The Irrigation Colony of Mildura HOME

The Irrigation Colony of Mildura

In the early 1880s, the Victorian government began examining the possibility of establishing irrigation colonies on the Murray River. A Royal Commission chaired by Alfred Deakin the then Chief Secretary and Minister for Water Supply (and later to become Prime Minister of Australia after Federation) was held to examine Victoria's water resources and it was decided to establish one such colony. To this end , in 1884 Deakin led a delegation to the U.S.A. where he met the Canadian born brothers George and

W.B. (Ben) Chaffey
who had established irrigation colonies at Ontario and Ettiwanda, east of Los Angeles.

Deakin was impressed with the Chaffeys and their achievements , and the Chaffeys were sufficiently interested in Deakin's proposals to send their manager, Stephen Cureton , to Victoria in 1885. After a promising report from Cureton, George Chaffey visited Victoria in 1886 and having decided on the Mildura Run as a suitable location for an irrigation colony he sent word to his brother to sell their Californian interests (at a loss) in order to invest in this new venture.

The boldness and perspicacity of this decision can perhaps be appreciated from the following description of Chaffey's chosen location

The Mildura Run was in liquidation at this time. Lessee after lessee had left it in despair after being ruined. It was claimed that if it had been auctioned in 1887, it would not even have brought 10s per acre. It had a frontage of forty miles and reached some twenty miles back "with flats subject to frequent inundations covered with really splendid forests of red gum". George Chaffey saw the Mildura scene as "sterility on either bank with the river of life flowing between". One earlier squatter described the run as "the most wretched and hopeless of all the Mallee regions" and another as "a Sahara of blasting hot winds and red driving sands, a howling, carrion -polluted wilderness". Painter,1993
On October 21st 1886 after months of negotiations with Deakin, the Chaffey brothers signed an agreement for the establishment of an irrigation colony on the Mildura Run. However this agreement was rejected by the Victorian parliament, many of whose members were suspicious of these 'Americans' whilst others were concerned about the effect of such a scheme on river navigation. This was despite considerable support for the agreement in the press
....As the matter now stands, little more can be done than congratulate the country that the enterprises of the Messrs Chaffey has enabled the Chief Secretary to make an excellent bargain for the State. The Mallee, which constitutes the bulk of the territory now in the hands of the State, is practically valueless, and the Messrs Chaffey are ready to take a block in hand and establish upon it one of the 'irrigation colonies' by which irrigation has been developed in America. The Messrs Chaffey, who are British subjects, have been most successful in their enterprises in the States. their qualifications are undoubted, and certainly it says much for our irrigation prospects that experts of their standing should see their way to undertake a large experiment here...this wilderness the Messrs Chaffey undertake to transform into a garden....It would be a grand thing to have the Mallee transformed in this manner- to have our farmers taught 'intense culture' by means of irrigation, without risk and without cost to the State. The Argus, October22,1886

The property was subsequently put up for public tender but the Chaffeys decided not to tender. Instead, they negotiated with the South Australian government and on February 14th 1887 they signed an agreement securing 250,000 acres at Bookmark Plains which was to become the town of Renmark.

The Victorian government, meanwhile, had not received a satisfactory tender for the Mildura run (which is hardly surprising given their treatment of the Chaffeys and the prior history of the run), and eventually 'The Chaffey Brothers Agreement' was passed by both Houses of Parliament and on May 31st 1887 an indenture was signed for 250,000 acres of the old Mildura run, which the Chaffeys took possession of in August. Under the terms of this Agreement, the Chaffey Brothers were to pay 5 pounds per acre on two blocks of 25,000 acres each, which they would then subdivide into cleared 10 acre blocks and undertake to construct irrigation channels to the highest corner of each 10 acre block. Provided that these improvements were made and payment proceeded according to schedule, they could then acquire a further 200,000 acres at 1 pound per acre plus improvements to the value of another 1 pound per acre. At commencement they were granted water rights varying from 20,000 cubic feet per minute in March to a maximum of 60,000 feet per minute in September, October and November or the equivalent of a 24 inch rainfall for the irrigated blocks. To put these water statistics in perspective, a report in 1889 after many years of drought found that the lowest rate of discharge from the Murray was 182,000 cubic feet per minute.

Prospective settlers or investors could purchase irrigated blocks for 20 pounds per acre cash or on terms of 1 pound deposit and 120 monthly repayments of 2 pounds 7 shillings and sixpence which amounted to a total of 285 pounds or 85 pounds in interest over 10 years. A minimum of 10 acres and a maximum of 80 acres could be purchased by any individual. The company (Chaffey Brothers L.t.d.) also managed blocks for absentee owners for a fee of 5 pounds per annum.

The steamer 'Jane Eliza' was brought to Psyche Bend to be used as a pumping station, and George Chaffey, who was an engineer, had further pumps built to his design that were each claimed to be capable of delivering up to 40,0000 gallons per minute to main channels 50 , 70 and 85 feet above the river.

No. 2 pumping station temporary plant c1890
These main channels were 15 feet wide and 3 feet deep. However ,because the channels were unlined there were continuous problems with seepage and damage by crayfish and yabbies.

Murray cray

Added to the technical difficulties encountered in getting water to the crops, was the inter-colonial bickering over the rights to the Murray's water. The Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, on learning that water was being pumped from the river called the Chaffeys 'trespassers', basing his accusation on a section of the N.S.W. Constitution Act of 1855 which stated 'that the whole of the watercourse of the said River Murray is and shall be in the territory of New South Wales'. Such attitudes once prompted the mayor of Echuca, after a severe flood, to telegraph the then Premier of NSW requesting that the NSW water be removed from his Victorian town! The South Australian government sided with NSW and wanted the matter taken to the Privy Council in London. Such protracted disagreement caused George Chaffey to call for an Inter colonial Trust for the regulation of the use of the River Murray.

In 1877 the district received better rainfall that it had for many years and the breaking of the drought in N.S.W. in i889 led to floods and good rains for the next three years. By 1890 the colony had 3600 acres planted to horticulture. In these early years trees were usually preferred to vines, with a typical block planted to 25% vines and the rest taken up by apricots (Moorpark), peaches (Lady Palmerston), lemons (Lisbon) and oranges (St Michael, Valetta, Jaffa). By 1894 there were 700 acres of oranges, 750 acres of lemons, 900 acres of peaches and 1650 acres of apricots. However, many of these trees were dying due to a combination of inexperience on the part of the settlers and unscrupulous nurserymen (from elsewhere) supplying trees that were not true to type and variety, or on poor rootstock. In 1890 the Chaffey brothers established there own nursery, as did other settlers, to overcome this problem.

The first vines recommended for planting were Muscat Gordo Blanco and Zante Currants. The Zante Currants proved to be unreliable bearers with some good years and others when berry drop was extreme. Some settlers experimented with cincturing (making a shallow incision around the vine just below the crown whilst the fruit is immature to cause greater sap flow to the bunches, a practice that is still sometimes used to attempt to ripen table grapes a week or so early and thus bring a higher market price) and this proved successful in increasing yields. Sun dried Gordos were sent to the Melbourne markets in 1894, but merchants complained that the fruit was too dark compared with imported European fruit. Sultanas were not recommended initially but two independently minded growers imported enough cuttings from South Australia to plant two acres at Nichols Point, and by 1894 66 acres of Sultanas had been planted throughout the colony. This rapidly increased until they became the main variety of vine planted, a situation which has continued to this day.

The Chaffeys (especially George) invested in other business ventures in Mildura and elsewhere. These included a brickworks , an engineering company, a timber mill and in 1888 The River Murray Navigation Company. In the early years of settlement, favourable conditions meant Mildura could rely mostly on river transport with freight and passengers going downstream to Morgan for a railway connection to Adelaide, and upstream to Swan Hill and Echuca, for connections to Melbourne.

Restored paddle steamer alongside old Echuca wharf

The town of Wentworth 12 miles downstream on the Darling junction had the closest medical and shopping facilities and had been an important link in the river transport system for several decades.George designed the vessel Pearl, the frame of which was shipped to the colony where it was assembled. The engines and boiler were also built at the company engineering yard. It was an ornate vessel capable of carrying up to 100 passengers in comfort, although masters found it difficult to manoeuvre in the tight bends of the Murray, and low river levels often meant that it could not make as good time as was anticipated.

Chaffey Bros Ltd heavily promoted their irrigation colonies in the Adelaide, Melbourne , Sydney and London press with advertisements supported by testimonials by prominent politicians etc and also through a publication titled The Australian Irrigation Colonies, written by James E. Mathew Vincent who later became the company's London manager.

Also known as 'the red book', it was to be subject to much criticism for its many errors, exaggerations and misrepresentations such as the statement that the 'great freshwater River Murray ....being at all times navigable facilitates the conveyance of produce, stores etc". As early as 1864 the three governments concerned had met to discuss the construction of a system of locks and weirs on the Murray and Darling rivers to control the cycles of flood and drought that disrupted and sometimes halted river traffic for months at a time, so this statement was stretching the truth more than somewhat. In fact by the mid1890s, many stretches of the Murray were closed to shipping for six month periods.

Whilst such misleading advertising may have caused some city based investors (known colloquially in Australia as 'Pitt Street farmers' or 'Collins Street cockies' or 'Rundle Street blockies', depending on the speaker's home state- try this link for possible examples) to lose money, the men and women who settled in Mildura and invested their labour as well as their money (and in many cases mortgaged themselves to the company for ten years) bore a far greater burden. Many had come from overseas, investing their all in the colony only to be confronted by the reality of having to live in tents in the harsh climate. The naming of the original run by the Jamiesons is said to have come from the local aboriginal name for the area, derived from mil 'eye' plus dura 'fly' or 'place of sore eyes' (although tourists are usually given an alternative possibility of 'red earth'). Many settlers worked for the company by day on blocks either owned by the company or managed by them for absentee owners and struggled to plant and tend crops on their own holdings afterwards. The company also employed settlers on irrigation works.

Chaffey Bros Ltd office Mildura c1890

In addition to the above mentioned troubles with planting material, crops were damaged by pests such as locusts and there were continual problems with irrigation. Under the terms of the colony agreement, each grower (or blocker) was entitled to 'sufficient' water. An Irrigation Trust initially controlled by the Chaffeys was responsible for water supply, but there was much disagreement over what constituted a sufficient supply. There was also the question of when the water was supplied to individual blocks that had different plantings and therefore differing seasonal needs for water.When water rates of 15 shillings per acre were introduced in 1891, despite the fact that there was no mention of this in the indentures, a group of settlers refused to pay even when threatened with prosecution. Some had suffered three years of failed crops and simply could not afford to pay. Many blockers who had been employed by the company as day labourers were owed money, but when it transpired that more was owed in water rates than wages the Chaffeys shut down the pumps, rather than allowing settlers to work off their water rates. When casual workers employed in channel building and clearing struck for better wages and conditions, the Chaffeys responded by giving the work to contractors who were paid by the chain (22 yards-66ft) at the end of the month if the job was completed to the company's satisfaction. In 1894 firemen at the pumping stations who went on strike over non-payment of wages and general poor working conditions the were sacked and replaced by settlers who needed to work off water rates. Such confrontations continued and in May 1894 when Alfred Deakin and members of the Royal Commission on water use and supply arrived at the Company Wharf aboard the Pearl, so many settlers with complaints rushed on board that the vessel almost capsized. They were promptly ordered off and told to make their complaints in writing.

The Chaffey's colonies were initially temperance colonies, modelled on their Californian ones, although there was a Settlers Club for those who could afford to drink there. This encouraged a sly grog trade, which flourished despite continual raids and prosecutions. There was criticism in the Melbourne newspapers of the fact that the workingman had nowhere to legally drink, although the low crime rate in a colony of 2300 with only one policeman was also remarked upon. It was not until 1895 that the paddlesteamer 'Nile' towing the barge 'Naomi' arrived from Echuca carrying 60 tons of box timber for the fruit industry and 40 tons of liquor for the newly-formed Working Mans Club. The following light verse was penned in honour of the occasion and printed in The Melbourne Argus, to be reproduced in a supplement to the Sunraysia Daily marking the centenary of the club.

The doctors had run out of whisky, and our stock of liquor was spent,
Save one poor half dozen of lager, that belonged to the Rechabite tent,
And the sky was as brass above, and the land was fevered with drought,
As we wandered with blistering gullets, and tongues that were hanging out.
And ever the Murray to tempt us, at the edge of the sun-cracked flat.
But no, we were men of Mildura- we hadn't come down to that.
But daily the torture lasted, and daily the horror grew,
Of the thoughts that we dare not utter- the thing that all of us knew.
Someone must try the water, must yield to the fatal law,
So we shared in that devil's gamble - and mine was the shortest straw.
One moment of human weakness, then I stepped to the river's brink,
It was flowing before me, water, and I was condemned to drink.
And then ,oh, was it an angel, or that daft lass Jessie Brown,
Cried 'Dinna ye sniff the reek o' the pipes of Echuca town?'
And louder and ever louder, and near and nearer the while,
We hear the beat of her paddles, the rescuing steamboat Nile.
With her bar doors breathing a blessing, on her mission of mercy she came,
And the sunlight blazed on the bottles, in a halo of living flame,
And 'Courage!' the skipper shouted, as he moored to the blighted scrub,
'There's forty tons of liquor aboard, consigned to the local club.'
Then madly rushed through our being, the warm recurrent of life,
We didn't wait for a corkscrew, we hanked of the heads with a knife,
And the band burst into music, the temperance banners waved,
And we saw three stars in the evening sky, and we knew Mildura was saved.
D Symmons
On allotments that were owned or managed by the Chaffeys, plantings were generally successful and the blocks were well cultivated (as were some settler's blocks) probably due in no small part to the fact that in 1891 they had a workforce of 500 and as many horses. It was thus evident that with intensive labour, good horticultural practices and an adequate supply of water crops would thrive, although variable seasonal conditions such as frosts, hail and pests and diseases had to be allowed for.

However there still remained the problem of getting produce to markets in good condition, and at the right time to command profitable prices. This remained a major problem for the district until the arrival of the railway in 1903. Summer, autumn and early winter was the period when most crops were harvested and this coincided with low river levels. By the time fresh fruit arrived in Melbourne after shipment overland to Swan Hill and rail from there, it was usually in very poor condition, and at the height of summer likely to be ruined before it even got to the railhead. It was such problems that prompted most growers to eventually concentrate on dried fruit production. Dried fruit that did reach the Melbourne markets in good condition often did not bring the returns that growers expected, due in part to the depression at the time , but also to the machinations of marketeers. To counteract this, in 1893 , growers formed the first Mildura Raisin Trust which bought local fruit at fixed prices for onward sale. In the following year direct marketing became possible when the Mildura Drying and Packing Company was formed as settlers sought to maximise the returns on their years of effort by cooperative organisation.

Chaffey Brothers Ltd was in dire straits financially by this time and in March 1894 George left for the USA and England in attempt to raise a 100,000 pound debenture loan to remedy the situation. In some quarters this was seen as the solution to the colony's problems, but for most settlers the question was not if the colony would fail , but when and The Argus in Melbourne printed an article entitled 'Is Mildura Worth Saving?'. Ben Chaffey also travelled overseas in an attempt to raise money, but in December 1895 the company went into liquidation and the Victorian goverment held a Royal Commission into its affairs in 1896.

The enquiry found no actual breach of contract by the company but was highly critical of its financial management. Of a declared capital of 474,770pounds only 44,700 pounds had been received in shares and the balance was represented 'by shares distributed amongst the brothers Chaffey and their nominees in consideration of certain rights and concessions'. These concessions included landed stated to be worth 438,094 pounds but subsequently revalued at 136,218 pounds. Only 22,00acres had been sold in 8 years . Creditors were owed 270,000pounds, 21,187 of it unsecured. 8,515 pounds was owed in wages. As shareholders George Chaffey was responsible for 159,224 pounds of this and W.B. Chaffey 7,776 pounds.

The government was petitioned on behalf of the unpaid workers and growers who held debentures. This resulted in the Blockholders Loans Act which gave them tenure over their land with a 5 year period to meet their dues. In December 1895 the First Mildura Irrigation Trust was constituted by an Act of Parliament to 'conduct and control the supply of water for irrigation purposes'. This was controlled by a board of 6 commissioners who were elected by the trust ratepayers ie the growers.

George Chaffey returned to the USA after the enquiry, but his brother Ben remained in Mildura as a fruitgrower until his death in 1926.

Mildura today