It was in 1916 that Ted first mentioned Mildura. He was stationed near the Suez Canal and writes in his journal, “Have been considering taking up a block in Mildura and will give it big consideration if I get back”.
Following the war, a soldier settlement scheme was introduced in each Australian state to help repatriate servicemen who had fought overseas. The program saw the creation of around 23,000 farms nation-wide across 9 million hectares. Districts along the River Murray in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were obvious choices to establish fruit industries. ABC Rural Reporters 2015
Arriving in Mildura in 1919, Ted wasn’t over impressed with what he saw and decided to return to Hamilton. As he sat in uniform on a park bench waiting for the train a young woman asked him if he would care to have refreshments at her parent’s house. The rest is history. He later married the young woman and was granted a block the following year.
I decided to find out more about the soldier settler blocks. In Ted’s case it was at Red Cliffs, seventeen river miles above Mildura. Here the Victorian Government purchased more than 15,000 acres to be presented in 15 acre blocks to 700 selected men who fought in the Great War. The land was £16 an acre but could be paid off over thirty six years. £625 in advances was given to each soldier settler to be repaid on reasonable terms. The Melbourne/Mildura train line ran through the settlement and the new township was to be laid out under the direction of the soldier settlers themselves. Water of course was paramount and the government promised a world class pumping plant to bring water from the Murray River.
The settlers were not only from Australian forces. There were British, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Northern Irelanders. Very few knew anything about grapes but they were given the opportunity to serve six months apprenticeship in the Mildura vineyards.
With 15,000 acres to clear it was like being in the army all over again. The weapons were axes and long handled shovels. The aim was to remove the multi stemmed mallee which grows from a single lignotuber to a height of up to 10 metres.
The men were given a tent, an axe, a billy can and a blanket as well as 16/- a day. The heat and flies may have been reminiscent of Egypt. One giant mallee took a week to hand-grub and then was set on fire in the hole. Finally machinery arrived, most famous of all being Big Lizzie, a huge tractor with a 9 h.p. crude oil Blackstone engine which ripped out trees six at a time and cleared 4,000 acres.
Roads were built, cement channels constructed, land was fenced and ploughed and graded. The first allocation was made in December, 1920. Priority was given to married men so weddings were commonplace including Ted’s to Amy* on 21st April, 1920. For a time Red Cliffs had the highest annual birthrate in the world for its population. Two roomed houses of pine and tin grew up alongside the sultana vines.
The promised pumping plant was built “flooding five acres a foot deep in a day”. It was considered, in Ernestine Hill’s 1939 book “Water Into Gold” to be the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and possibly the world.
* Not her real name