PhD graduate uncovers Mildura’s history

02 Jun 2011

A La Trobe University academic has completed the first comprehensive historical study of the founding of Mildura in her Doctor of Philosophy thesis, California Dreaming: The Establishment of the Mildura Irrigation Colony. Dr Jennifer Hamilton-McKenzie looked at the Chaffey Brothers and their dreams of irrigating the parched Mallee landscape.

Jennifer‘When George Chaffey arrived in 1886 there was nothing but a disused sheep run. It was riddled with rabbits and crippled by drought. It looked nothing like the land of milk and honey. But the brothers overlayed the landscape with their own concept of what the the land should look like.

‘The brothers began an advertising campaign that stretched across the western world. They published a book colloquially known as The Red Book, which was full of over the top, lyrical prose designed to sell land and, in particular, the irrigation ethos.’ Dr Hamilton-McKenzie says.

It encompassed the three tenets of irrigation that Dr Hamilton-McKenzie’s research has identified. First, the appeal of the yeoman farmer with his independent, civilized farming practices spoke to the dreams of many new settlers.  Second, the attraction of technology, embodied in irrigation engineering, ushered in the modern world, and lastly, the desire to transform the landscape and effectively improve on nature by bringing European land practices to Australia.

Through this research, Dr Hamilton-McKenzie has uncovered the extent to which the brothers lacked the seeding capital to fund their land development ambitions.

‘The brothers employed suspect business arrangements to keep their company afloat. They would fund their developments from current land sales and when these halted in 1892, unrest came to the settlement, eventually resulting in the collapse of the Chaffey Brothers’ companies,’ she says.

A Royal Commission into their collapse was held in 1896. During the proceedings, The Red Book was described as a ‘gilt and scarlet bundle of misrepresentations’, also known as ‘boosterism’, a technique borrowed from California land developers.

George Chaffey’s story is a symbol of the exciting times of the late 1800s, when huge land developments seemed possible.  Unfortunately, he overreached his abilities and returned to the United States where controversy haunted him once again, with the Imperial Valley irrigation project.  The other brother, William Benjamin, known to locals as W.B. or ‘the boss’, stayed on in Mildura and contributed significantly to the dried fruits industry.

Dr Hamilton-McKenzie teaches in the History programme at La Trobe University in Mildura.

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