Goyder’s Line: C19 responses to “climate change”

On the Margins of the Good Earth: The South Australian Wheat Frontier 1869 – 1884

D W Meinig         1962

It was regarded as a classic in the 1960’s, I read it in the 70’s, and it seems to stand up well on a re-reading 40 years later.

This is a very impressive work of historical geography examining the decisive expansion of settlement in South Australia in the 1870s. It also looks at the influence of transport on settlement patterns and the way in which politics influenced the outcomes.

The book starts by explaining the unique geography of South Australia – the horst and graben pattern of the Gulfs and Yorke Peninsula, and highlights the “shatter zone” geology of the region. When driving through South Australia you are constantly struck by the frequent use of stone as a building material which derives from this fundamental geological fact.

The origins of the colony of South Australia ironically lie in a London prison where Edward Wakefield came up with his plans for a convict free settlement which would fund the flow of free emigrants from the proceeds of the orderly sale of land by the colonial government. Wakefield’s vision was essentially to create an idealised English pre-industrial village settlement pattern with sturdy yeoman farmers employing new working class migrants who would then save to purchase their own farms a bit further out. They were even happy to bring out the German settlers who set up shop in Barossa and Hahndorf and were the first real white “new Australian” migrants.

Once the settlement scheme was established in London they then needed a location and decided on South Australia almost sight unseen. It then fell to the inaugural Surveyor General William Light to find a suitable site for the settlement. After a review of the region Adelaide was decided upon by virtue of it being more likely to have a secure water supply than other possible sites. It was well appreciated that the Mediterranean climate would mean dry summers and that the Adelaide Hills would receive more rainfall than the surrounding plains. .

The closely settled region of South Australia – basically the Fleurieu and Yorke Peninsulas, the Adelaide Hills and the 100k wide strip along the eastern side of the Gulfs, can best be considered as an agricultural island surrounded by pastoral country and desert. The development of arid land agriculture in the Murray Mallee and on the Eyre Peninsula is a 20th century agricultural technology story, not a 19th century one.

A question of basic importance for the colonial government was exactly how far out from Adelaide could agricultural settlement be pushed. In the mid 1860’s the Surveyor General George Goyder set off on an expedition to attempt to determine the limits of agricultural settlement. During his long career he covered about 30,000 miles on horseback and devised the Line of Reliable Rainfall based on his observations. This Line corresponds fairly closely to the 300 ml (12 inch) rainfall line and has proven to be a valid assessment over the past 150 years. It is now a National Trust listed icon, along with Humphrey Bear and Grange Hermitage.

The book then goes on to look at how optimism triumphed for a time over Goyder’s climatic conservatism and pushed out beyond the Line only to be beaten back by a succession of dry years in the early 1880s. Goyder copped a fair amount of abuse for his views as settlement pushed forward during the favourable years in the 1870’s but he was ultimately vindicated.

New settlement requires transport infrastructure to get the farm produce to market and the planning of settlements by the government and the development of ports and railways were a major point of contention and public controversy in the expansionary years. The merits of different ports were debated and the merits of particular railway routes and gauge sizes also caused contention.

The book shows how local boosters were able to occasionally override the Adelaide establishment’s preference for centralisation of transport and commerce by the development of the outports with rail links into the adjacent wheat growing regions. In particular the “battle” between Port Pirie and Port Broughton had significant long term consequences. Inland the question of rail access for a settlement more or less defined its longer term prospects and so was very keenly fought for.

South Australia is the most centralised state in Australia, even more than Victoria and Western Australia.  Reading between the lines here it could well have been even more so had the SA government not been quite so skint in the early 1880’s when the decision to push out a rail line to the NSW border to attract the Silverton (and later Broken Hill) trade was made. The 3 foot 6 inch gauge to Port Pirie led to the development of a significant port and industrial complex there. The decision had been made that it would be cheaper to build that line than the wider gauge line direct to Adelaide.

There is plenty more to like in the book including the role of innovation in the subsequent development of the Australian wheat industry (the stump jump plough, new wheat types, Roseworthy College, superphosphate) and the discussion around just how novel the steam driven wheat monoculture marketing to consumers on the other side of the world really was in 1870. Meinig also points out the planning stupidity of exporting the Adelaide city plan of the rectangular grid and green belt to quite small towns.

The book really highlights the joint role of government and the private sector in defining the climate frontier of the 1870’s. The government set what it saw as sensible limits but private sector interests and boosters were prepared to ignore the scientific theories and push out into lands which were at best marginally viable in the good years. As the land sales were a significant revenue source the colonial Government was able to overcome its’ misgivings and approve the new regions for survey and sale.  The ability to grow wheat in those areas was ultimately beyond the technical capacities of the era.

Unfortunately there was a cost associated with the overshoot for individuals who had purchased marginal land on credit and also for the government which was forced to be the first Australian colony to introduce an income tax. Despite this Meinig sees the balance overall as positive. New regions were developed and new transport infrastructure was put in place.

We still do not seem to have entirely grasped the fact that we are constrained by fundamental ecological and environmental conditions and limits agreed on by all reputable disinterested scientists. Once again boosters are pushing us out into “marginal lands” in search of profit and deriding the Goyder’s of our era. It is not clear that we have the option of overshooting the climate constraint this time around as there may be no easy retreat from a warming world as there was from the SA wheat frontier in the 19th century.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
This entry was posted in Books, Economics, Nineteenth Century and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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