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A good news story about Australia’s past

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 19 January 2017


So much of our media news is dire that I thought it would be good to start the year with a story of virtue and prosperity. I grew up in the northern NSW city of Armidale, and went to the local university, UNE. Its central building was a magnificent country house, ‘Booloominbah’, designed by Horbury Hunt and owned by a branch of the pastoral White family (Patrick White was a scion of another branch). The scale and grandeur of the multi-storied house still impresses me, though it is fair to say that we the students saw it then just as the home of Admin, of one of the dining rooms, of the common room, and a warm environment at night in which to canoodle, always keeping a sharp ear out for the night watchman. Here is a shot of about half of it, in winter. Yes, snow does fall there, often.

Houses of this type are common in New South Wales and Victoria, especially in the tablelands where most of the good wool came from. ‘Bool’ was built in 1888 at the end of the great boom. A few miles away was ‘Saumarez’, owned by a relative.

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The UNE Vice-Chancellor’s house, ‘Trevenna’, was built for the owner’s mother at the same time, a few hundred yards from Booloominbah . There was a lot of money about at that time. The money came from the great wool boom of the 19th century, stimulated first by the expansion of population after the gold rushes of the 1850s, then by the American Civil War, which caused a reduction of cotton exports to Europe, and then by the growing prosperity of the Western world, during which cotton clothing for the working class gave way to wool. In per capita terms in the late 1880s the Australian colonies were the wealthiest societies in the world, but strikes and a depression ended all that, which is another story.

I have kept an interest in ‘historic houses’, and like to stay in them on road trips. More and more old houses are being renovated, some for occupation, some for the B&B trade. Occasionally you will see one on a back road, and wonder about its history. They all have histories. Most had only a brief hey-day as grand residences, as they relied on platoons of servants. Few owners could afford to run them once the depression of the 1890s gathered strength. The first world war saw many turned into convalescent homes for officers, or orphanages, or even guesthouses. The family connections have in nearly all cases long gone.

I saw just such a country house a long time ago on a drive from Grenfell to Canberra, and its size and aspect were visible miles away. I learned it was called ‘Iandra Castle’, and tried unsuccessfully to visit it. But recently I joined a National Trust tour of the place, marvelled at what had been done there, and learned its history. The history is even more interesting than the house. From the first floor you can see to the Weddin range, twenty or so kilometres away. All you can see was part of the original property.

Big houses imply lots of money. In the case of Iandra, where did it come from? Originally from Ireland, and brought to Australia by William Greene, an officer of the Royal Navy who had been part of the guard for Napoleon on St Helena. He had enough money to bring out not just his whole family, but all his domestic staff, two racehorses, two bulls, a cow and his library. Oh, and a prefabricated house prepared in London. Of course, he needed a ship to bring it all, so he chartered one for the purpose. Greene died in Melbourne, in the house he brought with him. You can visit the historic property today. His son, George Henry, was one of the first five graduates of the brand-new Melbourne University. He seems to have been both restless and innovative. He took up some land in Victoria and then in NSW, married, sold his land and toured overseas for a few years. In 1878 he returned to New South Wales, and purchased 32,000 acres of land between Young and Grenfell, at 6/6d an acre.

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George Henry planned on a big scale. The property was too big for him to run  — it was a holding of 80 square kilometres. He started with sheep, but saw the potential for wheat in the good soil and usually regular rainfall. He either invented share-farming (there are other candidates for this honour) or he adapted it to his purposes. He had the plains cleared , and set about finding people who wanted to be share-farmers. Wheat was doing very well at the time, and he was able to go into partnership with excellent farmers.

The system was simple, and you can still find versions of it used in Australia today. In his case, Greene provided the land ready to be ploughed, all the seed and two-thirds of the fertiliser. The farmer provided the plant and the labour. The crop’s proceeds were divided 50:50. Greene wanted his partners to keep trying to improve, and as an incentive allowed them to keep all the yield above 21 bushels to the acre. If the crop reached 27 bushels to the acre he and the farmer shared the surplus about 27 bushels once again on a 50:50 basis. In the science of agriculture he was at the cutting edge, as we say today, and he was the first farmer to use Farrer’s ‘Federation’ wheat commercially

Everybody did well out of this scheme, and as Greene grew older and had other responsibilities (he became the local MLA, and was involved in successful railway agitation), he was happy to sell the blocks to those farmers who wanted to buy them. And they were blocks of decent size, 500 acres or so, much bigger than the soldier settlement blocks of the 20th century, which were often 320 acres, too small on which to make a good living. Greene did well through the sales, too. We don’t know how much it cost him to develop the land he bought for 6/6d an acre, but in two cases he sold 500+ acre blocks for more than £8 an acre. No one complained — that was the market price. When he died the share farmers, past and present, constructed a memorial to him.

Greene built a substantial house not long after his arrival in the area, and at the turn of the century he decided to enlarge it. The result is what we see today, the old house having been absorbed into the new. For a house of 1908 it was in some respects extraordinarily modern. I thought it was built of stone. No, the structure is reinforced concrete, with a mainly stucco finish. The house had electricity generated by a large generator in an outbuilding, hot and cold water to all bathrooms, the kitchen and the laundry, a telephone system, a reservoir and filtration ponds to provide potable water, proper sewerage, and a properly built servants quarter in another building. The house has 57 rooms, and the stables have roller doors that must have been some of the first in Australia. They still work. The gardens and trees are a century old, and in excellent condition.

Greene died in 1911 and, as so often happens, his energy and inventiveness were not passed down in abundance. One of the sharefarmers became the manager when the son decided to live in England (he became a Conservative MP), and the sharefarmer’s surname, I’Anson, is incorporated in the name ‘Iandra’. The place is also called ‘Mt Oriel homestead’.

It is absolutely worth a visit if you are going that way, though you need to be sure that the place will be open for inspection. Greene’s energy and innovative spirit are part of the history of a most successful farming area. Those of us who take our food for granted can give some acknowledgement to those who made that possible. It is so easy to denigrate what was done in the 19th century, and ignore the fact that without the development that occurred then we would all be a lot poorer if we were here at all. I’d like to have met George Henry Greene. He was a most unusual bloke.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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