Chinchilla's Communal Settlers.
Queensland, Australia: Boolarong Press, 2014. 382 pp.
ISBN: 9780646929767 ($34.95).
Veronica Dawson has done extensive research and written a detailed history of the Chinchilla communes started in 1893. This book fits into the growing genre of published work on the communes of Australia, also known as cooperative settlements or groups. In Queensland, the work has been led by Bill Metcalf of Griffith University, who has written about the Gayndah communes, among others, and who also wrote the foreword to this book. The book has a very simple structure: explanation of the legislation, description and analysis of the Chinchilla communes, and biographical presentations on all the members of the communes. The analysis of how the Co-operative Communities Land Settlement Act of 1893 operated is excellent. Government-sponsored communes are an unusual land-tenure system, so efficient analysis of their operation is essential for a book that describes rural settlement life and includes biographical work.
This work highlights administrative challenges for the communards that were a direct result of the provisions of the Act. The right of government to appoint members to commune groups without reference to other members produced unintended interrelationship consequences for a communal group. This pointed to the government's determined use of the scheme (with trade union support) as a remedy for unemployment. The arrangement whereby the government department purchased equipment (agricultural machinery, etc.) was a distinct disadvantage that led to horrendous inefficiencies. This lesson was not learned by government, which repeated the practices with Soldier Settlements in the 1920s. Prohibition of the sale of timber was a distinct disadvantage, as it delayed income-earning capacity for the newly arrived communards. Also loans over three years at 5 percent interest were difficult to repay, particularly in a depressed economy. Both Mizpah and Monmouth (two of the three groups in the Chinchilla district, the other being Industrial) were infected by prickly pear, a nonindigenous cactus considered a pest, when the communards arrived, overwhelming their spirit. Chinchilla was an extremely primitive settlement in 1893 when the communes commenced. There were no public or community services other than government-provided ones: a railway station, police station, post office, courthouse, and school.
The book's overall strength is its biographical work. It is painstaking and detailed. Dawson has produced a monumental piece of work and relies on oral histories; electoral rolls; archival sources; newspapers (using the valuable TROVE source); immigration records; birth, death, and marriage records (BDM); Parliamentary Papers and the Parliamentary Debates (Hansard); the Salvation Army's War Cry; local history books; and historical society materials. The author describes the daily life of the communards, also utilizing this part of the book to describe the role and circumstances of women on the three communes. This section of the book is very valuable, as the Salvation Army, the predominant religion on Mizpah settlement, advocated the equality of women. The Industrial commune also had gender equality in its rules. Child mortality is also discussed in some detail. The multiple child deaths were distressing to all. For example, one woman, Emily Bristow, had seventeen children and lost twelve.
The overview and conclusion sections of the book provide a very good assessment of the government's administration of the legislation. To those who have researched various communes and sought to locate the records at Queensland State Archives, this chapter is authoritative and demonstrates a high level of validity in the world of historical research. Dawson demonstrates that she has utilized those archives to locate surviving original records and accessed Votes and Proceedings and Parliamentary Papers. Work by other historians on other communes such as Gayndah, Protestant Unity, and Woolloongabba Exemplars has indicated the need for research from a very wide variety of materials. This author has done deep and extensive research and utilized the Public Lands Department In-Letter Registers to advantage. This was necessary because the colonial government's administrative records of all the communes under the Co-operative Communities Land Settlement Act of 1893 have not survived.
Still, some aspects detract from the book. It lacks some context because of the lack of treatment of outside influences in the Queensland economy of the time. The date of the closure of the Queensland National Bank, which significantly deepened the economic depression in Queensland, is important for understanding the situation of the communes and local businesses. Use of contemporary sources about the 1893 flood would have been more accurate than a 1939 one. Lack of a standard bibliography makes it difficult for readers to understand the sources used at Queensland State Archives; the use of ID references for sources there is really insufficient for the purpose. Commendably the author has specified the series that she did access, but the provenance would have been very helpful in assisting readers.
All in all, the author has analyzed the history of the Chinchilla communes succinctly, distilling the reasons for failure: lack of government support and poor administration; arguments among communards; lack of medical assistance; lack of skill generally among the communards; poor soils, similar to what Soldier Settlers faced later; need for constant work compared to eight-hour days written into the communes' rules; supply of equipment by the colonial government after application, similar to the experience of Soldier Settlers later; and high costs of land clearing. Failure of the original act to incorporate the principles espoused by the commune proponents was at the heart of the difficulties. The principal reason was that the colonial government changed. Consequently the Co-operative Communities Land Settlement Act of 1893 does not include the passionate aims and intentions of Sir Samuel Walker Griffith, who had visited the Alice River cooperative settlement near Barcaldine, and its success stimulated Griffith to strive for similar settlements in Queensland for the unemployed, as the author identifies. Nevertheless there was a degree of success at the Chinchilla communes to be celebrated, as a core of communards remained after the official closure of the communes and became selectors under the new legislation, the Cooperative Communities Land Settlement Act Amendment Act of 1895. These were skilled tradesmen who built secure buildings and sturdy houses, some of which were brick.
In all, Chinchilla's Communal Settlers is a highly commendable book and is recommended for research on communes in Queensland, Australia. Its strengths are the analysis of the operation of the legislation and the biographical component. The research task has been enormous. Provision of a biographical record of the members of the communes is a significant achievement both for Chinchilla district local history and for the study of communes. That was a huge challenge, and the effort and has been worthwhile and successful. Other researchers will be very grateful.
RUTH S. KERR
University of Queensland