10 March 2010

Chaffey Brothers irrigation pioneers: Australia, Canada, USA

Chaffey Brothers Building, La Trobe University, Mildura

During my trip to Mildura last year, I couldn’t help but notice the number of places named for the Chaffey family – a high school, hotel, self-guided tourist trail, street, bridge, an aged care centre, a university building and a scout pack. Zmobi blog particularly discussed the Chaffeys’ Rio Vista homestead and the Chaffey family graves. Who was this family who so dominated the consciousness of a medium sized rural city in the most remote part of Victoria? Discover the Murray and The Irrigation Colony of Mildura were particularly helpful.

In the early 1880s, the Victorian government began examining the possibility of establishing irrigation colonies on the Murray River. A Royal Commission was chaired by Alfred Deakin, the then Chief Secretary and Minister for Water Supply, and later the Prime Minister of Australia after Federation. It was held to examine Victoria's water resources and it was decided to establish one such colony. In 1884 Deakin led a delegation to the USA where he met brothers George (1848-1932) and W Ben Chaffey (1856-1926). These Canadian born and educated engineers had later moved to California and had established irrigation colonies there.

Alfred Deakin was impressed with the Chaffeys, and the Chaffeys were interested enough in Deakin's proposals to send their manager to Victoria in 1885. After a promising report from the manager, George Chaffey visited Victoria in 1886 and having decided on the Mildura Run as a suitable location for an irrigation colony, he told his brother to sell up their Californian interests.

Note that The Mildura Run was already in liquidation at this time! As early as 1864 the three governments concerned had met to discuss the construction of a system of weirs on the Murray and Darling rivers, to control the cycles of flood and drought that seriously disrupted river traffic for months at a time.

Vines, Mildura

Never mind! In October 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 (sic) 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. The Argus Newspaper, Oct 1886 wrote glowing of Mildura’s future.

The Chaffeys negotiated with the South Australian government and in February 1887 they signed an agreement securing 250,000 acres at the town of Renmark. The Victorian government, meanwhile, had not received a satisfactory tender for the Mildura run, and eventually The Chaffey Brothers Agreement was passed by both Houses of Parliament. In May 1887 an indenture was signed for 250,000 acres of the old Mildura run, which the Chaffeys took. Under the terms of this Agreement, all the details about blocks, money, subdivisions, seasonal water rights and irrigation channels were specified. Prospective settlers or investors could purchase irrigated blocks which the company Chaffey Brothers Ltd would managed, for an annual fee.

Added to the technical difficulties involved in getting water to the crops, there were inter-colonial water wars over the Murray River. The Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, heard that water was being pumped from the river and called the Chaffeys trespasssers. The South Australians sided with NSW and wanted the matter taken to the Privy Council in London. These endless wars meant George Chaffey called for an Inter colonial Trust for the regulation of the use of the River Murray. Nothing much has changed 130 years!

The district started receiving better rainfall that it had for many years and the breaking of the drought in NSW in 1889 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, especially stone and citrus fruit. By 1894 there were plenty of acres planted with these fruit. However many of these trees were dying, due to a combination of inexperience on the part of the settlers and inappropriate tree types. In 1890 the Chaffey brothers established their own nursery to solve the problem.

The first vines recommended for planting were Muscat Gordo Blanco. Sun dried Gordos were sent to the Melbourne markets in 1894, but merchants thought the fruit was too dark. Sultanas were not recommended initially, but by 1894 sultanas had been planted throughout the colony. In fact they became the main variety of vine planted.

The Red Book

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 Co. 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. And George Chaffey designed the very comfortable, spacious vessel: Pearl.

Chaffey Bros Ltd heavily promoted their irrigation colonies in the Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and London press with advertisements supported by testimonials by prominent politicians. They also had a publication, The Australian Irrigation Colonies, known as The Red Book, which was to be subject of criticism for its many errors. Yet the campaign attracted hundreds of people to move to Australia.. to Mildura.

Whilst such misleading advertising may have caused some city based investors to lose money, those who settled in Mildura and invested their labour and money were worse off. 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 hot, dry climate. The climate of course remains problematic today.

The Chaffeys must have been doing well. Mike & Carol's Bushtracker Adventures Around Australia has a photo of the Old Mildura Homestead which was recreated to recall the very first red gum slab Chaffey homestead. Compare this to their grand house, Rio Vista (see photo below), which was built for the family by 1891.

One aspect that was not mentioned to me anywhere in Mildura was that The Chaffey colonies were initially temperance colonies, modelled on their Californian ones.  A letter to The South Western News 9/3/1950 suggests they were strict teetotallers who used their influence to prevent a licence being issued in the district of Renmark! Did temperance make a difference to success in the Mildura project? Were they motivated by a religious impulse in their family and work lives?

Rio Vista, the Chaffey family home

Under the terms of the colony agreement, each grower was entitled to 'sufficient' water. An Irrigation Trust initially controlled by the Chaffeys was responsible for water supply, but there was disagreement over what constituted a sufficient supply. Some settlers had suffered 3 years of failed crops and simply could not afford to pay their water rates. Strike over non-payment of wages and poor working conditions erupted. Finally in May 1894, Alfred Deakin and members of the Royal Commission on Water Use and Supply had to travel to Mildura to sort out the problem.

On allotments that were owned or managed by the Chaffeys, plantings were generally successful and the blocks were well cultivated, due to the large workforce. It was thus evident that with intensive labour, good horticultural practices and an adequate supply of water crops would thrive, although variable seasonal conditions remained.

However there still remained the problem of getting produce to markets in good condition, and at the right prices. This remained a major problem for the district until the arrival of the railway in 1903. 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 even worse. It was such problems that prompted most growers to eventually and successfully concentrate on dried fruit production.

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. 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 government 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. Creditors were owed 270,000 pounds, mostly the responsibility of shareholder George Chaffey. The dream was over. 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'. George returned to the USA after the enquiry and died in 1932. Ben Chaffey may have considered going with him, but couldn’t sell Rio Vista. Instead he remained as a fruit-grower and the first mayor of Mildura, until his death in 1926.

A grateful Australian city memorialised George Chaffey


Hermes said...

I do enjoy your posts, I learn such a lot.

J Bar said...

Very, very interesting.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Hels said...

Here is something I didn't know, because I was only examining the family's impact in Mildura, Victoria.

There is an electorate in South Australia, Chaffey. It was named after our Chaffey brothers because they first brought the benefits of irrigation on a large scale to the Riverland area in South Australia.

Kiwi Riverman's Blogesphere said...

Another most interesting post.



Brian Hughes said...

"They also had a publication, The Australian Irrigation Colonies, known as The Red Book, which was to be subject of criticism for its many errors."

Not least of which was that it was actually blue...or was that Monty Python's Big Red Book?

Hels said...

Beverley said...

Hi Helen
My name is beverley chaffey I read with great interest your story on chaffey brothers that started the grapes at mildura.

My fathers name was George his father was bengiman [my grand father ] I am a great grand daughter of this man. If you would like more imformation I would be pleased to email you my email address is lto61548@bigpond.net.au

Helen said...

Oh Beverley, I am delighted to hear from you.

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. Would this have made a difference to George and Ben Chaffey, had the Trust been established in the early 1880s? If not, what might have made this brave venture into a complete success?