The History of Poverty:
England and Australia
W. Arthur Dowe
[A presentation made at the International Union of
Land Value Taxation conference, Sydney, Australia, 1993. Reprinted
from a booklet of conference papers]
Part One: England
Massive poverty, closely linked with massive affluence for the few,
is the great riddle of our age, which not to answer is to be
destroyed. It is at the heart of most of our great social problems,
and threatens to destroy our whole civilization. Our modern wars and
armaments, the class struggle, unemployment, and our international
upheavals and tensions, are in the last analysis clearly attributable
to poverty. The disastrous effects of it in every area of life are
more than obvious.
The Georgist movement is committed to the investigation and analysis
of this poverty. We claim to have investigated and analyzed it, and to
have found the causes and the cure, which is the abolition, not the
relief, of poverty. Both the causes and the cure become plain to any
earnest and sincere investigator.
Charity and Relief
The whole community should by now be rather tired of the never-ending
appeals for charity, which are not only very expensive and
labour-consuming but are evidently not reducing the poverty. And we
should be even more tired of paying the heavy and destructive taxes
imposed on us by well-meaning but ignorant governments who endlessly
pour untold billions down the bottomless pit of the relief of poverty.
In spite of all this charity and taxation the leaders of our charities
monotonously chant how much worse the poverty grows every years.
It is true that the great army of do-gooders are genuinely concerned
about the horrific plight of the poverty-stricken throughout the
world, but the concern is confined to surface relief and does not
extend to the investigation of basic causes. This is natural, because
most of the bodies working and appealing for the relief of poverty are
headed by an imposing array of well-intentioned and wealthy members of
the privileged classes who cannot be expected to do any radical
investigation which would reveal that they derive their wealth and
prestige from the very same poverty which they would be investigating.
There is a causal connection, as Progress and Poverty
demonstrates, between the wealth and the poverty. Though the great
majority of both rich and poor are unaware that the poverty springs
from misgovernment and injustice, there is nevertheless an instinctive
suspicion on the part of the rich and privileged that a genuine
investigation would reveal unwelcome facts and threaten all privileged
and unearned incomes.
On the other hand, the poverty-stricken masses are not only ignorant,
bewildered, apathetic and lethargic, but are very ill-equipped and
unwilling to think. The common attitude is: "If you make me
change my habits I'll hate you, but if you make me think I'll kill
you." Poverty is itself a powerful obstacle to knowledge and
progress. It represses, freezes and blunts men, and makes them easy
prey for the rich and well-educated to manipulate and mislead. As
Gray's Elegy so profoundly says:
But knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll,
Chill penury repressed their noble rage
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Faced with these daunting obstacles, my main objective in this paper
is the spread of knowledge, which I try to do through the illuminating
study of history. I appreciate the privilege of sharing this task with
you and with so many talented Georgist writers and speakers around the
world. I hope that this paper will encourage them in their efforts.
The study of history is a powerful aid to education, and has been ably
pursued by many Georgists of the past and present.
Should we support charity?
I do not, of course, advocate discontinuing public and private
charity. We cannot allow the poor to starve to death while we wait:
for the public to become enlightened. I myself support World Vision,
and have unsuccessfully put views. before them. There will always be
some poor and needy with us, even after the arrival of good and just
government, though poverty in our sense will then disappear and most
of our present charity will then be unnecessary.
Poverty In other countries
By speaking of poverty in England and Australia I do not imply that
it is less important elsewhere: Quite the opposite. It is even worse
elsewhere, and so are the evils which beget it. And there is
widespread ignorance of the whole subject. But I am not qualified to
speak of other countries and so confine myself to the two which form
my background. One of the best books on world poverty is De Castro's
Geography of Hunger (1952), which is a United Nations
publication. It showed that in 1952 Australia was the only county in
the world which was free of hunger. And I think that is still so. And
I am particularly distressed about this.
English history is of great significance, because from England so
many countries have derived the misgovernment and social inequalities
which have so impoverished them. I am not an iconoclast, and have no
desire to denigrate England which is my own fatherland. Much of
England and its history is good, quaint, picturesque and pleasing. The
good and bad are inextricably mixed.
What is poverty?
Having covered the preliminaries we can now launch into our subject
by defining the word, "poverty." This dire word has four
different meanings, or possibly more.
(1) Normal or natural poverty follows laziness or incompetence. It is
individual conduct -- our own fault. In Proverbs, Chapter Six, we
read, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be
wise ... a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the
hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you."
(2) Poverty inflicted on some by the crime or misconduct of others as
theft, personal injury, property damage, slander or racial
discrimination. The only remedy for this type of poverty is the
observance of the Golden Rule.
(3) The poverty which results from illness, old age or accident, for
which nobody is to blame. Insurance can provide some protection, and
we are approaching compensation for all victims out of the community's
fund, i.e. out of economic rent, as in an effective way in any
otherwise more primitive age was done in England through the frank-al-moign
land tenure. If we do it through taxation the benefits will be largely
(4) The fourth type of poverty is the only one which concerns us in
this paper, namely: world poverty.
It is world-wide and anti-social, caused by the injustices of
governments. It has many forms, including oppression, slavery,
land-conquest, taxation and political corruption, all of which in the
modern world are caused by bad government, i.e. political injustice
and partiality. Some of the less obvious forms of bad government which
cause poverty are racial favouritism, protectionism, and extravagance
in government. For example, our new Parliament House in Canberra cost
$A1 billion, and is nearly all used to promote poverty.
None of these are economic, but anti-economic. They are all
political. Although our production of wealth and services is enormous,
our bad laws and practices take very much of it out of the pockets of
the producers and put it into the pockets of non-producers, wasting an
incalculable amount of it on the way. Let us ever remember the
inspired words of Richard Cobden (to John Bright, quoted by Henry
George in Chapter 20 of Protection or Free Trade): "There
are in England women and children dying with hunger, with hunger made
by the laws. Come with me, and we will not rest until we have repealed
The history of poverty
The political history of England is a process whereby the ruling
classes have converted the subject classes into serfs who physically
occupy the land but have been deprived of their rights in it and are
now landless. They now live in a country of two nations - those who
legally own the country, and those who are permitted to live in it as
their subjects who pay them tribute for the permission. Benjamin
Disraeli, once conservative Prime Minister of Britain, says in his
novel Sybil: "The Privileged and the People formed two
nations" (Brabham edition, 1927). This situation is very much a
reality in both England and Australia, where the current prices of
land indicate the extent to which the "lower" classes must
pay the "upper" classes for permission to live in the
To understand all this you must be fired with an intense desire for
the welfare of the peoples of the world, and you must use your
intellect to study and learn. Robert Browning says (Rabbi Ben Ezra):
Then welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids
Nor sit nor stand but go
Be our joy three parts pain
Strive and hold light the strain,
Learn nor account the pang,
Strive, never heed the throe.
Our study must be effective. How can we study effectively? By
following Francis Bacon's advice in his Essay on Studies: "Reading
maketh a full man, conference (i.e. discussion) a ready man, and
writing an exact man." So read widely, discuss as much as
possible, and write what you have learned.
To commerce with modern poverty in England we need go back no further
than the Norman Conquest, the most natural and spectacular starting
point. Before 1066 poverty in our sense was unknown except for the
natural consequences of military activity, which everybody took for
granted as normal or inevitable. After the Conquest, though the
standard of living was by our standards extremely low", and the
English were oppressed and kept rigidly in their place by their Norman
conquerors, there was no destitution or starvation in the midst of
plenty, no unemployment and no taxation, because the introduction of
the feudal system in 1066 did not end or even alter every Englishman's
access to land. This is not to deny that the gross inequality between
the Norman conquerors and the conquered English developed into the
tyranny and injustice which later deprived the English of their rights
and created the poverty.
Substantial universal rights in the land lasted until roughly the
17th century, though the land-enclosures had commenced as early as the
15th century and the Barons had commenced to throw off their feudal
obligations to the Crown as early as the 13th century (as witness
Magna Carta, 1215). The history of poverty in England is progressive
from those early centuries onward, and consists of corrupt politics,
of encroachnients and oppression by national and regional rulers, of
unjust laws and practices developing into customs and laws.
Before the best period of English history for the common people
disappeared in the 16th century, and England changed from Merrie
England to poverty and disinheritance, tremendous changes occurred
in the feudal land-tenures. So I must briefly explain what those
The feudal land-tenures
After 1066, William immediately reduced the English to complete
subjection to the Normans, and assumed complete control of all the
land. You have all heard of Domesday Book. Every piece of land was
made the subject of tenancy under the king, and there were three kinds
(1) The military tenures
Roughly one-third of all English land was granted to the Norman
barons as tenants of the king. The barons were the military chiefs who
had helped William to conquer England. They held the land under
fealty, i.e. under sworn allegiance to the king, to serve him in all
his military undertakings and to provide him with all the necessary
men-at-arms and necessities of war whenever he called on them for it.
Thus all the king's wars and military operations were carried out
without expense to the king, without debt, and without taxes. Thus,
even after the One Hundred Years' War there was no public or private
debt. This system lasted until the 17th century, i.e. for six
centuries of the greatest prosperity that the English people have ever
known, although it was a period of turbulence and tyranny.
But almost from the beginning the barons were rebellious, conspiring
continuously to throw off their obligations, with varying success.
Under a weak king, e.g. John in 1215, they prevailed. And even when
the Tudors subdued them they ultimately and finally succeeded in
throwing off their military obligations, the last vestiges of which
were replaced under Cromwell and Charles II by an excise tax. Since
then the public has borne the burdens of war, and of peace, through
taxation, and I need not tell you what an astronomic figure these
burdens have now become. Apart from the financial burdens, if we could
only resume the obligation of the land-owners to pay for all wars to
protect their country I think that there would be no more danger of
Thus the first great step towards poverty was taken when the
landowners threw off their feudal obligations, and by legislation
transferred them to the backs of the people.
In Modern Man and the Liberal Arts by Francis Neilson (1947)
I find the following (p.112-3):
"In 1845 Richard Cobden said in the House of
For a period of 150 years after the Conquest
the whole of the revenue of the country was derived from the land.
During the next 150 years it yielded 19 twentieths of the revenue --
for the next century it was 9 tenths. During the next 70 years to
the reign of Mary it fell to about three fourths. From this time to
the end of the Commonwealth, land appeared to have yielded one half
of the revenue. Down to the reign of Anne it was one fourth. In the
reign it was one seventh. From 1793 to 1816 (during the period of
the land Tax) land contributed one ninth, from which time to 1845
one twenty-fifth only has been derived from the land. Thus the land
which anciently paid the whole of taxation pays now only a fraction,
notwithstanding the immense increase in the amount of the rentals..."
The imposition of excise duties in place of the former
burdens of the fisc sent the landless, who had been cut adrift from
their commons, with empty bellies in search of work in the towns.
This war of the landlords against the peasants has never been
exceeded in severity by any conquering state . . . The landlord's
war in England was prosecuted century after century, generation
after generation. There was no let-up to it. And it terminated in
scenes of crowning horror and shame.
So much for the legalized termination of the military tenures.
(2) The ecclesiastical tenures
Also under feudalism about one-third of the land of England was held
by the church from the king under a land-tenure known as Frank-al-Moign
(which might be translated as "free of charge"), the
church's obligation being to provide free the relief of poverty, the
care of the aged and the ill, all education and church services. Under
this system, far more enlightened than anything we have today, there
there was no poverty or destitution in the modern sense. The whole of
this tenure was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1536 by the dissolution and
confiscation of the monasteries. The lands were sold for Henry's
financial benefit or distributed among his favourites, who became
aristocrats and occupied the monasteries as their homes. as many of
their successors still do. For example, the Duke of Bedford resides in
Woburn Abbey. (See G. K. Chesterton's A Short History of England
(1917), p.5 and pp. 143-150).
Whether or not the monasteries had deteriorated, which I need not
discuss, and whether or not Henry had any justification in dissolving
them, the enrichment of the "new nobility" and the
disappearance of the monasteries strongly increased poverty and was a
major factor in changing the whole of England for the worse. The
poverty increased so greatly, and so much suffering was caused, that
Elizabeth I was forced to enact the Poor Laws and provide the
workhouses. But by that first phase of the welfare state, as also by
the full force of it in our century, although there has been some
improvement in the intensity of the poverty, the poor have been
reduced by a massive bureaucracy to a cringing acceptance of the
public dole paid largely out of their own pockets.
(3) Free and common socage
The third type of tenure was known as Socage, which is defined in my
dictionary as a tenure of lands by fixed and determinate service. It
was a civilian tenure which did not involve fealty, and of which there
were two kinds: free and common, i.e. he tenants were either free or "common."
The free tenants were mainly the civilian successors of the Norman
conquerors, e.g. the Lords of the Manor, who provided the king with
all his civilian and domestic requirements, e.g. the administration of
justice and personal and household needs, all of which in those days
were primitive when measured by our standards.
I cannot enlarge upon the very complicated system of civil taxes
which has now displaced the goods and services provided for the king
under free and common socage by the land-holders without taxes, or on
the rebellion of the wealthy upper middle classes at the time of
Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, which rid the land-owning class both of
their military and socage obligations and threw the burden onto the
people and led into the great poverty of the Industrial Revolution and
of the starvation of the "hungry forties." The obligations
of the land-owners under free and common socage have now disappeared
and been replaced by taxation, except on a few ceremonial occasions,
such as the coronation when both church and state do homage and
acknowledge that they hold their lands from the king and perform such
pageants as holding the king's stirrup, providing the roast beef for
the coronation banquet, etc.
General comments on the change: prosperity to poverty
Whether the enclosures were the worst of the acts and processes of
injustice and corruption is open to question. It is difficult to
assess with certainty whether it was the enclosures, the dissolution
of the monasteries, or the rebellions of the barons in throwing off
the obligations of the military tenures. lam inclined to think that
the enclosures, great as they were, were the least of the three. For
one thing, as many orthodox historians have pointed out in trying to
justify the enclosures, the change from medieval to modern tillage, of
which the enclosures were a part, was inevitable. Nevertheless the
unjust and brutal way they were often carried out, and the fundamental
breaches of trust involved, cannot be justified, and the poverty and
misery which resulted, have meant that the enclosures form part of the
history of poverty in England. I quote from page 283 of Trevellyan's
History of England:
The effect of the cloth trade (i.e. the enclosures and
conversion of tillage land to sheep-runs) was not wholly for the
like every other process of economic change, it had its
army of victims and its tale of agony. Since it overthrew status and
custom in favor of cash nexus and the fluidity of labour, it brought
to the newly emancipated villein great opportunities and great
risks, and to the capitalist farmer and landlord temptations to grow
rich quickly at the expense of others. In certain districts there
were enclosures of the open fields of the village for pasture.
implying the eviction of many plowmen to make room for a few
Many of the evicted plowmen wandered off to swell
the ranks of the "sturdy beggars," "staff strikers"
and "rogues forlorn" who figure so largely in the
literature and Statute Books of Tudor times. The beggars were the
characteristic evil of the 16th century
landlords who set them adrift on society were denounced by moralists
like Thomas More and Hugh Latimer.
I might add that Trevellyan, unlike More and Latimer, presents the "orthodox"
view of the enclosures.
Summary of the great change
We have briefly seen how England in the course of about five
centuries changed from general prosperity to poverty and misery
(except for the privileged classes, who brought the change about), and
we have also seen that the rebellion of the barons, the enclosures and
the suppression of the monasteries were the main causes of the great
change. Under the feudal system the land was held under conditions so
as to provide for all public services out of the land-tenures or
tenancies. Great prosperity for the "lower" classes
developed out of this, and England was known as Merrie England,
about which you can read in Thorold Rogers's Six Centuries of Work
and Wages and very many other histories. The 13th, l4th and 15th
centuries were known as the Golden Age. Distinguished authors have
included J. R. Green, Francis Neilson, Trevellyan (already quoted),
Edgar Buck and William Cobbett, Karl Marx, and Our Older Nobility
(1910). Many authors inevitably present the point of view of the
ruling classes, but the facts come through clearly. Perhaps the best
of all books on the subject is Graham Peace's The Great Robbery,
with its maps showing the enclosures and land-holdings in each county.
Briefly reviewing the three great steps to poverty:
(1) The military tenures lasted in theory, though continuously
diminishing, until the 17th century when the few remaining obligations
were replaced by an excise tax. They had begun to diminish when the
barons combined against the king as Early as the 13th century. The
royal writ "quo warranto" was issued by the king against
barons who refused to fulfill their obligations, but the Earl of
Warienne produced an old rusty sword and said, "This, sirs, is my
warrant." When the king was strong he prevailed, and when he was
weak the barons prevailed. Ultimately the Tudor kings are supposed to
have subdued the barons, but in fact the barons won and they no longer
rendered military service for their lands. They are now simply tenants
in fee simple, without obligations in respect to their lands Wars are
financed by taxation and borrowing, astronomical loads of national
debt, and all the wastage and distortions which spring from taxes and
(2) The dissolution of the monasteries. The reasons for Henry
VIII's gigantic robbery and cruelty were complex. Probably the chief
one was his overthrow of the Pope's jurisdiction in England, to which
the monks were opposed and which many of them resisted, so that he
considered, or pretended to consider, them to be dangerous. His
natural cruelty was aroused by the resistance. There was also his
greed and tyranny in disposing of many of the monasteries for his own
financial gain, e.g. at St. Alban's.
The monasteries had alienated many; among other things, they had
themselves taken part in the enclosures for their own benefit.
Among the many disasters suffered by the people through the
dissolution of the monasteries was that the new aristocrats who took
over the monastic lands and buildings, in contrast to the monks,
became part of the land-owning class who oppressed the
poverty-stricken people. Trevellyan says of the new cloth-making,
weaving and shearing class who rapidly became wealthy and influential
(p.283): "The richer of them, buying land and intermarrying with
needy squires, founded new "county families." Not a few of
them shared in the Abbey lands, having ready cash with which to join
in the fierce land speculation which followed the dissolution... The
men of the new wealth were indispensable to Elizabeth."
The growth of the wool industry was thus intimately connected with
both the enclosures and the dissolution. Later, Queen Mary restored
the Roman Catholic religion without much difficulty, but found the
wresting of the monasteries from their new owners a much tougher and
entirely different task, in which she failed miserably.
To give us an idea of the tremendous effects of the dissolution on
the history of poverty in England one need take only one example: What
has happened to the Westminster lands, now held by the Duke of
Westminster? His fabulous holdings include the whole of Mayfair. He
has become one of the richest men in the world, and one of the world's
(3) The enclosures were one of the three great acts of injustice
which I have described and which have substantially contributed to
modern poverty. Their effects are obvious and lasting. In all, between
1702 and 1876 alone, about 7,000,000 acres were enclosed. Earlier they
had caused great local distress and misery, but made little difference
to England as a whole at that time. But in the long run they have made
the most profound difference. Though they enabled the whole production
of England to be modernised and increased. They were an effective
cause of converting England into two nations, the few thousand
privileged land-owners and the millions of landless.
The three great changes took full effect with the Industrial
Revolution early in the 19th century, with a peak of intense poverty
which has in our century resulted in the Welfare State; which, in
turn, has far from abolished the poverty but has modified the extremes
of it, and has left the extremes of wealth unmodified, side by side
with general and severe poverty, while bureaucracy, Parkinson's Law,
public and private debt, and massive waste abound. The poor have been
reduced to abject subservience to the bureaucracy, and even starvation
still exists. The class war in England, so noticeable to Australians,
rules in full strength.
So Shakespeare's famous words, in Richard II, put into poetic words
the truth of the Broken Trust:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land
Is now leas'd out -- I die pronouncing it --
Like to a tenement or pelting farm;
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds;
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Has made a shameful conquest of itself.
There is still time, and still hope, because not everybody is
entirely unaware of England's history. For instance, let me quote for
your enjoyment a passage from a modern non-political book, Domestic
Life in England by Norah Lofts (1976) which very briefly tells of
the rise of modern poverty in the midst of plenty after the War of the
"The wealth which paid for the fine new houses,
extravagant clothes and gargantuan meals came mainly from a more
economic use of agricultural land, enabling the country to produce a
surplus above the needs of subsistence, which fed the towns and was
traded abroad. This was achieved by the enclosure of waste land,
demesne land, common land and open strips into large arable fields
or pasture for sheep. As a result many peasants (nearly all now
freemen) were evicted from their small-holdings, or lost their
rights to the common land, and labourers were put out of work.
...The numbers were small compared with those who were to suffer in
the 18th century, but to concerned observers it seemed as if a whole
way of life was being broken up. Sir Thomas More protested that
'sheep eateth men,' and in his Utopia, published in 1516,
described the fate of the peasant farmers: 'The husbandmen be thrust
out of their owne, or els either by coveyne and fraude, or by
violent oppression, they be put besydes it, or by wrongs and
injuries they be so weried that they be compelled to sell all; by
one means therefore or by other, either by hook or crooke, they must
need depart away, poore, selye, wretched soules.'"
Imagine the effect of the dissolution on top of all this! And on the
point of the great evictions, see William Cobbett's Legacy to
Labourers. And also note how the great throwing off of feudal
obligations by land-holder, including the new English rating system
(which I understand has been very recently made even worse by the new
Poll Tax legislation), culminated in the great Broken Trust by which
England has been changed into two nations, the rich and the victimised
I will close with a heartfelt salute of affection to Old England from
a 2Oth-century English poet, Harold Begbie, taken from his poem Britons
Beyond the Seas:
Loved, you are loved, O England
And ever that love endures
And mightier dreams than yours
Cleaner Londons, and wider fields,
And a statelier bridge to span
The gulf that severs the rich and poor
In the brotherly ranks of man.
Fortunately all these great and tragic disasters of English history
can be reversed by one radical political measure of justice, i.e. the
resumption by the people, through their government, of the economic
rent of England to constitute the natural public revenue of England,
so that taxation, that other great injustice, can be discontinued. We
shall then have the great delight of seeing Merrie England
The history of England reveals how national prosperity was changed
into degrading poverty. And a study of the two social sciences --
ethics and economics -- shows how that poverty can again be changed,
this time into prosperity.
The evils of the past cannot be blotted out, but they can be reversed
for the future.
We can even outdo the splendour of Merrie England -- we can
restore to the working masses full opportunity to employ themselves,
with all the extra opportunities added by modern science and by the
ethical practices outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, to which the
English people still profess attachment. We can eliminate the
privileges of the small minority who reap without sowing, so that the
producers can reap economically and plenteously. And we can ensure
that those who through age, illness or accident cannot produce receive
their fair share of the wealth and services bestowed on the people in
the lavish bounteousness of nature by that great social surplus:
So all the three great historic disasters can be reversed, and the
land now fenced off from the people will again be open and accessible
to all, though without impairing free and equitable private
We have a great task ahead of us. My hope is that this paper will
encourage and arm our Georgist workers and writers to increase their
efforts and effectiveness while maintaining their obedience to the
Part II: Australia
In this study I must pass over much of Australia's well-known
history, such as that of the aborigines, the explorers, the wool
industry, the squatters, the gold rush, the Eureka stockade, and even
the development of democracy and self-government in which we are
relatively so advanced, that we have more chance of achieving good
government and justice than has the rest of the world.
The great feature of Australia and its history is the land, as in all
countries. There was at the beginning in all countries, but perhaps
more particularly in the United States and Australia, an unlimited
supply of free land, and our history of poverty in Australia consists
in its essence of an artificial and legally contrived drying-up of
this free land during the first two centuries to 1988. The land, of
course, is physically still here in abundance, but it is no longer
freely and equally available to the people, as it would be if the
Georgist proposals were adopted. As soon as the drying-up process
commenced with the introduction of the English system of
land-ownership the land began to have a price, which has continued and
increased ever since. This is only another way of saying that the
people have been disinherited, as in England. Throughout Australia,
and particularly in Sydney, the price is now colossal. The best
residential sites cost millions, while the industrial and commercial
sites cost billions. Most Australians, even if profitably employed,
cannot now afford to buy a home or home site, as they nearly all could
do until very recently. The origin of our poverty is plain, and when
we reverse it by collecting all site-rent for public revenue the price
of land will disappear, together with poverty and unemployment, and we
shall be a free people.
Captain James Cook took possession of, or "appropriated,"
Australia in 1770. In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip, the first colonial
governor, launched the first military and convict colony at Botany
Bay, and it continued as a colony until 1850, when it became a
self-governing colony with its six States.
From the first the land was looked on through English eyes. It was
manipulated by the governing English and Australian authorities in the
interests of the privileged classes so as to deprive the unprivileged
classes, whom Marx called the proletariat, of the rights in and access
to the land, which Marx said was the real cause of their exploitation.
In Australia, as in England, the people were disinherited, though
perhaps less so than in England. Benjamin Disraeli, in his novel, Sybil,
spoke of England as two nations, the privileged and the unprivileged.
Similarly in Australia we are two nations. I do not mean the whites
and the blacks, but those who pocket the rents of Australian land to a
substantial degree and those who are permitted to work the land and to
produce Australia's wealth, and to pay for the privilege. We have our
few billionaires, and our millions of paupers living in charity.
Poverty by manipulation
The manipulation, by English governments and our own privileged
class, of the land-laws of Australia constituted our Australian Broken
Trust (to use Edgar Buck's phrase), and it constitutes a shameless
record. You will remember that I said earlier that Richard Cobden
described English poverty and starvation as due to English laws.
Similarly our manipulated land-laws of Australia have created our
poverty and disinheritance. After we became self-governing our
parliaments and governments have continued the process.
In Australia we have not experienced the horrors and savagery of
India, Africa or New Zealand under colonial rule. But at bottom our
history has been very similar, the chief similarity being the
ignorance and apathy of the people, who spend much public money on
relieving poverty without tackling its causes.
Our earlier history
At the beginning the ordinary Australian people endured great
hardship and scarcity. There was semi-starvation for almost everybody,
and there was the degradation and brutality of the convict system. But
this gradually improved as free settlers arrived, along with more
soldiers and convicts, until 1850. Eleven free settlers arrived in
1793, attracted by free passages, free grants of land, free convict
labour, free tools and free stores for ten years. In 1805 more free
settlers arrived, bringing some capital of their own, and receiving
free grants of land. More and more free grants were made. Phillip's
early instructions from London were to make free grants to freed
convicts so that they could grow food which was desperately needed,
and many such grants were made Later, many prominent citizens received
free grants, presumably because of their merits, including the
notorious John MacArthur (10,000 acres in one grant alone), the Rev.
Richard Johnson, the first chaplain (260 acres), Dr. William Redfern
(3,100 acres in all), and William Balmain (1,247 acres in all).
Phillip left for England in 1792, and during the interregnum the
military officers, known as the New South Wales Corps, ruled the
colony. They made hay for themselves while the sun shone; among the
many benefits they conferred on themselves were a total of 15,000
acres between them.
The areas of the earliest grants are, of course, now the most
valuable lands in Australia, though the grantees mostly sold them
quickly. There are many stories about them, including the one about
Burdekin House in Macquarie Street, Sydney. The grantee sold the block
to a visiting sailor for a bottle of rum, and the sailor left Sydney
and forgot all about it. But a long time afterwards he returned, found
the receipt, searched for the block, and found it with a handsome
building standing on it, built by someone who had no title to the
land. The sailor took possession, and no doubt made a handsome profit
from the rising prices.
There was, of course, nothing wrong with the grants themselves,
though they were not made in a systematic way. They were just and
necessary. The private, exclusive possession of land is essential to
civilization. The great thing wrong with them was the failure to
impose just conditions, in particular the payment of the economic rent
to the community, an idea unknown to the public at that time.
Very strangely, however, there were some early quit-rents and
peppercorn rents, which were quickly forgotten and abandoned. Somebody
must have known something of English tradition.
So the grantees became regarded as owners, as they still are, and not
as tenants. In consequence, taxation was imposed from the beginning,
and has increased spectacularly ever since. Our defective land-grants,
coupled with our heavy taxation and debts, have made us two nations,
the rich and the poor.
More on the land-grants
In the early days of the colony the administration was performed by
the Colonial Office in London, the Department of the Minister of State
for the Colonies, an enormous department. Administering India alone
was an enormous activity, in spite of the East India Company. All
orders from London to Sydney were by sailing-ship, slow and
infrequent. The Colonial Office, of course, saw everything through
upper-class English eyes. If it ever occurred to them that Australians
should have free and equal access to Australian land, that idea was
dismissed as revolutionary and dangerous. We must remember that the
ruling class in Britain were at this time very much afraid of both the
French and American revolutions, and that Britain was seething with
rebellion and discontent. The government's policy was military,
repressive and savage, and the severity of the criminal law became
extreme. Even petty crimes were punished by execution or
transportation to the colonies. At the end of the 18th and the
beginning of the 19th centuries England was reduced to its lowest
level of degradation, pauperism and suffering, as witness the Peterloo
massacre, the Chartist uprisings and Shelley's poems. Even though
rebellion and revolution were commonplace in English history they were
to be repressed at all cost.
The Ministers of State for the Colonies saw the land of Australia as
the natural property of the English privileged classes. This reached
its peak with the famous Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who was not a
Minister but was apparently the most influential person in colonial
affairs. His plan was to introduce in the colonies the English
aristocractic land-owning system. Accordingly; in 1825, free grants of
land were discontinued, after over three million acres had been handed
out. All grants were henceforth to be by way of sale, at prices which
only the rich could afford. Thus the working classes were kept
land-less and a constant source of cheap labour in subordination to
the landowning class.
The following is an abbreviated extract from A Letter from Sydney,
really written by Wakefield, published by A. W. Jose in his History
of Australia: "New South Wales was no place for a gentleman.
The refinements of English life could not exist there, for no there
was no leisured class, and of free servants there were none. A
labourer might work for you for a year or two after arriving from
England, but he would be sure to save money out of his wages and buy
land with it, for land (said the letter) was much too easily got in
New South Wales, and then the refined master would find himself
without a servant and would have to work for his own living. This
produced a new kind of society, and not a good kind. All the
enumerated evils arose from the cheapness of land; so make land dear.
Then the labourer would remain a labourer, happy and contented,
earning his master's living as well as his own, and the master would
have time to read and converse on intellectual matters with his
equally leisured neighbors. Therefore sell land at a high price, use
the money thus obtained to bring out emigrant labourers, and take care
to bring out only as many as would be wanted to cultivate the land
sold. So everybody would be happy, and the poor would never lack
An abundant supply of free and landless labour was thus guaranteed,
and has persisted, with fluctuations, ever since. William Charles
Wentworth and some others even hoped that there would be a House of
Lords in Australia, in which they would sit. Although the Australian
people, with rising self-government, soon threw off Wentworth's ideas
and became (within limits) firmly democratic, the English ideas
prevailed for some time and are still quite influential in Australia.
Wakefield's ideas were also tried very early in South Australia, with
disastrous results. That State became a hotbed of land speculation and
was soon bankrupt, from which it had to be sternly rescued by the new
governor, Sir George Grey, who both in New Zealand and South Australia
was a distinguished predecessor and a friend of Henry George, and who
ranks with Stamford Raffles of Singapore as a brilliant administrator
and ruler and has left his mark on posterity for the benefit of the
The grants of land by way of sale were adopted throughout Australia
and now every State has its Department of Lands which issues new
grants and grants leases under the Crown Lands Acts. All city and town
lands, and most of the country lands of any value, have passed into
private ownership in fee simple, from which most of the great fortunes
have sprung, though a certain number of the great fortunes have sprung
from leasehold grants. The great majority of Australians own no land.
Although we have the highest proportion of home-ownership in the
world, this is changing back into landlessness because of the rapidly
increasing land prices. We are slipping back into poverty amidst
plenty -- the two nations of which Disraeli spoke.
Australia has seen great development in both town and country, and in
spite of our unemployment, inflation and debt, Wakefield would be glad
to know that our amenities have increased to an almost fantastic
extent, so that our standard of living is very high and there are
innumerable places in Australia fit for a gentleman. We have strong
industry, universities and colleges and schools.
Our land titles
There is still a large area of Crown land in Australia, but most of
it is waterless desert. If ever water is brought into the desert it
will blossom like the rose and become an immense source of wealth, and
unless we change our public revenue system it will soon pass into the
hands of the wealthy few. But our future is more hopeful than in most
countries. All we need to do is to leave the land-titles unchanged and
collect from every landholder the proper economic rent of his holding,
and so abolish as soon as practicable our huge taxes and debts.
Our prospects and our future
I must quickly pass over a picturesque period of Australian
history -- the squatters, the gold rush and the Eureka Stockade. It
made no substantial alternations, but it developed in Australia a
favourable feeling towards the rights of the people in the land. The
first Labour Party in the 1890s adopted a watered-down version of
Henry George's land value tax as the first plank of its platform,
although this was later swept away by socialism. There is some hope
that the present wall of ignorance about economics will be broken
down, because the private appropriation of the rent of Australia can
be seen by anybody who has eyes to see to be the basic cause of
poverty in Australia. In the meantime our governments gouge every
penny they can out of the pockets of the producers, while they raise
no objection to vast fortunes being extracted from the pockets of all
producers by the owners of the choicest city and industrial sites. Our
great Henry George Pearce has satirised the Australian National
Anthem, the first verse of which reads:
Australian sons, let us rejoice
For we are young and free
We've golden soil and wealth for toil
Our home is girt by sea.
The satire runs as follows:
Australian sons, let us lament
For we're not free at all.
We've golden soil fenced off from toil
Girt by a tariff wall.
Public revenue in Australia
Australian governments -- federal, state and local -- collect a small
amount of economic rent for public revenue, more perhaps by accident
than by knowledgeable purpose.
(1) Three States - New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia
-- collect all their rates on land values, and in my opinion, although
this terminology is very defective, the whole of what is collected is
true economic rent while the amount collected is still very small. Two
other States -- Victoria and South Australia -- partially do the same,
and only Tasmania bases its rates entirely on land and improvements.
As far as I can calculate, the total economic rent collected by rates
in Australia is about $A2 billion, of which a considerable amount is
used to pay for Council services and not for actual local government.
(2) Every State in Australia has a land tax on land value, but it is
very much watered down and emasculated by exemptions and graduations.
As Richard Braddock has taken this as the subject of his paper for
this conference, I leave it to him.
(3) The total public revenue received by State governments from
leases of Crown lands, interest on Conditional Purchases, and
Forestry, seems to be about $A70 million.
Thus, out of a total of $A170 billion, or probably more, received per
annum by Australian governments, probably not more than $A4 billion is
collected from economic rent. In my opinion, economic rent in
Australia amounts to at least $A70 to $A1OO billions.
All the figures quoted are very tentative, and so are the taxes on
economic rent collected by income tax and in other ways. These
indirect taxes on rent are very large, and prevent the whole community
from being bled dry from the misappropriation of economic rent.
Our future in Australia is neither very hopeful nor completely
hopeless. A much more substantial and more effective educational
effort is needed. Much of the efforts of many dedicated and talented
Georgists in Australia is directed to the converted, but we have had
some good successes. Among our most brilliant and talented Georgists
have been Max Hirsch and Sir Joseph Carruthers, to mention only two
out of the many. One great Australian who deserves special mention and
who did not belong to the organised Georgist movement was Sir Samuel
Griffith, who attempted to introduce into the Queensland Parliament an
actual enactment of the Georgist philosophy and proposals.
My final mention must be the Walsh Bequest Foundation in the
Macquarie University in Sydney. Mr. Richard Braddock, who is attending
and will be a speaker at this conference, administers the Foundation,
and will, I am sure, be glad to tell us about it.
Poverty in Australia is a grim reality. We are endeavoring to
eradicate it, in cooperation with Georgists around the world.