The History of Irrigation
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Theo Walle

Theo Walle's parents were looking for work and new opportunities when they immigrated to Australia in 1954. After moving several times across NSW, 11 year-old Theo and his family found a home at Deniliquin, at the Lawson Syphon construction camp, in 1956, where Theo's father worked on the final phase of construction.


Key topics: immigrating, Bonegilla, migrant workers, living conditions, Lawson Syphons, children's recreation, accommodation, dragline, fire at syphon accommodation.

The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview conducted with Mr Theo Walle in March 2005.

I was born in Arnhem in Holland. We moved to Nijmegen which is a town not far from there, as a child with all our family and from there we immigrated to Australia. Our original name was Van de Walle; but my father, being keen to become assimilated and be an Aussie, dropped the "Van de" out of our surname and dropped two Christian names of all six children.
Well we came to Australia, the boat arrived on the 18th October 1954, and we had a horrific trip on the steam train from Station Pier in Melbourne to Bonegilla near Albury and I can distinctly remember I was 9 years old at that stage and my mother was terrified because we travelled all night and it was a moonlit night and all the stark dead trees and hills were totally unfamiliar to her and she was terrified; she just didn't know where they were going or what they were doing - why had they chosen to come here!?
In Holland most trees are deciduous trees and even though they don't have leaves on them in winter, these were the dead gum trees out around Lake Hume where a lot of the country had flooded and they'd ringbarked all the trees, you know, huge trees that we had never seen. It was all very foreign to us and I remember my mother was crying and wanted to go home and all that and my father saying "Don't be stupid, this is going to be our home". But it was a terrifying experience for her and I often think back now, to me, they were real pioneers. They couldn't speak English; they had had lessons for years while they were trying to immigrate and basic Yes/No were all the words they knew. I didn't know any English at all, none whatsoever.
We went to Bonegilla. It was shortly after the War and we had seen all the pictures of concentration camps and all the Jewish holocaust thing and then we went to Bonegilla which even then was a pretty well run down army establishment which looked like a concentration camp or something, which didn't help. And we had to bunk in like - we lived next door to Germans who you hated because of the war and Poles who you couldn't understand although I actually learned to speak a fair amount of German and Polish and Italian before I even learned to speak English.

Poor treatment at Scone

My father got a job on a property at Scone, as a gardener. My father is actually a terrazzo worker which is a bit hard to explain, but it's crushed gravel, crushed marble and granite set in concrete and they used to make bathroom floors and toilet partitions. That was his trade but other than that he fell back on being a gardener, he loved gardening.
At Scone we lived in a converted horse stable it still had the rings in the wall where the horses lived, we slept on old shearers camp stretchers on which were wheat bags and things because you had no blankets or anything and it was pretty horrific really and after a relatively short time the property owner seemed to think that we were just slaves for his benefit and I can well remember with my father going at night to the barn just by candlelight to crush up wheat that the farmer had, to turn into porridge for something to eat, because we had virtually no food at that stage. Part of the deal of living there was that we were going to get meat and eggs and bread. The eggs were duck eggs that we didn't know anything about and the meat was lamb that we had never eaten, and it really smells awful if you are not used to it, it was all necks and shanks and offcuts that the property owner wouldn't have; bread was all his day old stuff that he didn't eat and if you wanted milk, which there was plenty of, you had to go and milk the cow which we had never done. So it was a pretty torrid time for Mum and Dad and I take my hat off to them for persevering.
Fortunately for us we got on to another Dutch family that lived at Scone who then contacted the Dutch embassy and said look, these people are not being treated very well, so I remember a car arrived one day with people in their suits and that, they then arranged for us to leave that property.

A new home at Lawson Syphons

[We were sent to a property in the Warragoon area, near Finley], but the manager there didn't get on with my father at all and when the owner came home from a holiday the manager told him that Dad tried to burn the farm down and we got chucked out in the street. Someone told my father that he would probably get a job at the [Lawson] Syphons, so he bought a house at the syphons which was made out of wheat bags that had been whitewashed and corrugated iron and the floors were all the leftover timber from the syphons, all the floorboards were all bits of formwork all pieced together and we lived there.
[At that time] the channel was actually flowing but they were just building a lot of the infrastructure which I suppose was the smaller channels and bridges and they were pulling out all the old pole frames and all the steel sheeting in the river and that. Dad worked at the syphons there building pre-cast concrete sections for channel bridges that were all joined together and made decking, they made hundreds of them, they just worked permanently all the old cement mixers - no ready mix in those days.
And we sort of virtually had a run of the syphons and I spent a lot of time watching all the pile frames pulling all the sheeting out of the river, any that could be, and lots of it was demolished. They were actually still working on all sorts of things down at the river. We used to go fishing on the old syphon bridge and it had a steam pipe running along from the big steam boiler that provided the jack hammers and we used to get the fish and just gut them and lay them on the steam pipe and cook them and eat them for lunch.

Stuck fast, in the river

When the concreting finished my Dad worked for a fair while winding these air pumps, because they had to cut a lot of the steel sheeting off under the river because it couldn't be pulled out, it was stuck too fast and they had divers in diving suits down there cutting it all off with oxytorches and Dad got the job of turning that handle at a certain rate to get a certain amount of air and you'd see the trail of bubbles where they were cutting the sheeting off under the river. I didn't actually see it but my neighbour did and they were down there one day and all of the men were cutting off the wooden poles with crosscut saws because they couldn't pull them out they were stuck too fast and of course being in the sun was quite hot and they all stripped off to their jocks and they were all in the river and down came one of the engineers with their wife to have a look at the thing, and the lunch time whistle went and all the blokes were still sawing away and sawing away and the engineer couldn't work out why they were working through their lunch hour and it wasn't till somebody went up to him and said "Oh listen all these blokes are only in their underpants; I think it might be a good idea to take the women away from here so they can go out and have their lunch.
You couldn't help but notice that it was like an irrigation scheme that was bringing water to a lot of parched areas and it was a pretty important thing, and even today I often say to people it's an engineering marvel, because its mainly buried, people don't appreciate the amount of time and effort that went into building it. But it's incredibly ingenious.
We had water because it was laid on from the actual syphon itself which had two great big overhead water storages actually in the workshop area. That water was pumped directly from the canal straight up into there, and it supplied water to the whole thing, it had like a complete water reticulation system for all our washing and drinking and whatever. It was just unfiltered water straight out of the Mulwala, straight into a glass and you drank it.

Water play

You just put up with the heat. You had no choice. Being a tin hut it got extremely hot, but we were lucky because the Mulwala was only 50 metres away and it was flowing well and we use to swim and we spent a lot of time on the canal, because we used to scrounge sheets of corrugated iron and we used to make canoes out of them and you used to paddle them by hand and have imaginary wars on them. They used to be just a nice size for a fruit box at the back and a piece of wood at the front and you would wait until the weather was hot enough for the tar to melt on the road and you'd pinch all the tar off the road and so that they wouldn't leak and we spent a lot of time on the canal just having all sorts of swimming and boating and all that; we even made a raft with a mast and sails on it. There was quite a large crowd of kids there and that's why I suppose we as kids had a great time.
Roy Charlton's house was sort of just across the fence from us and they actually owned a piece of land right joining onto the syphon area and they were sort of like a bit of a boarding place, and it also provided meals for many years for a lot of the single men that still worked on the syphon and they would cut their lunches for them and all that sort of stuff and some even stayed there. Roy Charlton had a pig sty with big pigs that we used to ride, unbeknown to him, until one day we were going round and round the yard on these great big pigs and we looked up and there was Roy looking over the fence with his face like thunder; jeez we couldn't get off them quick enough.
We use to have amateur boxing there and a gym; it was mainly for the actual syphon camp but we were allowed to go there and there was punching bags and all that sort of thing. The other thing is from school back in those days we use to rush home on the pushbike and listen to Tarzan and Green Bottle and all those things I mean that's going back a long way but they were pretty important to us then and it was radio no television.
Being at school we sort of went in [to town] every day. I had a rack on the back of the bike and I had to go to the butchers and bakers to pick up the bread and meat and milk and things to take home every night. My mother not being really good in English and my father, they tended to spend a lot of time at home growing vegetables in their garden and fruit trees.

From glory to mud

There was a huge dragline that was to go to Colleambally scheme that couldn't be transported and would have been too big a job to pull it all to pieces I presume and they were going to walk that cross-country all the way to Coleambally and it went across the syphon bridge which amazed everyone. It was only a wooden bridge but it carried I don't know what the thing weighed probably 120/130 tonne or something which was pretty big in its day and one of those draglines is still at Coleambally but it went along the edge of the channel. It left the workshops in a blaze of glory through the creek because it couldn't go over the long skinny bridge and when it got to the where the road dips down into part of the flood plain close to the river it must have been pretty wet underneath because the thing just went down, down, down and got hopelessly bogged and they had to get these bulldozers in and carve this great big track out and put all this timber under it and it took days to dig the thing out again but it was probably about four to five 5 ft down in the mud. [The driver] walked out. He used to climb up into the cabin but this day he would just step out of the cabin straight onto flat ground. I do remember the footpath between the back of our house and the loo was made out of brake bands out of these big draglines and they were laid down like little roads down there and to keep our feet dry and that were huge and you often think gee they must have been big machines.

Fire at the syphon

[The workers lived in] small little rooms all made out of corrugated iron but each person would only have a little room probably 10foot square, if that. I can remember all the men's huts all burnt down and we were there as kids because we would just come home from school and it was all blazing away and I can remember Mrs Charlton said "Go to Lucky Pa's room", he was a gentleman and a really nice fellow too Lucky Pa. She said "don't worry about anything other than the little brown suitcase under his bed, get that", so we ran through the smoke and stuff and went in there got this little suitcase, we found out later it was all his Masonic regalia which was irreplaceable and whenever he could Lucky use to shout us an icecream for saving his stuff. We didn't realise how much we were risking ourselves going in there to get it, but [the fire] just went from one to another and just burnt the lot down. I think originally they might have been airforce huts come from out at the aerodrome. Not long after that burnt down it sort of all finished. Even now its very difficult to find some of the things I know where there were, big gravel dumps right outside our house where we lived.
A lot of the houses [at the syphons] were built out of cement sheet. They were all like little yards all joined together you just took what you wanted as your yard and a lot of the houses were built around this they had corrugated iron roofs but Martin Sprong's and some of these others were basically like a garage with two little rooms in them made out of fibro and they had this tar paper roof and that's what they lived in.
About three years [we lived at the Syphons] and then we moved to town. It was very basic but we were very happy. It was probably the best place that we had, and it was ours, we'd bought it, it cost my father 200 pounds I can remember and it took him a long time to pay for it. When we left the syphons we pulled it down and re-cycled all the iron and put the roof on the house in town that we got, that had a rusted out old roof on it.

Theo Walle


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