The History of Irrigation
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Tibby Kelly

Vincent Kelly, known as Tibby, was one of seven children born to a farming family in the Finley district in 1927. For many years he worked as a landforming contractor building irrigation channels for the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission and for farmers as irrigation was being established across the region.


The following text is based on an edited transcript of interviews conducted with Mr Vincent (Tibby) Kelly in August and December 2006.

Key topics: protest against irrigation, farming practices, early irrigation layouts, farm equipment

Well there was a lot of debating about whether the people would accept irrigation and first I can remember when we got very serious about it was when there was a meeting held at Berrigan – a protest meeting against irrigation and I think the year was about 1934 because I went to that with my father. I can remember going to the meeting and all these people turned up at Berrigan and they drove sulkies most of them, from around Finley and some of them were in cars – there weren’t many cars about then and the bigger landholders protested against irrigation coming into the district. The Government was supporting irrigation into the district because of the 500 acre blocks for home maintenance area. [The irrigation] was supposed to come through Corughan but they refused it in that area and it went down where it is today and then Corughan came back in later years and got water on there but the protest was that it was going to cost too much money and it was going to ruin the country.

Irrigation to save small farms

The smaller landholders were in favour of something because they were desperate – they were growing wheat for 18 pence a bushel, three bushels to the bag – it’s only about 4sh/6p a bag, that’s 45 cents a bag, and 12 bags to the ton – it’s not a lot of money for a ton of wheat and if you got 5 or 6 bags to the acre you got a reasonable sort of crop so there wasn’t much of a margin in wheat growing. They were trying to save the district because farmers were walking off their farms, they were walking the roads in the ‘30s looking for work and there was no work about. But the Government in 1934 guaranteed that for the 1935 harvest they would pay 5sh/6p a bushel for wheat which was about 15 bob a bag guaranteed and it worked out about £9 a tonne.
Finley in 1935 had the biggest siding of wheat, they estimated, in the world. The whole district seemed to be waving in wheat when we were going to school in 1935 – it was a fantastic year; I’ve never seen anything like it since. We went on then and had three fairly lean years after that and that’s when the irrigation came. They let contracts for the farmers and whoever wanted to dig the channels and they came there with their horse teams and their scoops and ploughs and they took out the top two feet of the Mulwala Canal from Yarrawonga - Mulwala to Finley to the Jerilderie Road and it was done with horse teams; they only had 5 or 6 horse team then because they didn’t have a lock on their scoops – somebody came up with a lock on their scoop and they got out to the bigger teams – 8 and 10 horse teams.
The NSW Government had approached the Federal [Government] for relief work to do this irrigation scheme, to create work and to bring irrigation to the districts along the Murray Valley and they were pretty strict on their conditions and these contractors found it pretty hard to do the work under these conditions.
My first memory with the channels was [that my uncle] had contracts [for construction] and 1939 was a wet year and these [channel] sections were about 20 meters long and they got water in them. Well, the uncle got me to bucket one out so that he could link the channel up and I got 2 bob for doing this. After school and on weekends I would go around bucketing this water out with a pitch fork and a half kerosene tin on a bucket and you’d throw it out and the water would start running back in so you’d have to block it.

Farm labour

[I started helping] Dad working on the farm from about 1935. We were sharefarming and I can remember I was leading the horse in the kicker loading the wagons and I was 8. You’d put a bag of wheat on the side of the wagon [and] there was a thing they called a kicker. It bolted onto the side of the wagon and there was a chain came through and it was a triangle and the bag would sit on it. Laurie was 11 and he would put the bag on it and I’d lead the horse and the bag would go up onto the wagon and my father would be up top and he’d catch the bag up there and stack it on the wagon and that’s how we loaded our wagons. These bags had 180 pound in them. And an eleven year old boy had to put it on the kicker, wrangle it or drag it up-ended.
[The wagons would] go to Finley then – to the sidings where they unloaded the wheat onto the stacks or else if they went to the silos they opened the bags and tipped them out. In 1935 when there was a lot of wheat around there was wheat from the Berrigan Road to where the Finley Butter Factory is now, all along the railway line.
I left school in 1939 to stook hay because the soldiers who were all the workforce had gone to the war. The war started and the young people of the district enlisted; there was no manpower left in the district. All the farmers’ sons who were 18 or 20 there was an opportunity for them to get out and see something.
The hay was put into sheaths which was done with a binder and I suppose they’d be 5 pounds – 2.5 kilos and they cut it with three horses pulling the binder and the hay had to be stooked to cure it. Today we leave it in winrows. Well in those days it took about 2 to 3 weeks to cure the hay so it’d be safe to put in a stack without combusting into a fire so they would stook it and then about three weeks later they would cart it all in with wagons and horse teams, stack it and that was the fuel for the horses to work their farms. They didn’t buy their chaff they had their own cutters and they’d cut it into chaff. I then went fencing and I worked for stock agents. There was nobody to shift stock about and no transport because transports hadn’t come into being then.
There’d be sheep come to the district to be sold and bring them down from up north and I’d have to look after them two or three days before a sale or shift them out of the paddocks on agistment and I’d do that sort of work. Fencing – there was any amount of work about if you wanted it– I went out with a well-boring contractor and repaired mills and fixed water up for the farmers because all the systems for the 1940s were 35 and 40 year old and they were starting to break down and need maintenance on things like that. I worked on there and I also did things like builders labourers for a contractor who was building dairies; dairying was starting to come into the district a bit in the early 1940s.

Becoming a contractor

I went on to start a horse team at Finley doing [irrigation] extensions after the War; I’d have been 22, contracting in partnership with my brothers. We put a team of horses together – my father’s team, we started with that and went on to contracting putting what they call extensions into soldier settlers properties where the Government resumed land for soldier settlement, what they called extensions of the irrigation – the whole area had been surveyed in the 1930s and when the war was over they came home and extended the irrigation. And all this work was done with horse teams; some bright spark in Sydney said they consolidated the banks and that’s why they were used. It wasn’t until the mid ‘50s they allowed machinery to work in these channels.
The commission would put out a tender for a contract and you’d apply, there’d be so many thousand yards of dirt required to be shifted and there’d be conditions for these contracts and you’d tender for them around about 2 bob per yard – we were in yards in those days which was a little bit shorter than a square meter and that was the dirt that was put out into the banks and the whole job had to be sort of finished to their specifications and that’s where we would use our horses.
They put the Dethridge wheels in when the channels first came through but they weren’t always used. A lot of them sat there and weren’t used from 1939 to 1950 some of them, and when the soldier settlers came in they put new ones in because they had to put new channels in and that was the sort of work we went on with and some of these soldier settlers never had plant and we would tender for a contract from the Lands Department to do so many acres of layout sometimes it would be 150 – 200 acres; the main supply channels we would do those and the Lands Department would pay us and you’d book that out to the Soldier Settler scheme.
I mainly concentrated on private work because we could get £1 chain for ploughing for that, and there was about ten yards in a chain and that worked out roughly about 2 bob a yard and the commission would only pay 15 to 18 pence a yard and you had to go down bigger channels – 6 and 7 ploughings you’d do, the channels were bigger, they were the supply channels. Horses would walk down into the channel and they’d have to climb out and therefore you weren’t as quick – you’d get your scoop load of dirt – it’d probably take you three times as long because the horses couldn’t walk straight across quick – they could nearly trot if you were a good man on the scoop – that’s why private work was worth more to you.

Making channels

A lot of contractors didn’t like the private work but we became so efficient at it that over a season from about September until March we were shifting every three days; and we used to lose one day in three shifting, picking up our plant and shifting it to the next job so later on we bought a bulldozer and of course we had to take on bigger contracts and contractors were getting fewer because horses were sort of going out. Once we’d started doing that I got contracts up to two shillings a yard - 2 bob a yard we called it, and then because they were bigger contracts we were getting 35 – 40 thousand yard contracts – you’d just shift from one site to the other – you wouldn’t have to pick up any gear you’d do half a mile of channel either side of your camp and then you’d just one lunchtime you’d hook onto your camp and shift it another couple of mile down the channel. These channels were all surveyed – there was pegs wire pegs they had for where you had to plough and you had a plan of the channel it was on a piece of paper. You followed that plan because every two hundred feet there was a survey level and when you were going down into lower country you would see that the banks had to be higher, the channels had to be wider – the idea was so the channels would drain out in the wintertime to control weeds.
The farmers would engage a surveyor to survey perhaps two or three hundred acres of his property; he would come up with a plan and the farmer would come to us with the plan and we’d give them a quote to lay out the property; it was usually about £12 or £14 pound an acre – we’d estimate how many times we’d have to do fallow, we had to plough it and we would check bank it, put the drains in, complete the layout. Because we had a larger tractor and we had the horses do the bigger channels that were required to do the job, some of the farmers wouldn’t have the money available to do such a contract, they might do a 100 acres – I would then say to them well I’ll do the other 100 acres and take the crop of wheat off it – which meant that I had the crop the next year as payment for the work.

Surveying plan of best fit

[The blue line on the Dethridge wheel] was a supply line for the water; that’s where the surveyor took the levels from to survey the paddock – that was his level where he started from. He would survey the paddock every 200 metres or every chain he would take a level; he would grid survey it for a start by every ten square chain – that was a grid and he would survey that every chain right through and he’d follow it out and he’d have this – he’d put all his figures in a book, he’d come back and draw a map of that when he was finished and then he’d present the farmer with the map and that was the map that we followed and those maps were still used in later years when people went lasering their country. They use to call it the Plan of Best Fit
If there was a tree the surveyor would put a mark on that tree and if you wanted to find a point – these grid survey pegs were in every 10 chain and you’d go so many chain north and go so many chain east and that’s where the point would be, when those two points met, that’s where you’d come to a turn in your channel and there’d be another peg across the paddock, you’d put this map down and you’d find all these channel bends and you’d just go from one to the other off this map and you had to peg the paddock out and that’s how you made your channels and you worked your bays and everything off this channel line.
We were starting to use land graders in the 1950s. Some of them were horse-drawn but they started to make them so the tractors could be used in the 1950s, there was a few tractors getting about by then, there wasn’t too many blokes left to handle horses by the time we got into the 50s.

Early irrigation layouts

There was a water allocation - a lot of 50 acre feet of water to each property and they called it a water right and the farmers had to pay for that whether they used it or not and they had to pay 5sh/6p an acre foot for it and they all had to do about 20 acres of layout of irrigation and there was none of this gear about for developing irrigation. They had a combine and a scarifier and a disk but then they didn’t have graders and things for levelling ground and things for putting check banks up.
The La Peers – they came down from Griffith and they had a board - it was about 9 ft wide it had a handle in the middle. You’d hook five horses onto it, it had a chain hooked on each end of it – it was like a bridle in front of the board and you walked across the paddock holding the handle and that’s how they sort of levelled the ground. After it was ploughed the farmer would have his 20 acres worked up and they’d go across the paddock two or three times with this, in different directions, and they’d reckon they were levelling it. All they were doing was making dust.
This board had two hoops on each end of it that if you let it roll forward quick it would dump the dirt that was on it. You’d drag a sledge where the check bank was supposed to go and as you come to this you’d have to let the board go forward so release the dirt for the check bank and then pull it back again and have it full again by the time you went half a chain to drop it into the next bank. And then you would crowd those banks out you had a crowder that you ran up and down those banks and that’s how they put the banks together. Some of those layouts are still about. And then they built graders – Close started to build a grader and Furphy started to build graders that had wheels on them.
By this time farming was going over to mechanisation and a lot of tractors were coming about but those days the tractors were only about 35 horse power and they weren’t very big tractors – some of the contractors got bigger ones and we did layouts – layout irrigation because a lot of the farmers had small tractors we had the bigger tractor which would be about 50 hp. I did irrigation layouts for the Lands Department for the soldier settlers. That would have been 1951 onwards
[My first tractor was] a Lanz Bulldog tractor [costing] 1860 pounds delivered. That pulled all the implements you required for laying out irrigation – it was one of the bigger tractors in the district at the time and by this time we had wheel graders made by Hacker & Nixon and Close and wheel machinery that’s when the irrigation sort of took off – all the old farmers were sort of going out and the new fellas soldier settlers or farmer’s sons that had bought into the district. We didn’t have any land; we just concentrated on contracting and share farming.



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