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

Harnessing the River Murray: Family Life on River Murray lock-construction camps

On Monday October 21 at 7.30 pm, Burnside Historical Society, (Adelaide) hosts a talk by Helen Stagg on Locking the River Murray.

Helen’s paper takes a journey through the research for her book, Harnessing the River Murray: stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935.* (*Available for purchase on the night, $45.00, cash only) She reveals her motivation to record the stories and experiences of people who did not get the chance to author their own story. Her presentation will include some of the first-hand accounts and oral history which informed her research, including a ‘metaphorical literary time-capsule’ of letters written by children on the locks in the 1920s.

All welcome. No charge. Refreshments provided.

Location: Coralie Soward Hall, Burnside Community Centre (adjacent Burnside Library)

401 Greenhill Road, Tusmore SA 5065. Enter car park from Fisher Street, off Portrush Road.


A stroke of luck and an incredible discovery

While researching for my book, Harnessing the River Murray, Stories of the People Who Built Locks 1 to 9, 1915 to 1935, it was a stroke of good fortune that I discovered a kind of literary ‘time capsule’ containing letters from five children from one family at Lock 5. It was in “The Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record,” that I uncovered a series of letters written by the children of Arthur and Florence Rains while Arthur was employed at Lock 5, Paringa. To ‘hear the voices’ of these children over ninety years later is incredible! The five children wrote seventy-one letters between them to the weekly Young Folks Column conducted by “the Mopoke” and spoke of their time at Lock 5 camp between 1924 and 1927. This allowed me an almost tangible connection with the family as well as to the community in which they lived.
The historical records of engineering works primarily consist of the official records of the construction authorities; the insider’s view through the children’s eyes is a very rare opportunity to see the details of life at the lock camp.
If you would like to hear more about these letters and indeed of

Details of Fleurieu Peninsula Family History Group Seminar Day https://fleurieufamilyhistory.org/

the social history of the lock building communities, you may like to attend an upcoming seminar day to be held at Christies Beach, Saturday August 17. Details in the image. Bookings essential.

My book will be available for sale on the day.

Berri lock display: a great slice of history on the beautiful Murray

Currently there is a display on ‘Locks and the Murray River System’ at the Visitors Centre in Berri,  about which I am happy to have been consulted. The diving outfit on loan from SA Water takes pride of place. One of the people I interviewed for my book, Harnessing the River Murray: Stories of the people who built Locks 1-9, 1915-1935, Thelma McGair, told me how her father, who never drank alcohol, was preferred by Freddy Simms, the diver at Lock 7, to hold his air-supply line. Divers were required to investigate underwater issues to do with such things as the coffer dam walls etc.

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Thursday October 4 2018 from 8.30 am till 10am, ABC Riverland with Matt Stephens, will be broadcasting from the Berri Information Centre and will air a brief  interview with me about my research on the people who built the locks.The frequency is 1062 AM on your radio or you can listen Live via the ABC Listen App or via http://www.abc.net.au/radio/riverland/live/

Arthur Eddy,S Allen, Stan Underwood Fred Simms Thelma McGair

Diver Freddy Simms, c 1932 Lock 7 with A Eddy, S Underwood and S Allen


A soldier from the River Murray works: dead just weeks before the Armistice!

Norris Clegg CowinNorris Clegg Cowin had been a labourer at the Mannum Quarry as part of the River Murray lock works for almost 12 months when he followed the call to enlist on 16 August 1915 . Born on 3 May 1893 at Goodwood, South Australia, Clegg served in France and Belgium but was killed in action in Belgium on 1 October 1918, just 42 days before the signing of the Armistice.

I found the following poignant letters, the first written by his sister asking if there were any moneys owing her late brother. I noted the black line (mourning) drawn around the edges of her stationery. This was properly known as mourning stationery, a tradition from the Victorian era.

As the centenary of the armistice approaches, I thought it appropriate to honour the memory of Norris Clegg Cowin and others like him from the River Murray Works who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Lest We Forget!
1915 10 01 grg53 16 unit 868 file 1238 N C Cowin Mannum enlist (2)

Lock 7: a group of young women, dressed ‘to the nines’.

B-74582 Ollie Bonsor and friends
Digital copy of a black and white photograph of a group of six women, dressed in ‘the latest fashion, 1934’. This photograph was most likely taken at Lock 7, which was completed at the end of 1934. William James Bonsor, a fireman on the river boat, Captain Sturt, married Olive (Ollie) Adams at the end of 1928 while working at Lock 4. The Bonsors and the Adams (families) were employed at Lock 7 in 1934. (One of 53 photographs taken by William Bonsor, now on the State Library of SA site.)

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