Beef Farmer Tom Tate 30.3.2016-1-web Credit Elements Margaret River

On Margaret River’s 50,000-year human timeline, one generation transformed the region more profoundly than any other.

Yet many visitors know little of the Group Settlers’ story – an era of extraordinary hard work and hardship – which is about to mark its centenary.

In a quiet riverside spot near the town entrance, Margaret River and Districts Historical Society brings the tale to life through its Old Settlement museum – an original cottage, schoolhouse and outbuildings showcasing settler life in the 1920s.

The society will mark the Group Settlement centenary on March 26 2022 with a day of festivities – starting with a street parade and ending with a twilight screening of the film “No Milk, No Honey”.

The volunteer group will also launch a unique centenary project using QR code technology to provide an historic walk trail throughout Margaret River township.

Timber plaques on 67 locations will allow walkers to point their phone cameras at the embedded codes to open stories and historical images relevant to each site. The plaques were locally crafted from old-felled marri and karri timbers sourced on a settlement block in Metricup.

The trail is a free and fascinating peek behind the town’s modern façade. Most of the plaques are already activated, sparking an active curiosity in passers-by.

“Sharing our culture and history is how we gain a sense of place in the Margaret River we know today as a land of milk and honey,” MRDHS president Viv Halsall says.

Sharing our culture and history is how we gain a sense of place in the Margaret River

Margaret River and Districts Historical Society - Group Settlement Scheme Centenary

Visitor and community interest in the Group Settlement story has been growing alongside a deepening curiosity about Margaret River’s history: what came before the vineyards and farms so many enjoy today? What happened to the dense and bounteous forests Wadandi people called home for 2000 generations? Who were the group settlers and how did they survive in this remote and alien landscape?

Rewind to the years following World War I. With a population centred largely around Perth and the Goldfields, Western Australia was in dire need of farmers. While many ex-servicemen took up the offer of soldier settlement blocks, more were needed.

At the same time, England had a different problem. Post-war unemployment queues were fertile ground for sowing the seed of opportunity that existed in far south-western Australia.

And so the two governments hatched what became known as the Group Settlement Scheme – a promise of freehold land, good rainfall and immediate, assured farming income in the paradise of Western Australia.

The response was immediate: 6000 mostly struggling Brits arrived with nothing but hope-filled hearts and a will to succeed.

The plan was to create “group” settlements, each comprised of around a dozen families, throughout the arable lands. Their task was to clear, divide, fence and build homes on their allotted plots to develop farms.

But nothing could prepare these hopeful migrants for the scheme’s harsh realities. Rapid uptake meant migrants were shunted quickly off to the groups with few resources and no time to adjust to Australian life – let alone the dense and remote forests which awaited them.

For many, it was a cruel social experiment marked by extreme poverty and heartbreak.

These were people from the towns of England. Few had farming experience and even fewer understood the climate and soil conditions they had inherited. Government expertise and support was thin on the ground, tools were scarce and markets were a hard and costly journey away from most settlements.

Vast forests of karri and jarrah trees had to be hand-felled before planting and grazing could even be considered. Women worked as hard as the men at back-breaking tasks and suffered widely from shock and depression at this new life, far from the familiar ring of church bells, fishmongers’ cries or even close neighbours.

By the mid-1930s, shoeless and often dressed in flour-bag clothing, half of the 6000 settlers had walked off their hard-won blocks with four-roomed jarrah-and-tin “groupie” cottages. They were watching their families starve.

For those who stayed, decades of toil and determination led eventually to viable dairy farms, and many group settler descendants populate today’s Margaret River community.

Bleak as conditions were, diary entries abound with fond memories of a community bound by a need to survive, and a very human instinct for social interaction.

Often families would travel miles to attend dances and concerts staged by neighbouring groups, and English pride dictated dress codes at balls – even if it meant brothers changing behind bushes into the family’s one remaining suit to take turns at the dance!

Of course the rapid building of fences across the landscape impacted further on the land’s traditional owners. Wadandi elder Dr Wayne “Wonitji” Webb says Aboriginal people were no longer able to walk the length of their dreaming trails, and segregation was rife.

“However the group settlers did see us as a resource and our people helped them clear a lot of the land for the farms,” Dr Webb says.

However the group settlers did see us as a resource and our people helped them clear a lot of the land for the farms

The centenary commemorations begin in town at 10 am on Saturday March 26, and the public can enjoy stalls, displays and entertainment at the Old Settlement until late afternoon.

Highlights will include bush band Ten Cent Shooters, an animal nursery, spinning, weaving and gold-panning demonstrations, morning tea and produce stalls, sausage sizzle and access to the volunteer-run museum buildings.

At noon, dignitaries will unveil a commemorative plaque at the Old Settlement and MRDHS will bury a time capsule  and later in the day, writer and historian Bill Bunbury will speak before a special screening of “No Milk, No Honey” – a film documenting the Group Settlement era.

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