Harkive: ‘A Week on a Labour Settlement’

Harkness relocated semi-permanently to Australia in the mid-1890s. ‘A Week on a Labour Settlement’ is her report of a visit to a government-run, cooperative settlement in New South Wales for the London-based Fortnightly Review. It continues the work she began with ‘A Year of My Life’, of reporting back to British readers on solutions to social problems implemented in other countries. Harkness’s interest in social schemes to resolve widespread unemployment dates back at least to her visit to Berlin in the 1880s, where she admired the corps of unemployed Diensmänner which she described in her interview with the Evening News. ‘A Week on a Labour Settlement’ is characteristic of Harkness’s political writing throughout the late 1880s and 1890s, addressing government incompetence, official condescension to unemployed people, and the workers’ political and organisational potential.


Source: The Fortnightly Review, 1 August 1894, pp. 206-213. Available in volume form via the British Library: The Fortnightly Review, LVI (July-December 1894), (London: Chapman and Hall, 1894).



ONE of the dreams of my life had been to visit a Labour Settlement; so I was delighted when fate led me to the largest Co-operative Labour Settlement in New South Wales, which is situated on Pitt Town Common, about an hour and a half by rail from Sydney.

One beautiful morning last March I started for Mulgrave, the nearest station to the Settlement; passed through orange orchards, vineyards, pumpkin paddocks or maize fields, and arrived as the Settlement cart drew up beside the station gate.

The Settlement is five miles from Mulgrave, or the same distance from Windsor or Pitt Town, two of the oldest townships in the Colony. It is on the highest part of the Common, where floods cannot reach it. Of floods I shall have more to say later on, now I will only mention that the last great flood submerged Mulgrave station, and completely covered the station-master’s house.

I had arranged to spend a week at the Settlement, feeling sure that a shorter time would not suffice to show me all I had to see. Sydney journalists had paid it flying visits, and I had read their reports, favourable and otherwise, in the newspapers. One man had praised the sunflowers in the gardens, another had declared that the soil was so poor the Settlement could never become self-supporting. I wanted to judge for myself, and was willing to rough it for this purpose, sleeping in a tent, eating damper, and drinking tea without milk. My tent was to be pitched in the superintendent’s garden, opposite his open door, an arrangement I preferred to sharing a log hut with his family, Australia being the home of numberless, nameless insects. The Board of Control in Sydney had talked to me of a carriage from Windsor, and hinted that a few hours at the Settlement would be ample time for my visit; but I turned a deaf ear to these gentlemen, being anxious to watch the lives of the settlers, and learn something of their manners and habits.

It may be well to explain here that the object of the Pitt Town Labour Settlement, as formulated by the Act, is to provide the means of living for the present large number of persons out of employment, and for the most part, without means, by settling them in sufficient numbers to form a village or industrial settlement on suitable land under the direction and management of a Board of Control appointed by the Government.

One hundred men, with their wives and children, in all four hundred and fifty people, live on the Settlement; and they are controlled by ten gentlemen in Sydney, together with a Government official, who represents the Minister for Lands, and who acts as Hon. Secretary. This dry-nursing arrangement is seldom satisfactory; and the little I had seen of the well-meaning, but inexperienced, philanthropists who controlled the Settlement, made me feel now that a flying visit to the place would be valueless.

The horse in the Settlement cart walked nearly the whole distance, so I had time to admire the Kurragong Heights, an arm of the Blue Mountains, stretching in an azure line against a cloudless sky. Here and there I saw the log hut of a Selector, surrounded by orange trees and pumpkins. Then we left the high road and drove through the Common gates into the bush, where box is varied with stringy bark and blue gum. Magpies and butcherbirds were numerous, and laughing jackasses mocked us while the old white horse followed the bush track. My Jehu told me that opossums and wild cats were to be found on the Settlement, also small bears and large snakes. I did not see the latter myself; but I often heard “possums” in the night, and looking out of my tent caught sight of them running up and down the gum trees. Some of the Selectors near the Settlement support themselves by selling “possum” skins to fur dealers in Sydney; and no doubt the settlers would follow their example if the money thus earned found its way into their own pockets. I have seldom come across such greed for money as on the Pit Town Labour Settlement. The reasons for this rapacity are easy to trace, for the Settlers are penniless, having sold themselves to the Government for rations; and money represents to them liberty and hope, cut off as they are from the public, seeing only old newspapers, and being unable to buy stamps or railway tickets.

Presently we perceived thin lines of smoke rising up amongst the trees, and soon afterwards we came to the space the settlers have cleared in the bush with the help of a team of bullocks. One hundred log huts, made of split box, with bark roofs, doors and shutters, have been built in the shape of a horseshoe on the slopes of a hillock. At the back of each hut is a camp-over; and as the huts are only 33 feet apart the women manage to gossip a good deal while washing and cooking. Why the huts have been placed so close together it is difficult to guess, considering that the area of the Settlement is 2,100 acres. Their proximity leads to considerable annoyance and discomfort. Inside the huts are much alike. An earthen floor, uneven and generally dirty, gives an air of discomfort to the living-room. The bedroom is shut off from this by a wooden partition, and in it are generally one big bed and some small bush bedsteads made of sacks slung across poles and supported by forked pieces of timber. In fine weather these log huts are bearable; but when rain pours down upon the bark roofs, and beats against the box walls, utter misery is depicted upon the faces of the occupants. Not a dry spot can be found then in bed, or out of it; and the settlers crouch over the fire supposing they are lucky enough to possess a wooden chimney.

Opinions vary as to the soil of the Settlement, which is of a light loamy character in some places and rather strong clay in others. The land is so patchy it would not support one hundred selectors, but it is suitable for a co-operative Settlement, because the good parts can be used for the benefit of all, and the bad ones can be left out of cultivation. All the seeds sent by the Government have come up; and the gardens of the selectors, 55 feet wide and 250 feet in depth, are well filled with vegetables that grow fast and well with a little manure and water. Four acres have been fenced in for a general garden, and in this are pumpkins, melons, potatoes, turnips, carrots, beans, peas, tobacco, and egg fruit. In the cultivation paddock, which covers about 20 acres, I saw sorgum, farmers’ friend, Indian corn, pumpkins, potatoes, and turnips. Bone dust has been used instead of manure, and there has been much drought to contend with; nevertheless both garden and cultivation paddock look well and do the settlers credit.

The first thing that struck me about the Settlement was the amount of hard work the settlers have accomplished. It had been started just eight months before my visit; and during that time the whole area had been fenced in, one hundred huts had been built (some of them twice over owing to a mistake on the part of the Board of Control), twelve dams had been dug for water, 2½ miles of road had been made for the Government (under contract price), the cultivation paddock and the garden had been planted. The “fencing in” represented severe labour, for the trees had been felled and laid lengthways to make the fences. One of the objections raised against Labour Colonies is that men will not work unless someone stands over them with a whip, or starvation follows upon idleness. The settlers at the Pitt Town Labour Settlement have proved this to be a mistake, for they have worked so hard that even the selectors in the neighbourhood who object to having the Settlement on the Common, and oppose it all they can, say that so much energy and industry deserve better land than the Government has thought fit to give to the settlers.

Who are the settlers?

Men who have suffered from the present depression and dearth of employment in New South Wales, and have in some cases “taken the Government ticket,” that is to say, applied to the State Labour Bureau for employment. Many of them have large families, and only two are unmarried, old men formerly farmers in good positions. The greater number have put themselves down as “labourers,” but nearly all have trades at their back, or “bush experience” which means a smattering of knowledge on all practical subjects.

Looking through the list of applicants admitted to the Settlement I found a bricklayer, a florist, a builder, a gardener, a grocer, a pit sawyer, a mason, a carpenter, a clerk, a tutor, a cabinet-maker, a coach-builder, a miner, a contractor, an iron-moulder, a blacksmith, and many general labourers. Most of the men were earning three of four points a week before “bad times” set in, and all of them have known “better days.” They are fair sample of the men now out of employment in New South Wales who apply to the State for work, and tramp the Colony looking for employment.

One day is much like another on the Settlement. At six o’clock the butcher opens his shop in a hut set apart for the purpose, and thither the women and children wend their steps with dishes and baskets. At half-past seven the men go to work, felling trees, building or repairing huts, ploughing in the cultivation paddock, or digging in the garden. The dinner-bell rings at twelve o’clock, and at one the same bell calls the men back to work until a quarter to five, after which time they are free to work in their own gardens. Meanwhile the women are busy in the huts, and the children play about the bush. For eight months the boys and girls kept holiday; but a schoolroom was finished and opened during my visit. I did not envy the schoolmaster sent by the Government. The boys could hunt “possum,” take wild bees’ nests, kill snakes, make bush fires, and cut down small trees with their “tommies”; but they were lazy little vagabonds, who objected to collecting firewood in the bush, and fetching water from the dams for household purposes. When the Settlement was started the Board of Control fancied that these boys would find work in the neighbourhood, but the selectors have too many lads of their own to need them. A ganger was placed over the older boys, but they went on strike and gave so much trouble that the men chased them out of the garden and cultivation paddock with bullock whips; so they wander about the bush, using bad language and contracting vagrant habits. Sometimes at night they gather round large bush fires, talking and sleeping by turns until daybreak. These young larrikins are a serious expense to the Government, but the Board of Control ignores their existence. The girls find places in the families of the neighbouring selectors. One little girl told me that she received half-a-crown a week for minding a selector’s baby, doing the family washing, and feeding the pigs!

The women vary the monotony of their lives by “socials,” which are dances alternated by songs and recitations. The master of the ceremonies is an old Irishman, spruce and nimble, one of the two bachelors on the Settlement. A “social” was held to celebrate the opening of the schoolhouse, a large wooden building of oblong shape, with a wooden floor that made the dancers’ feet “tingle with delight,” while a cornet discoursed dulcet music. The rations are fetched by the women from the butcher’s hut, the store-tent in his garden. On an average four pounds of meat are eaten by each family per day. Fifty pounds is the weekly meat bill for the Settlement, the meat being bought by contract at 1½d. per pound, mutton and beef, three fore-quarters to one hind-quarter. The butcher drives to Windsor daily for the meat, but an extra supply is brought to the Settlement on Saturday to last over Sunday and Monday. This is generally corned meat.

The following ration scale for food was used at the time of my visit:—

Man. Wife. Boy over 14. Children under 6 years. Children over 1 and under 6 years. Children over 6 months and under 12 months.
4s. 2s. 4s. 2s. for one, 1s. 9d. for more than one. 1s. 6d. for one, 1s. 4d. for more than one. 1s.

Totals for families vary from 4s. to 17s. 6d. per week.


The rations consist of meat and vegetables, which are given out every morning, and dry goods, which are supplied once a week, each settler sending a written order like the following to the storekeeper:—

16 lb. flour.

1 lb. tea.

6 lbs. currants.

1 lb. candles.

1 bar soap.

1 packet matches.

1 qrt kerosene.

1 lb. tobacco.

1 tin milk.

1 pint salad oil.

¼ lb. blue.

2 measures treacle.


The system of written orders gives a great deal of trouble, for the women find it difficult to add up the small amounts, and constantly overdraw the family rations. Tin tokens are advocated by the storekeeper, but the Board of Control insists upon written orders for meat, dry goods, and vegetables.

One of the greatest hardships the settlers have to endure is want of clothes. Boots, and, in some cases, flannels have been supplied to the men, but for eight months the women and children have had no clothing beyond the things they brought with them to the Settlement. The reasons for this are, of course, want of funds and mismanagement.

The Government advanced £2,000 to the Board of Control when the Settlement started, and it was hoped that the public would subscribe the same amount. But only £100 has been given privately to the Settlement, and it must have stopped before my visit had not the Minister for Lands advanced another £250 to carry it on until the matter could be brought before Parliament. The amount of the advance granted to the Board by the Government was calculated on the basis of £15 in the case of unmarried settlers, £20 in the case of married settlers without children, and £25 in the case of settlers with dependent children. The total loan grant was to be held and used by the Board for the benefit of the Settlement as a whole. The tenure of the 2,100 acres was to be exclusively leasehold, no rent to be payable for four years, but at the expiration of that time, along with the rent-charge, the Government advance was to become repayable at the rate of eight per cent. per annum, covering both principal and interest.

The essential features of the scheme may be briefly summarised:—

  • It is essentially a leasehold system. It is not intended to let the land pass into private ownership.
  • It is essentially co-operative. So many hours work per week must be done by each enrolled settler for the Settlement itself. And the aggregate profits are only divisible after all persons in the Settlement have received a fair allowance for maintenance.
  • The Settlement will be largely dominated by the idea of equality. As near an approach to this will be arrived at as is equitable and possible.
  • The Settlement will have no alcoholic liquor sold within its borders.
  • The settlers, for purposes of order, economy and successful organisation, will be trained to habits of obedience to industrial and civil authority; they will lose none indeed of their privileges of Australian citizenship, but they will have voluntarily submitted themselves to industrial direction, and will have to take their assigned places and do their assigned work in exactly the same way as in any industry carried on by private ownership. But the great difference will be that all proceeds of the labour of the settlers will belong to themselves alone.

In the last sentence lies the gist of the whole business.

During the first and second days of my visit I was conducted over the Settlement by the superintendent. I visited the garden, cultivation paddock, and office. I examined the books, and found that the Board had wasted money in buying things by driblets, and that all its economies had been suggested to it by the storekeeper, a man who, in happier days, had catered for the Australian contingent in Egypt. Bad cows, bad horses, bad ploughs and tools I found on the Settlement. The only good purchase was the teams of bullocks.

On the third day, when I was walking by myself, a settler came to me, touched his hat, and said in a low voice:

“Please come to the tent at eight o’clock to-night.”

He disappeared before I could answer him.

“What is going on at the tent to-night?” I asked the superintendent’s wife.

“Oh, nothing,” she replied; “only a few discontented men are holding a meeting. Don’t go; it will only annoy you to see how bad the settlers can be. Fortunately it’s only one or two of ’em trying to make mischief.”

But I went.

Three tents, used for office, stores, and meetings, were pitched close together; and as I drew near to the largest tent I noticed unusual excitement.

“What is going on?” I asked a woman.

“A vote of want of confidence in the superintendent,” she whispered.

It was a curious sight. The settlers sat on forms inside the tent, silent and anxious. Outside the women stood in groups, talking in whispers. Even the larrikins were quiet. Presently one of the settlers, in a brief, businesslike speech, asked the men to write “Yes” or “No” on slips of paper handed round for the purpose.

This was done, and the votes of the men were collected in a hat. Seventy settlers had voted against the superintendent, and two for him. When the figures were read aloud, the superintendent’s wife shouted out, “You’re jealous of my husband. You’re jealous.”

The settlers took no notice of this interruption, but proceeded to pass a vote of want of confidence in the Board of Control. This was too much for the superintendent. He threatened them with “martial law,” and strode out of the tent, offering to “meet them by daylight.” When he was gone the men drew up a petition to the Minister for Lands, begging him to have an investigation into the place, the Board of Control’s mismanagement, and the superintendent’s incompetence.

Afterwards I visited the huts of the settlers and listened to their statements. They had come to the Settlement full of hope, eager to work and make homes for their families. During eight months they had toiled, lived in miserable huts and worn rags, and at the end of the time they were still dependent on the Government, because the Board of Control had frittered away the £2,000 instead of starting a dairy farm and a saw mill in accordance with the Act. If the Government sent them adrift the Settlement would fetch £3,000 in the market owing to the work they had put into it. The Board of Control treated them like children, and refused them the direct representation on the Board to which they were entitled by the Act.

“The Board is afraid of us,” said a settler. “It means well, no doubt, but it forgets that our lives and those of our families depend upon its conduct. If this place stops, the Board will lose nothing, and the Government will gain £1,000. But what about us?”

The following day a member of the Board came to the Settlement, wept, and promised to give a magic-lantern entertainment in Sydney to buy clothes for the women and children, if the men were good and contented. He was followed shortly afterwards by Mr. Creer, the superintendent of the State Labour Bureau in Sydney. Mr. Creer gave the men a sound scolding, and threatened to send one hundred starving men from Sydney to take their places if they gave more trouble to the Board of Control and the superintendent.

“What about our eight months’ labour?” inquired a settler.

“You have had your victuals for it,” answered Mr. Creer.

My visit was prolonged by heavy rains that swelled the rivers in the neighbourhood, and made them overflow their banks. One night I heard a rushing noise in the distance, and the following morning I saw water rising over the maize-fields and pumpkin-paddocks, washing away the labour of months, ruining selectors and farmers as it rose higher and higher. Many heartbreaking stories I listened to of former floods, when families had lingered too long in their homes and been doomed; men had taken refuge in trees and died from the stings of snakes and scorpions, boats had capsized, and children had been washed away before the eyes of their parents. The flood could not reach the Settlement, but it stopped the meat supplies, and for several days we lived on damper and vegetables. During this time I had ample opportunity to watch the settlers, attend their meetings, and discuss the situation with them.

I came to the conclusion that a dry-nursed Labour Settlement was a very great mistake, but could not form an opinion as to the possibility of the settlers carrying on the place by themselves without a Government official as superintendent. The men had lived peaceably together for eight months, and worked hard; but whether they were capable of choosing their own superintendent, officers, and gangers I could not say. The larrikins are a disturbing element, and the gossip of the women ferments any jealousy and discontent that springs up amongst the men. I am inclined to think that a strong man is needed to hold the reins, at any rate until the Settlement has paid off its debt to the Government.

Labour Settlements are now springing up all over Australia in order to get the unemployed back to the land. Five are in process of formation in South Australia, New South Wales has three, and Victoria is the mother of such experiments. The fate of the Pitt Farm Labour Settlement must shortly be decided by the Government of the Colony; but, whatever happens, I shall not forget how hard the men have worked, how peaceably they have lived together, their great patience with the superintendent and his impossible consort, and their courtesy towards the amiable philanthropists on the Board of Control in Sydney.



One comment on “Harkive: ‘A Week on a Labour Settlement’

  1. […] This year’s summer serial is a novel Harkness published in the Western Australian press, recently discovered by Terry Elkiss and made available thanks to  Trove Australia‘s important project to digitise nineteenth-century Australian newspapers. Following her global travels earlier in the 1890s, Harkness relocated semi-permanently to Western Australia in the middle of the decade and established a publishing career in the Australian press based both on her literary reputation in Britain and her engagement with Australian themes and settings. ‘Called to the Bar: A Westralian Novel’ is set in a gold mining township in Western Australia, based on Coolgardie, where she lived. In its evocative observations and descriptions of an environment at once identifiable and unfamiliar for its probable readership it resembles both her slum writing and other reportage, such as ‘A Week on a Labour Settlement’. […]

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