Charles Sturt's 5,000 acres
'Strathnairn' was once part of the 5,000 acres granted to explorer Charles Sturt in 1837 in recognition of his exploration of the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers (1929-30). He chose the land, close to the junction of the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee Rivers, in 1837, while visiting Terence Murray at Yarralumla station, and named it 'The Grange'. By the time it became 'Strathnairn', the area had reduced to just 1126 acres, and in 1977 following resumption by the Commonwealth in 1974, an approximate 23 acres (9 hectares) was leased to the Blue Folk arts group for the development of their creative endeavours.
Sturt rather promptly disposed of his grant to neighbour Charles Campbell who renamed the land Belconnen Farm. the name later given to Canberra's western satellite town in the early 1960s. The Campbell family had extensive holdings including Duntroon, in what is now the Australian Capital Territory. Frederick ('Fred') Campbell inherited the property on his father's death in 1888, and although he actively lobbied for the Queanbeyan district to be the site for the new capital, he did not anticipate the extent to which his property would be affected when the Commonwealth began resuming land.
Fred Campbell's attachment to his home and property is entirely understandable, especially as he worked with prodigious energy to develop it. Before his tenure, land generally remained unfenced and flocks of sheep were tended by shepherds. Campbell considered this to be an inefficient practice, and at considerable expense, he set about designing and building fences appropriate to use. He drained swamps and built dams to cater for a merino sheep breeding program. His efforts in controlling feral pests were noteworthy, particularly in the eradication of rabbits. In 1909, the Pastures Protection Board inspector declared the Yarralumla property to be 'free of rabbits', a considerable achievement given the extent of the rabbit problem.
The three years it took the government to finalise arrangements were traumatic for the Campbell family. Frederick became involved in disputes with the Returning Officer, the administration of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and the Minister for Home Affairs, King O'Malley. In August 1912, he wrote a letter to Charles Scrivener, Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys, wishing to retain the 636 acres that remained of Sturt's original lease. 'It is my Ewe lamb,' he wrote, 'and I hope the Commonwealth Government will be satisfied to leave me that much of Sturt's 5000 acre grant and not drive me altogether out of my native district.'
But his appeal fell on deaf ears. Not only did he lose his land, but also his home, 'Yarralumla', which became the residence the residence of the Governor General. In late February 1913, Fred very reluctantly attended the ceremony when the first survey peg was driven into the ground by Minister King O'Malley. Fred is not seen in the official photograph of the occasion. A photograph does survive showing Fred wearing old clothes in protest, watching the official photographer.
The Federal Capital Territory was created in 1911, and the land resumed by the Commonwealth included the site of Strathnairn. The lease to the Belconnen property was acquired by Colonel David Miller, newly appointed Administrator of the Federal Capital Territory and later passed on to his son Selwin. The Millers appear to have been worthy custodians and under their tenure improvements were made, 'with some workers accommodation and a laundry'. The Millers were active in the community and remained in the district as high profile residents until 1923.
Strathnairn's homestead began very modestly, and was subject to a number of extensions and renovations by the various leaseholders. The lease on Block 18 was held from 1924 to 1931 by Mr Jack Read of 'The Pines', Ainslie. He built a small four-roomed weatherboard house that forms the core of the current homestead. At this time the house consisted of a living room and kitchen that shared a double fireplace, and two bedrooms with a central bathroom and small verandah and store room at the rear.
On March 6, 1931 the lease was transferred to David Bruce Elphinstone, who held it until 1934. Elphinstone was a builder, and President of the Master Builders' Association of Canberra. The Ainslie Hotel on Limestone Avenue is a lasting memorial to his work in the city. He extended the small cottage on Block 18. His improvements included a verandah/sleepout to the eastern side of the house, and a living room with a fireplace to the south. A garage was added to the back of the house. But Mr Elphinstone gave up the lease.
The Bairds 1934-1974
On January 2, 1934, the block, now 1126 acres in area, was transferred from Elphinstone to Ian Hamilton Baird, who extended the homestead and built the woolshed and other farm buildings. The first Baird extension included a nursery and two storerooms. Further buildings were added including a cottage, fowl yard, feed store and a 'man house', probably a shearers quarters, and the woolshed. The final extension to the north side of the homestead was designed by well-known Canberra architect Ken Oliphant and completed in 1938. The homestead is in a very attractive setting amidst undulating pastureland and small hills that sweep down to creeks and rivulets that feed the Murrumbidgee River. It was, and remains today, home to a wide variety of wildlife, especially native birds. Although much of the original timber was cleared for pasture, some native vegetation remains, along with exotic species introduced by the settlers.
The homestead, currently operates as galleries, a shop and a cafe ('Stepping Stone') and is
is situated about a kilometre from Stockdill Drive, at the bottom of a slope that gives some protection from the westerly winds. A stand of pine trees planted by Jack Read provided a wind break in years gone by, and some of these remain on the property. A verandah at the rear of the house maintains shade in summer. The front verandah was initially longer, but has been partially closed in by renovations. By the time the Baird family was established there, Strathnairn homestead was a pleasant place, in harmony with its surrounds.
It was the Baird family, reflecting their Scottish heritage, that named the property Strathnairn. Ian Baird's father, John Hamilton Baird, and mother Jean, first took up land near Bombala, and then moved with their children Ian and Leigh, to the Gunning district, living at a property named Birroon. When the senior Bairds retired in Canberra, to their Mugga Way home in 1935, Ian Baird and his wife Ellen, took over at Strathnairn.
Life at Strathnairn
For the Bairds, life at Strathnairn was that of a typical farming family. Being some ten miles from Canberra, regularly dropping into the shop for supplies was not an option. For this reason there was a large larder at the homestead where bulk food supplies were stored. Ian and Ellen's son David recalls that his mother spent a lot of time preserving and organizing food, as they were mostly self-sufficient. Ellen drove an old Chevrolet which would have afforded her a measure of independence not common for women of the era. Self-sufficiency was achieved through the dedicated work of the family. Ian was a keen and successful gardener, so there were plenty of vegetables, and the animals – sheep for meat, cows for milk, and chickens for eggs, provided plenty of protein.
This was particularly vital during World War II, once rationing was introduced, and afterwards until its repeal. Rabbits were a constant problem, especially during and after World War II. Properties had been neglected during the war as so many men were on active service, and in the adjustment period afterwards, rabbits increased to plague proportions. Ian Baird kept a pack of dogs to keep the numbers down, and the young Baird boys spent a good portion of their time rabbiting. They made money selling rabbit skins, but once the government introduced myxomatosis in an attempt to eradicate the pest, the meat could not be eaten.
ACT Rural lessee
Ian Baird, like all the farmers leasing land in the Federal Territory, had plenty of dealings with the bureaucracy. The Territory had entire departments dedicated to keeping a relatively small area in order. Inspections for rabbit and weed control were frequent, and a close eye was kept on conditions for shearers. Every year farmers had to notify the Department of the Interior of the date shearing would commence. The shearers' quarters and living conditions had to be inspected prior to the commencement of shearing. The inspector's reports were detailed, noting, for example, the type of beds provided, the proximity of the sleeping quarters to the kitchen, type of lighting and flooring, and whether or not the facilities were 'vermin free'. While it was appropriate that decent accommodation be provided for workers, and all farmers recognised the necessity to deal effectively with feral pests, there was some resentment of the effort and expense incurred in dealing with the upkeep of properties, only to have them resumed at what seemed to be the whim of bureaucracy. Most Territory farmers were members of the ACT Rural Lessees Association. This was of great assistance when dealing with mutual concerns, and in communications with government departments.
Life in the bush
David remembers the connection of electricity very well. The installation team used dynamite, in this instance too much, as they blew a huge hole in the ground, and the fallout covered the shed roof with stones. A consistent water supply was always a challenge. Household tanks stored water. The pumping system was a very complicated process and a daily struggle to keep in operation. The road to Canberra was not sealed, and was often in poor condition, but such difficulties were considered minor and were more than compensated for by a happy-go-lucky childhood. 'We ran free all over the place' said David. He and his brother, John, were not short of company, and shared adventures with the two Anderson boys from neighbouring 'Pine Ridge'.
Attending school for the boys meant a daily commute to Ainslie Primary School, transported in a green panel van. Children were collected from beyond Hall, and from properties through to Parkwood and Weetangera, then driven down the dirt road to the school, that despite its name is situated in the suburb of Braddon. The boys were sent to boarding school at Sydney Church of England Grammar School – Shore – for their secondary education.
The family was also friendly with the Shepherds, who farmed nearby 'Belconnen Farm' (block 14) and Ian Baird particularly respected the farming expertise of Austen Shepherd, a successful soldier settler.
The final decades
'Strathnairn' was principally a grazing property, and although it sometimes supported cattle, sheep were the main enterprise. The numbers varied, but in a good year there could be up to 3000 sheep on the property's pastures. In the early 1950s the price of wool sky-rocketed, and the returns would have been excellent. When the price fell, farmers naturally diversified. For example, after David had taken over the lease from his father in 1965, he ran both merino sheep and varieties of short horn cattle until the property was resumed.
David Baird was resigned to the inevitability of the Commonwealth resuming his property. By 1973, the nearby suburb of Holt had been established and problems emerged with the proximity of rural leases and new settlement. There were particular problems with children from nearby suburbs trespassing, and 'creating havoc'. Gates were often left open and animals escaped. Local dogs also invaded, and on one occasion David lost twenty sheep to a pack of dogs. He felt that the authorities were not sympathetic to his losses. With the property about to be broken up, and following a harrowing clearance sale in 1974, he gave up the lease and with his wife, Ann, embarked on a nine month world trip.
[This is an edited extract, with permission, from the publication 'Strathnairn – a place for people'. Edited by Peter Haynes, Strathnairn Arts, 2013. This fine publication is fully footnoted and copiously illustrated, and is available at Strathnairn Arts shop / cafe].
Click on the caption (⧉) to view photo details and attribution.
Peter Haynes (editor), 'Strathnairn – a place for people'., Strathnairn Arts, 2013.