The History of Irrigation
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Pat Murphy

Originally from South Australia Kingsley Murphy, known as Pat, was working on farms in Victoria before he joined the Australian Army during World War II (he was captured by German troops and later escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp). Returning to Australia, he drew a soldier settlement block in the newly developed Murray Irrigation districts and settled near Blighty.


Key topics: soldier settlement, channels, land clearing, aboriginal artefacts, expectations of prosperity, farming enterprises.

The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview recorded with Mr John Rourke, in February 2005.

When I came back [from the war] I came up here to stay with a bloke at "Arawata' and heard that these farms were being cut up for soldier settlement and put in for one, and drew one, actually. The property was called "Warragoon', and there were five soldier settlement blocks on this area. And I'd be the only one left here now.
When it started out here it was lease in perpetuity, and you could borrow a small amount of money for a house, which you'd probably build about two rooms if you were lucky, and a certain amount for channelling, a certain limit - they were all limited amounts - for fencing material. You had to put the fences up yourself, and took it from there. But to start with I got a horse team, put some of the channels in here.
I built them all and laid out the property. There was no money from the soldier settlement to buy any plant or anything like that, and everything that we did in that way had to be from our earnings, and in those days these farms being lease and perpetuity you couldn't borrow any money - it's only in about the last 20 years that they've been converted to freehold. But back in those days the only thing was that anything you did, you had to have the cash to pay for it, and there couldn't be any hiccups, you had to have a good year every year otherwise you'd be out."

Tent living

Another stipulation was that you had to live on your farm. But we first came out here and had two tents, used to live in one and the other one was a bathroom, and used to cart the water in a 44 gallon drum from the channel, had a tap on the 44 gallon drum, and used to use that. That was the washing water. And we used to bring out drinking water from town – at that stage I still had a house in town."
We got part of an air force hut, we lived in that for a while, and then built this house. It was mostly built out of lucerne money. I can remember that sometimes the builders would be up here and I'd come back – and I'd sold the lucerne but nobody would take it because it had got wet - and used to say, "Well, you'd better go home because I haven't got any money to pay you with". So, they'd go away and they'd come back later when I got a bit more money."

Dreams of prosperity

Later on I built a tennis court here because we used to play tennis a bit and my wife used to have people for tennis here. But in the early stages here we often used to have an evening together or something like that, talk about all the money we were going to make, when we first came here. And at one stage I can remember down at the old Warragoon shed and there were a whole group of women there, and anyway there was some soldier settler, some optimist, came in and he was talking about what they were going to do and what they weren't going to do - a bloke called Budd Rose. He was growing flowers, actually, on his place, and he was doing that well. All the women were talking about buying fur coats and things like that, but that didn't eventuate.
The work was clearing the land to start with. You had to clear the timber, mostly you got a bulldozer to push the trees down and then had to burn it, you know, because the rabbits were bad here in those days and they were getting full of rabbits. We were heavily criticised by some people, saying, "You shouldn't be burning that, you should be stacking it," and all the rest of it, but we reckoned if we didn't burn the timber and get it out of the road we wouldn't be here long enough to - to benefit by any timber, any dry timber that was left."
There was I think the remains of a blackfellas oven out the front here where the box timber was and they used to come over here at certain periods. No doubt it was a sweet bit of country and the kangaroos used to congregate there, and they used to come here. We've picked up a stone axe and other odd little things like that. Evidently it was a big hunting ground for the Aboriginals.

Changing farm enterprises

"I was mainly in fat lambs, and in 1955 at the time the syphon went through it was a wet year and I would have had 950 ewes, first cross ewes here, joined to Dorset rams, and I had 15 cows and a bull. And we used to grow a bit of lucerne, sell a bit of lucerne in those days." [Irrigation] meant that we could carry a lot more, you know, and finish them successfully. We couldn't have really done it without. You know, in the good years you might have been able to carry half the number that you were carrying in the good years [with irrigation], and other years you kept nothing.
Lucerne and oats is the only cropping we've been doing because we've now got all beef cattle and have had since 1970; haven't had a sheep here since about 1969. We breed vealers, and good vealers, top vealers. We've been quite successful at that, but over the last few years, with low water allocation, we've had to reduce the numbers - although we've still been getting good money for them. We've always baled a lot of hay, and we've got our own hay baler.
We used to be rice growers, but then when the water became restricted it was either reduce the cattle numbers or get rid of the rice and increase the cattle numbers, so we did that. And at the time we didn't know whether it was the right decision or not, but it appears that it has been the right decision.
We've certainly learnt a lot about conditions in this part of the world, raising vealers and fat lambs. We have learnt a lot as we've gone along, of course. And when we did grow rice, well, we knew nothing whatsoever about growing rice, like everybody else around about here, and we've had to learn as we went. We have had a lot of help from the agronomists around about here.
I've been very happy here. You know, we've - sort of battled along all right. We never expected to make a hell of a lot of money, but we've been quite happy here. We've had to work hard, and one thing and another, but it's been a good life. Ever since I've been here they've been saying, these farms are too small, get big or get out. We've always gone along with the theory it was small and good, but we don't know how that's going to be in the future.
Now the water's been restricted it's a bit harder. It means we've had to limit what we could do, haven't been able to water a lot of our pastures. And this year again we've got 37 per cent of allocation, we'll be able to only water a portion of our pastures. With the hay that we've got we'll get by, we'll just get by, but we're not making enough money really to put more improvements on the place.

Pat Murphy


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