Tag Archives: Irrigation

Under his own vines and fig trees

In the 1830s the term ‘New Australia’ found its way into the Western Australian Parliamentary record, evidently through the imperfect substitution of ‘Australia’ for ‘New Holland’. There was a wry suggestion that it might be some new plan devised by the Home Government; but it was clearly an inadvertence. We also read in a newspaper shipping report of December 1846 that, ‘The Henry and Elizabeth was moored off Woolwich September 1st, to take on board female convicts for New Australia.’ Perhaps this was a confusion of ‘New South Wales’ with ‘Australia’. The Henry and Elizabeth certainly came to Sydney, where we find her in May of the following year about to leave for London.

The expression took on novel associations in the 1890s, when William Lane (1861-1917) and his followers from various places in Australia attempted to set up a utopian community in Paraguay under the name ‘New Australia’. It might be thought a crazy and unnecessary scheme, when Australia itself was still relatively in its infancy, to give up hope there and seek to found a ‘New Australia’ in South America. The aim was to establish a model society along socialist and communist lines. However, the project was poorly managed, Lane was difficult and doctrinaire, the settlers disagreed among themselves, there were splinter groups, some left to form other settlements elsewhere in Paraguay, including one called ‘Cosme’ (a fresh initiative by Lane), while many disillusioned colonists, faced with the realities of the task, just wanted to come home. It was a brave scheme that turned into an embarrassing failure.

William Lane had seen difficult economic circumstances when he was growing up in England, and then later in Canada and the United States. In Australia he gained a wide reputation as a radical journalist and in trade unionism and politics. Dismayed by economic and social conditions in Australia and the difficulties of achieving improvements, and already influenced by utopian thinking, he sought followers for the New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association. The first contingent of over 200 colonists left Sydney on the Royal Tar on 16 July 1893, with Lane as their leader, accompanied by his wife, his four children, his brother John and John’s wife.

One of the colonists was Wallace B. Brock, who had worked as a prospector and miner in Broken Hill and elsewhere. In June 1895 the Broken Hill newspaper the Barrier Miner published a letter from him, written in Paraguay. He was impressed with the scenery, the productivity of the land, and some of the progress made in the settlements, but there was a need for money and machinery. ‘With these two things this country could be made one of the greatest places on the face of the earth.’ There is talk of getting a large loan. ‘If this can be done we will go ahead, and in three years this place will be a paradise.’ But he advises against going to the settlement at the moment, for ‘it is an awkward place to get away from.’

Two years later Wallace Brock was back in Broken Hill. The Barrier Miner observed in October 1897: ‘The men who formed the New Australia colony in Paraguay came back more silently than they went.’ The newspaper had managed to get some comments from him after rumours spread that New Australia had collapsed because of ‘wine and women.’ This was rubbish, said Mr. Brock. Lane had thought that socialism could be made a success by changing human nature. But the project had foundered over practical issues, especially bad management, lack of money and knowledge, and the distance to markets. The location was good: in the back country of Paraguay one could grow everything requisite, whereas ‘in the back country of Australia one would be fortunate if one could produce a gooseberry on 20 acres without irrigation.’

This turned out to be a strangely prescient comment. Fifteen years later, in July 1912, the official opening occurred of irrigation works at Leeton, and Mr. Wallace Brock was there as one of the settlers. Back in 1895 he had written from Paraguay of the plentiful fruit in the New Australian colony. The season for oranges had just begun and ‘there seemed to be no end of them.’ Now on the plains of the Riverina he helped Mr. C.A. Lee, who as Minister for Works in the New South Wales Government had been responsible for founding the Murrumbidgee irrigation project, plant an orange tree.

In the course of its report of the occasion, the Sydney Morning Herald described Mr. Brock’s background under the heading ‘The old socialism and the new,’ and reported the contentedness of a man who after much wandering had become a settler in the new irrigation area which the New South Wales Government was providing: ‘“This is a miner’s dream – to retire to a life under his own vines and fig trees,” said the hardy ex-miner, now turned farmer.’

‘New Holland’ and ‘New Australia’: Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal 10/6/1837, p. 916. Convicts for ‘New Australia’: Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 26/12/1846, p. 2; cf. Moreton Bay Courier 6/2/1847, p. 4 (a similar report, attributed to the Sunday Times of September 6). William Lane: Gavin Souter, ‘Lane, William (1861-1917)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 9, 1983, pp. 658-659, and online. Letter from Wallace Brock: ‘New Australia. Letter from a recent arrival’, Barrier Miner 29/6/1895, p. 2. After his return: ‘New Australia’, Barrier Miner 23/10/1897, p. 2. Murrumbidgee project opening: ‘Water for the land. Barren Jack floodgates open. Great Murrumbidgee scheme. Official ceremony’, Sydney Morning Herald 15/7/1912, p. 7.

After the railways, the water problem

The work of extending a system of railways across New South Wales was spread over many years, largely because of the need to finance such a large scheme in stages. The line from Goulburn to Cooma, for example, cost well over a million pounds. Once such works were completed, there was the question of what should be done next.

It was obvious that climatic conditions presented the country with major challenges. The availability of water was very variable. Drought was frequent and severe. The persistent dryness of much of the land, and alternating patterns of drought and flood, were extremely frustrating. Given the magnitude of the problem, could successful responses be devised that would provide farmers and pastoralists with stable conditions from year to year?

In October 1886 the Queanbeyan Age reported a speech delivered in the NSW Legislative Assembly by Hon. Edward O’Sullivan, the member for Queanbeyan. Mr. O’Sullivan argued that, ‘we had already done our duty to the people in the matter of railway construction, and other public work, and the next great national work which would have to be undertaken would be that of the conservation of water and distribution of water.’ The entire community suffered, in inconvenience and expense, through not having a national scheme for these purposes. It was a case of human ingenuity against the forces of nature:

We must, in fact, show that human intelligence was superior to nature by initiating a comprehensive scheme of water conservation and irrigation.

This meant storing and diverting water, creating irrigation systems, and multiplying wells, tanks and dams. Mr. O’Sullivan was optimistic that this could be done. There were already natural features to assist. The snow in the Snowy Mountains provided water that could be diverted into the Murrumbidgee and the Murray, for example. There were natural reservoirs such as Lake George that could store flood-water. Private enterprise had already shown on a small scale that irrigation could increase yield and support stock. Other countries, such as India and Spain, had successfully employed irrigation systems with rainfall at similar or even lower levels.

There was already in progress in New South Wales a Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water (10 May 1884 – 9 May 1887), set up ‘to make a full inquiry into the best method of conserving the rainfall, and of searching for and developing the underground reservoirs supposed to exist in the interior of the colony, and also the practicability, by a general system of water conservation and distribution, of averting the disastrous consequences of periodical droughts.’ Mr. O’Sullivan drew on some the findings of the Royal Commission to support his arguments.

These were some of the early efforts that eventually led in the twentieth century to the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the extensive use of irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin, and other water conservation and irrigation measures.

We are in a better position now to judge whether ‘human intelligence’ is ‘superior to nature.’

‘Water conservation and irrigation’, Queanbeyan Age 9/10/1886, pp. 2-3. ‘Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water’, NSW State Records. Bruce E. Mansfield, Australian Democrat: The Career of Edward William O’Sullivan, 1846 – 1910, Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1965; idem, ‘O’Sullivan, Edward William (1846-1910)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 11, 1988, pp. 106-108, and online. ‘Mr Edward William O’Sullivan (1846-1910)’, NSW Parliament website.