Tag Archives: New Australia

From railways to resources

It would be hard to imagine Alexander Johnston, railway contractor, involving himself in the sort of idealistic scheme which William Lane promoted under the name ‘New Australia.’ If Mr. Johnston had been involved in such a scheme, one could readily imagine him making a success of it. He certainly would not have neglected to organise the money and machinery necessary to make it work.

Alexander Johnston (1839-1916) had emigrated from Scotland in 1856. He had been in Queensland for a time, then came to New South Wales. As partner and contractor he was involved in a number of construction projects, including tramways in Sydney, a section of the railway between Goulburn and Cooma, construction of cattle yards at Homebush, parts of the Nepean water supply, and water works in Melbourne. With his accumulated wealth he was able to invest in and contribute to a number of enterprises which benefited from his experience in the fields of engineering, geology and project management.

In the 1890s, while the ‘New Australia’ colonists were trying to establish an ideal society in Paraguay, Alexander Johnston was helping to open up the North Shore of Sydney to investment and development. He was associated with a private syndicate (the North Sydney Tramway and Investment Company) responsible for construction of the North Shore (or Long Bay) Suspension Bridge (which gave the suburb of Northbridge its name) and the opening up of new land. Progress was not without its problems. There was a protracted period of delay caused by complications over ownership. Finally in 1912 the bridge was handed over as a gift to the New South Wales Government. The elaborate stone superstructure remains. Although the old metal deteriorated and a concrete arch now supports the weight, the structure is still referred to informally as the suspension bridge.

Political developments to the north of Australia offered a new field for enterprise. The British Government had long been wary of French designs in the Pacific. Then in 1884 Germany annexed the north-eastern part of New Guinea. Britain responded by proclaiming a Protectorate over the south-eastern portion, which was extended to neighbouring islands. This gave a new context for imperial and colonial action in suppressing lawlessness and fostering business expansion in the region. The discovery of gold on some of the islands off the east coast of New Guinea in the 1890s prompted a gold rush in a number of places, including Woodlark Island (also called Murua) from 1895 onwards. Despite the difficulties of the climate and the problems of disease, many individual prospectors took up claims. There were reports from time to time that the gold was giving out; whether this was an entirely objective assessment or a way of deterring possible competitors, the methods of extraction being used were fairly primitive and the gains were necessarily limited. Circumstances were ripe for a man like Mr. Alex Johnston, one of the directors of the Woodlark Island Proprietary Gold-mining Company, formed in 1899, to buy up small prospectors and introduce technically advanced methods to locate, identify, mine, process and transport gold and other deposits, and so prove that the riches of Woodlark Island and elsewhere were far from exhausted.

It was an era when able people, energetic and optimistic, were expanding the reach of investment and technology, with profound implications for political and economic control over land, resources and populations, in Australia and elsewhere.

‘Death of Mr. A. Johnston’, Sydney Morning Herald 17/6/1916, p. 11. Gold on Woodlark Island: e.g. Sydney Morning Herald 31/8/1897, p. 6. Sydney gold syndicate: e.g. Advertiser [Adelaide] 18/7/1899, p. 5; Sydney Morning Herald 21/12/1899, p. 9.

Under his own vines and fig trees

In the 1830s the term ‘New Australia’ found its way into the Western Australian Parliamentary record, evidently through the imperfect substitution of ‘Australia’ for ‘New Holland’. There was a wry suggestion that it might be some new plan devised by the Home Government; but it was clearly an inadvertence. We also read in a newspaper shipping report of December 1846 that, ‘The Henry and Elizabeth was moored off Woolwich September 1st, to take on board female convicts for New Australia.’ Perhaps this was a confusion of ‘New South Wales’ with ‘Australia’. The Henry and Elizabeth certainly came to Sydney, where we find her in May of the following year about to leave for London.

The expression took on novel associations in the 1890s, when William Lane (1861-1917) and his followers from various places in Australia attempted to set up a utopian community in Paraguay under the name ‘New Australia’. It might be thought a crazy and unnecessary scheme, when Australia itself was still relatively in its infancy, to give up hope there and seek to found a ‘New Australia’ in South America. The aim was to establish a model society along socialist and communist lines. However, the project was poorly managed, Lane was difficult and doctrinaire, the settlers disagreed among themselves, there were splinter groups, some left to form other settlements elsewhere in Paraguay, including one called ‘Cosme’ (a fresh initiative by Lane), while many disillusioned colonists, faced with the realities of the task, just wanted to come home. It was a brave scheme that turned into an embarrassing failure.

William Lane had seen difficult economic circumstances when he was growing up in England, and then later in Canada and the United States. In Australia he gained a wide reputation as a radical journalist and in trade unionism and politics. Dismayed by economic and social conditions in Australia and the difficulties of achieving improvements, and already influenced by utopian thinking, he sought followers for the New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association. The first contingent of over 200 colonists left Sydney on the Royal Tar on 16 July 1893, with Lane as their leader, accompanied by his wife, his four children, his brother John and John’s wife.

One of the colonists was Wallace B. Brock, who had worked as a prospector and miner in Broken Hill and elsewhere. In June 1895 the Broken Hill newspaper the Barrier Miner published a letter from him, written in Paraguay. He was impressed with the scenery, the productivity of the land, and some of the progress made in the settlements, but there was a need for money and machinery. ‘With these two things this country could be made one of the greatest places on the face of the earth.’ There is talk of getting a large loan. ‘If this can be done we will go ahead, and in three years this place will be a paradise.’ But he advises against going to the settlement at the moment, for ‘it is an awkward place to get away from.’

Two years later Wallace Brock was back in Broken Hill. The Barrier Miner observed in October 1897: ‘The men who formed the New Australia colony in Paraguay came back more silently than they went.’ The newspaper had managed to get some comments from him after rumours spread that New Australia had collapsed because of ‘wine and women.’ This was rubbish, said Mr. Brock. Lane had thought that socialism could be made a success by changing human nature. But the project had foundered over practical issues, especially bad management, lack of money and knowledge, and the distance to markets. The location was good: in the back country of Paraguay one could grow everything requisite, whereas ‘in the back country of Australia one would be fortunate if one could produce a gooseberry on 20 acres without irrigation.’

This turned out to be a strangely prescient comment. Fifteen years later, in July 1912, the official opening occurred of irrigation works at Leeton, and Mr. Wallace Brock was there as one of the settlers. Back in 1895 he had written from Paraguay of the plentiful fruit in the New Australian colony. The season for oranges had just begun and ‘there seemed to be no end of them.’ Now on the plains of the Riverina he helped Mr. C.A. Lee, who as Minister for Works in the New South Wales Government had been responsible for founding the Murrumbidgee irrigation project, plant an orange tree.

In the course of its report of the occasion, the Sydney Morning Herald described Mr. Brock’s background under the heading ‘The old socialism and the new,’ and reported the contentedness of a man who after much wandering had become a settler in the new irrigation area which the New South Wales Government was providing: ‘“This is a miner’s dream – to retire to a life under his own vines and fig trees,” said the hardy ex-miner, now turned farmer.’

‘New Holland’ and ‘New Australia’: Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal 10/6/1837, p. 916. Convicts for ‘New Australia’: Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 26/12/1846, p. 2; cf. Moreton Bay Courier 6/2/1847, p. 4 (a similar report, attributed to the Sunday Times of September 6). William Lane: Gavin Souter, ‘Lane, William (1861-1917)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 9, 1983, pp. 658-659, and online. Letter from Wallace Brock: ‘New Australia. Letter from a recent arrival’, Barrier Miner 29/6/1895, p. 2. After his return: ‘New Australia’, Barrier Miner 23/10/1897, p. 2. Murrumbidgee project opening: ‘Water for the land. Barren Jack floodgates open. Great Murrumbidgee scheme. Official ceremony’, Sydney Morning Herald 15/7/1912, p. 7.