Dreeite Soldier Settlement

An overview of the settlement from 1920 to 1930

This project profiles 180 brave returned soldiers who settled on or were allocated allotments on the Dreeite Soldier Settlement after World War I. Each settler’s file has four main sections:

  • Details on the allotment based in records from “The Battle to Farm” in the Public Records of Victoria and on maps of the Dreeite district from the period;
  • Military History based in military records from the National Archives of Australia;
  • Personal details, including birth, marriage and death information, as well as a list of children. This was mainly sourced from State births, deaths and marriage records and cemetery records.
  • Notes about the allotments’ history and other information

This project is extensively based on archival research. Records from Ancestry.com, Colac & District Family History Group family files and work undertaken by Dawn Peel of the Colac & District Historical Society have also been used.  The project was undertaken on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Soldier Settlement at Dreeite.  In order to understand the records presented, a brief history of the settlement and the problems encountered by settlers is provided.

The concept of closer settlement was promoted in Victoria in the early 1900s. This involved the purchase of underdeveloped private land and then dividing it into small farms. The Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act was passed in the Victorian Parliament in 1917. It legislated for the provision of farms to soldiers returning from the Great War. The Dreeite Soldier Settlement Scheme was one of these settlements. Between 1919 and 1921 the government purchased 14,607 acres of land in the Dreeite area. The largest part of this land was owned by the Calvert family. Another significant landowner was W O Reid and there were nine other smaller landowners. This area became known as the Dreeite Estates.

Twelve allotments were allocated before 1920 and John Fitzgerald was among those first soldiers granted his land.

Private John Fitzgerald, known as Jack, was born on 13th August 1879 at Kensington Hill, Leopold. He married Gertrude Davy in 1912. Jack enlisted in the Army in February 1916 and was deployed in the 29th Battalion.

After initial training at Broadmeadows, Jack embarked on the HMT Anchises arriving in Suez on the 18th April. Soon-after he was sent to France where he would serve most of his time.

During Jack’s time at the front he endured severe bronchitis and multiple gunshot wounds to his cheek, ankle and leg. He was medically discharged in June 1918 and returned to Australia.

Photo: Jack Fitzgerald with wife Gertrude and children John and Marcel.

Jack was one of the first settlers to be granted an allotment in 1919 on Corangamite Estate. He was allocated Lot 5 consisting 83 acres and in 1926 acquired Lot 6A and Lot 6C consisting 53 acres and 24 acres.

Jack and Gertrude had five children – John Jnr., Marcellinus (Marcel), Frances, Mary and Patricia. John Jnr. returned to the farm to live and work from the late 1960’s until it was sold in the mid-1980’s.

Sixty-seven returned soldiers were allocated allotments in September 1920 and a further twenty in October 1920. By 1921 there were 134 settlers on the Dreeite Estates. This study covers the period 1919 to 1930. It also identifies 40 people acquiring settlement blocks who were not ex-soldiers. Initially they were soldiers’ wives and other relatives, however by the mid-1920s closer settlers started to obtain allotments on the Dreeite Settlement.

Life on the settlement was very hard. The land had been acquired almost two years before it was allocated. With only one government ranger employed during this time the land was overgrown and infested with thistles. A major problem was the lack of roads, especially in the area previously owned by Calverts. Many farmers had no road access and often had to pass through neighbours’ properties to reach their holding. Away from the main road, roads were dirt tracks that wound around, across stony barriers and past flats that were boggy in winter. This made taking produce to market and obtaining supplies, such as building and fencing material, difficult and expensive.

The initial settlers received bare blocks of land. There were few houses, except for the odd workmen’s houses.  Settlers had to start from scratch – build a house, a cow shed, piggery and sundry sheds, as well as provide equipment and stock. A number of the houses were built, using standard plans for settlement houses, by Peters Pty Ltd of Colac. Some were built by the settlers themselves and several were moved in from outside the district. Fencing was another problem. It was expensive to bring in material and labour intensive. Post holes had to be blasted out in the stony ground. Lake Corangamite was saline, but there was a plentiful supply of good ground water. However the cost of sinking a bore or well and erecting a windmill and tanks was expensive. Settlers could obtain loans (advances) from the Board for housing and other capital improvements. However this increased the amount of the instalments they were required to pay to the Board. 

Frank Stratton’s Soldier Settlement House – Site #180

When the settlement was first established the price of butterfat was 2 shillings and 6 pence a pound. However in the early 1920s there was a dramatic fall in the price of butterfat and by the end of 1921 the price was only 9 pence a pound. Many had to seek further advances from the Board, as the price of butterfat fell and decreased the earning capacity of the land. Many had to seek redress from The Board. Several took on outside work in addition to running the farm – carting, bagging onions, digging potatoes and baling hay – to supplement their income. The size of the farms were too small to be economically viable.

Settlers faced other problems. The need to control vermin – rabbits and thistles. There were also plagues of cockchafer grubs and the occasional drought. Inspectors visited farms on regular basis to see that vermin was controlled, assess the quality of pastures and provide advice on improving productivity. Because of the stony barriers there were only limited areas available for cropping. Snakes were a threat, especially in summer when the water holes dried up. War injuries were also a problem for returned soldiers. Many suffered the long term effects of physical injuries from rifle shots and exploding shells, the effects of being gassed, neurasthenia and recurring bouts of “trench fever”.

Life on the Settlement – photographs from the Fitzgerald family album

Initially, a number of returned soldiers did not even take up their allotments, several abandoned their farms and simple walked away after a few years, and many, many more had their leases cancelled because of non-payment of instalments. As settlers left their farms, the properties were often subdivided and offered to other landholders in the area. Also in the mid 1920s a number of settlers’ wives acquired neighbouring farms as they were vacated. Over a period of time the size of the farms increased from 80-100 acres to an average of 160 acres by 1938. The size of herds were built up and their quality improved over time. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1920s, advances for the purchase additional land, other expenses involved in developing the land and interest payments, saw settlers’ debts mounting. Some had debts of more than £5,000 owed to the Board by 1930.

The Great Depression began in 1929. This resulted in severe economic hardship and the devaluation of property, however it also provided an abundance of farm labour, as men wandered the country carrying their swags and looking for work. The New Closer Settlement Act of 1932 allowed for the revaluation of soldier settlement properties. In the early 1930s many property consolidations and revaluations were carried out. This reduced the amount of debt owed to the Board and also helped to consolidate ownership. Dreeite dairy farmers also benefited from the Patterson Scheme, which provided for a premium to be paid on early-season milk supplies.  After the early 1930s things substantially improved for settlers. By 1938 less than half the settlers remained.