Harnessing the River Murray: stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935 by Helen Stagg


You can preview the book on this link:

The book, with a foreword by Professor Geoffrey Blainey, has 258 pages and over 150 photographs.

The book, with a foreword by Professor Geoffrey Blainey, has 258 pages and over 150 photographs.



Books can be ordered on-line or by phone from Digital Print, Adelaide. You can arrange to collect the book from their city address if you prefer. (You would need to telephone to arrange this: Freecall – 1800 970 971

Click here for your on-line order from Digital Print



Harnessing the River Murray: stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935.


Harnessing the River Murray.jpgAbout the book:
This detailed examination of the lives of the men and their families who worked on the lock and weir construction is illustrated with 160 photographs and captures community life in the temporary villages on the banks of the mighty Murray. Through a blend of archival material and oral history, the book reveals the daily struggles and joys of this little-known workforce whose itinerant lifestyle led to them being referred to as ‘the great wandering class’.
With an introduction by Professor Geoffrey Blainey, the book is then divided into two sections. Part One covers the contest for control of the river from the late 1800s and South Australia’s early progress towards securing a ‘harnessed river’ and explains the stages of building a lock, the difficult working conditions and the tough times, cutbacks, accidents, and tragedies. Alongside this, the story develops of the schools, health issues and rich community activity. In addition some rare material illustrates the lives of the women and children and allows a view of daily domestic life. Part Two consists of the Oral History of seven people who spent their childhoods on the locks and their memories add warmth and colour to the story. In addition, the appendices contain an alphabetical list of over 500 accident victims at the works and allow the genealogical tracking of family members at the various locks. Also there are six petitions signed by residents at various locks, another source of names for family historians. The book is completed with a chronology and glossary and a comprehensive endnotes section.
The legacy of the lock building communities stands strong today: the structures which control the flow of Australia’s great waterway, the mighty Murray.

About the Author:

Helen Stagg grew up near thhelen 1e Murray River at Mildura in Victoria and completed an Arts degree majoring in history at the University of Melbourne. After teaching secondary school history in Hamilton she took time off to focus on raising her family before re-connecting with the river and her history passion in the 1990s in her hometown Mildura. In 2010 she completed a Master of History at UNE where she began her research into the construction of the first nine locks and weirs on the Murray River. She has presented papers at conferences and published several journal articles on the topic. Her aim in this book is to reveal the little-known stories of the lock-building communities.

If you would like to order your copy of Helen’s book, please contact Digital Print: Print on Demand at Digital Print, Adelaide

Dr George David Harris, grandfather of Dr Richard Harris: both highly esteemed men!

Dr G D Harris, courtesy Renmark Branch National Trust res

Dr G D Harris. (Pic. courtesy H Everingham)

Dr Richard Harris, the Adelaide anaesthetist who played such a prominent role in the Thai cave rescue, is the grandson of the esteemed Renmark doctor who ministered to several lock communities during construction, Dr George David Harris who died at a very young age in 1945.  It seems many of their qualities of character overlap!

The following extracts from the Renmark newspaper describe the outstanding contribution Dr George David Harris made to the Renmark community.

Dr. G. D. Harris was the Renmark doctor who had the contract to care for the residents at Lock 5 and 6 during the construction. He also initially provided a visiting service at Lock 7 until his brother, Dr John Harris was appointed there in 1931 after the diphtheria epidemic which claimed several children’s lives. However Renmark was greatly shocked when it learnt that Dr. George David Harris had died suddenly on Sunday, October 28. He had been playing tennis at Dr. C A Burns’ court, and was sitting chatting with other players while sheltering from a shower of rain at about 5 o’clock when he had a fatal heart attack.

“Dr. Harris, who was 47 years of age, was the town’s only medical practitioner, having shouldered a real war-time job to which his untimely death could be largely attributed in conscientiously caring for the health of a community of 5,000 people while his partner, Dr. R K Wilson was in the Services. He had been in practice here for the past 20 years, and Renmark was fortunate to have had a doctor of such high professional attainments for so long. The exceptionally fine service which he had rendered to residents during the years and the capable manner in which he had for considerable periods, and more especially in the war years, borne two men’s responsibilities, found a ready response in the hearts of the people, and the high esteem in which he was held was apparent from the widespread expressions of regret at his passing and the striking tributes paid to him.

A Tribute from DR. C. A. BURNS: “It is an honour to pay a tribute, to express a few words of appreciation of well-deserved praise, inadequate as they must be, to such an outstanding doctor and man as Dr. Harris. He was the happy possessor of many rich qualities; his professional attainments, his unselfish devotion to duty, together with his almost unlimited vitality, were a source of inspiration to all who were privileged to know him. His sympathetic nature, kindness of heart and easy manner gained the admiration and respect, the gratitude and love of the whole community. His unselfish and untiring efforts for the general health and wellbeing of the community will long be remembered, for he devoted his unbounded enthusiasm and his wide knowledge constantly to this end. In what nobler way can a man spend his life than by serving and carrying the burdens of his fellows.” Murray Pioneer (Renmark, SA : 1942 – 1950), Thursday 8 November 1945, page 7

Lock 3 undergoing maintenance

8 Million litres drained in one night! Click this link for great footage!

LOck 3 SA water pic 2

SA Water Flikr Book056pg017image067

Lock 3 is undergoing maintenance for the next several weeks, and the attached video makes interesting viewing of the draining procedure in preparation for this. It is fascinating to note that the foundations at Lock 3 were different from those at other locks built by South Australia.

The foundation at Lock 3 is better than at any other site in South Australia. It consists of a bluish clay underlying the river sand at a depth from six feet to 14 feet below low water level. On top for about one foot, this clay resembles a rock which has to be gadded-out, but underneath is much softer and is readily broken with a pick. It is a solid, regular and almost watertight material.[i]

But the preparation for the floor work was difficult nonetheless. Robert Barclay, a labourer, spoke of the ‘back-breaking’ work: ‘With the solid riverbed, footings had to be chiselled out from it instead of making a pile foundation. After removing the sand from the river floor, we had to dig about eight feet into the stone to secure a hold, so the force of the water would not push the lock and weir away. It was terrible hard digging, just like cement that had gone hard in a bag, got wet and set hard.[ii]

This riverbed had other interesting aspects. Assistant engineer George Mudie found a collection of fossils including a shark’s tooth of the genus charadon which lived millions of years ago, a palatal tooth of another extinct fish and a cluster of whale bones.[iii] Other workers found fossils too.

[i] The Mt Barker Courier, 5 September 1924, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article148094740

[ii] Helen Stagg, Harnessing the River Murray, Stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935, p. 108.

[iii] Murray Pioneer, 22 February 1924, p. 5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article109332771

A 1932 Hungarian journal on Agriculture and the Murray River Valley works


Photo from gubanyi.hu website.

On a visit to the State Records of South Australia last week, I came across a few fascinating documents which alerted me to the visit of a Hungarian Engineer to Australia c 1931 to research the ‘latest irrigation achievements’ done in different foreign countries. It seems he wrote an article for publication in the Hungarian Journal Vizughyi Kozlemeney, published by the Hungarian Department of Agriculture.

In 1933, he forwarded a copy, with ‘sincerest gratitude and thanks’ to the River Murray Commission in Canberra, mentioning that his contribution was on pp. 439-535. The editor of the journal had expressed his sincerest thanks to the River Murray Commission for ‘supplying us with a very rich and valuable collection of data concerning the magnificent engineering works executed in the Murray River Valley.’

 The link to the paper is here, but a subscription is required to read it, (which I do not have.) The 1932 edition of VIZUGHI KOZLEMENEY 

Gubanyi had been visiting Australia, (and had lived in NSW earlier in the century) and at the end of this period of research had requested photographs of various stages of the works for inclusion with his article. The journal’s focus was on Hydraulic Engineering and was partly to allow a means of exchange of engineering/technical information between countries.

It is fascinating to know that not only did Australia bring in overseas experts to assist in the planning and surveying of the locks, (Captain Johnston from America, for example), but that others around the world were actively interested in the program as it took shape here in the Murray Darling Basin.

Charles Gubanyi was an interesting fellow, described as an ‘engineer and world traveller’. Born in 1867, he studied at the Budapest Polytechnic and earned his Engineering Degree in 1890. After a few years in railroad construction, he was involved  in the Manchurian railroad construction, especially of its tunnels. Next he accepted a job at the construction of the port of Vladivostok. In 1906, he moved to Australia and lived on an agricultural property at Uranquinty, a small town about 15 km from Wagga Wagga  and in 1913, he sold up and returned to Hungary. A Trove article describes the fond farewells given by local people on his departure. On returning to Hungary, he started an experimental farm in Pilis and published several travel-related accounts and economic policy papers.  (Obviously he returned to Australia around 1931 for this article on locking the river.)(Source: http://library.obu.edu/HungarianWorldEncyclopedia.pdf)

Employment for returned World War One soldiers

GRS1023 0001 no 1F returned soldiers work (3)fb 1918 10 25

1918 10 25 Letter from Minister of Repatriation

During my years of research, I had found evidence of many ex-servicemen employed on lock construction. With the centenary of the completion of hostilities on the Western Front in WW1 upon us, it was timely then yesterday, when I came across official documents at State Records of SA ascertaining how returned men may be employed on the works. This letter to Mr Eaton, South Australian representative on Murray River Commission, states the need to provide employment for the returned soldiers.

GRS1023 0001 no 1F returned soldiers work fb

Letter to J H O Eaton, SA rep on RMC

GRS1023 0001 no 1F returned soldiers work (2)fb 1918 10 31

Letter from President of Dept of Works and railways

103 years! A fine day to remember…

Today marks 103 years since the foundation stone was laid at Blanchetown, South Australia, marking the official beginning of the Locking system on the Murray River. Marking the centenary, the book encapsulating the stories of the ‘unknown’ men and women involved over two decades in SA’s share of construction of the locks and weirs, was also launched, Harnessing the River Murray: stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935. You can contact me via this page to order your copy. You can watch the short speech made at the centenary and book launch by the author Helen Stagg on this link. Click here.

On June 5 1915 at the historic stone-laying ceremony, the Commissioner of Public Works, Harry Jackson, said: ‘the occasion is the most memorable in the history of SA.’

Premier Crawford Vaughan said: ‘The Murray is SA’s greatest asset and we now rejoice in the hope it is to be fully developed… to usher in a new era of activity and enterprise.’

Attorney Genfoundation stoneeral Billy Hughes said on seeing the river for the first time that day, they were  ‘at the beginning of a new chapter of Australian History, a chapter that was to introduce quite a new era.’


Russell John Dumas: South Australian Engineering Heritage

I am excited to be presenting a paper at the upcoming half day Engineering Heritage Conference on May 25 in Adelaide. Hosted by the South Australian Chapter of Engineering Heritage Australia, expert speakers will present papers and reports covering a wide range of topics dealing with the history and preservation of the SA’s engineering heritage. A well-established event, it attracts a broad cross-section of the community including architects, consultants, heritage professionals, historians and engineers. Bookings essential. Click here for more information or to register!

You can view the program on the link above.
pic 1 Dumas PSR oct 1914 p 184 5My paper is on Russell John Dumas and his contribution to the Murray River Waters Scheme. Russell John Dumas, 1887 – 1975, was a ‘home-grown’ SA engineer of exceptional talent and promise. In a 1924 presentation on Murray River lock construction, he claimed that Lock 3 near Overland Corner in South Australia, where he was Resident Engineer, was the first of the larger locks, (with lock chamber, navigable pass-way and sluiceway), to be constructed by an Australian engineer. American engineer, Robert Cutting had been Constructing Engineer at Blanchetown’s Lock 1 at the start of the ambitious River Murray Waters Scheme.
This paper gives archival insight into Dumas’ work on the scheme and shares his personal account of lock-construction. As Resident Engineer at Lock 3, Dumas managed not only the lock and weir construction, but the needs of the small temporary township including provision of amenities such as a school and other facilities.
This paper also touches on accidents and aspects of the life and work of the men and their families, the people involved in the construction of these National Engineering Landmarks, the engineering works on the River Murray.

International Women’s Day: remembering the lock women!

During the research for the book Harnessing the River Murray: stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935, I interviewed people who spent their childhood in the lock camps. Today on International Women’s Day, I would like to pay tribute to these strong, hard-working and determined women who raised their families and supported their husbands under very difficult circumstances.

Max Pearson ‘painted’ this particularity apt word-picture of his mother’s domestic work and I believe it represents the other women at the camps:

Ida Pearson

“The houses only had open fires and Mum was an excellent cook for bread and rolls. I am not saying it because she was my mum, but I used to hear people saying behind her back, that they didn’t know how she does it. She’d probably make bread three days a week. At Lock 7, my mother used to sell bread for sixpence a loaf, beautiful bread. The day she was going to make bread, she’d also make rolls, and she’d make buns, and she’d have to get all the dough ready the night before. She’d put us to bed and she’d get this dish, put the dough into it and she would put the dish between her legs and she would punch the dough. For sweets, she’d lay pastry out and put raisins on it and put another sheet of pastry over that and before it was cooked she’d cut it into squares, and we’d have that for sweets. If the cow was in milk, we’d have cow’s milk on it. If the cows were dry and the goats were milking we’d have the cream on it … it was beautiful. Sometimes we had a cow and sometimes we had a couple of goats. We helped milk the cow and goat during the week. My mother would scald the milk and get the cream off it and keep it in the cool-safe for a day or two.”

Thelma McGair, nee Eddy described her mother’s work similarly:

Eva Eddy

“My mother was busy in the house and always looked after Dad because he worked hard. She would get up and get Dad’s breakfast. She had to feed the hot stove all day and she made her own bread, hot cross buns, etc. Life was tough for the women with their wood stoves. The evening meal was a hot meal and we always had sweets such as rice pudding and boiled puddings with jams. It would have taken all day though to prepare meals like that. We were never hungry as Mum could make something out of anything. If someone killed a goat they shared it, and if anybody caught a lot of fish, they shared them too. We ate rabbits all the time.”

Florence Rains

But more severe hardships were endured especially during the great Depression as Evelyn Smith recalled: “It was during the Great Depression: work was scarce and my father was on rationed hours of work with a wife and six children to clothe and feed. Things were so bad at Lock 7 that Mum decided to raffle her sewing machine for threepence a ticket. I of course had to go around selling tickets. How I hated that. I felt it was degrading to have to ask people for money.”