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Welcome Swamp Reclamation: 
Report of the Royal Commission 1924

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In the late 1960s the Rivers and Water Supply Commission dug a main channel for the Welcome River. Old-timers in Circular Head might still remember that project. But you would have to be a very old-timer to recall the attempt in the 1920s to channel the river and 'reclaim' Welcome Swamp for settlers – or the scandals that surrounded that project when it was abandoned.

I've divided this section of the website into four pages, with overlapping content:

If you would like to learn more about this extraordinary series of events, click here to download a zipped text file containing relevant newspaper articles from 1916 to 1925 in chronological order. All articles are from Trove, the National Library of Australia's digital archive, and each article is headed with its Web address so you can easily find the original. The key articles are those reporting the taking of evidence by the Royal Commission, dated 24 January to 29 February 1924.

Strickland on King Island

When Australia entered the First World War, Thomas Strickland was in his 50s, married with two sons. He was a grazier who had long been raising and fattening cattle in New South Wales and Victoria. He owned the 'Gainsborough Park' property in Gippsland and was joint owner of 'Yambacoona' on King Island. He had been elected to the King Island Council and was active in island affairs, lobbying for improved shipping arrangements and for an island telephone service.

In May 1917, Strickland sold the 650-acre 'Gainsborough Park' in blocks for the remarkably high average price of just over £52 per acre, realising £35,000. The following month Sidney Kidman, the 'Cattle King', joined with Strickland in buying out the second owner of the 8,000-acre 'Yambacoona'. Strickland stayed on the island to manage 'Yambacoona', occasionally visiting the North-West Coast to buy calves and yearlings. Most were taken to King Island, but in the winter of 1919 Strickland and Kidman were also fattening cattle on the Arthur River runs south of Marrawah.

In March 1918, the Tasmanian Parliament's Public Works Committee visited King Island to hear from locals about the island's shipping service. Alexander Hean, M.H.A, was one of the Committee members who met the straight-talking, hard-headed Strickland. He learned that Strickland and Kidman were interested in selling 'Yambacoona'.

The following year, Minister of Lands Hean announced that the Tasmanian Closer Settlement Board was buying 'Yambacoona' for £69,000. The property would be divided up into blocks and sold to returning soldiers. The Board also purchased Egg Lagoon, adjoining 'Yambacoona', and hired Strickland at £300 per year to drain it. Strickland had had practical experience with swamp drainage in Gippsland. He brought in a suction dredge from Sydney and a mechanical rush-cutter. Egg Lagoon was neatly drained and cleared, and by 1922 was growing lush dairy pasture.

Circular Head

There had been talk within Government for some years about draining, clearing, scrubbing, fencing and grassing the Crown land swamps of Circular Head, and offering the developed land in suitably sized blocks to farmers. Late in 1920, the Lands Department asked Strickland to investigate. He reported that in his view, development would be a sound proposition. Together with K.M. Harrisson (District Surveyor) and E.A. Counsel (Secretary for Lands), Strickland revisited Welcome and Montagu Swamps the following autumn. Counsel's report to the Lands Minister, like Strickland's, was very encouraging.

Strickland, however, had another idea. The cashed-up grazier offered the Lands Department £2 an acre for the whole of the Circular Head Crown land swamps, roughly estimated as 40,000 acres. He was prepared to pay 25s per acre as a down payment (62.5% of the purchase price), with the remainder to be paid over 14 years. Strickland would drain and develop the land himself, with roads and railways built at his request by the Government. To recover some of his costs during the first years of development, Strickland would sell timber from the swamps. He estimated the value of standing blackwood timber in Welcome Swamp at between £2 and £3 per acre. A much larger return was expected from developing the swamps, dividing the land into smaller blocks and selling these to farmers.

Hean turned down the purchase offer, as a private sale of this kind was unprecedented and would have required Parliamentary approval. However, he was impressed by Strickland's estimates that the swamps could be drained, cleared, grassed, and fenced for £10 to £12 per acre, and that blocks could then easily be sold for £25 per acre, and possibly up to £60 per acre. As a publicly funded venture, the project could return a substantial profit to the Tasmanian Government, which then as now was short of cash.

At Hean's request, Strickland quietly arranged purchases of land adjoining the swamps at East Marrawah (Redpa) and Roger River, without disclosing that he was acting for the Government. He also assisted the Government in negotiating with the V.D.L. Company; Welcome Swamp could not be drained without deepening and widening the Welcome River downstream, on the V.D.L.'s Woolnorth block.

Welcome 1913

The Welcome River crossing on the Marrawah Tram in 1913, showing horse-drawn trucks
on wooden rails. Steel rails did not reach East Marrawah until 1922.
Image courtesy Circular Head Heritage Centre.

Welcome Swamp scheme: the start

The Government launched its Welcome Swamp reclamation scheme late in 1921, and the following year withdrew the whole of the Welcome Swamp (including its southeastern extension, Dismal Swamp) from piecemeal selection by settlers. Strickland was appointed as superintendent of works at £1000 per year for three years. He moved to Smithton and commuted to East Marrawah on the Marrawah Tram. [Strickland's home property was 'Belfast', on the Scotchtown Road.]

Drainage works started in the summer of 1921-1922 near the Marrawah Tram crossing on the Welcome River. The energetic Strickland had full charge of the scheme: he laid out the drains and supervised their digging, hired and housed workmen and attended to the project's business dealings. He designed diesel-powered log haulers, had them built in Melbourne, and put five of the machines to work in clearing the Swamp. He persuaded the Government to build a steel tramline running south from the Marrawah Tram, both to bring salvaged timber to the main line for cartage to sawmills, and to serve future settlers. Through 1922 the reclamation work moved ahead at a steady pace, and only a few critics were brave enough to raise their voices.

In 1923 the situation changed dramatically, in part because the pace of work slowed. Good workmen became harder to find. The North-West Coast had its wettest autumn on record. The channel in the Woolnorth block would need to be further extended, at additional cost. More importantly, critics both inside the Government and among the general public became more vocal. They complained that the scheme was costing too much, that the Government would never recover its development costs by land sales, that better land was available elsewhere already cleared, and that Strickland's draining was amateurish and should have been planned by competent Government engineers.

Strickland also made himself unpopular in Circular Head by selling a salvaged lot of blackwood logs to a mainland company instead of to local sawmillers (see next page). Further, he was thought to have inappropriately grazed his own cattle on a Crown land block whose use he controlled. In the latter venture he was in partnership with District Surveyor Harrisson; the two had become partners in land purchases near Smithton at about the same time.

Welcome 1930

The reclamation works area, six years after the scheme collapsed.
Aerial photos courtesy Forestry Tasmania, from a set taken by an RAAF crew in May 1930.

Welcome 2006

The same scene in recent times. Satellite image from Google Earth.

Welcome Swamp scheme: the finish

Strickland's admirer Alexander Hean was no longer Lands Minister in 1923, but Government figures continued to talk up the scheme, and it was revealed that Strickland was on half-salary during the winter months. The criticisms continued, and after questions were raised publicly about a blackwood tendering process, the Government announced in December that a Royal Commission would investigate the Welcome Swamp project. The Commission took evidence in January and February, 1924. It handed a damning report to the Government in early March, accusing Strickland of 'flagrant impropriety' and condemning the Government's inadequate management of the project.

Strickland resigned, giving three months' notice. He wrote a letter to the newspapers saying he was not dishonest and had done the best job he could.

Drainage works on the Welcome Swamp stopped at the end of the 1923-1924 summer. The scheme's equipment was either sold at auction or offered privately to buyers. As of May 1926, 11 blocks near the Marrawah Tram had been offered to farmers on a leasehold basis; nine had been taken up or applied for. The Closer Settlement Board's revenue from these was meagre, and it was clear that the costs of development would not be recovered for many years, if at all. As reported in the Circular Head Chronicle for 28 April 1926, a 'well burnt and grassed' block just south of the tram had tea-tree trunks lying everywhere on its swamp portion, and no grass was visible. The official valuation was £6 10s. per acre, but local grazier E.J. Anthony said it was only worth £2 per acre. Some 1,200 acres of the private land purchased at Roger River was likewise subdivided and offered to settlers, again as leases.

By mid-1926 the new steel tramline in Welcome Swamp - variously called the Reclamation Tram, the Welcome Valley Line and the Salmon River Line - had been transferred to the Public Works Department by the Closer Settlement Board. The line extended 4½ miles from the Marrawah Tram to 'Salmon River Junction', where a wooden tram continued the line to new hardwood leases in the Salmon River area.

One of Strickland's sons became a pastoralist in the Southern Midlands. The other members of the family moved to Melbourne, where Strickland died in 1930. I have not been able to find either an obituary or a portrait of Thomas Strickland.

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