The yeoman ideal: R. R. Henderson, ‘The ties that bind: the enduring strength of the yeoman ideal in North-West Tasmania 1860-2000’, PhD dissertation, University of Tasmania, 2020

25Feb21

Abstract: The yeoman ideal of independent land-owning family-based farming had wide political appeal in North American and Australasian colonial settlements from the eighteenth century. The Governments of each Australian colony enthusiastically encouraged and variously supported yeoman settlement for a mix of social, political and economic reasons. Merchants and migrant miners of the mid-1850s were also enthusiastic, the former because of its stimulus to trade, the latter who wanted to settle to farming. The Tasmanian Government was especially attracted to the yeoman ideal of family farming due to the loss of needed population caused by the Victorian gold rushes and later mining rushes, and the need to improve agricultural output to secure greater export income. It actively encouraged the expansion of free settlement into areas of the island previously rejected by pastoralists by offering various incentives to free settlers. Crown lands in hilly, heavily-forested areas in the island’s south and north were released for small farms of up to 320 acres. Land ownership and family labour enabled self-sufficiency during establishment, while cleared timber provided building materials and initial income. This thesis examines the settlement of one rural parish, Castra, in North-West Tasmania from first European occupation to the late twentieth century. My main argument is that the yeoman ideal underpinned family farming, and yeoman characteristics contributed to the successful progression from self-sufficiency to capitalist commodity production of potatoes and dairying. Each chapter explores key aspects of this history starting with the settlement of Castra by Anglo-Indian military retirees, before investigating the experiences of agriculturalist families, the fate of closer and soldier settlement schemes, and the development of land succession and inheritance strategies. The thesis also investigates the social history of farming in Castra, delineating the lives of yeoman children, the social and working lives of women, and men’s engagement in the public and political spheres. The main primary sources were found in the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office and the Special Collections of the Royal Society, housed by the University of Tasmania. These proved particularly useful for original documents relating to Anglo-Indian and soldier settlement. Local autobiographies, contemporary newspapers and agricultural journals were examined with a view to understanding, from differing perspectives of historical actors, how yeoman farms operated. Maps, survey plans and photographs – contemporary and recent – were closely studied, along with valuation rolls. Numerous oral histories from farming family elders were collected, which have enriched this history and illuminate how successive generations identified with their land and society from the 1940s. Bonds of brotherhood and family support have survived structural changes of the 1980s and continued to be manifest beyond 2000. The thesis contributes to an acknowledged shortcoming in twentieth-century Australian rural social histories by examining in depth one region of settlement over the full extent of its 150-year existence, and moreover, focussing attention on the region’s hinterland rather than relevant regional/urban towns. Significantly, the thesis shows that successful longevity and prosperity of farm families owed much to yeomanry characteristics and traditions, explaining how they infused virtually every aspect of life and were sustained for up to six generations. In contrast with mainland histories that have argued that yeomanry were an out-dated myth by the time of Federation, this thesis questions whether we would do well to reconsider its salience in similar contexts of settler colonialism.



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