Not "All Barren"—Another Land Grant Railway—Guildford to Walkaway—The Midland Company's Concession—Three Million Acres available for Settlement—Million Acres suitable for Cereal Growing—Probable Colonisation Project—An Industrial King—Room for General Booth.
I gave in the previous chapter a summary of the land regulations of Western Australia, and spoke of the provisions with reference to the "poisoned land," as affording a possibly cheaper and easier means of acquiring a freehold than might be the case under the ordinary conditional purchase rules. The settler must, however, consider the matter in the light of accessibility to markets and means of transit; and in any case he might find it more to his advantage to pay the extra price for the fee-simple rather than "camp" in the midst of a tract of poisoned country, where if he went in for stock they might browse unawares on the noxious plants in adjacent areas not yet subjected to the necessary process of eradication, which in some exceptional instances costs many times over the amount I mentioned as the fair average expense. What needs to be borne in mind is that where the poison-plant is only sparsely present, upon what would not be regarded in the official sense as "poisoned land," it can be got rid of very cheaply, and that where pure agriculture only is gone in for, it need not be taken into consideration at all, as it will be eradicated in the ordinary process of clearing and ploughing. In fact it is my belief that the poison, like the "bunnies" in the other colonies, will only be entirely extirpated by close settlement, as the case of Mildura proves in regard to the rabbit-ridden Murray country. Taking them as a whole, the land regulations of Western Australia admirably lend themselves to the development of schemes of colonisation such as have on various occasions been mooted in the interests of the unemployed at home. After the particulars I have given, no elaborate exposition of their elasticity and adaptability in this respect will be required. I may add, as a matter of useful in formation, that as all dealings in the public lands are now carried out under what is known in the other colonies as the "Torrens" registration system, the cost to the settlers of Crown grants and subsequent transfers is a trivial matter. In the case of the former only 30s. for preparing and recording. It is now a condition in Crown grants that one-twentieth of all agricultural lands may be resumed for purposes of State utility without compensation, except ground on which buildings have been erected or gardens laid out, or ground necessary for the efficient utilisation of any buildings.
Not wishing to be in the position of numerous preceding travellers who, after merely seeing the vicinity of Albany or sticking to the road or railway line between that town and the capital, have incontinently described the colony as "all barren," I determined to inspect at least a reasonable stretch of the average agricultural country within the coastal rain belt of the settled districts. After taking the opinion of Sir John Forrest and several other competent advisers, I decided to investigate the land along the route of the railway now in course of construction from Walkaway, some two hundred and seventy-three miles north-east of Perth, to Guildford, which lies about nine miles to the north-east of the capital on the Government's Eastern Railway line, with which it forms the point of junction.
I chose the route along the Midland Railway, as it is called, because on its expected completion next year it will supply reasonable means of communication and transit to a vast area of excellent agricultural land, which has been locked up from settlement since 1886, under the arrangements for the construction of the railway on the land grant system entered into between the Government of Western Australia and what was known as the Waddington syndicate in England. This agreement was dated February 27, 1886, and stipulated for the construction of a line, the general route of which should be from Guildford viâ Gingin, Victoria Plains, Upper Irwin, and Dongara, to the southern terminus of the Geraldton-Greenough (Government) line at Walkaway. The concessionaire was in return (as in the case of the West Australian Land Company and the Great Southern Railway) to receive 12,000 acres of land per mile of line constructed, to be selected by him in blocks of not less than 12,000 acres within an area of forty miles on either side of the line. From the date of the agreement the Government were precluded from otherwise alienating any land s within the forty miles until the completion of the line; and though prior to that time a good deal of land had been disposed of within the forty-mile boundary, and could not of course be affected by the agreement, the company have still a vast area of good country from which to make their pick of the 3,540,000 acres which they are entitled to select from time to time, on completion of the various sections of the railway.
As, however, half the frontage to the line in alternate blocks of not less than five miles in width and fifteen miles in depth is reserved to the Government, the latter will have a large area of good land at their disposal as well as the company, so that between the two a numerous body of settlers may be accommodated with good soil, in a temperate climate, with an average rainfall of a reliable character approaching twenty inches. The company can have a grant of 6,000 acres per mile out of their allotted quantum on the completion of each twenty-mile section of their railway, the other moiety not being absolutely transferred to them until they have performed their whole contract. There is nothing, therefore, to prevent their making an early start on a small scale with any plan of alienation and settlement on which they may decide. The syndicate which originally obtained the concession had a career of vicissitude, and the whole undertaking would have fallen through had not the scheme been fortunately adopted by Mr. Herbert W. Bond, the present managing director of the company, who, after a couple of years' negotiation with London capitalists under circumstances of difficulty which would have daunted almost any other man, at last succeeded in putting the matter on a business basis, and getting the Midland Railway Company of Western Australia, Limited, formed. The nominal capital of the concern is £1,240,000, in 20,000 ordinary shares of £6 each (£1 called up) and 40,000 founders' shares of £1 each. The money for starting the construction of the line was, however, mainly drawn from the proceeds of the sale of £500,000 of six per cent. first mortgage debentures, forming part of an authorised issue of £1,000,000, the whole of which was subscribed on the London market at the time, but owing to the financial depression following the issue, a portion was surrendered for non-payment of calls.
I will not entirely trust my own judgment as to the general value of the Midland Company's concession, but will quote the opinion of a gentleman not famed for giving rose-coloured reports of the properties even of his clients, as many of the latter have found to their grief. Writing on the subject towards the end of last year, Dr. Robertson says: "The district intersected by this railway, and within your area of selection, contains, I think, beyond all question the richest and most valuable agricultural land in the whole colony. Portions are of importance in a mineralogical aspect. The selections of the Railway Company will, undoubtedly, embrace the very eyes, or most valuable areas of agricultural land in the colony.
"The settlers along your line of railway are men who, as a rule, commenced with no capital, yet who have struggled bravely through many vicissitudes and years of trouble successfully, and have eventually made money. They are not a complaining class, but men of individuality and courage, sturdy yeomen, worthy of the old land from which they came. Hitherto they have been unable to till the soil in a way or to an extent that, with the convenience of a railway and enlarging markets, is now possible. Systems of husbandry hitherto unpractised will by degrees be introduced, and crops and products best suited to the soil, the locality, and the climate, be raised. This is particularly the case with cereals, vines and oranges, in the cultivation of which great ignorance prevails. In respect to vines, the absurdity of growing many varieties in one plot or locality, and of attempting to make as many varieties of wine, badly, is a feature of the eastern colonies; instead of which, greater success would assuredly reward the efforts of those who, by careful experiment, first ascertain the variety best suited to their land and the conditions, and confined their attention exclusively to its cultivation. To my mind the successful settler of the future will be one who is not bound by hard and fast and arbitrary lines, but one who will cultivate thoroughly and well every product that his land will produce, and for which there is a market. A farmer must combine pig and cattle rearing and dairying operations, on as large a scale as possible, along with that of growing cereals."
Granted the value of the territory, it requires to be handled in a manner at once bold and prudent—i.e., if the shareholders are to see what they ought out of their magnificent estate, and the colony to benefit as it should do by the introduction of some thousands of desirable settlers. England too, with her congested population, has a stake in the fortunes of this and other similar concerns, which are or may be shortly working on the same lines, so that even General Booth might have done worse than devote a few weeks to a careful inspection of the available parts of Western Australia when. he made his tour of the Australian continent. But if he intends to operate on the vicious residuum of the East End the reception of his project in Western Australia will be as cold as it would be in the other colonies; whilst if he means to manipulate the depressed rather than the degraded classes, and, after "emigrating" them, to supply them with the means of sustenance until they are able to support themselves, he will, as far as my cursory observations go, find himself and protégés better welcomed and better accommodated in Western Australia than in any of the sister communities.
The colony is now in much the same position as the older colonies occupied thirty or forty years ago, and has, as far as one can judge, to say the least, just as good a chance of a prosperous development as the best of them. With money to spend on public works, employment will be brisk; and, though I do not advocate the influx of men wholly without capital, it must be remembered that every man who comes to the colony with capital makes room for the arrival of men with none. The colony is just now admittedly on the rising tide, as there is room for the exercise of enterprise in a variety of directions which it would be difficult to particularise, but which colonists of the right mental and physical stamp will soon find out for themselves.
These impressions I formed during my long drive across country on the route of the Midland Railway line, which, in its 300-miles course, will not only tap the agricultural resources of some of the richest unalienated lands in the settled districts of the colony, as Dr. Robertson avouches, but will complete the line of railway communication from north to south, from Northampton, via Geraldton, Perth, and Beverley, to Albany, a distance by rail of nearly 700 miles. I drove the needful distance in company with Mr. Stafford, the engineer of the railway, and with Mr. Kellett, who had recently come from England to test by boring the coal-seams which have already been discovered on the Upper Irwin, and which, if found in superior quantity and quality, may turn this portion of the Company's territory into a thriving manufacturing as well as agricultural district, and thus enhance its resources beyond the dreams of avarice, and these are pretty well developed in the modern shareholder. Thanks to the energy of Mr. Keane, the contractor for the line, who may be regarded as the industrial "king" of Western Australia, I had not to drive by road the whole of the distance which the railway is to cover. It was begun from both ends, and had been completed to a distance of some twenty miles from Walkaway on the north, and over forty from Guildford on the south. Across these distances I therefore travelled by rail, going in the first instance by steamer from Perth to Geraldton, and making my start from the northern end. It took me altogether six days to accomplish the overland journey, which traversed rich country, intersected by dreary sand-plains. If one could hazard a guess I should say there must be about 1,000,000 acres of first-class land fit for wheat-growing in the Company's concession. There is a still larger area well fitted for pasture and the growth of vines and fruit trees, whilst the timber resources of some of the inferior country should constitute a source of large ultimate profit. In spite of the competition of the Government, who are selling at 10s. an acre, the West Australian Land Company are getting 15s. for their better land between Beverley and Albany, so that in all probability the Midland Company may do likewise. A large return will also come in from town-sites, which will be proclaimed at suitable intervals, and a large amount netted out of their sale in small sections for business and residence purposes. Indeed, Dr. Robertson estimates the average value of the Company's concession of over 3,000,000 acres at £1 10s. per acre.