Chapter 5: Education at Raukkan: The Taplin Inheritance 1879 - 1901 Economies in the Western world rapidly industrialised in the late nineteenth century, pulling along education systems with them. Although three or four years’ schooling, to the age of twelve or thirteen, was seen as sufficient at the time of their compulsory education legislation, by the turn of the century in most countries, pressure had mounted for a more extended curriculum, and for more focussed but still basic secondary education, at least for those who were considered to be able to benefit from it.
Debate then raged over whether working class children, and girls in particular, should have access to this extra education, since what would be the point of providing expensive, and probably irrelevant, education for children whose needs would never rise above those required for basic industrial or domestic work – and in any case, they would be out of school entirely in a year or so. A sort of historic compromise was eventually reached about 1913, under which working class children would receive a more practical curriculum in technical high schools, designed to be relevant for those who would never rise, or rise very far, above their class position.
In the 1880s, Roseworthy Agricultural College and the School of Mines and Industries were established, to provide the specialist agricultural and industrial skills for the elite and brighter middle class students. The University of Adelaide was, of course, more or less reserved for the male children of the most privileged families. Between the three institutions, education for the future leadership of South Australian society seemed assured.
Agricultural innovation in South Australia was well-known: the expense of labour impelled the development of labour-saving machinery and techniques: mullensing (the dragging of a heavy log over mallee country, rather than laboriously cutting it down, burning the felled scrub, and then planting crops around the stumps) and the stump-jump plough had been perfected by the 1860s and, along with the railways, opened up huge areas of marginal land, both developments combined having the effect of increasing the average size of farm blocks without increasing the need for more labour (Williams, 1969: 47).
The paddle steamers – up to ninety of them on the Murray by the 1880s – reached right up into northern New South Wales, as far as Bourke and Brewarrina, tapping the transport of wool for the river and lake ports, and even the transport of copper ore from the mines at Cobar, one hundred and fifty miles inland from Wilcannia on the Darling. However, river levels were often low, and in any case the development of a railway from Sydney to Bourke in 1885 brought this trade to an abrupt halt (Heathcote, 1965: 65, 126). Similarly, railways tapping southern New South Wales and northern Victoria killed off the Murrumbidgee and Murray trade for the South Australian steamers. The lower Murray towns went into a steeper decline than ever.
Simultaneously, mixed farming replaced the broad-acre cereal farming around Milang and the Strathalbyn plains: dairying, orchards and stud properties required even less unskilled labour than ever, although the skills required to operate such ventures were rapidly expanding. In the mid-1880s, the development of workingmen’s blocks, subdivisions of former pastoral leases, brought many more small farmers to most parts of Ngarrindjeri country, from the Inman Valley across to Milang and Cooke’s Plains and to Meningie, including the northern part of the Narrung Peninsula (Linn, 1988: 147).
Nor did the pace of development slow down, even with depressions and slumps in the 1880s. As Williams notes,
The decades of the 1880s and 1890s were another period of reassessment and experiment, with fertilisers, new wheat breeds, new legumes and dry farming techniques which proceeded the thrust into the mallee lands… This sequence of pause, reassessment and thrust is almost a recurrent pattern in the spread of settlement in South Australia. (1969: 47)
In a later work, Williams writes (1974: 16-17):
By the late nineteenth century, Christianising, civilizing and colonising lost much of their appeal: the aborigines had been swept under the carpet of the Reserves and were ‘protected’ from civilization, but in the rural areas something of the previous attitudes was preserved in the aims of ‘development’, ‘progress’ and the population of the Australian continent, all stimulated by the new concept of social Darwinism.
Towards the end of the century, many of these factors were coming together to transform the South Australian countryside, superficially along the lines of the originally-envisaged landscape of independent small farms, but using more intensive farming techniques, improved seed, fertilisers, the use of trace elements, dry farming, specialised technology and with access to easier credit. These developments were accelerated by the break-up of large freehold estates with Closer Settlement after 1895 (Williams, 1974: 56; Meinig, 1963: 121). However, in the drier country, as Meinig described in detail, :
… [the] pioneer on the wheat frontier in SA, as in all the “new” lands of the time, was working within an entirely different context [from the image of the small, freehold farm of a sturdy, independent yeoman]. He had no emotional ties to his land … it had been purchased  it was not a legacy but an investment. … He farmed not as a member of an intimate, stable, localised society, but as a member of a world-wide, dynamic, competitive society. … a generation of experience had proved that in these precarious sub-humid lands under intensive competitive conditions [crops] had to be grown on each farm by the hundreds instead of tens of acres. Labor, not land, was the scarce factor, and a whole array of new, enlarged, and efficient machinery now allowed a whole new scale of agriculture. … And the railroad, the great instrument of regional specialisation, was basic to it all. (Meinig, 1963: 120-121)
For the landless labourers, especially for the original owners of all the land, these developments spelled hard times ahead: unless they could gain access to a much broader range of skills, they would be condemned to a rapidly shrinking sector of the economy: that of farm labourer, shearer, seasonal worker and domestic servant. For white people in this situation, one option was available which was not open to Aboriginal people: to move to where both training and a greater variety of jobs were available, namely the city. But an tacit policy constrained Aboriginal people to the countryside, and therefore to the rural economy, on the grounds that cities would corrupt them, and in any case, their natural environment was the country, or the ‘bush’. Thank goodness people don’t think like this any more:
… these years in South Australia mark a distinctive phase: the days of heavy, slow hand labour and “peasant agriculture” were past, the days of science and power machinery lay just ahead.’ (Meinig, 1963: 210)