Who were the Chaffey Brothers? Why did they come to Mildura?

The Chaffeys originated from Brockville, Canada, where George (Snr) and his brother ‘Uncle Benjamin’ ran a shipping line on the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes.

In 1880, George (Snr) was medically advised to move to a warmer climate. The family moved to Riverside in California, but George (Jnr) stayed in Brockville. The two younger brothers, William (W.B.) and Charles became interested in horticulture and irrigation. On a visit, George (Jnr) also became interested, and together they formed Chaffey Brothers Ltd. before starting their first irrigation colony, Etiwanda. This was followed by the larger and more successful colony of Ontario.

Alfred Deakin and his delegation from Victoria visited California in 1885, inspecting the successful Chaffey settlements. As a result of Alfred Deakin’s visit, the brothers decided to check the irrigation possibilities in Victoria.

George sailed for Australia, and in February 1886 arrived to inspect the Mildura Station Homestead. In April he cabled W.B. – instructing him to, “Sell our California assets”. W.B. and his family set sail for Australia on 19 November 1886.

On 31 May, the Mildura Indenture was signed by Queen Victoria, the Victorian Government and George and William Benjamin Chaffey, granting the pair 250,000 acres on which to establish the Mildura Irrigation Colony. A similar agreement was signed in South Australia to develop the Riverland at Renmark. Charles Chaffey managed this project.

What was Mildura like before the Chaffeys arrived?

Scientific evidence now dates Aboriginal occupation of the area to at least 50,000 years. The Murray was a rich corridor, and an important trading highway for the various tribes. The local group were the Latje Latje people, while the Barkindji people lived over the river.

It is believed the Aboriginal name ‘Mil-dura’, meaning red earth, was given to the red bank near what is now called the Mildura Station Homestead.

The first European to pass Mildura was British explorer Captain Charles Sturt in January 1830. He is believed to have passed the site now occupied by Mildura, and the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers. Following what were known as the ‘Squatters Acts’, the Jamieson brothers legally occupied what they called Yerre Yerre Lease. In 1858, they changed the name to Mildura – which was the Aboriginal name meaning ‘red earth’. It was sold to Alexander McEdwards in 1878 and soon after to the Tapalin Pastoral Co.

The rabbit plague of the 1880s, and a long drought, left the area like a barren desert. Eventually the lease passed to liquidators and in 1884 to the Victorian State Government.

How did the Chaffeys establish Mildura township?

Following the signing of the Indenture in 1887, the Chaffey brothers set about establishing the Mildura Irrigation Colony. A book, commonly known as the ‘Red Book’, was produced and sent all over the world to attract settlers. By 1888, they began arriving. As there was little housing, the area along the riverfront became a ‘tent town’. The Chaffeys’ Mildura Engineering Works was beside the river, as was Risby’s Sawmill, Gunns’ Store and the Mildura Brickworks.

The wharf was constructed in 1892 and extended in 1899. The plan for the town was based on the brothers’ Ontario model with numbered streets in one direction and named avenues in the other. Buildings, shops, services, and facilities began to develop, including the Grand Coffee Palace (now the Grand Hotel) and the Chaffey Offices on Seventh Street, Langtree Hall and of course Rio Vista.

Why was ‘Rio Vista’ built?

This beautiful house was built for W.B. Chaffey and his family, with construction commencing in 1889. The name Rio Vista means ‘River View’ in Spanish. During construction, W.B.’s first wife Hattie died of Pleurisy. W.B. married again, with his second wife being the niece of his first and also named Hattie. The family moved into Rio Vista in 1892, and a number of further children were born.

Following the Royal Commission of 1896, George Chaffey returned to California while W.B. remained and continued to live in Rio Vista. The Chaffey family occupied the mansion until 1950 when Hattie died. In the same year it was bought by Mildura City Council as an art gallery. It is now part of the Mildura Arts Centre precinct, which includes a theatre, galleries, historic displays, a fountain and beautiful surrounding gardens. The house itself has been beautifully restored over the years. Where necessary the wallpaper has been skilfully repaired or replaced, paint and woodwork carefully restored, and where possible furniture and fittings used are original or authentic to the period.

How was the Mildura Irrigation Scheme developed?

The Mildura Irrigation Scheme was designed by George Chaffey. The water was pumped from the Murray River at the ‘Psyche Pumps’, stored in ‘Kings Billabong’, raised from ‘Kings Billabong’ by the ‘Billabong Pumps’ to the ‘Fifty Foot Channel’ and flowed along to the ‘Nichols Point Pumps’. Here it was raised to 80-feet and sent by gravity over 300 miles of channels to every block in the district.

The pumping engine at Psyche Bend was also designed by George Chaffey in 1889 based on a ships engine. It was built by Tangye’s of Birmingham, UK., and brought out in pieces and assembled on site. In fact there were two such engines built, the second was installed at the Billabong Pumps. The Nichols Point Pump was a P&O engine. The ‘George Chaffey Improved Pumping Engine’ was a triple expansion steam engine which sent up to 670 tonnes of water a minute into Kings Billabong. Although the steam engines were replaced by electricity in 1959, the Psyche Pumps have been lovingly restored by the Sunraysia Steam Preservation Society and operate on special occasions. The non-operational Kings Billabong Pump is on display along the Mildura Riverfront.

Why were Chaffey Brothers Ltd. declared bankrupt?

There were several reasons why the early Mildura Irrigation Colony struggled. The first vine plantings were mainly fresh fruit and wine grapes. In fact the Chaffeys established the Chateau Mildura Winery in 1889. The fresh fruit needed a quick route to market. A train had been promised, but this did not occur until 1903. Fruit had to be transported by paddle steamer to Echuca, and then by train to Melbourne – a trip of at least 10 days in normal river conditions. In 1893, the river dropped to a level where produce could not be shipped to markets. Massive seepage occurred in irrigation channels and increased salinity killed vines and trees. Depression developed, and the National Bank closed its doors and foreclosed on it debtors. In 1895, record rains ruined the harvest. In the same year, Chaffey Brothers Limited was declared bankrupt. A Royal Commission was appointed in May 1896 and found the brothers guilty of serious financial mismanagement. George returned to California, but W.B. remained and was to become a leading citizen in the reformed settlement.

How did the Mildura Irrigation Colony re-establish itself?

Following the failure of the Chaffey’s Co., the Mildura Raisin Trust (later to become the Australian Dried Fruit Association) was established, and grower cooperatives and private companies developed to process, store and market fruit and look after the interests of the growers.

The Irymple Packing Co. was established by E.J. (Cocky) Roberts in 1900 and Mildura Co-operative Fruit Company in 1903. A unique relationship developed between ‘blockies’ and their ‘co-ops’ which continued for nearly 100 years. The First Mildura Irrigation Trust was also established under grower control to manage water. The growers had substantially changed from fresh to dried fruit, especially sultanas, raisins and currants. The ADFA embarked on a major marketing campaign led by C.J. De Garis, which caused ‘Sun-raysed’ dried fruit to be in demand around the world. Improved dipping procedures including the change from hot to cold dipping, and the adoption of the ‘Smyrna’ method, caused the production of a higher quality ‘golden’ fruit. The post WW1 Soldier Settlements at Birdwoodton, Merbein West and Red Cliffs were built on, and in turn this added to the success of the dried fruit industry. Red Cliffs in particular became the largest (in numbers) and most successful soldier settlement in Australia. The whole district adopted the name of ‘Sunraysia’ from the ‘Sun-raysed’ brand.

Why were Mildura Weir and Lock 11 built?

Water continued to be a problem for irrigators. The natural cycles of the river resulted in regular periods of flood and years where the river dropped to a series of water holes. A series of droughts brought these problems to a head. After many years of negotiation, a historic agreement was reached between Commonwealth, Victorian, New South Wales and South Australian Governments. The River Murray Commission was established in 1917 to put the River Murray Waters Agreement into effect. This involved the construction of a series of weirs to regulate flows, and a system of locks to facilitate the flow of river traffic.

Four storages, 16 weirs and five barrages were constructed between 1922 and 1939. Lock 11 at Mildura was opened in August 1927. The weir at Mildura is of Dethridge design and consists of 24 steel trestles each weighing approximately 11 tonnes, which hold a series of concrete ‘logs’ to raise or lower levels. These trestles are on rails, so can be removed in times of high river or for maintenance. The difference in levels is approximately 3.5 metres, and the weir-pool extends nearly 50 kilometres upstream.

The Lock 11 system is unique, as the lock and weir are not adjacent. The island is comprised of 15 hectares of bush land and involves an environmental trail developed by students from Mildura West Primary School. A walkway now connects Lock 11 with the Mildura Station Homestead.