Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia


Rocky Gully is 65 kilometres west of Mount Barker and 350 kilometres south east of Perth. A town was first planned in the area in the 1930s, and land subdivided. But it was only in 1951 that a concerted attempt to establish a farming community was made, as part of the War Service Land Settlement Scheme (WSLSS).

At Rocky Gully, European models of ‘settling’ could claim no hold in the landscape. The ‘pioneering ideal’ is a common motif in the telling of this community’s history, however it may be seen to exclude non-Anglo and non-male contributions to development. It also conceals the experiences of the rural settlers themselves, the white male ex-servicemen, as they dealt with their own memories of war.

Rocky Gully can be seen as a site of exodus, remembered by indigenous and European populations, both of which have seen their marks on the land erased. The emptying out of indigenous people from this area preceded white settlement. The elders of the Noongar people held the area in profound reverence, considering it a place of such spiritual power, that it was perilous to live there. As white people arrived in numbers at Rocky Gully in 1951, with the WSLSS settlers following a government directive to construct a sheep grazing community, they set about chaining and tearing at the bush in order to ‘release’ its agricultural potential, which would generate wealth and fulfil the existing notions of success and esteem within their own culture. Trying to survive under white bureaucratic control, some of the Noongar people revisited this land, with which they held a fragile and wary relationship, during the 1950s. With a great sense of foreboding and regret, they played a role in the clearing and poisoning of the forest. However, despite these interactions between humans and the landscape, by the last decade of the twentieth century, Rocky Gully was once again regarded as a site of emptiness. The white farming community had almost totally dissolved, and their sheep had been trucked elsewhere.


In 1950s Western Australia, postwar rehabilitation, and the re-establishment of the ideals of peace and progress, focused on agricultural production. The status and importance of the farmer was encapsulated in a speech by Sir John Dwyer, the administrator of the Perth Royal Show in 1951:

The wellbeing of all of us depends on the efforts of the man on the land, for the land is the basis of a country’s prosperity, and on its wise usage depends the future comfort, wealth and happiness of the nation.1

Articles in the Farmers’ Weekly, the ‘organ of the Primary Producers’ Association’, showed that 1951–1952 was a time of record wealth accumulation for farming businesses, who were riding high on the “sheep’s back.” Headlines proclaimed: ‘Foot of Sheep Turns Sand into Gold’2; ‘Wool Prices Soar’3; ‘The World Wants Wool’4; ‘Australia’s Wool Pre-eminence’.5 Another headline described the position of sheep farmers as ‘Fantastic and Unreal’.6 Australian lamb was also highly sought after to fill the markets of Britain. Farmers believed that they played a major role in ensuring peace for Australia and the world, as represented in the following statement ‘Until enough food is produced for the earth’s population, there will never be an end to war’.7 Agricultural production would need to be intensified to protect and uphold the civilised nation of Australia, according to this editorial of 1951:

To allow any further deterioration in Australia’s food position could easily lead to a catastrophe in the not too distant future almost as bitter as war itself. It is time that the governments of this country took complete stock of the situation... and got back to the basic task of saving Australia from a real tragedy of underproduction and consequent distress of the whole of its people.8

During 1951 and 1952 almost every article in the Farmers’ Weekly seemed to refer to progress and development. A champion of this modernist ethos was Sir James Mitchell, who held the office of Governor in Western Australia during 1951. As a long serving premier of Western Australia during the 1920s and 1930s he had rigorously pursued the creation of farmlands across the state, and his appetite for progress remained undiminished in 1951:

Australia is a great undeveloped continent and it must be developed quickly if we are going to hold onto it. We have wasted almost 160 years - years the locusts have eaten - and we must set to work and use every means at hand to develop the country and bring people to it.9

As each excerpt from the Farmers’ Weekly demonstrates, the white population of postwar Western Australia sought to articulate a strong and paternalistic relationship with the land. The enterprise of ‘taming the continent’ seemed to exhilarate the Western Australian community, offering them a unitary sense of identity: as robust, fearless pioneers. In the first half of the twentieth century, this theme of a white population, deeply rooted and committed to the continent, gained the status of a meta-narrative in historical writing. Bill Ashcroft and John Salter have sought to critique the meta-narrative of an ideal Australia, using the theoretical framework of Bakhtin, who ‘locate(d) the site of the ideological struggle at the linguistic sign’ (Ashcroft and Salter 1994 p. 72). Ashcroft and Salter suggest that an ‘Australian type’ was instituted to replace the discourse of imperialism, which had, by its design, empowered Britain and relegated Australia to a status of juniority, as a colony. However, by privileging the figure of the pioneer, Ashcroft and Salter contend that Australian history (or the linguistic sign) becomes monologic and unrepresentative of the full diversity of the Australian population. Tom Stannage has explored this concept at length in ‘Western Australia’s Heritage: The Pioneer Myth’, noting the centrality of the pioneer in historical discourse. Stannage sees the pioneer as a monolithic, uncontested figure, believing that Western Australian history should embrace the ‘multiaccents’ of ‘... convicts... servant girls... gold miners... city people... and migrants of non-Anglo-Saxon background’ as well as Aboriginal people (Stannage 1985 p. 7).


As suggested above, the Farmers Weekly of 1951–1952 veritably explodes with references to development, settlement and progress. The design for the War Service Land Settlement Scheme at Rocky Gully showed a twofold function: to open up sheep grazing lands in the South of Western Australia and also to ‘rehabilitate’ ex-servicemen, who had contributed to the defence of their country during World War Two. The President of the Land Settlement Board of Western Australia, Mr G. K. Baron Hay, confirmed that modernist imperatives of progress were dovetailed into the scheme, during a speech in 1951:

Land settlement in WA must proceed... we dare not stop... I suggest that this is the most auspicious time to push ahead with the development of our country to the maximum we can achieve.10

All of the men who were accepted into the WSLSS were white men, whose ancestry could be traced to the United Kingdom. Indeed many of the allottees named their properties after historic sites in the mother country. Several of the allottees were extracted from the city, while others had the experiential advantage of a rural background. The scheme offered these men the chance to live within the yeoman tradition of farming, a cultural inheritance from Britain. A newspaper article of 1955 reveals the ‘reward’ of land to the ex-servicemen who mostly ‘had nothing when they came to the Gully’.11 These men would join the ‘property owning class’ of Western Australia. From this perspective, the community which gathered at Rocky Gully was certainly gendered and indelibly imprinted by Empire. However, many other people from various classes, genders, ethnic and indigenous groups also contributed to the development of sheep farms in the area.

Every farming project in Western Australia during the 1950s seemed to follow in the imprimatur of British land settlement models. As the contemporary novelist Tim Winton writes: ‘Europeans brought to these shores their war against nature, their Enlightenment understanding of nature as a mere series of mechanisms. Conquest was their destiny, and the rise of industrialism made their conquests speedier, more thrilling’ (Wolendorp and Winton 1999 p. xxvi). A key signifier in this discourse of ‘war against nature’ (p. xxvi) was the road: the artery of communication that would link together the bureaucratic organs of the State Government. The road could ‘open up’ land which had previously been suspended in a state of timelessness and impenetrability. The Australian author Miles Franklin reveals the significance of roads to British civilisation in her 1940 novel All That Swagger:

He loved the open view of the thatched white cabins on the treeless hillsides, with the sociable roads across them. Roads excited him, packed as they were with history, glamorous with fable, with chivalry... and liberation in the way they ran through the winds and rains of... all the generations, a foe to stagnation... (Franklin 1940 p. 2).

The road which took the first white settlers to Rocky Gully in the early 1950s remains strong in the memories of those who travelled it. ‘The last twenty to thirty miles of the road was a nightmare. The dirt track was full of potholes and corrugation and I wondered at times what I was letting myself in for’ (Phipps 1987 p. 25). Marjorie Johnson gave an impression of her first journey to Rocky Gully:

Suddenly off bitumen and onto a dirt track. At first a few farms passed, then into bush. The road, or at that time cattle track, was barely wide enough to accommodate a car. On and on we traveled, and the further we went the further our spirits sank... Mile upon endless mile, coming at last to... a tangled mass of trees, ready to be pushed up into windrows, the makings of new farms (Johnson 1987 p. 36).

As the condition of the road depleted on the way to Rocky Gully, it would seem that the settlers’ mission to open up the land became confirmed.

All of the successful applicants in the WSLSS took this bone-shaking track to Rocky Gully, where a tent town had been established in the jarrah forest. Some were to live in tents for two years. The men were mobilised to work in a co-operative capacity, clearing large swathes of land. They were then instructed to fence, burn and rock-pick ‘until all farms (were) brought to the required standard’.12 To gain a place in the scheme, a man had to be accompanied by a wife. A generic letter posted to applicants by the Department of Lands and Surveys in 1950 included the comment ‘The board considers that the part played in a farming venture by a farmer’s wife is very important’.13 However, women were categorically excluded from the physical toil and enterprise of development.

Figure 8.1 The clearing enterprise at Rocky Gully.

Photograph courtesy of the Mary Dowling Collection, Mt Barker.

Many of the men at Rocky Gully subscribed to the popular notion of ‘taming the land’, or ‘releasing farms’ from the tangle of wilderness. As John Carpenter says, ‘Until the 1960s we had a state government here which became famous for releasing land, which always made me laugh, because it sounded as though the land was busting to get out’.14 One memoir of a Rocky Gully settler asserts that the ‘farms at that time were undeveloped areas of hungry land,’ as if the potential of the land was trapped under the forest, with an appetite rumbling for super-phosphate and sheep manure (Powell 1987 p. 36). Aboriginal people would reject the idea that the land had been waiting, awkwardly, for millions of years, for Europeans to come and unlock its potential. Lester Coyne, a Noongar elder, refuses the notion that the white man brought ‘reason and order’ to the land. He remarks,

Why would you want to settle nature, when nature settles itself? The first thing to remember is that the land will never belong to man. Nature will take it back any time it wants to. It will replenish it. Nature has more patience than man, because we are driven by money and objects. We have a finite limit to our patience on that land.15

A view seemed to exist in the 1950s that Rocky Gully was without an Aboriginal past. The only trope for historical investigation had been the nineteenth century accounts of explorers, which seemed to relegate Aboriginal people to what Anne McClintock refers as the ‘shambling, tongueless zone of the precolonial’ (McClintock 1995 p. 10). The fallacy of terra-nullius, or Australia as an empty land, seemed evident in the settlers’ accounts of Rocky Gully. By the 1950s, a relatively late decade to begin a colonising project even in Western Australia, there was probably a conception that indigenous links to the land had been obliterated. Many white institutions at that time were actively working to quarantine and dismantle Aboriginal culture. Lester Coyne’s family worked extremely hard to survive in a white society, to keep their children out of the white man’s missions and consequently, to keep their culture. The exigencies of providing for a large extended family, brought Lester and his family to the WSLSS settlement at Rocky Gully, where they were employed to ring-bark trees, burn log stacks (or windrows) and poison zamia palms. As Indigenous people, the Coynes felt a sense of dread at destroying their traditional lands. While unable to stop the wholesale clearing of the area, they did try to advise the farmers on Indigenous land management practices, at the behest of tribal elders. Lester describes the scrutiny under which the young Aboriginal people came, when they told the elders about the clearing:

They said, “You know you shouldn’t have cleared around that lake... You should not have cleared the land up that ridge, cause the wind will come through there and lift all that sand up. There’s a lot of kangaroos, emus, a lot of emu eggs there. You people have done the wrong thing” And when the elders came into the room, you knew you were in the presence of power. You knew you were witnessing something special... In some cases, they were black, shiny people, very powerful. They had this air of strength and knowledge that was hard to describe. You knew you were in very wise company... very smart people and very closely aligned to the Earth. No-one questioned what they said or did.16

The Noongar people were firm in their resistance, if they felt that a farmer was clearing with a particular brutality or disregard for the land.

They’d say well, we’ll move onto another place. We’re not going to do that... There were connotations from a spiritual point of view, that if they cleared all the bush around there, the spirits would not be happy with them. They could not, would not live with that hanging over their heads. They couldn’t sleep at night, there’d be a constant worry... “When am I going to be punished?” Fear of the unknown is the worst fear you can have.17

Lester Coyne’s family did not live permanently in Rocky Gully, because they were itinerant workers, and also due to their cultural suspicions, which had predated the white man. While the Noongar elders knew the land intimately they did not want their children to live there, because of the danger of powerful spirits. They maintained their interest from afar, in Albany. However few could deny their knowledge and care for the land at Rocky Gully.

Figure 8.2 The ‘hi-ball’, an American technology used to clear the forest.

Photograph courtesy of the Mary Dowling Collection, Mt Barker.

Photographs of Rocky Gully in the 1950s display the aggressive masculinity required to clear virgin bush. The militaristic forces of man and technology were enlisted to conquer the wilderness in the War Service Land Settlement Scheme. Bulldozers blades, as well as a giant hi-ball were used to clear the land. The Daily News in Perth reported on the ‘mighty juggernaut, crashing and tearing through virgin country... At relentless walking pace...’18 Adverts in the Farmers’ Weekly in 1951 seem to reinforce an idealised notion of pioneer manhood, a device aimed at attracting business from these settlers. The graphic in a Rural and Industries Bank advertisement features a muscular man, straining at the controls of a bulldozer.19 A battle is being waged with a giant tree, its monstrous root system threaded deep into the ground. In the foreground, a thatch of grass encroaches on the bush, evoking the possibility that the grotesque-looking tree will be overcome, making way for more profitable pastures.

Figure 8.3 An advertisement by the Rural and Industries Bank, revealing an idealised pioneer manhood.

Source: Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 26 April 1951, p.3. Courtesy of the Battye Library.

Behind such idealised images of determined, independent men, the reality of life was often quite different for those clearing the land. The men of the WSLSS were under the direction of the State and Commonwealth Government, and their teams of scientists. There could be no certainty that the land was being developed in a sustainable way: The scheme was wholly experimental. In 1951 the Plant Nutrition Officer at the Department of Agriculture, Dr T.S. Dunne had conducted experiments at Rocky Gully, in order to set successful farming models in place. However, Dunne could make no conclusions: ‘it had not been possible to devise a treatment which would give a good survival of germinated plants’.20 Therefore, the land was being modified with much speed and aggression, but the future of the scheme may well have seemed tenuous. After clearing, some of the farms at Rocky Gully had to be resumed, as it was found that their soils were totally unsuited to agriculture. It may certainly be established that no settler wanted to devastate the land, stripping away its fertility, for the simple reason that it would not return a profit. In many respects, the modification of the land at Rocky Gully should be seen as the product of the State and Commonwealth Governments, rather than any individual ‘pioneer’.

Agricultural scientists of the 1950s believed in eradicating most indigenous animals that roamed into the farm boundary. They justified the use of gunfire, jaw traps and DDT:

Civilisation and the development of agriculture afford a measure of security... for most of the human population. But the struggle for existence goes on, and surely the farmer should not be blamed for accepting all that science can offer him, and not be accused of ‘upsetting the balance of nature’.21

There is evidence to suggest that the men at Rocky Gully turned pest eradication into a sport, a way of asserting dominance over nature. Any animal that posed a threat to sheep production was vigorously pursued. A dead beast would become the trophy of agriculture, to be photographed, measured and tallied. Several photographs, held at the Mt Barker Museum, display the quarry of a new farmer.22 He sits holding a gun upright, while pulling at the neck of a prostrated dingo. Two others are dead on the ground, surrounded by the paraphernalia of their destruction. In the foreground, a slab of timber holds the prize of the hunt: eight dingo foetuses, which have been cut from their mother’s body. This photograph expresses the man’s sense of triumph over the processes of life and death. The fact that the dingo is a sharp toothed, ferocious animal might empower the man even further, validating his masculinity. In another photograph, a settler has killed an eagle. With his straining arms outstretched, the man shows the wingspan of the giant bird. The man and his gun have asserted dominance, even in the aerial space above the farm. If these hunts were simply the culling of pests from a farm, necessary to stay viable, perhaps these animals would have been left to decompose in a paddock, un-photographed. However, it can only be assumed that they are the prize of masculine power and skill, which the settler has decided to record on film.

Figure 8.4 The masculine pursuit of hunting at Rocky Gully.

Photograph courtesy of the Mary Dowling Collection, Mt Barker.

Women were ostensibly excluded from the project of clearing land and establishing sheep flocks. However in a case of historical irony, many of the men were quite unaware that the land they worked upon had been the borderless territory of a strong, sheep-herding woman. Prue Arber had shepherded sheep from Mt Barker to Rocky Gully for sixty years, during the nineteenth century. She is now a faint shadow in history. This woman’s history exists outside the sort of hagiography and acclaim given to the men of the Muir family, who also traversed the area with their stock during that century. Prue Arber’s sheep-herding activities were not trussed by the guidance and authority of a man. Indeed, she chose not to follow many of the precepts of nineteenth-century femininity. She gave birth to a daughter, but chose not to actively rear her child. Instead she left the baby with her parents, remaining determined to live her life without walls, fences or restriction. Through her labour and capital accumulation she became one of the wealthiest landowners in the areas east of Rocky Gully. However, the possibility of women working the land seemed foreign to the planners of Rocky Gully in the 1950s. The gender roles of men and women were being strictly inscribed, as ex-servicemen re-established themselves as the heads of nuclear families (Herbert 2001 pp. 223–227).

But many of the ex-servicemen farmers at Rocky Gully struggled with the geographical isolation of life in the bush. During the war they had mostly worked in teams of men, and each man carried the emotional baggage wrought by the experience of war. This seemed to create a separateness between husbands and wives, for as much as they empathised, the women had never seen the actualities of war. The local Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL) was inaugurated in 1951, and from this time it maintained segregation from women. The wives of the ex-servicemen were not consulted in any of the internal workings of the club. They assumed an auxiliary role, catering and decorating at any social functions that were held. Many of the men felt a trauma that they could scarcely articulate, even within the safety zone of the RSL club.

As John Carpenter states, these men were still ‘floating’23 in a kind of post-war shock: ‘Most of them wouldn’t have even known they were suffering’.24 Betty Carpenter adds ‘And they were big strong men, they’d been through the war... sort of heroes, as though “nothing could rock me”’.25 The Carpenters agree that: ‘It is cruel to think back to what we knew of some of these people. Some were a bit eccentric and some took to alcohol’.26 When these ex-servicemen revealed signs of trauma, or emotion, it was considered aberrant to popular conceptions of manhood: ‘The average... male person in society in those days was fairly... stiff upper lip, you know? Men didn’t cry, men didn’t do this, that and the other... But some did, didn’t they?’27 It is evident that beyond the veneer of ‘pioneer manliness’, many of the men at Rocky Gully were emotionally vulnerable. This fact has often been kept from the historical record, because the men refused to ‘wear their heart on their sleeves’ as the popular idiom would have it. But the effects of post-war trauma may have been reflected in the fact that many WSLSS settlers left Rocky Gully after only a decade.

It appears that the women of Rocky Gully spent much of their day together, in a camp emptied of men. Thus, the camp took shape as place for feminine expression. An exhibit at the Mount Barker Museum shows that Mrs Mae Pascoe fenced off her tent and fashioned a European style garden, complete with pellagonians, daisies and geraniums.28 The historian William Lines has discussed the significance of flower gardens in a wilderness setting. He asserts that popular gardening ‘was a response to industrialization in Britain’, (Lines 1994 p. 136) and further that

British town dwellers expressed their nostalgia for country life through their urban gardens... Flowers bespoke refinement and sensibility; gardens spread a taste for neatness and elegance. Honey suckle around a cottage door was not just picturesque: it was also a sign of the sobriety, industry, and cleanliness of the inhabitants within (Lines 1994 p. 137).

In a historic reversal, it was perhaps a nostalgia for the suburb that led the women to cultivate gardens in a tent town. But while order and cultivation presided at their canvas homes, many of the women did develop a deep affinity with the bush that surrounded their settlement. This is communicated strongly in the memoirs of Lorna Powell:

One respite amid these pioneering conditions was a patch of bushland some distance from the site. It was a site of great beauty where my small children first learnt to discover majestic spider webs, heavy with dew drops, floating between trees... Here in the untouched bushland, wildflowers grew in profusion... Purple hovea, golden wild wattle... and brilliant bottle brush (Powell 1987 p. 23).

Figure 8.5 ‘The start of a new way of life’: husband and wife at tent town, Rocky Gully, 1951.

Photograph courtesy of the Mary Dowling Collection, Mt Barker.

For the most part, a life under canvas, in the middle of a forest, pushed beyond any notion of ‘home’ that the women had ever entertained. Chores such as clothes washing became long, protracted battles with scum laden bore water and large, hot coppers. In this respect, many of the women would have had much in common with the Aboriginal fringe dweller women, who lived in rudimentary conditions in nearby Mt Barker. There were probably moments when the Rocky Gully women were overcome with feelings of adversity, as evident in the naming of their tent town lanes, one of which was ‘Struggle Street’ (Hill 1987 p. 44). This campsite might have only been a transient site of home, but for many women, it was necessary to surround themselves in some of the accoutrements of a comfortable, suburban-style home. Linoleum was placed on dirt floors, bulky couches were placed in kitchen thoroughfares and cardboard boxes were curtained, to become cupboards.

Many women were disappointed by the communal wash-houses and close toilets of tent town. They hated the fact that their patterns of ablution and hygiene could be watched by others. Although they were screened, several of the washhouses were situated at the front of the tents, and thus became the centre focus, in a panoptican arrangement of dwellings. Many of the women could not wait to be appointed to the private spaces of their own home, where their visceral functions would not be public knowledge. They were careful to turn the lamps out in their tents at certain times, lest the public should witness their silhouettes undressing, or making love to their husbands: ‘Shadows cast on canvas walls were at times most revealing, this caused by occupants standing in the wrong place in relation to lights, also being in close proximity to (a) neighbour’ (Smith 1987 p. 38). The perceived need to insulate the nuclear family from the public eye is a common theme in the women’s memoirs.

The conversion of tent town into all female space during daylight hours, led to a growing sense of solidarity and unitary purpose amongst the women. The tent town became an incubator for women’s political assertiveness. Where the men inaugurated a club which excluded them, the women would often assemble an equally vocal and politicised body. They refused to be oppressed by the over-riding code of gender segregation. Where the men had the Settlers’ Association, the women formed The War Service Wives and Widows’ Association. Arguably, the women wielded more clout than the men when negotiating with the State and Federal Government, as well as the media. A spray of media headlines were generated by this group, especially in the 1960s, when they achieved an independent inquiry into the Government’s treatment of the settlers. As suggested by the name of this organisation, a considerable number of women were widowed in the first decade of settlement. While some left Rocky Gully, others resolutely fought the bureaucracy in order to stay on their farms and provide for their children.

Refugees from Europe, or the ‘New Australians’ as they were labelled, also played a part in the community dynamic of Rocky Gully. They seemed to exist in a markedly insecure relationship with their adopted environment. Photographs of the camp layout reveal that the New Australians built strong fences around their homes, while other tents were not enclosed.29 It was alleged that they built the fences to protect themselves from the unknown creatures of the forest. The New Australians were placed in a distinct row, rather than having their tents dispersed amongst those of Australian families. It is difficult to ascertain why this was so. It has proved almost impossible to find an account of the tent town by one of these displaced people. Their place in the community can only be established through the memoirs of their English-speaking neighbours.

Figure 8.6 The layout of tent town, Rocky Gully. Note the fences around the European refugees’ tents, who were said to feel anxious about the unknown creatures of the forest.

Photograph courtesy of the Mary Dowling Collection, Mt Barker.

These Polish, Italian and German migrants were in some cases isolated from the rest of the community. Many could not speak English, but revealed a desire to be part of the community. One representative form of social offering, outside of language, by the migrant women, was their needle work, which they donated to fundraising activities. Often fashioned from frayed tent canvas, or their husbands’ old clothes, the cushions and fabrics produced might depict European scenes or sometimes take the shape of love hearts. According to several memoirs, there seemed to be some abiding sense of respect and compassion for the New Australian women. One Australian woman, Lorna Powell, shared her two children with a young German girl, who was unable to have children. ‘I allowed her to come over daily to take charge of one or the other of the two children’ (Powell 1987 p. 22).

Some of the Australian women were rather judgmental of their migrant neighbours, fitting them with an amateurishness, or a social juniority, as their common label suggested. In one case a New Australian woman was condemned for causing a ‘panic,’ during a bushfire. As the fire had swept close to the tent town, she had piled all of the contents of her tent into a sheet, and demanded that they be loaded into a crowded truck full of children.30

As she got more and more hostile, some of the “tinies” got upset and wanted “Mummy”... Very soon we had a vehicle load of screaming children and two very irate women (the New Australian and Me)... Finally I lost my temper and told the New Australian if we took her belongings, we wouldn’t have room for all the children and hers would be left behind... when she insisted the bundle be taken, I told her children to jump off the vehicle - I know it was a horrible thing to do, but it worked.31

At the conclusion of her story, the Australian woman suggests that her neighbour is less mature than the children, who forgot their ‘tears and tantrums,’ while ‘... the New Australian didn’t forgive me for many moons.’32 This account of a dogged and hostile ‘New Australian’ shows a fundamental lack of understanding. It occurs without any attention to the woman’s past experiences as a possible prisoner of war and a refugee from Europe. Perhaps she had witnessed so much devastation in her life that she could not bear to see the material accoutrements of her new life go up in flames. In contrast to their wives, very little has been written of the ‘New Australian’ men. The scant evidence available suggests that these men worked extremely hard for very little pay, being employed by rather exploitative contractors who had won tenders with the government.

Slowly, as the job of establishing the farms was completed, the diversity of the Rocky Gully community filtered away. The New Australians, the Aboriginal people and the government bureaucrats chose not to stay in Rocky Gully, finding work in other places.


In the 1980s, Rocky Gully still showed many vestiges of the 1950s settler community. The words ‘progress’ and ‘development’ still seemed reflective of people’s aspirations.

The community seemed to relish ‘life on the farm’ and the work it entailed. Sheep had become the ubiquitous symbol of Rocky Gully. There were few people in the community who were not involved with sheep grazing, trucking, merchandising and shearing. Children also took an active role as labourers on their parents’ farms. An eleven-year-old boy articulated his hopes for the future in 1989: ‘I like helping my Dad with sheep work. Riding the motorbikes, driving the jeep sometimes. It’s good when we shear, as my ambition in life is to be a shearer’.33 Stories written by local children refer to hunting activities, with titles such as ‘Shooting’34 and ‘One Night Two Roo Shooters Will Never Forget’.35 It would seem that many of the children had partaken in, or witnessed the culling of these animals.

However, the dream of a European ‘boom town’, upon which the settlement had been founded, was still a long way off.

While the original layout for the town had included a church and a hospital site, there were very few civic or residential buildings in Rocky Gully in the 1980s. There was a CWA rest room and library, an RSL hall, an ambulance headquarters and a school. One of the town’s uninhabited houses seemed representative of past attempts to establish culture and civility. Beyond its flaky, bedraggled walls was a stockpile of theatrical costumes, occupied by a once active repertory club. Every house in the town was asbestos, fronted by a gravel road and often without a garden. There had been a decline in the number of houses there since the 1950s. Vacant blocks abounded.

In 1991 the West Australian Magazine reported, ‘There’s an Everest of Australian wool looking for a buyer... It’s tough on the land these days... there are stories of farmers sending 2000 sheep off to market, and getting a cheque for $45’.36 This phenomenon was probably the culminating factor in the dissolution of the sheep grazing community at Rocky Gully. By the end of 1989, approximately twenty farmers had sold their properties. Interest rates were so high, that any capital gained from the sale of land could earn a good income for the farmer. However, on the farm, debt levels were escalating, with some farmers paying up to 25 per cent interest on essential machinery.37

If you lived in Rocky Gully it was quite possible to believe that Australia was peopled by white, rural types, because there was little evidence of any other culture in their immediate community. The symbol of the rural pioneer was entrenched. This was seen in the school’s rigorous art and culture program in 1983: ‘Betty Carpenter and Anne Riggall organized episodic plays depicting the settlement of Rocky Gully.’38, and in other similar projects39 and commemorations. The people believed in all of the cultural signifiers of the ‘bush battler’. (Perhaps the idealised pioneer of Tom Stannage’s critique [Stannage 1985]) Geoffrey Bolton explained this phenomenon in his 1972 history, A Fine Country to Starve In:

Because Western Australia was a generation closer to its pioneering phase than the rest of the continent, pioneering models of behaviour still possessed a real meaning in times of hardship. To do without, to put up with rough conditions, to place a premium on self-help, to believe implicitly in the superior goodness of primary production... these were the pioneer attitudes (Bolton 1972 p.268).

Few were aware that the historical figure of the individualistic, male pioneer was an illusion; that their community had been built on the combined efforts of white women, white men, newly arrived European refugees and Aboriginal people. However, no one believed that the flattening of difference and diversity might be conceived as bigotry, by other populations, in other places. Their community identity was built on a sense of collective effort and unity. This was represented in the town motto ‘We strive to achieve’.40 It was just that the achievements, even so recent, of others than the ideal pioneer had been largely forgotten.

In 1989 millionaire land developer Warren Anderson purchased 11,800 hectares of farmland at Rocky Gully, aiming to create a grazing empire. A great many families left the community, to be replaced by three of Anderson’s nephews. The Rocky Gully shop closed, due to lack of business, in 1991, and there were suggestions that the school would follow. Yet, within a space of ten years, Anderson had been implicated in the demise of Rothwells merchant bank, and was forced to sell his land at Rocky Gully.41

A new type of landuse, which came to replace the sheep flocks of Anderson’s hectares, was the bluegum plantation. The tree-farming industry had been gaining momentum in Western Australia since the late 1980s. Adverts appeared in the Farmers’ Weekly in 1988, calling for farmers to convert their land into plantations: ‘If your land gets more than 700mm of rainfall, a 100ha cleared, pastured site that is favourably located with good soils can return an annual payment of $8,500 and a residual payment of $30,000 at clearfall’.42 In the same year, the Commonwealth Government offered the incentive of a 100 per cent tax deductibility on the establishment and maintenance costs of tree plantations. Rocky Gully farms were planted down with great speed. Many of the farmers who remained after the Anderson buy out, decided that they had been ‘closed in’, and with no room to expand their farms, they also left the area.

Across the landscape, old solitary redgum trees and fences were ripped out from evenly pastured paddocks. At this juncture in history, the farmers of Rocky Gully may have suddenly felt a jolt of empathy for Aboriginal people, who had experienced the anguish of watching their land and community be torn apart throughout the course of Western Australian history. As Betty Carpenter remarked, ‘the downside of trees is that they don’t need people’.43 Once a vast monoculture of trees had been planted, they were to be left for ten to fifteen years. Former farmland became virtually unrecognisable, under the dark, uniformly spaced rows of trees. Houses were emptied of people and appeared to be succumbing to nature. Guttering hung convexly, verandahs grew lichen and asbestos sheeting became pocked by moisture. Shearing sheds fell apart, or lost their rooves, but there was no imperative to repair them.44 Valerie Hobson, a former shearing contractor, wrote a eulogy for the disused shearing sheds of Western Australia, her former workplace:

The sheds are empty now, silent and decaying monuments to the glory days of shearing when Australia was on the sheep’s back. Stripped of useful material, corrugated iron flapping, yards termite ridden. The old Ferrier press is alone and forlorn, devoid of any strength. Stand silently with eyes closed; absorb the energy and the sounds trapped forever in that space, left behind... (Hobson 2002 p. iii).

So by the mid 1990s, there had been an exodus from Rocky Gully. The landscape, which had once been subjected to modernist ideals of progress, had returned to a state of emptiness. The history of the community of this town reveals that the European claims to development and civilisation could claim no permanence in the landscape. Despite the fact that Rocky Gully never achieved many of the hallmarks of an ‘established’ country town, it retains a giant place in the memories of many of the people who left it. The memoirs of the first wave of white people to settle Rocky Gully are streaked by the enterprise of pioneering the land. A study into the community at the time reveals that this opening up of the land was not an entirely white, male enterprise. It was largely shaped by the directives of the Commonwealth and State Governments, which were carried out by Aboriginal people, European refugees, and white women, as well as white men. The Rocky Gully community was contoured by a sense of classlessness in the 1950s, which was carried on to the 1980s to mid 1990s. By the latter period, the figure of the pioneer had gained a privileged place in the cultural life of the community. But the concept of an ideal Australian, with a powerful attachment to the land, was perhaps diminished in the 1980s, when the bulk of the population sold their sheep-lands at Rocky Gully, and moved elsewhere.


Baron-Hay, GK. ‘Grazing Leaflet No. 1’. War Service Land Settlement Act. Perth: Government of Western Australia; 1945.


Daily News (Perth, W.A.).

Farmers’ Weekly.

Handwritten memoir held by M Dowling. Name of the writer has been withheld.

Letter dated 1950, in the possession of Mrs. Dowling.

Oral history interview conducted with E Carpenter, 17 May 2003.

Oral history interview conducted with J Carpenter, 17 May 2003.

Oral history interview conducted with L Coyne, 31 May 2003.

Rocky Gully Advertiser.

Rocky Gully Record.

Wesfarmers News.

West Australian.

West Australian Magazine.


1     J Dwyer. ‘Womens Work at the Jubilee Show’, The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 11 July 1951 p. 16.

2     The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 22 March 1951 p. 14.

3     The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 22 February 1951 p. 19.

4     The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 4 January 1951 p. 13.

5     The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 11 January 1951 p. 19.

6     The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 10 May 1951 p. 3.

7     The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 18 January 1951 p. 19.

8     ‘The Food Position’, The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 11 October 1951 p. 3.

9     J Mitchell as quoted in ‘World Food Needs’, The Farmers’ Weekly, 15 March 1951 p. 3.

10    GK Baron as quoted in ‘Demand for Products of the Soil’, The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 5 April 1951 p. 5.

11    ‘Rocky Gully is Starting to Boom’, The Countryman, Perth, 5 December 1955 p. 6.

12    GK Baron- Hay in ‘Grazing Leaflet No. 1’, War Service Land Settlement Act, Government of Western Australia, Perth, 1945.

13    Letter dated 1950, in the possession of Mrs M Dowling.

14    Oral history interview conducted with J Carpenter.

15    Oral history interview conducted with L Coyne.

16    Oral history interview conducted with L Coyne.

17    Oral history interview conducted with L Coyne.

18    J. Henderson, ‘This Highball is a Knockout’, The Daily News, Perth, 23 June 1952, p. unknown.

19    The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 26 April 1951 p. 3.

20    TS Dunne as quoted in ‘Land Development Investigation’, The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 31 May 1952 p. 15.

21    CB Palmer as quoted in ‘The Biological on the Farm’, Wesfarmers News, a supplement to The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 31 May 1952 p. iv.

22    All photographs have been collected by M Dowling.

23    Oral history interview conducted with J Carpenter.

24    Oral history interview conducted with J Carpenter.

25    Oral history interview conducted with E Carpenter.

26    Oral history interview conducted with E Carpenter.

27    Oral history interview conducted with J Carpenter.

28    Photograph collected by M Dowling.

29    Photographs held in the Mt Barker museum, property of M Dowling.

30    Handwritten memoir held by M Dowling. Name of the writer has been withheld.

31    Handwritten memoir held by M Dowling. Name of the writer has been withheld.

32    Handwritten memoir held by M Dowling. Name of the writer has been withheld.

33    G Wilkes in the Rocky Gully Advertiser, described as ‘first edition, 1989’.

34    T Smith in the Rocky Gully Record, 1988; 15 (2).

35    C Askevold in the Rocky Gully Advertiser, 1st edition, 1989.

36    Pam Cassellas, ‘Bumper Crop, Barren Times’, The West Australian Magazine, Perth, 19 January 1991 p. 12.

37    Oral history interview conducted with J. Carpenter.

38    Rocky Gully Record, 11 (4), 1983.

39    Rocky Gully Record, 14 (2), 1987.

40    Found in every edition of the Rocky Gully Record.

41    M Southwell, ‘Rothwells Victim on Comeback Trail’, The West Australian, Perth, 15 March 2000, p. (unavailable).

42    The Farmers’ Weekly, Perth, 8 June 1988 p. 20.

43    Oral history interview conducted with E Carpenter.

44    Observation of Rocky Gully farmland, after drive in 2003.


Ashcroft, B; Salter, J. ‘Australian voices: a Bakhtinian reading of the Australian nationalist debate’. In: Fuery, PJ, editor. Representation, Discourse and Desire. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire; 1994.

Bolton, G. A Fine Country to Starve In. Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia Press; 1972.

Botterill, B, editor. Rocky Gully: The First Years. A Collection of Memoirs. Bull Creek, WA: B. Botterill; 1987.

Franklin, M. All That Swagger. Sydney: Angus and Robertson; 1940.

Herbert, E. From Creaton to Camballup. Birchgrove: Eugene Herbert; 2001.

Hill, C. ‘Memoir’. In Botterill, B, editor. Rocky Gully: The First Years. Bull Creek, WA: B. Botterill; 1987.

Hobson, V. Across the Board: Stories of Western Australian Shearing as Told By the People Who Worked in the Sheds. Gidgegannup: Backtrack Books; 2002.

Johnson, M. ‘Memoir’. In Botterill B, editor. Rocky Gully: The First Years. Bull Creek, WA: B. Botterill; 1987.

Lines, W. An All Consuming Passion. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin; 1994.

McClintock, A. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge; 1995.

Phipps, G. ‘Memoir’. In: Botterill, B, editor. Rocky Gully: The First Years. Bull Creek, WA: B. Botterill; 1987.

Powell, L. ‘Memoir’. In: Botterill, B, editor. Rocky Gully: The First Years. Bull Creek, WA: B. Botterill; 1987.

Smith, M. ‘Memoir’. In: Botterill, B, editor. Rocky Gully: The First Years. Bull Creek, WA: B. Botterill; 1987.

Stannage, T. Western Australia’s Heritage: The Pioneer Myth. Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia; 1985.

Wolendorp, R; Winton, T. Down to Earth: Australia Landscapes. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press; 1999.

Cite this article as: Phillips, Jaime. ‘The Rocky Gully exodus’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. 08.1–08.17.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie