I acknowledge the Traditional Owners on whose land I walk, I work and I live. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

“clique of insignificant ‘cockies’ with a soul a little above sweet potatoes and pumpkins”

As you walk Mercer’s lane looking at the mosaic you may pause and wonder at a panel where a full moon is seen through an open window. It shines over men sitting inside a cottage at a table lit by lamplight. One of the men’s horses is tethered outside.  Why were they gathered? What were they discussing? Is the full moon significant?

Yearning for a sense of community and needing mutual support in a hostile new environment the European pioneers of the Herbert River district worked quickly towards creating community facilities such as churches, schools and halls. A particular characteristic of settler communities in Australia was the formation of associations and in agricultural areas, farmer and pastoral  associations. The first farmer association in this district was the Herbert River Farmers’ Association formed in 1882.  Its story begins when a number of small portions of land were taken up between 1879 and 1881 in the area between what was called the Washaway and Gentle Annie Creek. This area was formerly an Aboriginal camping ground and the Europeans that came to live there called it Blacks’ Township. August Anderssen and Francis Herron were the first to show active interest in the area for farming. Others who took up land and/or would become significant to the story of this association were Harald Hoffensetz,  John Alm, A.W. Carr, N. Rosendahl, W. Johnson, John Buchanan, J. Loder, Henry Beardsworth and R.S. Alston.
When the Colonial Sugar Refining Company came to the district with the promise of a mill (the Victoria Mill which first crushed in 1883) it gave hopes to the small land holders that they might be able to grow cane that could be milled by the CSR Company because the company was already doing that in NSW.  Two representatives of the Blacks’ Township, August Anderssen and John Alm, were deputised to approach an officer of the CSR Company with a proposal that the smaller landholders grow sugar cane for supply to the new mill. This officer suggested that the Blacks' Township settlers form an association through which they could communicate their proposal to the CSR General Manager via the local officer. Undoubtedly he was of the mind that a collective approach to the Company would be more effective.  Following that a meeting of the Blacks' Township settlers was called at August Anderssen’s farm, Riverview, so that Anderssen and Alm could report back on what had transpired in their meeting with the CSR officer. Six settlers attended the meeting: Harald Hoffensetz, August Anderssen, A.W. Carr, N.C. Rosendahl, John Alm and Francis Herron. It was decided at this meeting to form an association which would be henceforth known as the Herbert River Farmers ‘Association. The founding premise was “to work for and promote the interests of the farming industry in general and the welfare and progress of the Herbert River district in particular”. Given the latter broad aim, membership was open to anyone regardless of occupation. Nevertheless A.W. Carr confirmed, that the new association would be first and foremost, a “Bureau through which the farmers could communicate with the Government or others on any matter of common interest” with one voice. These men were convinced of their ability to work and thrive in the tropics. Nevertheless they still maintained that Melanesian labour was required for certain aspects of field work and that this labour should be available to planter and small grower alike. Harald Hoffensetz is credited with proposing the formal motion for the formation of an association to be named the Herbert River Farmers’ Association and A.W. Carr is on record as the seconder of the motion”. August Anderssen was elected as the first Chairman, John Alm as Secretary mid A.W. Carr as Treasurer. Meetings would be held at the homes of each of the foundation members in rotation. Membership subscription was set at £1.  Our mosaic panel then pays tribute to the first farmer’s associations that came into being in this district including the Herbert River Farmers’ League and the Halifax Planters’ Club and their first informal and then formal meetings held in their outlying cottages .
But why the full moon?  Getting around the district from one small holding to another, from outlying farm to Ingham town was no mean feat in those times. Clouds of choking dust rose from unpaved roads in dry weather, while in the wet season the roads became a quagmire of cloying mud. Lesser used roads would become overgrown with vegetation after long periods of rainfall and impassability, and would then need the undergrowth to be cut away in order to become passable again. Streams were unbridged and crossing a full stream of water risked an encounter with crocodiles.  Travelling around the district in daylight hours was hazardous enough let alone at night. Therefore meetings of the Herbert River Farmers’ Association were scheduled on the Saturday night nearest each full moon so that the way would be lit and hazards could be avoided. While farmers travelled to the meetings on horseback they might also bring their families in a sulky as the meetings provided an opportunity for sorely needed fellowship amongst the farmers and their families The women especially, appreciated the chance to gather, chat and share a cuppa while their menfolk held their meeting. August Anderssen and his wife had set the precedent from the first of serving a supper for both the members and their wives after the meeting.
These first meetings of the Association quickly proved the value of unified action. Nevertheless there were detractors who regarded the Association members as a “clique of insignificant ‘cockies’ with a soul a little above sweet potatoes and pumpkins”. This attitude changed somewhat when in 1882, six months after its formation, upon receiving an unsolicited letter of support from Frank Neame accompanied by a donation of five guineas, the Association invited him to become the President of the Association. He eagerly accepted the position but due to illness was unable to go out at night to attend meetings. Meetings were henceforth held on Saturday afternoons in a room at the Hotel. At this time membership had grown to around 20 members. Frank Neame had been a long time resident of the Herbert River district, a successful planter and Chairman of the Hinchinbrook Divisional Board in 1880. His approval of the Association and the small grower ideals quietened any criticisms for he “was so universally admired and respected by all sections of the public that they would not adversely criticise anything in which he took a leading part.” As President he pledged to “do all he could to advance the causes of the Association” believing that cooperation amongst farmers was much needed in the district. It is argued that his presidency added weight to the Association’s petitions to both CSR and the Divisional Board. Twelve months after formation the Association was able to boast 30 members.
The Herbert River Farmers’ Association was the first small sugar cane farmers’ association formed in tropical north Queensland (north of Townsville) and did successfully negotiate the supply of small grower cane to the CSR mill. In 1884 the Association received the long awaited letter from CSR offering a seven year contract for cane supply. No limitations were put on how much cane the farmers could supply to the mill. The Mill offered a price of 10/- a ton and would harvest the cane. The Association had achieved a major victory for north Queensland small cane growers and had made them the first tropical north Queensland small growers to sell cane to a mill.
Herbert River Farmers' League Building built 1925
Hinchinbrook Shire Council Library collection

Alm, John. Early History of the Herbert River District being “The Memoirs of the Early Settlement of the Lower Herbert and the Start and Progress of the Sugar Industry in the District. Ingham: Herbert River Express, 1932,33,34.  
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. The Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.

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