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

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.”

Soldier Settlement: the Premier takes a river trip

In early January 1919, the SA Premier undertook an 8 day trip along the Murray to inspect the state’s capacity for “soldier settlement.” Accompanied by the Commissioner of Public Works and Irrigation, he travelled on the PS Industry, then working on lock- building largely to do with snagging etc. Read full article at the following link:

The Value of Murray Lands: the Premier’s Opinion

The article gives a great first-hand mention of the first lock then underway at Blanchetown and the problems of acquiring suitable stone from nearby locations.

1919 01 18 Randell Lock

Christmas Greetings: a glance back to Lock 5 1926

Happy Christmas!

Social happenings at Lock 5: Mr M S Ward (teacher) went to Adelaide on Friday.

Mr and Mrs Angus McKinnon and two children went to Semaphore for the Christmas holidays.

Mr Mrs G W Martin and children drove to Victor Harbour for Christmas and New Year holidays

Mrs H Cruttenden and infant are staying at Norwood with her mother


Mr & Mrs Richards and daughter are going to Melbourne for Christmas

Ms Gilbert is returning to her home in Melbourne

Mr Vincent and his son are going to Melbourne for the Christmas holidays

Mr H T M Angwin and his mother have gone to Sydney for Christmas

(Taken from The Advertiser 21 Dec 1926)

Your Christmas shopping solution: Social history of Murray lock work-camps

IMG_0030The ideal Christmas gift: Harnessing the River Murray: stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935’ by Helen Stagg. This book provides a rare insight into life at these remote temporary river towns up to 100 years ago.

Books are $44.95. Postage is in flat-rate sturdy postpak satchel, which means you can order up to three books for the same flat postage rate of $13.80 within Australia. For signature on delivery: add $2.95. With only 7 working days until Christmas, you’d have to act quickly as mail deliveries can be tardy. Books are securely supported in cardboard and bubble wrapped. If you live in Adelaide, we can arrange for you to pick up your copy, Western suburbs.

Message me with your order, and mail address and I will supply bank details.

Back cover reviews

Building the Captain Sturt: Stern wheeler used in Murray lock construction

Below is the text of an interview with the American Captain who supervised the Australian reassembly of the sternwheeler Captain Sturt. text from The Advertiser, (1916 11 25)

Captain Washington Meredith, of Cincinnati, Ohio, who has completed his task, under contract with the South Australian Government, of putting together the Murray River steamboat, Captain Sturt, which is to be used in connection with the building of the locks, is a living contradiction of the statement that in America a man is too old at 40. He has been building river boats for 65 years, and on December 6 he will celebrate his 76th birthday. Captain Meredith will leave, by train for Sydney today to catch a steamer for San Francisco, and on arrival there he has to undertake a rail journey of 5,000 miles before he gets home. He says the Captain Sturt is an experiment as far as river navigation in Australia is concerned inasmuch as it pushes its freight ahead instead of towing the barges astern but it is by no means an experiment as regards the United States, where the Charles Barnes Company, the constructing firm, has 100 craft of the same type plying up and down the Mississippi, Wabash, Kentucky, Alleghany and various other rivers. The Captain Sturt is the eleventh of the type Captain Meredith himself has superintended in construction, and in his opinion they have no equal for the handling of barges and derrick and dredge boats.
“She should be a success in every way,” remarked the captain in an interview on Friday concerning the new steamboat. ‘The Captain Sturt will revolutionise the methods of towing on the River Murray. Provided that she is handled properly she will do just as good work as our boats are doing on the American rivers. If she does not, it will be the fault of the man at the wheel and the man at the business end as we call the engine-room.  Although the parts were shipped from New York, the actual construction here is by Australian labour, every bit of it.
I started with 10 men working under my direction, and wound up with 25. I had the aid of only one mechanic (an iron worker). The others did not know how to tighten up a bolt or drive a rivet, but they were young and willing to be taught, and proved as time went on to be A1 at the job. It cannot be denied that they have done first-class work.” Captain Meredith arrived in South Australia at the end of October, 1915. The new steamboat is specially adapted for carrying stone from the Mannum quarry to the lock sites. She was submitted to a stiff test a fortnight ago, with excellent results. The down trip from Blanchetown to Mannum was made in five hours. On the following morning she went to a spot 18 miles below Mannum, where a barge had been sunk and raised, and brought it to Mannum the same evening. The next morning three barges full of water were pumped out and hitched on to the Captain Sturt, which backed out from Mannum in a high wind with the four barges ahead of her. To continue the narrative in the American skipper’s word, “She straightened them up and started right on up the river to the quarries, took on some wood, and continued the voyage. Her average push up the river with all this load was four miles an hour. The barges were in front, spread out to a width of 81 ft and the whole fleet was 265 ft long. She made every bend of the river without once slowing down the engines. Five barges could have been steered up the river equally as well as the four. Coming downstream the Captain Sturt could bring 16 barges and handle them. With big boats of the same type we have pushed 60,000 tons at a time from Pittsburg to New Orleans, about 1,750 miles.
Captain Meredith has been on every navigable river whose waters flow into the Gulf of Mexico. He has been 1,800 miles up the Yukon, in Alaska, and 350 miles up Birch Creek, which runs into the Yukon Flats. “The Murray” he stated, “is so pretty a river as I was ever on. Of the American rivers it brings me most in mind of the Monongahela, although the Murray is larger. The country I have seen in South Australia is like the part of America that has to be irrigated. The Australians with whom I have come in contact have been fine people. They have treated me royally, and I thank them for it.”
The parting words of the American steam boat builder were, “Good-bye, and don’t forget to say a good word for the boys who helped me to put the Captain Sturt together.”

Lock 1: early stages

With World War 1 underway, the call to duty was taking labour away from the state (and eventually from the works. Despite a ‘season of unprecedented financial stringency’ due to the war-time economy, some public works had to proceed; those involving water supply were seen of utmost priority, essential to national development and to guaranteeing water security for South Australia. The Millbrook reservoir, the Encounter Bay Scheme and the Warren Weir Scheme in the Barossa along with the River Murray works were going ahead as planned.[1] To provide for the ‘camp’ that was developing at Blanchetown and which would be characteristic of each site, Engineer Cutting was working on the establishment of a mess for the men where meals would be provided. By 15 February 1916 there were about 50 men employed on preliminary plant and site construction at Blanchetown. By April 1916, with a start already made on cofferdam number 1, worker numbers had increased to 61 and nearly all the required machinery at Blanchetown had been installed.

The photo from the Reed family collection is most likely taken of Blanchetown, circa 1917. James Clifton Reed was initially employed at Lock 1 as storekeeper but also worked as time-keeper at Locks 9, 4 and 7 before becoming Superintendent at the Lake Victoria Storage.

[1] Register 1916 02 15, p 6.camp-poss-blanchetown-copy

News Flash! History and Genealogy Expo Adelaide

I will be at the Australian History & Genealogy Expo in Adelaide this week, from noon Friday 7 Oct till 5 pm and then again on Saturday Oct 8 from 9 am till 2 pm. Find me at the Engineering Heritage Australia exhibit with my books which I will be happy to sign. Buy your copy, ideal Christmas gift and save postage costs!

I am also speaking at 4.30 Friday in Mini theatre 1 on my research. The talks in the mini theatres are free with your expo admission. I look forward to meeting you.


(NOTE CASH SALES ONLY for the book)