Tag Archives: Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area

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.

They are looked after in most paternal fashion

On Friday evening, 12 July 1912, a special train left Sydney for Yanco in the Riverina, carrying a large contingent of politicians, senior civil servants, various other dignitaries, and senior representatives of a number of newspapers. They arrived at Yanco at 8 o’clock the next morning, had breakfast in a large tent near the station, and set out for the days activities. There were about 150 in the party, and every available horse and vehicle was pressed into service to take them on a tour of the immediate area. The land had belonged to Sir Samuel McCaughey, who had allowed the Government to resume a portion of his property at a very reasonable rate, so reasonable that one of the dignitaries later that day described him as ‘a benefactor to his country.’ Sir Samuel had also shown the way by developing an irrigation scheme at his own expense, thus helping to demonstrate the practicality and utility of the concept.

The politician credited with initiating the official scheme was the former Minister for Works, Mr. C.A. Lee, after whom Leeton, the central town of the area, then in the early stages of development, had been named. The land was divided into blocks for purchase by small farmers of limited means, so that the scheme would benefit the ‘poor’ man. The Government would do all it could to provide for the settlers, and they were encouraged to apply themselves to the task of making the venture a success. They could build homes with their own capital or have the Government build the style they wanted on a ten-year loan. Canals were laid out, water was supplied, roads were being developed and buildings constructed. Land had been cleared, with some trees left for shade, cattle and horses had been brought in, butter and bacon factories had been built, and there was even a School of Arts. In reporting all these things, the Sydney Morning Herald commented, ‘They are looked after in most paternal fashion, these settlers.’

In the course of the day an orange and a peach tree were ceremoniously planted. The sluice gates were officially opened, and at 6 o’clock a banquet was held in the marquee, both occasions giving opportunities for speakers to express great hopes for the scheme. It was looked on as the best in the world. The dam being built upriver at Barren Jack would be the largest artificial reservoir in the world after the Assouan dam in Egypt. The Minister for Lands, Mr. Beeby, foresaw a population of a quarter of a million. The M.P. for the Riverina, Mr. J.M. Chanter, was glad that this portion of New South Wales was now being recognised at its true worth, rather than being called ‘the Never Never country, as it was when I first went into Parliament.’ Mr. Lee, M.L.A., could assure the settlers that all possibilities had been investigated. ‘Under no conditions would they be left without water, and they could feel assured that the results of their labour would find a market.’

Mr. L.A.B. Wade, the Executive Officer in charge of the whole work, gave some details of the origin of the scheme, which he thought very few people knew. ‘I think the first practical steps may be said to date from the time that Colonel Home, the Chief Irrigation Officer of the Punjaub, was brought here to report on irrigation.’ Colonel Home advised the necessity for storage and recommended exploring sites along the Murrumbidgee for a dam and a canal on the south side. This was in 1894. Mr. Wade took the responsibility of preferring the north side of the river for the development of the canal system. Colonel Home also advised, unofficially, not to bring engineers from overseas. ‘Go in and do the work yourselves.’ This had been done, and now that the engineering tasks were being achieved it was time to show what the population could achieve on the agricultural side.

‘I look upon this scheme,’ said Mr. Lee, ‘as being a great instructor that will lead by degrees to the settlement of our great, dry, western country.’

‘Water for the land. Barren Jack floodgates open. Great Murrumbidgee scheme. Official ceremony’, Sydney Morning Herald Monday 15 July 1912, p. 7.