The History of Irrigation
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Sylvia Baker

Sylvia Baker emigrated with her family from England to Australia in the 1920s as a child. In 1952 she moved from Melbourne to Deniliquin with her husband Jack, to establish a precision engineering business in the town which looked set to boom with the development of irrigation and a promotion to bring ‘Millions of people to the Murray’.


Key topics: Murray Valley promotion, Lawson Syphons, Joe Lawson MP, immigrant workers, school bus, opening of Lawson Syphons.

The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview conducted with Mrs Sylvia Baker in February 2005.

We lived in Melbourne. We lived in a suburb called Nunawading. We built a house there after the war. My husband was a maintenance engineer and worked in South Melbourne, and from Nunawading to South Melbourne was many miles to travel. I don’t know how we did it, I really don’t, but we did. I used to take him in a ramshackle old car, one of those little matchbox cars, you know, a baby Austin, and I used to take him to the station every morning where he caught a train into Melbourne. Then he’d have to get a bus from Melbourne to Port Melbourne where his office was, and I’d go home and look after the kids and do whatever it is I had to do, and then if my mother wasn’t busy, she’d come and look after the kids while I did some work for which I was paid, that is, unlike housework.
There were several reasons for moving from Melbourne. One of the things that we were almighty sick of, or Jack was, was strap hanging - travelling from Nunawading to work every morning and home again at night. Actually he was teaching at Melbourne Tech at night as well, and quite often he didn’t set eyes on his children, apart from weekends, and that was really getting up his nose. I remember one very wet winter, we were all down with scarlet fever, measles, you name it, and we had two children at that time - Joanne and Christoper - and they both succumbed to all these things. About 11 weeks we were tied to the house with children who were sick, and weather which just didn’t clear up. And I thought, “What on earth are we doing here? What are we doing here?

Opportunity knocks

Anyway, a friend of mine invited us to Deniliquin for the September school holidays, so we came and I really liked what we saw in Deniliquin, and I rang my husband and said, “Do you want an opportunity to get away from Melbourne? Come and have a look at this little town! You might just like it! They haven’t got an engineer here - not a precision engineer”, such as he was. So, he got on the train and he came here, had a look, he liked what he saw too, so we went home and we talked about it, had a look at the opportunity, researched the area, decided that the Murray Valley, where the sun seemed to shine forever, was a place that we would like to live and we put our house on the market and eventually we moved and came to Deniliquin, Jack opening a business which became known as J.C. Baker and Company.
We moved to Deniliquin in 1952. So we were here before the syphon opened. They were still being built at that time. They had, I understand, started building prior to the war, but the war intervened and the whole thing closed down. Then after the war Joe Lawson, who was the Member for Murray and the Country Party member at that time, was in parliament, and he was push, push, pushing the Lawson Syphon. He could see, along with everyone else who was interested in the Murray Valley, the tremendous potential there would be if only water could be added to the very rich Riverina soils, and the Lawson Syphon was part of providing water for irrigation purposes in this area.
But when we arrived in 1952 construction was well underway. Coffer-dams had been installed and they were very busily erecting the channels on this side of the river. They were still building some of the channels, but certainly the main channels from the Mulwala canal had been installed on the north side of the river.

A million people for the Murray

In the eyes of a person who’s been in the city all her life, I saw the country as a very drab, dry, arid area, but I too could see the potential that would occur, if only a little water were added to it. I was very interested in the promotion that was going on then for the Murray - the Murray Valley. The Murray Valley, of course, reaches from the Snowy, where it starts, and goes right down to Goolwa in South Australia. It’s one of the longest rivers in the world, and the Murray Valley presented at that time, in the ’50s and ’60s, great potential for being the food bowl of the nation, and that’s how it was promoted, and I could see that happening.
The promotion was “A million people for the Murray”. I could see it blossoming into a great place for people to settle and grow and be very productive. And some of that has come to pass, but certainly not all of it.
I know that there were lots of people employed in the building of the syphon, and there were many non-English speaking people, and they were fascinating to meet and talk to because they’d come from another world. And I found them all very, very interesting. It was wonderful to go out there and meet all these people from various parts of the world, from Europe and the Baltic states in particular. And obviously this project had brought them to Australia and they’d come here to work.
People came because they needed, a fresh start in life, particularly I found the Dutch who were working on the syphon, very, very productive and very hard working, compared to some of the laid-back Australians, they did three times as much work, and certainly knew how to work. You see, most people lived out there - some of them lived in town, very few of them, but a lot of people lived in the barracks out there on site. I guess married couples probably lived in town.
There was a Dutch family out there who wrote some stories of their life at the syphon. There were stories of hardship. There were stories of people who came to Australia with nothing except the job that they’d found at the syphon, and they all had to work very hard in order to maintain their existence and hope for better things for their families. I know that a bus service was run from the syphon to the school so that the children who were out there could get in to and out to school, and that was - that was good.
I remember one of the ex-servicewomen, her name was Mrs Hamilton, her husband was a fitter and turner and worked out there at the syphon. She managed the cook house, but she also drove the bus which brought the children in to school, and she picked them up and took them back again and she’d go back into the kitchen and do whatever was necessary in the cook house. They had this huge canteen which fed all the people who were working there.

Roll on effects

I think [construction of the syphon] had very great significance for the people of this area and the Murray valley in particular, and particularly for the farmers. They were dryland farmers, and once irrigation was available to them via the channels that were cut across the whole breadth and length of e country, it must of course meant a great deal to the people who got their living from the land. We weren’t directly involved in that, but what benefited the people on the land also benefited our business, so it had a roll-on effect.
Lake Mulwala was dammed. The water there was pumped into the channels that brought water right through this arid - what was then very arid country, and made it bloom.
The onset of war, closed the whole project down. And it was after the war of course that it was re-started and funding was found to get the thing going ahead. Governments of the day must have thought - and it was a Labor government, if I remember rightly - must have thought that it had tremendous potential for increasing the wealth and productivity of people who lived in this area, the south-west Riverina. They funded it and it did get underway, and it was a colossal engineering feat and one for which all should be absolutely renowned and congratulated.

New councillor attends opening

I had been elected to Deniliquin Council only about three days before the opening of the Lawson Syphons. I was there for the opening, and quite a social occasion was that. Representatives from all arms of government and all sorts of community-based organisations from the Snowy Mountains to Adelaide I think were all here for the opening event. It was a great day, it really was.
I have one special memory because my young son decided that he’d do some exploring on his own.
I do remember that the whole proceeding was held up until they got this child out of the base of the channel prior to the water being turned on, and with what horror I looked down to discover it was my child, not some other naughty kid, but mine! And that caused me a great deal of annoyance and upset, to think that, here I was, elected to the municipal council, and whose kid gets into the most strife - it was my six-year-old!
I don’t think we’d be here [without the syphon]. Now, in hindsight, when I look back and I look around at areas such as Moulamein and other areas which were timber towns - Mathoura is another one, and Conargo, places like that, I think [Deniliquin] would just be a little rural village. We certainly wouldn’t be the centre of a very productive agricultural centre which is so diversified now, because we’d just be sheep and wheat and basically, wouldn’t we? We certainly wouldn’t have the diversification which now exists because of the water.

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Sylvia Baker


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