SA Government LogoState Library of South Australia logoDownstream, the River Murray in South Australia
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Irrigation and exploitation: Chaffey Brothers

Following the decline in riverboat navigation, a new venture began along the River Murray.

Canadian-born brothers George and William Chaffey were water-engineering specialists who had established irrigation schemes in California. In 1886 Alfred Deakin, at the time a Victorian cabinet minister (and later Australian Prime Minister), went on an irrigation study tour in America. He was impressed by the skills of the Chaffey brothers, and asked George Chaffey to come to Australia. George was encouraged by the prospects in Australia's Riverland and persuaded his younger brother William to follow.

Avoiding political wrangling in Victoria, George Chaffey was attracted to Renmark and believed he could turn River Murray water onto the arid land and the region would flourish. In 1887 Chaffey signed an agreement with the South Australian government based on an incentive scheme, and Renmark effectively became the first irrigation settlement in Australia. The Chaffeys invested a fortune into preparing and irrigating blocks of land for sale. Many English settlers were attracted to the irrigation scheme in response to a 'Red' book published by the Chaffeys entitled The Australian Irrigation Colonies, promoting a bountiful future.

But within six years the prospect looked bleak. The Chaffeys fell victim to the Bank Crash of 1893 and like many others, became almost penniless. In addition to this Depression, inexperienced settlers, inappropriate agricultural methods, unsuitable crop varieties, transport difficulties, fruit diseases and extremes of weather, all caused the company to fail. Many people literally fled their holdings.

In 1893 an Act of Parliament transferred the Chaffeys' rights to the Renmark Irrigation Trust, an elected body which provided the opportunity for settlers to manage their own resources. The Chaffey Brother's firm then ceased operations in 1895. George Chaffey returned to the United States, while William stayed on in Mildura and without any prospect of recovering his wealth, worked tirelessly to see the irrigation projects continue.

The principles of irrigation engineering are the legacy of the Chaffey Brothers' enterprise in Australia. Their innovation has had far reaching effects and pioneered the techniques that now allow for food to be grown year round in some of the driest settled land in Australia. Today, the River Murray sustains orchards, vineyards and vegetable crops, supported by canneries, wineries and food-processing factories.

Further reading

Renmark newspaper slips, 1886-1889: a collection of references to the founding of Mildura and Renmark by George and William B.Chaffey, irrigation pioneers / re-arranged and edited by Lloyd Thomson and Sydney Wells. Mildura, Vic.: Mildura Legacy Club, [1989]

Links

Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Chaffey, George and Chaffey, William Benjamin

Australian irrigation colonies (Chaffey Bros. Limited).
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First Chaffey engine at Renmark
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Fruit drying, Renmark
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Irrigation channel, Renmark
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Portrait of George Chaffey
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Small portraits of the Chaffey Brothers
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Survey camp at Mildura
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Testimonials, Chaffey Irrigation Offices
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The Australian irrigation colonies on the River Murray
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