Prosperity up North!

1913, Darwin - Northern Territory, AUSTRALIA

Albert Borella was naturally adventurous, and always looking for something new. He read a pamphlet advertising land grants in the Northern Territory which he talked over with his mates in the Brigade. On 17 January 1913 Borella resigned from the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade, along with two work colleagues; Ronald Parker and Albert Lewis.

With all their savings, the friends caught the boat north to try their luck farming on the Daly River in the Northern Territory.

Northern Territory plans in the Daly River

Economic investment in the Northern Territory was low after 1890. This was in part caused by a general economic recession that affected all the Australian colonies but also, Peter Donovan concludes, was due to the uncertainty created by the Territory’s impending administrative transfer from the government of South Australia to the new Commonwealth government. Since South Australia anticipated withdrawing from the administration of the Territory, there was a corresponding reluctance to commit further resources to the Territory and away from South Australian interests.

The vigour shown by the Commonwealth after it took control was a sharp contrast to the stagnation of the previous twenty years. Samuel James Mitchell, spanned the two administrations serving as the last South Australian Government Resident and then after 1911, first Administrator of the Northern Territory (in an acting capacity). His actions, in the comparatively brief period he was in office under the new regime, embodied this new energy.

Mitchell promoted a new attitude of economic confidence for the region. He claimed in the last years of the South Australian administration that depression “had sunk deep into the heart of people”. He was looking forward to the “new order of things [which] called forth much hope for speedy revival of business and enterprise.”

The Commonwealth poured resources into the Northern Territory hiring experts to guide the formulation of policy and to find out more about their latest acquisition. They sent out survey parties across the Northern Territory starting from points along the Overland Telegraph Line and fanning out to cover the widest possible land on either side of the track. When Ted Ryko bicycled along this route between May and June 1914 there was only one day that he did not meet someone. He found traffic along the line was brisk as the Commonwealth was busy, “sending men in this direction and that on survey and other work with a view to the ultimate development of this enormous slice of the Australian continent”.

One of the experts Mitchell brought north was former Director of Agriculture in New South Wales, Walter Scott Campbell. Campbell spent five months in the Top End between May and September of 1911 providing advice on land use. In June he would be joined by a “scientific party” which included men such as Professor Baldwin Spencer, who ultimately would formulate the Aboriginal policy in the Territory that remained for most of the twentieth century, and veterinarian Professor John Gilruth, who would succeed Mitchell as the first Administrator of the Northern Territory.

Experimental farms

Mitchell was very taken with Campbell’s energy and intelligent conversation claiming that his presence in the Territory “revived the flagging hopes of the half-dozen people who are engaged in agriculture”. Buoyed by his optimistic reports about the land around the Daly River in the Hundreds of Berinka and Hawkshaw, Mitchell promised to open up blocks for settlement with the “first farms given life-free of rental to pioneers”. One of Campbell’s recommendations to the government was to set up experimental demonstration farms on the Daly River and at Batchelor with an aim to improving resources and attracting labour to the Northern Territory. “Settlement” Mitchell predicted confidently, “will progress at a more rapid rate year by year”. In fact there already were some settlers on the Daly at this time. Thomas and Roberts had already settled on their section on the Daly River close to the site of the Daly experimental farm. By March 1911 Thomas and Roberts had delivered their first consignment of maize to Darwin.

In 1912 the land along the Daly River was surveyed. The government set up an “Advances to Settlers Board” to provide a loan scheme for new farmers who lacked the capital to set themselves up. Plans were made to establish the Daly River and Batchelor experimental farms.

Almost immediately the Northern Territory government encountered difficulties with the experimental farms. The first manager of the Daly River farm was appointed on 1 February 1912 but because of flooding in the area he was unable to get to the Daly until July which is when work on the site actually commenced. By October of that same year, the manager had taken sick leave and resigned. His successor was appointed in November but lasted less than two years. By the middle of 1913 the manager of the Batchelor Experimental farm, who had started in February 1912, had also resigned.