The History of Irrigation
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Wynne Hawkins

Wynne Hawkins was born in 1923 to a farming family in the Tocumwal district, but they property was resumed by the Government during World War II for an American Air Force base during World War II. Following the war they bought land near Finley, developed irrigation and developed irrigation.


Key topics: Development of Tocumwal aerodrome, arrival of irrigation, Finley development, sheep selling centre, farm equipment, landforming, drainage, Department of Agriculture.

The following text is based on edited transcripts of two interviews recorded with Mr Wynne Hawkins, in August 2006.

I came home from school at the age of 17 and I spent about 12 months, down on a small property we had on the lower river road from Tocumwal; the rabbits were shocking and the first 12 months practically was spent on digging out rabbits and trying to get rid of them.

War commandeers land, workforce

That was the end of 1941 and at that stage on December 7th Pearl Harbour occurred and that completely changed my life, my parents' life and the whole area really because towards the end of January 1942 my father went out one day and the fences were cut and there were quite a few cars in one of the paddocks and he went up to find out what was happening. They were quite amazed that we hadn't been contacted but they told him that the property was to be resumed and as from that day we were given, if I remember rightly, about a month to get out and we could take what we wanted, they weren't interested in anything that was there but they wanted us out.
And from then on of course things moved very quickly and stuff started to arrive from everywhere and men were “manpowered” right throughout NSW and Victoria to work on the aerodrome; carpenters, engineers and trucks were commandeered; anybody who had a truck in this area was told that if they weren't prepared to work the truck themselves, which they were given the offer of doing, they had to hand the truck over to a driver and in the end they got a real mixture of trucks.
Well I was 18 in October 1940 and within a fortnight or three weeks or I suppose like that, I got notice to appear for a medical which I did and I passed and in 1942 I was to be called up into the airforce. I was awaiting a call when I was manpowered because the Chief Engineer that was in charge of the building of the aerodrome in Tocumwal he said to my father “Now is there anything I can do for you Mr Hawkins?' and my father said “Well, my son is going into the airforce” and he said, “We'll I'll soon fix that”, which he did and it took me two years to overcome that manpower order and it wasn't until about March 1944 that I finally went into the airforce.
When our property at Tocumwal was resumed we did not get any payment whatsoever – no compensation nothing and I often think that my parents must have been a bit desperate from February 1942 to late 1946 when they finally got paid and they were given full compensation. They were quite happy with the way they were treated other than the fact that they had to wait so long and it really it was only through my father knowing John McEwan he was then Leader of the National Party and Deputy Leader of the Opposition that he brought it up in Parliament that we did get some grazing rights on the perimeters of the aerodrome. 
There was 8,000 acres taken there for the aerodrome and there was only about half of that ever really used and we did get some grazing and it helped to make some income which of course we were desperately in need of.  Anyway we managed and my mother probably it affected her more than it probably affected us in that she had to move. You couldn't get a house in Tocumwal of course because of the thousands of civil construction corp workers there. The workers at the "drome worked around the clock and there were would have been three shifts I think, and at night when the workers came off shifts the hotels opened for an hour or so they could to give them a drink when they knocked off. I remember walking on the street because you couldn't get on the footpaths there were that many people in Tocumwal and every house was booked, every room was booked in the town, and the whole of the area where the Tocumwal Recreation Reserve is and so on was camps and there were lots of others and every spare bit of ground had a camp on it and the men were working on the aerodrome.

Irrigation interrupted

 My first recollections of irrigation I suppose were talk between my bachelor uncle and my father and I use to hear them say that they'd had enough of irrigation and they weren't at all happy to see irrigation coming to this area and I must admit that there was a drastic change in their attitude or outlook because over the next ten years or so with the depression and bad seasons they were very, very pleased to see irrigation come to the area.”
Water came to the property in Tocumwal we had about 60 acres or it might have been 80 acres laid out there when it was resumed and that was all put on hold until we bought the country out on the Riverina Highway between Berrigan and Finley.
The irrigation must have come to Tocumwal roughly the same time it came to Finley and of course you realise that everything was suspended during the war. The two big draglines were brought from way out west of Deniliquin across country to Tocumwal and they loaded all the gravel that made the runways on the aerodrome, they loaded that all into big hoppers the trucks pulled underneath the hoppers and the load was released onto each truck.  So that was about 1942 I think.
I started off after when we got paid in 1946 we had a property lined up out between Berrigan and Finley on the Riverina Highway and there wasn't much movement in land at the time and the fellow said “Well, I'll hang on to the property if you're genuinely interested until your son comes home” and as soon as we got paid we took up the option and bought “Merrengreen”, an 800 acre block.  My bachelor uncle who had been in partnership with my father all along since coming to Tocumwal, he had the property next door “Yarrangerie”, so we had 2100 acres there it was a good holding, good land.
When I arrived out there in 1947/48 up to probably almost 1950 there was very little done; there was hardly any irrigation between Berrigan and Finley. By the time I was married [1950] I suppose I had about 150 acres of ground laid out I had I remember 50 acres of lucerne, but it was very difficult because tractors were awfully hard to get hold of.
We mainly had sheep and cattle we'd always run a few cattle and we gradually laid out our first few hundred acres of irrigation with teams of horses.We didn't grow much in the way of crops.  Oh yes, I grew wheat, I grew 300 or 400 acres of wheat. We watered some but watering wheat – well we didn't have the layout for one thing and mostly I was stock-minded, so were my father and my uncle, so we'd mainly laid out for summer rye and lucerne. We had quite a bit of white clover, stock feed; we had a lot of sheep; we shore 5,000 out there a few years.

Development in Finley

Not long pre-war Finley had become quite a stock-selling centre, especially sheep -  this was a great centre for sheep being brought down from North NSW mainly first cross ewes and there were some very big sales in the saleyards at Finley;  New Zealand Loan had a big set-up, McNamara's and Young Husbands, and the sheep used to come down here in trainloads and they'd be offered for sale in Finley and buyers would come from all over Victoria as far as Gippsland to buy the sheep that had been bred in the North.  They liked those sheep because they were bred in wide open spaces they were sound, healthy and their feet were good and generally speaking they were bred out of good Merino ewes and their wool had a value too but they were great fat lamb mothers and they went into Victoria in big numbers out of Finley saleyards.
That had started to put a bit of life into the area and of course the war had finally spelt really the finish of the depression, it had created a lot of employment and things were on the move. One of the factors that held things back was the shortage of machinery - tractors and all machinery, there was a big waiting list.  If you wanteda combine you waited 12 months for it and that sort of thing. Building materials were like that, fencing materials. Once fencing material for instance came in from Japan, galvanised iron, those things - and immediately people were able to buy it they'd build some sheds, build hay sheds. With the coming of irrigation they'd try to drought proof themselves and they were all building haysheds and dairyfarming had crept in at that stage and in the first few years after the war the butter factory had started, all because of water.

Water just lifted the whole area I think – the sheep were unloaded here if they had to be held a fortnight or something, waiting for sale, there always seemed to be some feed available for them and that's why this centre became so strong in that regard and that was one of the reasons because irrigation provided the security they could unload the sheep here and know that they could feed them waiting for the sales.”

There were plenty of people wanting to do things with material and from say 1950 onwards things started to move a lot more quickly.  I would say mid 1950s, 60s a lot of places were almost entirely laid out – not in the manner they are now, it was rough because the machinery available didn't  do a lot towards levelling – it was a big help it was nothing like lasered country.

Innovation helping agriculture

“Reg Nixon and John Hacker with him and following him, they produced landgraders that were far in advance of what we'd had up to date and these were much better for levelling ground. Closes had a very good three point linkage channel implement - all you needed was a ripper and those channellers and you could make a jolly good channel.  Some of them were bigger than others – there was a lot of border ditch work done here originally a lot of people in a hurry to get lay-outs didn't do a lot towards grading the land – if the land was reasonably even they put border ditches in and irrigated that way; contour banks and all kinds of things  The rice banks put up with rice bankers which originally with the old what we called the Delver, they were bits of man-killers too, very hard to work on them – I found them that way anyhow. They'd been pulled with eight horse teams before and we started to get away from that sort of thing.  We started to get machinery that was coupled to the back of tractors and on linkage and it became so much more efficient – you could construct much better banks and so on.
In the early days a lot of the early channel work was done with teams of horses and a lot of land was laid out with horses; we laid out hundreds of acres ourselves with horses. With a Furphy grader and then a Close grader a team of horses and you could do a pretty good job but it was very time consuming. I think that the horses would have gone out by 1950 - 55 but tractors and things were very hard to get. Well, if you didn't have a tractor then you got some horses.”

Advice on irrigated cropping

Well my father and my uncle, who came up from Shepparton, they knew a little about irrigation.  But this area here really was broad acre irrigation, it was much smaller down in the Shepparton area. They knew a bit but lots of people hadn't had a lot to do with water until it arrived here and some of the early Department of Agriculture if I remember rightly, had field days and certainly we had a lot of advice on mainly government bodies gave advice on choosing types of pasture, the clovers to use, and not only winter pastures but summer pastures. I remember we used to use New Zealand white clover and there was white clover that came from over Kyabram way and it was a very good white clover it had developed over there and they were very good, especially for the dairying industry there was a lot of rye grasses a lot of imported Italian ryes that produced more feed than, well there was no actual native grasses here that were suitable for irrigation, they all had to be introduced.
Lucerne was a great stand-by and we mainly fed our ewes and lambs on sub and rye pastures and they mainly went off in the spring. The lambs and the late lambs were finished on a bit of white clover or lucerne. It became a very good lamb producing area. Mainly that they ran field days. They were held on properties where a farmer had good pasture and the pasture was discussed and the rates of fertilizer, the importance of drainage, getting the water off and lots of things.

Better water management

You know the idea always with irrigation is to get the water over the ground quickly and it was a great temptation in the early years not to put water on too fast and then you got a decent break -  you were trying to do lots of other things between coming back to shut the bays off - but that's not the way it goes now with landforming of course. We've all got big bays and really if you organise it well it comes back to almost just night and morning. Landforming has really revolutionised the getting the water on and getting the water off, and getting the water off is just as important as getting it on.
Something had to be done because of the rising water tables and all angles of drainage had to be considered, not only saving water but getting it off pastures but also keeping it off roads. There've been lots of improvements. If you go around the area now you won't see too much water in table drains.  Turn the clock back twenty or thirty years and there was plenty there.
There was no-where to drain it to – its not only the drainage system which is a wonderful boon to the area especially in wet winters and times like that but most properties now have got turkey nests [dams] and they've recycling pumps. Turkey nests are a bank put up from the inside and that's more or less built on top of the ground and because it's built on top of the ground you can usually gravitate the water out of it or a lot of the water out of it back on to pasture.
But the drainage system is essential for very wet winters; I remember having 150 acres under water simply because the highway between Berrigan and Finley had a deep table drain which brought water almost from Berrigan to the Wait-a-While siding which had no-where to go; it was blocked and just flooded out across the land.

Drainage on the agenda

We went through a period of more or less dry seasons into several wet ones and all of a sudden we had ponding areas and water was running from one property to another and we were getting a lot of water-logging and everyone was becoming aware that the water tables were rising and it was generally felt that something would have to be done.  I expect that we looked around and saw other irrigation areas;  the older ones all had been forced into drainage and I daresay that had an influence on the need or what we saw as the need to have a drainage system instigated in this area as soon as possible.”
People in the early stages seem to think it was fair game to fill all the table drains surrounding the property and so on and a lot of it, in lots of cases, the water was out of control and then of course we had water running across roads, across the formations as it built up and in 1956 we had quite a few roads in the shire blocked.
The Berrigan Shire and all the shires were becoming very alarmed at the damage that was being done to the roads and the cost of repairing them etc, and also with the waterlogging on the properties - it was affecting the viability of production and so on, and so with the agitation that took place at the time, there was an overall movement I think, probably by [the Department of] Water Resources, local government and the landholders and a public meeting was called in Finley.

Drainage plan put to vote

I remember the day well; the hall was filled to overflowing if I remember rightly and there were two schools of thought, I guess. A lot of people -  those that were suffering the most - they were desperate for drainage. And of course then you had those that had higher ground and weren't suffering as much and were worried about the cost of drainage.
The whole idea at that stage that was the landholders would fully fund the drainage system and of course this was not that palatable because nobody could really afford it. Whilst there were people in the area starting to do reasonably well they'd spent a lot of money on getting everything established and they didn't have the capital to take on a drainage system and besides that, the general feeling was that a scheme of the magnitude that was being put forward was not really something to be funded by the present landholders, it belonged to posterity and would be there in say a hundred years time so therefore it should be financed either from government grants or perhaps paid for over a hundred years, or something like that so it was voted out at the meeting. And I remember the Minister of the day commenting that it was ridiculous that the landholders should throw it out because he felt they could afford it, when you looked at the farmer's cars lined up outside the Finley hall.  You can imagine that that didn't go down very well.
Anyway nothing more was done other than fragmented smaller systems where people were in desperate need and one for instance was out towards the Lalalty area where it was east of the Tocumwal aerodrome and during the construction of the aerodrome a drainage system was built right throughout the aerodrome and into the Tuppal Creek well this was extended eastwards towards the Lalalty and a very bad patch of not necessarily salinity but rising water table we were starting to get water on the surface and that was to overcome that very bad area.  There were several other small segments of drainage mainly where for instance the water could be gotten rid of into the Box Creek or further up towards Jerilderie there was a drainagechannel that went through to the Billabong but other than that there was no great move done until the recent overall drainage system which was financed in grants at the time of - in the period leading up to the privatisation of the system.
We've now got a very comprehensive system still not quite finished but almost so, and this has been a wonderful boon. Admittedly when you get downpours of heavy rain after an irrigation period say in the autumn there is a large amount of water that can't be got away immediately. But let's say within four days or thereabouts all the water has got away into the drainage system and it prevents that long-term waterlogging that we had previously.

Wynne Hawkins


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