They were offered a fresh start on a remote low-lying slab of fertile land, isolated in Bass Strait. Through their hardship, a close and vibrant community was forged.

Story By Cormac Hanrahan

King Island has a deserved reputation as a place of rolling hills covered in year-round verdant pastures that produce high quality beef and dairy products, surrounded by a bountiful sea. But what isn’t as readily known is the crucial role the soldier settlers played in establishing a close and thriving agricultural community there.
In the decades after the drawn-out intensity of World War II, hundreds upon hundreds of veterans’ families looked for a fresh start – a place to call home.
In its lonely spot at the western edge of Bass Strait, King Island sat and waited patiently as the government-sponsored soldier-settler scheme placed families around the country.
After WWI, soldier-settler schemes had proliferated, simultaneously satisfying the returned soldier’s need for a new start and the nation’s desire for economic development through agricultural expansion. More than 23,000 soldiers were settled on 94,000 square kilometres of Crown land by 1924. In order to buy or lease a block they were required to remain there for five years, but many were unprepared for a rural life, and had neither the skills nor the support to make a go of it.
By the end of WWII, the schemes were better planned and executed, and the Closer Settlement Board of Tasmania tried hard to sell the benefits of King Island. In a brochure entitled The War Service Land Settlement Scheme – KING ISLAND, prospective settlers were informed it “is one of the soundest farming areas in the Commonwealth” and “the island should present one of the most thriving rural communities in Australia”. However, because many Tasmanians felt they were isolated enough already, the Tasmanian Government struggled to convince Tasmanians to move to Bass Strait.
King Island’s lure therefore reached up to New South Wales, where soldier settlers were part of a ballot system, having to wait about three years to be given an allotted farm. Many there saw the distance and isolation of King Island as a small price to pay for the certainty of a start. More than 200 families took up the offer, swelling the population of the island, which up to that point only had 1000–1500 people. The last soldier settlers to arrive came in 1960.

This story excerpt is from Issue #75

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2011