1, 1920, p. iii.

3     Report of the Select Committee Upon the Causes of the Drift of Population from Country Districts to the City. Victorian Parliamentary Papers, vol 1, 1918, p. 3.

4     Leader, 19 February 1927.

5     Compare Linn 1999 and Waterhouse 2005 pp 200-204. Lake 1987 presents a generally pessimistic view of soldier settlement but for a more qualified verdict see reviews of Lake by Charles Fahey in Australian Historical Studies 1988 Apr; 23(90): 140–1 and Jackie Templeton in Victorian Historical Journal 1988 Mar; 59 (1): 42–50.

6     Weekly Times, 6 March 1946.

7     Weekly Times, 20 March 1946.

8     Weekly Times, 13 March 1946.

9     Age, 18 February 2003.

10    Shire of Hindmarsh 2005 website at


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Cite this article as: Davison, Graeme. ‘Country life: the rise and decline of an Australian ideal’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. 01.1–01.15.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie