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.
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 General 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.’
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.
My 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.
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:
“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:
“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.”
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.”
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 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.
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)
The 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.
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)
NEW MURRAY STEAM BOAT: INTERVIEW WITH CAPTAIN MEREDITH, A VETERAN AMERICAN.
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.”
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. 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.
 Register 1916 02 15, p 6.
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)