The Coming Colony/Chapter 9
The Government Railway—York, Northam, Newcastle—An Agricultural Paradise—The Yilgarn Gold-fields—Primitive Wine-making—Cash conquers Barter—A Conservative Country—Intercolonial Federation and Fiscal Protection.
Having transferred ourselves to the Government railway train at Beverley, we proceeded northwards twenty miles to York, which is one of the titbits agriculturally of Western Australia. It is situated sixty miles east of Perth, and is seventy-eight miles distant by railway. I was unfortunate in arriving in the absence of Mr. J. H. Monger, whose pre-eminence in the district (he died a few months ago) was designated by his popular title of "The Duke of York." His place as a cicerone was, however, admirably supplied by Dr. O'Meehan, a magistrate, and the principal medico of the locality. The chocolate loam about York is marvellously rich, and the crops are phenomenal. These farming oases were especially interesting to me as evidencing what may be accomplished in the way of prosperous settlement when other portions of equally fertile territory are opened up by judicious railway extension.
It was hoped that the line to the Yilgarn gold-fields, which the Government are about to construct, would have branched off from York, but legislative wisdom has decided in favour of a starting-point at Northam, which will bring the fields considerably nearer to Fremantle, and will, I am confident, open up a valuable area of good country immediately eastward of Northam.
Northam is another agricultural centre, and is twenty-two miles from York and fifty-eight from the capital, with which it is connected by a railway branching off from the main Government, or eastern line, at Spencer's Brook. The soil of Northam is a splendid chocolate loam, like that of its rival, York, producing wheat crops of from eighteen to thirty bushels to the acre. I explored the district under the intelligent ciceronage of Mr. Madden, the local manager of the National Bank of Australasia, which in other directions has prominently associated itself with the rising fortunes of Western Australia. From observations I made, farming in the Northam district is some thing more than a profitable pursuit, the advent of railway communication and the establishment of roller mills having given an immense spurt to wheat production, where formerly grazing predominated in connection with a very old-fashioned style of agriculture. Where wheat was grown in the old times an exhaustive method of continuous cropping was resorted to, whereas now a rotative and fallowing system, accompanied even by some rudimentary manuring, is beginning to prevail. What with the railway, and what with responsible government, a new spirit possesses the people, the colony, to use Mr. Madden's expressive phraseology, having virtually been "born again, after the bad start it made in the days of its early and premature inflation. The advent of the banks has been nearly as beneficial as the advent of the railways. Formerly cash was almost unknown, and a barbarous system of barter all-prevailing. One or two store-keeping monopolists supplied the farmers with provisions and necessaries, receiving their produce in exchange. The charge for supplies was more than double Perth rates, whilst the price given for the agricultural produce went to the opposite extreme. The storekeeper wanted an exorbitant profit both on what he sold and on what he bought or took in exchange. The farmer had thus very little chance of making more than a bare living, and was lucky if he did not labour under a load of debt, which the periodical advent of harvest only partially extinguished. Now that the banks have come into the field, the Queen's head on the coin of the realm has become a more familiar object. The farmer gets reasonable advances to enable him to develop his holding at 8 per cent. on deposit of his deeds, and is thus able to buy his provisions in the cheapest and to sell his produce in the dearest market, Perth being now rendered reasonably accessible by railway. Even the storekeeper has gained by the change, as, despite his huge profits on paper, the credit system and the uncertainty of the market sadly hampered his operations in practice. The Northam district is admirably suited for sub-tropical cultures, the grape production per acre being in some cases almost fabulous. The fruit is generally converted into a crude wine, which sells readily in the locality at 5s. to 6s. per gallon-a figure which leaves a large profit. Of course, if the production increased the price in the local market would fall. But there ought to be a good opening for an export trade, and at 2s. per gallon the growers would do well.
As I said before, it is from Northam that the Government railway to Yilgarn, the newly discovered region of gold-producing quartz reefs to the eastward, will proceed. A good deal of its course of something under two hundred miles will be through the barren country, but it will open up a large area of fertile and fairly well-watered territory during the first fifty miles of its course, its construction being primarily justified by the expense of horse carriage (amounting to from £16 to £19 a ton) to what there seems every probability will prove a permanent gold-field, capable of supporting a large population. The draw back to Yilgarn is the scarcity of fresh water, plenty of brackish being obtainable, which by the use of condensers is being rendered adaptable for driving the crushing machinery; whilst with greater care in the conservation of the rainfall sufficient water for drinking and domestic purposes may be available, as at Broken Hill, for even a greatly increased population.
There is another agricultural centre hereabouts which completes the trio. This is Newcastle, a nice little town on the left bank of the Avon River, eighteen miles from Northam and fifty-three from the capital. It is not favoured, like York, with being on the main line, but, like Northam, it is connected with Perth by a feeder which branches off from the Eastern Railway at Chidlow's Wells. Newcastle, as regards soil, is another York, only, if one is to believe what the inhabitants assert, more so. It is roundly stated by a good authority to be one of the finest agricultural districts in Australia; but this I cannot vouch for, as I had not time to visit it, and can only speak generally of the fertility of the locale.
The next station of importance is at Guildford, a flourishing town at the junction of the Swan and Helena rivers, only eight miles by rail from Perth. Here farming is carried on upon fine alluvial soil, and a good deal is done in the way of viticulture, Dr. Waylen having started a vineyard there many years ago, from which he draws a supply of wine, not wanting in body and potency.
In a few minutes we were steaming into the station at long expected Perth. It does not take long to convince the visitor to Western Australia that he has come to the most conservative, and consequently the most English, of the Australian colonies. The original emigrants were persons of higher social status than the majority of the early settlers in the other colonies, and they entertained a strong sense of the virtues of caste and of the home connection, which their isolation from the other communities of the continent never offered them any temptation to exchange for sentiments of intercolonial amity. Down to the present time an Englishman is much surer of a friendly reception in Perth than a visitor from what, with an admirable insensibility to the status of their own community, they style with something of disdain "the colonies." It does not do to come to Perth without letters of introduction, unless you are already personally known to some of the local magnates. Your credentials once scrutinised, and not found wanting, you are welcomed with a hospitality of the old English sort, which takes no heed of the "dollars" of the visitor, as is too much the case in the more moneyed of the Australian capitals. The Weld Club of Perth is unique as a centre of sociability, and once you are admitted within its somewhat exclusive portals you are brought into pleasant contact with everybody who is "anybody" in the small capital of the largest colony of the Australian group.
I was not very long in perceiving that whatever may be the state of public feeling elsewhere in regard to intercolonial federation, in Western Australia it is utterly out of the question at present. It would most certainly wreck Sir John Forrest's Government to-morrow if he were to move in favour of adopting the decisions of the late Sydney Convention. There is, however, not the remotest chance of his doing anything so foolish. Like every other publicist of standing, from the Governor downwards, he recognises the desire of the people not to part at a moment's notice with their newly acquired treasure of self-government. The other colonies may have tired of the bauble, but the West Australians are determined to have full experience of the troubles of working out their own destinies before surrendering their fate to the control of a central Executive in which many of the colonists have infinitely less faith than in the benevolent despotism of Downing Street, which they would never have shaken off with the alternative of being incorporated in an Australian Commonwealth staring them in the face. They thoroughly endorse Sir Robert Stout's sentiments when dealing with the case of New Zealand. If the latter colony is separated by 1,100 miles of sea, they are separated by nearly the same amount of land from the nearest centre of population in Eastern Australia. If the people of Western Australia are disinclined to part with their newly-acquired political privileges, still less are they willing to give away the material advantages which the newly awakened life that is visible in all directions is likely to confer on their commercial prospects. Whilst with one hand they are inviting settlers to come and cultivate their almost limitless wheat and vine areas, they are not likely with the other to abolish the tariff restrictions which at present prevent South Australia flooding the markets of her more backward sister with the produce of her cornfields and vineyards. Whatever may be the economic notions on the subject, such a policy would be regarded by the vast majority of the colonists as nothing less than rank suicide. When her resources are developed and her infant industries firmly planted, then possibly Western Australia may reconsider her position. But in any case she will insist on conditions for coming into the Federation, of which one of the first will be the construction, at the Federal expense, of the transcontinental railway line from Adelaide to Fremantle.