Infighting brings Byrnestown idea to untimely end

THE North Burnett is generally thought of as being relatively conservative, politically speaking.

However, long before there were suspicions about 'Reds under the Beds' there were some fairly significant experiments with socialism here.

The site of one such experiment can be seen about 20km out of Gayndah, alongside the Wetherton Creek. Green from the recent rains, the undulating country gives few clues to the events that unfolded about 125 years ago when the Byrnestown agrarian commune was established and families discarded the concept of private property to bind together in a spirit of comradeship.

Or at least that was the plan.

The commune was named after Thomas Byrne, a brilliant lawyer, who was Queensland's Attorney General at the time and a few years later became the Premier.

Tragically, like another gifted Catholic politician, he died far too young, just a few months after taking office.

Byrnes took an interest in settling the unemployed on the land as a means of addressing the devastating poverty of the 1890s depression but it is unlikely that he visited this site.

There were two other communes set up in the region: Resolute and Bon Accord

The Byrnestown community was registered with the Queensland Government in February 1894 and the first settlers began arriving the following month.


HISTORIC SITE: Byrnestown named after Thomas Byrne was located about 20km outside Gayndah alongside Wetherton Creek more than 100 years ago.
HISTORIC SITE: Byrnestown named after Thomas Byrne was located about 20km outside Gayndah alongside Wetherton Creek more than 100 years ago.

By October there were 169 people on the land, purportedly working in cooperation and comradeship.

This included 34 men (the commune members), 28 women (all married to the men there) and 107 children. Together, as a group they had been granted several thousand acres on an eight year term, over which they constructed bark dwellings, farm buildings and the start of the school house.

Following the death of a child, a cemetery was established on the ridge overlooking the commune site.

The government provided £20 per man to establish the community and help purchase food, tools and stock.

The utopian community was all set up to ensure that all contributed and all were cared for along the lines of Karl Marx's concept of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

However, what might have seemed feasible to Karl Marx writing in the British Museum Reading Room in London would be truly tested in the Australian bush where the threats of starvation and disease were ever-present.

The Byrnestown Commune was not a success; it did not lead to the emancipation of the proletariat.

There were continuing requests to the government for more funds to keep it going. To support the commune, a number of the men worked in the sugar industry around Childers.

By the commune's founding agreement, their wages were meant to support the group but there were allegations about some men not putting their wages into the communal funds.

The number of men working off-site meant that the commune's land was not being sufficiently cleared and planted. It was a rough start in difficult conditions with settlers enduring a cold and wet winter in basic accommodation.

In 1895 some members had brought legal action against the management committee for denying them food because they would not agree to the expulsion of another member.

Like something out of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm', the management committee also brought in a system of punishments for members who criticised the commune or suggested it might not be a success. Rifts developed with members leaving or being expelled.

Clearly this was not going to end well and just two years after starting, in April 1896, the commune was dissolved and the land divided up between individual members to work and live independently by their own means.

The Byrnestown commune was founded in a spirit of comradeship but fell apart in bitter disputes about the management of the community, the distinction between private and communal money, and the distribution of supplies.

The men had little prior agricultural experience and after establishment received little assistance or advice from the government.

Economic and political theory are most often considered from a dry and clinical perspective and the experiences of the men, women and children on this tranquil stretch of the Wetherton Creek shows that the best of intentions do not always lead to workable outcomes.

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