The History of Irrigation
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Ian Dawe

The Government’s closer settlement policy initially brought Ian Dawe’s family to the Finley district in the early 1900s. Born in 1915, Mr Dawe worked on the construction of the Mulwala Canal, a key part of the new irrigation scheme, prior to World War II. After service in the war he returned home to become an irrigation farmer.


Key topics: closer settlement, depression, sustenance money, Mulwala Canal, draglines, horse teams, channel construction, unemployment relief, water allocation, Finley town water, drainage, water tables.

This text is based on an edited transcript of an interview with Mr Ian Dawe in January 2005.

My mother and father, they were on a farm known as “Glenroy” three miles south of Finley. Dad drew that block from “Tuppal Station” when it was thrown open in about 1910 for closer settlement.”
My father was given the backing by his father-in-law, it may sound a very small amount of £500 to start off a block of ground with a fence around it, and that’s where dad started. He came down from Narrandera and worked for his father in law. From there he worked his own land, he reared 5 sons and bought another block of ground. I don’t think today that it would be possible for a person to come in today come in with nothing and buy a block of ground and set up a farming program on account of the cost.
When I left school I went home with mum and helped her in the house because I had four brothers and dad, and the work was getting too much for mum on her own.

‘Susso’ seekers jump the rattler

When I was about 18 or 19 things were beginning to get really bad. The old home that I lived in, when I went to work for Gilmore brothers out at Langunya, was an old 2 roomed mud brick home and during those years it was nothing to have 10 perhaps 15 or more young people around about the age of 18 to 21 living in those rooms and just waiting for the end of the week so they could come on and get what was known then as susso, to carry them on because they had nothing, no work. They used to get what today would sound a pittance of five shillings a week on an order.
You didn’t get any money, you got an order from the government to take to the stores and they would give you the just the bare necessities to live. And you could not stay in the one place for two weeks because you could not draw the, the sustenance money into for two weeks in the one area. So they used to do what we called jump the rattler from Tocumwal to Finley – that was the old morning goods train from Tocumwal – and the police would be waiting for them here in Finley. The train would pull up, the police would take them off the train and they would spend 24 hours in the jail here and they would reckon that was pretty good because they got a bed and their meals while they were in there and they would reckon it was well worth it.”
These people came mainly from the city areas because there was absolutely no work of any description. And that continued on right until the war started and when the second world war was started it become more or less impossible then to get labour on farms because there was such a number went into the army, the air force, the navy and industry was claiming everybody they could get into that to carry on the war effort.”
Back when the [Mulwala] Canal started and was going for a little while if a man left a job tonight there would be anything up to a dozen people lined up at your door the next morning to take on the work. It was pitiful to see it. They just couldn’t get work. They were all willing to work but there was no work.

Canal provides work

The canal provided a lot of work. The unmarried man got two days work a week. The married man got 3 days a week because they considered that was enough to give them enough money to live on which was a very meagre living. It was controlled from by the Water Commission from their Head Office here in Finley; it was a big concern the Water Commission in those days. In the Finley office there was a lot of people working . . . it was a very, very big industry in the area. All the concrete structures were built by the water commission and they had some very skilled concrete workers in those days. I don’t know of any structure that has given way and had to be reconstructed.
I started working on the Mulwala Canal when I was 20. I was working with my brother and we were the first people to work the canal 24 hours a day with the Caterpillar tractor. There was a chap by the name of Tom Mallon who had a Caterpillar tractor on the canal but he only used it for the ploughing for his horse teams during the day. But we worked 24 hours a day, 12 hour shifts on the canal. We used the tractor, the rooter plough and a gaston scoop mainly for shifting what they termed then the over burden off the canal up onto the banks. We went, I think by memory, three feet of the over burden off and built the back banks and then the draglines came through and completed out the canal.

Draglines a magnificent sight

They were a bit of a sight to see, these things crawling along there, at snails paces we reckoned, And the people who working them, how they could land that bucket, swinging bucket within a foot of where they wanted it. They were absolutely magnificent the way they could handle those things and then when they brought the scoop out they could dump the dirt exactly where they wanted although that was a swinging bucket on the end of a 20 or a 30 foot boom.
We practically never used horses. We only had a horse team which was used for specialised work and we had the Caterpillar tractor and the yard gaston scoop, which was a wheel scoop, and that’s what we built. We would cross, go into the canal, fill the scoop, come out onto the banks, tip the scoop, go straight out over the back of the banks, hit the ground on the other side, turn straight around and climb the back of the banks and come back into the canal for the next load. Yep. Backwards and forwards.
The living for the workers on the canal was rather rough, we lived in tents along the back of the canal bank and we just cooked on a fire out in the open and that was the way it went and it was rough, you had the row of the tractor working outside your tent day and night and you just tried to sleep. We worked 12 hour shifts from midday till midnight, five days a week.
Everyone lived independently on the back of their contract. They didn’t congregate at all and that was the way it went and it was rough and tough but still and all we lived it.
We did 3 contracts, they were let in sections the contracts and there were a lot of contractors here. People that came here with horse teams and that from all over, oh a lot of the Mallee and the Wimmera in Victoria and from up around Coolamon and the other side of Leeton and Griffith and those places with the horse team because they had nothing to do on the land, couldn’t make a bob so they came down with their horse teams and the skid scoops.

Waiting for the money

We did two sections between the channel where it crosses the Berrigan Road up between that and what is now known on the canal as Dawes Bridge, and then we did another section. The sections were only short, you were given so many thousand cubic yard of dirt to shift in each section and that’s the way it went and then you shifted that out and done your channel banks up and then you got paid at that time if the government had any money to pay you.
This canal was built in what was known as unemployment relief money, and if when the time came the government didn’t have that money to come out and pay you when you got your section or part pay when you’re doing your section, you didn’t get paid they just sent you back over your work and over your work and until such times as they had the money to pay you.
They would never come out and say oh well, your work has passed but we can’t pay you, the engineers, they would walk back and they’d look up the back of the bank and they’d say “But can’t you see that little wave in the back of that bank?” And then, when they didn’t pass your work as it was going through private property somebody’s bullocks or cows or something else would come along and have a great old game on the back of the banks, then right you set to work and go back and get it all done up again.

Government resumes land for canal

It was passed by government that so many chain each side of the centre of the main canal was taken over by proclamation by the government. There was no compensation for the man that lost his land whatsoever they just took it over and then the Water Commission fenced the inside of it right through, that’s the way it went. There was a lot of discontent, lot of dissent between the farmers because the ones that were losing the land reckoned they should have been paid for it because they were benefiting those that weren’t paid for it but then that’s as far as it went, they got the dissent but they never got any compensation for it whatsoever.
When I came back from the airforce I was lucky because the chap I worked for the Gilmores they said “Well you can come back and you can start sharefarming with us”. You could see that irrigation made the difference but for quite a few years it didn’t make much difference because the people didn’t understand it and it wasn’t until they started irrigating wheat, then rice started and irrigation really took off in this area. Dairying now has become quite a big industry in this area. There are dairy farms here milking over a 1,000 cows at the present time.

Water use expands

When this irrigation system started it was never meant to be for irrigation. This system was put in was what is known as stock and domestic which gave you about 20 acre ft of water a year for your stock and your domestic use. Then as time went on they raised your allocation of water which went to 1-i-n10 and eventually when I left out on the farm we had 1-in-1 which was a lot of water.”
I put down irrigation on my property and sowed down a lot of summer pastures and winter pastures and used to grow summer crops, mainly sunflowers and sorghum. My country was unsuitable for rice because it was too light. I had a few sheep and cattle but I mainly I grew grains mainly wheat, barley and oats and the summer pastures.”
Some people said [irrigation] was to benefit the district, others said no. I know Mr Close, an old resident of Finley, he was very much for the irrigation scheme here and what it would do for the country but then some others said no, we don’t want it.
But I would say without the irrigation in this area today we’d have been sitting in a dustbowl. I know I reckon it’s all right because I live in the town [Finley] now and all I do now is turn the tap on and I have got water. We have had no shortage of water in the town here like in other areas where they have been on water restrictions, where they have had to rely on natural rain over the years. It comes from the Mulwala canal from the lake they built here. A chap by the name of Nankervis he constructed the banks for the lake and he also coupled the water from the lake to the water towers in the town here.

Benefits hold sway

The worst thing I can see about it is it has raised the watertable which in turn has brought up the salt in areas which have been over-irrigated. Water leaching into the subsoil and the underground has just built up. That was one big mistake made when this scheme was put in, that drainage was never incorporated.
But at the present moment the water table through the dry years we’ve had these last three or four years has dropped the water table considerably. Plus there are a lot of trees being sown, a lot of people have sown trees in their country and they have put in what is known as spear points and they have pumped the water out from underground and use it for irrigation. That is all helping the problem. There is a little bit of salinity in this area now but it is dropping with the falling of the water table.”
People just don’t realise what this country would be like without it today unless they’ve lived through it. I lived in this area as a dry area I was born in 1915 and I am still here and I’ve seen big changes, large changes actually, in everything, in agriculture in the town, in every way it goes the benefit of water, the destruction, and everything else but I think today that the water holds sway for the benefit of the area.

Ian Dawe


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