Rise & Fall of Business Pioneers

Rise & Fall of Business Pioneers

The Mallee Settlement

When my grandfather was advised by his doctor to "go north" he and my grandmother purchased 1800 acres of land in the Victorian Mallee. Perhaps they were influenced by the current thinking of the politicians and intellectuals of the day who considered that closer settlement of the country was required to alleviate the depression of the 1890s. The Land Board Officers assured them that the Mallee had good rainfall, but ignored possible droughts. Hence farm-life proved unsatisfactory, and they returned to Melbourne convinced that the Government had offered cheap land as a means of controlling the rabbits. But when the railway line was completed to Ultima in 1900, they again made a land purchase, this time 640 acres, and it was on this land that they opened a store, "To buy everything a farmer has to sell, and to sell everything a farmer wants to buy".

As trade increased more premises were built, including a General Store for grocery, drapery, household requirements, a Grain Store and a garage. A franchise for General Motors was secured at this time, and farm machinery was also supplied. As more settlers arrived and the demand for buildings, shops and houses grew, they also developed timber yards where they stocked all the building requirements, and employed a staff of competent builders.

The Grain Store, erected by the railway line, was of great importance as it contained an especially imported plant from the USA, powered by a 10hp engine. The wheat was thoroughly cleaned and unsatisfactory wheat was "graded off".

Business prospered in Ultima and branches of the Cuttle's Stores were opened in Waitchie, Meatian and Robinvale.

Their family home, used to raise money for various efforts, consisted of two parts. The front part contained a large sitting room with a piano and three bedrooms. The rear part contained a large living room, bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen. The two parts were connected by a breezeway fernery, the northern end of which had a hessian covered door, and when wet, acted as a coolgardie safe, which was very pleasant place on a hot day. They bought a German made car, "The Snyder".

Tragedy struck during WWI when their third son, Lieutenant George Robin Cuttle MC, was killed during air combat as an observer with the Royal Air Force in France. Shortly after, their eldest son returned from Caulfield Grammer, Melbourne, to join the store.

During periods of drought or bad economic markets, the Cuttle's stores were regarded "as good as a bank". Credit was extended in the knowledge that with good seasons the debt would be reduced, bright future was optimistically anticipated, but plagues of rabbits, mice, grasshoppers and recurring droughts, more than balanced the good years when the Mallee blossomed.

After the drought years of 1925 and 1927 the farmers were urged by the Government, "to grow more wheat". Then the Great Depression of 1929 brought disaster to the business when the world production of wheat reached an all-time record and wheat was piled up beside every Mallee railway station, but every bushel of wheat produced plunged the farmer deeper in debt. Under "The Closer Settlement Board Scheme", the crops were under lien to the State Government, and cost 2-3 times the amount to produce than the wheat was worth on the market. This meant that the storekeepers carried huge debts, as did the firms that supplied the storekeepers.

The final blow was the operation of the Farmers' Debts' Adjustment Act which greatly reduced the liability of the farmers' debts to the Cuttle's Mallee Stores. In order of preference for the payment of debts, storekeepers were placed 13th on the list of farmers' preferential creditors.

The stores were placed into liquidation, and the Cuttles were advised to leave the Mallee with 70,000 pounds sterling. Instead they remained with the farmers, many of whom were WWI ex-servicemen.

By 1927 my grandfather retired to Robinvale, and Herbert Jnr (or Bert as he was commonly known) was responsible for dealing with the financial problems.

Captain Lennox-Bigger, a returned soldier and ex-settler from the failed Currie Scheme, was appointed manager by Cuttles' Creditors. And when the liquidation was completed, Mr Kitto, the liquidator appointed by the Supreme Court of Victoria, passed to a leading firm of chartered accountants of the day an ammunition case containing promissory notes totalling over 620,000 pounds sterling.

In 1935 the Ultima Store was sold, and the GM franchise went to a young man local to the region. The engine from "The Snyder" car was offered (and used) to pump water during WWII.

In the 1980's and 90's several people wrote letters to papers, especially "Mufti", hoping to place on record, "the outstanding behaviour of the Cuttles in their loyalty to the Returned Soldier Settlers of the Mallee". Both had progressive ideas and a vision for the future, but largely due to circumstances beyond their control, neither prospered. However, both have been long remembered.