Fred Sims: lockworker with a hidden talent

Frederick Arthur “Fred” Sims was employed on construction work at Lock 7 on the River Murray and later at the Goolwa Barrages. During his time at lock 7 he sometimes worked as the diver wearing the cumbersome outfits required at the time.

Berri Information Centre, lock history display, September 2018

I don’t know much about Fred before his time on the locks. However he was born on Dec 12 1901 at Dulwich in South Australia and married Roma Grace Burke on 5 July 1924 in Norwood. Fred sounds like he was quite a character, with a flair for writing. Recently, his grandson sent me what are believed to be poems written by Fred during his time at Lock 7.

These poems provide a unique insight into the past, especially when I have been able to connect up some of his subject material with real events that have been documented or which tie in with oral history I undertook for my book, Harnessing the River Murray: Stories of the People who Built lock 1-9, 1915-1935.

In 1935, when works at Locks 7 and 8 had been completed the massive task of dismantling all the equipment, workshops and cabins/houses was undertaken for it all to be transported by barge to Goolwa to commence barrage construction.

It was on one of these trips that misfortune struck the barge Aurora at Lock 5. Early in January 1935, the barge being towed by the SS Industry, hit one of the pillars of the open lock 5. See story here:

Fred Sims was an eye witness to this event and penned this amazing poem, which I have permission to share here. I think he would never have imagined when he put pen to paper that his musings would be ‘published’ on such a platform as this! Many thanks to Rodney Sims for sharing the poem (found in the possession of Darrell Sims.)

The Arora (sic) page 1
The Arora (sic) page 2
The Arora (sic) page 3
The Arora (sic) page 4
Arthur Eddy, S Allen and Stan Underwood with diver Fred Sims c 1932 Lock 7

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

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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,

[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,

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


Photo from 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: