The History of Irrigation
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Shirley Powell

Shirley Powell was born in Deniliquin in and not long after leaving school began working for the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission in 1949, during the period when the Lawson Syphons and Deniboota irrigation district were under construction.


Key topics: Working conditions, engineering reports, payday, migrant workers, Lawson Syphons, fatal accident, dust storms.

The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview conducted with Mrs Shirley Powell in January 2005.

I went to the Pastoral Times as a cadet reporter for 6 months. The hours were too long, I had just left school, my mother considered I was out too late at night with the then editor, out at Council meetings and other meetings and not getting home until all hours with her and on publication days you just worked straight through until the paper actually came out. So, I stayed there for six months and then I went to Henry Gillespie's [hardware store] as a clerk for just a few months, when I saw this position advertised as a clerk for the Water Commission.

No female clerks

I saw the advertisement in the local paper for a clerk. I applied for this position, a few weeks later I was rang and asked to call in, asked to come in for an interview. When I got there, it was explained to me that the position that was advertised was for a clerk and in those days naturally then a male, not a female, clerk. However, in a few weeks time there became vacant or available a position for a stenographer. Would I be interested in applying for that? Which suited me perfectly because I preferred to be a stenographer than a clerk.
"A stenographer is a shorthand typist, a clerk does bookwork, ledgers, things like that. They asked my would I be interested in applying for the stenographer's position and I said yes, I would and they said "Well, we'll do the interview now for that stenographer's position even though it has not been advertised. After it is advertised we will be doing other interviews." I did the interview and then waited several weeks and finally received in the mail a letter saying I had been appointed on probation for six months for the position of stenographer. However, it would be at the Deniboota construction office as my brother worked in the District office of the Water Commission and no two members of the one family could work in the same office.

The Deniboota office [in End St] was solely in control of the construction of channels and the Syphon. The District office was, I think, termed the Water Distribution office. They were operating from where Ho's restaurant is now."

Office staff expands
I received a letter saying to commence at 8.45 on Monday January the 10th, 1949. I went up to the office, walked in, there were 10 clerks sitting around and about four or five engineers and I looked at each one and the only face that I knew in the whole office was the Lindsay Woods. And there I was, however, we got through the first day alright and the next day the resident engineer came in and said to me that as the work had increased rapidly with the building of the Syphon. From the other interviews they'd has after the position was advertised they had appointed another girl who was to start the following week. I was very happy about this because I didn't like being the only female in the office. So, from then on things just went on merrily. I know that my first pay was one pound five shillings which was considered at the time to be very good. That is $2.50

When I started, Bill Shaddick was the resident engineer. Jack Bass was in charge of the office. We had Wally Raisin, Gordon Denham, Bill Lachlan, Ellis Thornton, Lindsay Woods. After I had been there a while Merv Marshall started, Russell Fisher and Ilidge White.
When the resident engineer was in we would go in, one of us [stenographers], one at a time, we would do a whole day of shorthand and the next day when he went out into the fields we sat and typed what we had taken down the day before.

Details, details
Engineers had to submit their reports on the Friday. Sometimes they would write them up on the Thursday night otherwise they would get in very early on the Friday. Their reports had to be typed up, which ran into many, many, many pages, they had to wait around until they were typed so they could sign them. The mechanical engineer's report was the worst, he had to write down every single solitary thing that was done to the Bucyrus draglines, there were four of them. Each one was listed and each nut and bolt that was put onto that drag line in the week, everything was listed. In fact, I even feel sure sometimes that they had to list the free air that went into the tyres on the tractors. The other reports, of course, covered the workers and how far they travelled through the week and what work was actually done on the channels.

There was one engineer in Wakool, he would ring his report through but it was absolutely impossible to hear more than one word in ten. I think we made up half of them. Otherwise I think he may have brought his in on the following Monday and we could sort of read the writing and do it then. But to, to speak to him on the phone it was absolutely impossible, the voice would drop out, there was static, there was just nothing at all and you would hear "I've just rang up my report" and then it would go blank and then there was nothing and you would be saying "I'm sorry Mr Atkins, I can't hear you".

Counting the money
Payday for the Lawson Syphon people was extremely busy. They were paid fortnightly. The day before the bank was rang up and every note and coin that was needed for pay day they had ready for us to pick up on the Thursday. It was brought back to the office, the first clerk, who was in charge of the whole office, counted the money that came back from the bank. Then it passed to another table, they counted out the money for each employee, then it went to another table which was checked, then it went to another table where it was double checked and finally it got to the fifth table where it was put into the little pay envelopes with the person's name and how much they were supposed to get on the outside. If there was a threepence left over, or not there, the whole process was gone through again. However, this, after four or five checking this rarely happened. After it was put in the pay envelopes it was stacked into a little case and handed to the paymaster and a driver and away they went out to the Syphon and paid the men, 99% of whom couldn't speak English but as soon as the pay cart pulled up they would down tools and came over and got their pay. I went out a couple of times with the paymaster but I think I just sat in the car.

A lot of people [lived] out there [at the syphons], there were houses out there where some of the workers and their families resided. They did come into town, but I think they sort of mixed among themselves. They were from all over of course and we really didn't have very much to do with them at all. I think eventually all those houses were demolished although I think the one that the resident engineer lived in is still there."

A tragic accident
I remember one very tragic accident [at the syphons] when a pile frame collapsed into the water, there were three or four people killed. There was a Mr Nightingale, and I know there was a Mr Jones. At the time the Department sent me to the police station to do the deposition for the witnesses because usually they're done by the police but at that particular time they didn't have a Constable who typed fast enough. So I went down from the office and did the depositions for the witnesses for that particular thing.

When the work was done . . .
[Deniliquin] thought the irrigation was a very good thing but they did miss the migrant's pay packets. The migrants would come in, they would spend their money and of course that was gone once the Syphon was finished. A lot of the shopkeepers remarked on how their sales had dropped since the migrants had gone.

When the syphon closed down the office in End Street closed and we moved to a building on the corner of Wood and Macauley Street, just a skeleton crew went there. Everyone who had been in that office when I started - there was no-one left there. When the office up at the corner of Wood and Macauley Street closed down I was transferred to the District office which was 10 years later. By this time they must have changed their minds about too many people from the one family being in the one office and I was transferred to the District office in January '59 and I resigned from there in July 1959.
I think [the irrigation] was the best thing that has ever happened to Deniliquin. It was a huge job, you don't sort of put a river under a river and dam it all up.It was a magnificent feat. Without the irrigation water, what did we have? Before then they relied on rain, and then there were the dust storms . . . you could not believe them. My sister got married in December 1944, on the day of her wedding there was the worst dust storm, there was a photo of it in the Pastoral showing this great black cloud coming right across the whole town. Her wedding photos could not be taken outside. The food, everything, was covered in dust at the reception and I think that was the worst one there was. But there were continual dust storms.

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Shirley Powell


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