One year since the centenary celebrations

Last year, this day was marked by a large gathering at Lock 1 at Blanchetown to re-enact the laying of the Foundation Stone signalling the start of locking the river. Just as had happened 100 years before, the PS Marion arrived carrying guests, a band played, children formed a guard of honour and speeches were made. Also my book, Harnessing the River Murray, stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935, was officially launched.

The centenary plaque, Blanchetown.

The centenary plaque, Blanchetown.

The Murray Pioneer wrote of the Foundation Stone event back in 1915, as follows:1915 06 03:
A stone to mark the site of the first lock in South Australian territory will be laid by the Governor (Sir Henry Galway) next Saturday afternoon (June 5th). A large Parliamentary party will leave Adelaide on Friday evening for Murray Bridge, where they will go aboard the S.S. “Marion”, which is being especially fitted up for the occasion under the supervision of the Chief Engineer of the Gem Navigation Company (Mr. Fuller). Including the crew, there will be over 120 passengers on the boat, which will be the home of the party till the following Monday morning, when a special train for the city will be boarded at Goolwa. The Prime Minister (Mr. Fisher) and Mr. Holman (Premier of New South Wales) are expected to be members of the party and to speak at the stone laying function. This is timed to take place at 2 p.m., but a glance at the timetable indicates that it may possibly be later. Parties from Renmark and Loxton will probably motor to Blanchetown to witness the ceremony. As the first lock is to be called the William R. Randell lock, it is fitting that Captain Randell [W. R’s son, who was chief engineer and water master for the Renmark Irrigation Trust] should be among those going from Renmark.

The Marion steams into Lock 1, June 5, 2015

The Marion steams into Lock 1, June 5, 2015

The 1998 Lock and Barrage Builders’ reunion at Goolwa

Murray Brooks, Charlie Adams, Max Pearson and Pat Reed. Other men not known.

Murray Brooks, Charlie Adams, Max Pearson and Pat Reed. Other men not known.


On March 7 and 8 1998, over 300 people gathered at a reunion of former lock builders and their families at Goolwa. The memories of Charlie Adams, Max Pearson and Murray Brooks (pictured), along with those of other ‘children’ at the locks during the construction years, feature in the book Harnessing the River Murray. Maybe you can identify the un-named men in the photo. Please contact me if you can.

News article about the reunion with Charlie Adams and Sheila Trafford-Walker pictured.

News article about the reunion with Charlie Adams and Sheila Trafford-Walker pictured.

Food on the table at the lock camps: as recalled by Charlie Adams.

Charlie Adams on the day of the first interview, Mildura, Victoria. March 1 2010.

Charlie Adams on the day of the first interview, Mildura, Victoria. March 1 2010.

When I first interviewed Charlie Adams (March 2010) who spent his entire childhood moving from one lock to the next while his father was employed on the construction, he described the supply of basic foodstuffs to the people in the ‘lock camps.’
“There was the government store and you used to buy your groceries at that store. But also at Lock 7 there was a private store with a post office attached to it, next to the school. I think it was Coombes who had the Paringa store (who conducted the store at Lock 7).
Milk you got wherever you could get it. At Lock 4, Quasts (at a neighbouring farm) supplied milk; at Lock 7 one of my uncles had a couple of cows and so he supplied milk. That was another job I had of a night after I come home from school. So I could get a ride on the bike, I used to bring the cows home for him to milk. I always found them out in the bush because they had a bell tied around them and you could hear them for miles.
Mum didn’t make butter but she did make a lot of bread and any surplus bread she sold to anyone else who didn’t have bread because the bread only came on the mail about twice a week. The same with the butcher; he came around once a week from Wangumma station, Mr Scadding. He used to come round with his truck selling mainly sheep, lamb, mutton, (there) could have been a bit of beef. One of the prime things was rabbits: if it wasn’t for the rabbits, thousands of people would have died of hunger. We used to go out and set traps and catch rabbits. I enjoyed it.
Fish was plentiful and you’d go down and throw the line in to catch a cod. There was a fisherman used to live with the Blakes at Lock 9, Lock 4 and Lock 7 and he was a marvel. He’d just take his fishing rod which was a sapling, a young tree; take it down and it didn’t matter where he threw the line in, he’d pull out a fish.
We (kids) used to go down the creek yabbying and used to get yabbies, (with) either nets or little lines and pull ’em in. We didn’t get many ducks but they were there and if somebody brought home a duck, ok you had a duck.”

Bill Pearson (left) and Harold Pearson (right) duck hunting with their dog at Lock 4

Bill Pearson (left) and Harold Pearson (right) duck hunting with their dog at Lock 4

Global Day of Engineering

Today on Global Day of Engineering, I acknowledge the hard work and commitment of all engineers associated with the lock and weir construction. From the Engineer in Chief down to the assistant resident engineers at each lock site, the massive work was undertaken with intelligence and attention to detail, on structures which have stood the test of time. A number of Engineers associated with the Locks can be seen here: SA Water Flikr

From Chapter 2 of my book, ‘Harnessing the River Murray’:

Having passed the Murray Works Act (South Australia) in 1910, the South Australian Engineer-in-Chief (1909-1918), Graham Stewart, went to England and America early in 1911 in search of an eminent engineer to conduct surveys and draw plans for his state’s locks and weirs. The American expert, Major Edward Neele Johnston, assistant to the Chief Engineer of the United States, with his extensive experience in lock and dam construction, especially on the Ohio River, was engaged. In October 1913 Johnston’s report was tabled in South Australia’s parliament. South Australia’s Legislative Council then decided to proceed independently with the locking of the Murray as far as Wentworth, which would allow permanent navigation for 1,065 miles along the river with a minimum navigable depth of almost 6.5 feet.

Johnston had examined the various sites, sunk trial holes in the river to test suitable foundations, and made detailed drawings of the first lock. All that remained was to call for tenders. Johnston recommended appointing Robert C Cutting, a civil engineer with practical experience in lock building in America, as resident engineer for the first lock. Cutting arrived in 1914 and undertook the planning and start of the project, including the submission of large scale orders for heavy machinery and equipment from overseas and local sources. …

See State Records SA tweet here.

Modern book publishing

What a great innovation Print On Demand is for modern-day writers. With digital printing, customers can order 1 or 100 copies of many self-published books. Harnessing the River Murray: stories of the people who built Locks 1 to 9, 1915-1935 by Helen Stagg is one such example. Click here to order your copy now! Print on Demand: Harnessing the River MurrayWP_20150819_005

Dr Chenery and Lock 9 1923

I promised a few of my followers that I would publish some of the text from a recent talk at Wentworth.

From October 1921 materials were transported to the Lock 9 site from Lock 1, and a pioneer gang with dray and horses under ‘junior assistant engineer’ William Moffatt Anderson, was clearing the site and erecting the temporary buildings for the workshops and accommodation.

In October 1922, there were 100 people at Lock 9 made up of 47 workers, their wives and children. Knowing the workplace risks and the day-to-day health issues, they successfully petitioned for a contract with a visiting doctor at the works, asking for Dr Chenery of Wentworth who had already been called in on several occasions during the previous twelve months.

Dr Chenery accepted the contract to visit the works on a set day each week and to provide medical services for the workers, their wives and their children. When notified of illness or of an accident requiring urgent treatment, he would make a special visit ‘within a reasonable time’ and he would arrange admission to the nearest government hospital if necessary. Not owning a car, he would hire one to reach the lock. His fee was £8 per week, plus an additional £8 for special visits and as at all the locks, the workers made a contribution of nine pence per week from their wages to help to defray the medical costs. A corner of the rations store was partitioned off to form a room for Dr Chenery’s use.

However, serious issues lay in store for the little town at Lock 9.

The winter of 1923 saw reports in the Sunraysia Daily of ‘blinding rain,’ and one article described the hazardous car trip made on June 5 by the Murray Waters’ Commission on their tour of inspection of lock sites between Mildura and Adelaide. “Several cars were hired and from the very outset the roads were awful: to Renmark the cars ploughed their way through the sea of mud and incessant rain.  The bush tracks leading to Lock 9 became impenetrable.”

In that winter, the tragic death occurred of a young mother at the Lock 9 site. In 1923 there was no telephone at Lock 9 and essential calls had to be made from Kulnine Station ¾ of a mile away. When Maria ‘Minna’ Anspach, aged 32, developed pneumonia, Dr Chenery was telephoned from Kulnine Station at 7 pm on the evening of 3 August. However, he was unable to obtain a car and he gave instructions for her care by telephone. He was phoned again by the engineer at 2 am, and asked to come at once; still not possible! Early the next day, Chenery phoned and was informed that Minna Anspach had passed away several hours earlier.

Minna Anspach’s death left husband Leslie with four children, the youngest of whom, Victor, was just three years old. The close-knit community was reeling and shocked as this young woman was much loved in the little town. Her death mobilised them, and just seven days later, Walter Parker and Robert Hawkes wrote the covering letter for a petition signed by eighty-five people demanding improved conditions at the camp.

They asked for a resident qualified nurse with a small consulting room, and the right to call the doctor at the nurse’s request as well as for a government car to be stationed at the lock-works in order to drive cases of serious accidents and illness to hospital. They also noted in this letter that Dr Chenery had indicated his unwillingness to continue at the lock.

The petition led to a departmental inquiry into the events around Mrs Anspach’s death including into Dr Chenery’s attention to his duties at the lock. Engineer Johnson’s full report noted that there had been two periods during which the doctor had been unable to visit as required because of the exceptionally bad road conditions, 13 days in June and 11 days in August. On two occasions, the doctor had been ‘stranded’ at the lock for the night, unable to safely make his journey back to Wentworth.

It was to these comments on his absence that Dr Chenery took umbrage, noting the implied neglect of his duties on the few occasions he had been unable to make his weekly visit. He wrote a lengthy letter in his own defence:

September 16 1923 from Dr Chenery to the Commissioner of Public Works Adelaide. (some excerpts)

Dear Sir, …….

Regarding the death of Mrs Anspach: this occurred as a result of acute lobar pneumonia- she had partially recovered from a severe attack of influenza. I saw her on the Wednesday and she had been up and about that day but looked ill and I told her she was overdoing it.  On Friday evening, they rang up from Kulnine station, asking me to come down at once as she was taken very ill.  The roads at that time were barely passable in full daylight, as numerous side tracks and detours through rough country had to be followed, and I felt convinced that I should never get through at night even if I could find a driver to take on the trip.  I gave them instructions by telephone and said I would leave at daylight on Saturday.  In the morning at daylight I went to every garage in town and failed to get a car.  At about 8 am I rang up Kulnine and they told me that they heard that the woman had died in the early hours of the morning.

As I still wished to go down to give them the certificate of death and make things as easy for them as possible, I at last managed to get Mr Spencer Williams of Bagot, Shakes and Lewis, who was visiting the local branch from Adelaide, to come to the rescue.  That was the reason I did not arrive until 4:30 pm.

An experienced woman, who had trained as a nurse and was at that time staying with the resident engineer, was with the patient all night and carried out every telephone instruction. From her report I feel convinced that the cause of death was acute heart failure supervening on an attack of post-influenza pneumonia.  I also feel sure that had I been there from the onset nothing I could have done would have saved the poor things life.  This is really the only acute case of illness that has occurred during my eight-month attendance.

………As regards my informing some of the residents that I did not wish to continue my attendance there, I did say to some who were inclined to be sarcastic and remarked that “they thought I had forgotten them” etc. after I had just completed a bone racking journey of three hours’ duration to cover the 30 miles, ” well if anyone else wants the job they can have it.”

……. My conscience is clear.  I have given them the best attendance it was humanly possible to give under the circumstances of one of the worst winters on record, as far as roads are concerned, over a road that is, admittedly, the worst in the district.  The number of cars available for hire in our small town is strictly limited and each one of them has been more or less constantly out of action.

In conclusion, I may say that during 25 years of practice I have never yet wished to attend anyone who did not want me and I shall not ask to do so at this late period.  I therefore have pleasure in asking you to accept my resignation as from the end of the present month which marks the end of the quarter.  I am, Sir, yours obediently.  A Chenery

At that stage, the EIC Department decided to appoint a resident medical officer at a salary of £500 and Dr A V Henderson, father of Dr Neil Henderson of Mildura, started work at the site from 23 January 1924. This coincided with the connection of a trunk line telephone through Rufus River to Renmark. Kulnine Station was still used for phone service to and from Mildura. A four roomed cottage was completed and made available for Dr Henderson’s use as a cottage hospital and he looked after the health needs of Lock 9 on site till the completion of work in 1926.

Post script: Dr Arthur Chenery had been born at Mansfield, Victoria, in 1869 and was educated at University of Melbourne and Kings College Hospital, London. He had practised at Port Augusta, Sale, Tocumwal and then at Wentworth from 1916-44. He was a Foundation member of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union 1901, and its president from 1930-31 and served Wentworth as mayor for a time.

©Helen Stagg February 2016  (This script is for research purposes only. No unauthorised copying.)

Dr Arthur Chenery

This Thursday evening, 4 February, 2016, I am delighted to be the guest speaker at the AGM of the Wentworth Historical Society, 5.30 pm at the Wentworth Shire Library
The topic for my presentation: Doctor Chenery and the death of Minnie Anspach at Lock 9 in 1923

This talk details how the workers at Lock 9 received medical attention from Wentworth’s well-known Dr Chenery in the early years of construction, 1922-1923 and how the tragic and untimely death of a young mother changed these arrangements. I will also outline other Wentworth connections with the construction workers at Locks 7 and 9, including stories associated with some burials at Wentworth cemetery.

Find out why Dr Chenery said:  “During 25 years of practice I have never yet wished to attend anyone who did not want me.”  (Dr Chenery, 16 September 1923.)
I hope to see you there if you are in the vicinity.
wentworth lib
Contact: Jenny McLeod
Address: Wentworth Shire Library, Short Street, Wentworth
Telephone: 03 5027 3211

Australia Day Reflections: Lock builders’ legacy.

The attached link is the text of my Australia Day Speech at Red Cliffs today.

2016 01 26 Australia Day at Red Cliffs

bertie pearson and ann lk 9 1923 (1)

Bertie Pearson, 1923 recuperating after his accident, with his daughter Anne.

Happy Australia Day:Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, We’ll toil with hearts and hands…

Today I was honoured to be invited as Guest Speaker at the Red Cliffs Community Australia Day Breakfast at Barclay Square in Red Cliffs. A good crowd gathered for the traditional barbeque and a real sense of community was evident.

Several descendants of Lock-builders were present, including Sheree Keating, (2x great grand-daughter of Ernest and Mary Rains), Jenni Gowers, (great grand-daughter of Ernest Rains),  Ian Jepson, (great grandson of Charles John and Florence Emily Adams and Brendan, (my son, great grandson of Arthur and Florence Rains).

Australia Day 2016

Lock descendants gather for Australia Day, left to right: Sheree Keating, Helen Stagg and Jenni Gowers.

Celebrate Australia Day at Red Cliffs!

2016 Red Cliffs Australia Day Breakfast & Awards.
Why not consider celebrating Australia Day at Red Cliffs if you are in the Sunraysia Region?

I am honoured to have been invited to be guest speaker on the morning. I am scheduled to speak about 8.40 am.

When: Tuesday, 26 January 2016 08:00AM to 10:00AM.

Breakfast will be served from about 8.20.$5 for adults, $3 for children.

2015 06 05 helen speech