History of the Mildura region

On 17 July 2022, La Trobe Adjunct Professor Stuart Kells presented Murray Talk as part of the Mildura Writers Festival

Thank you, Ross, and hello everyone. I’m very glad to be with you here today. It is an honour to deliver the Murray Talk as part of the Mildura Writers Festival, and in memory of festival patron, the late Les Murray. My subject today is the Mildura region history book project.

I’d like to begin with an apology to any First Nations people who are in the audience or who might later look at a transcript of my talk.

Despite dispossession and many other disastrous challenges, there has been a significant and continuous presence of First Nations people here, from the distant past until the present day. Their story is one of survival and resilience.

Like the proposed Mildura region book, my talk necessarily engages with a terrible and tragic phase of the history of First Nations people. Some of the most useful records from that phase were made by foreigners and invaders – and are therefore one-sided and incomplete. As Sarah Martin noted in her work on the Rufus River Massacres, for example, ‘We will never know the true facts, because much of what happened and the reasons why it happened have not been documented and in some cases were carefully hidden’.

I apologise for traversing this painful and contested body of evidence, and I acknowledge the silences and deliberate distortions and exclusions that dwell within it.


Before the modern arrival of European explorers and colonists and settlers, thousands of people lived in what we now refer to as the Murray valley. They managed the land and the water. They assembled Australia’s first library – a complex system of science and beliefs, which was founded on the connectedness of land, water, nature and community.

The Murray and Darling rivers were highways for social and economic exchange. The area around Mildura was an important boundary between First Nations groups that differed in their languages, social organisation and material culture.

In 1833, the Indian-born British explorer Charles Sturt encountered a large number of people at the Murray-Darling junction. The explorer Thomas Mitchell retraced part of Sturt’s route, reaching the junction in January 1836. Near the riverbank, Mitchell’s party cut the words ‘Dig Under’ into a tree, and they buried a small bottle with a note.

Sturt had reached this region by boat, but Mitchell travelled on horseback. Unable and unwilling to control his men, who committed grievous murders near here, Mitchell became an especially despised figure among First Nations people. Mt Dispersion, now marked with a cairn by the Mildura Historical Society, was the site of a subsequent massacre perpetrated by Mitchell and his men.

Two years after Mitchell first came here, Joseph Hawdon travelled to the junction and found the carved words and the buried note. Hawdon was leading the first substantial party that would venture near here with a large herd of cattle.

On their journey to this region, Hawdon and his men passed through the lands of successive First Nations groups in a way that was ignorant of local customs and manners. The party ignored boundaries and warnings, for example, and they and their cattle trampled over burial grounds and other sacred places.

Hawdon brought a particularly strong version of the racist and supremacist attitudes that were widespread among the Europeans of that era. When he first encountered Indigenous people on his overland expedition, he called them savages, and even likened them to demons.

But as his journey progressed, and after more and more encounters, he began to write of First Nations people in a more respectful way. He was particularly impressed by the men he saw near Mildura and Swan Hill, whom he described as bold and ‘elegantly made’ with pleasing features.

Sadly, even the faces of those fine men were marked with traces of the smallpox which, along with other introduced diseases, was already devastating First Nations groups. There was other evidence too, of earlier foreign contacts. Iron tools, for example, were valued and well used among First Nations groups near here. Longstanding chains of communication and trade linked this area to the south and east coasts, among other places.

These early encounters, and the old and new connections between the Mildura region and other parts of Australia and the world, will be important chapters in the history book project. Crucially for the book project, I will listen to and collaborate with the First Nations people and groups in this region.


At this point I’d like to make a second apology – for being a semi-newb and half novice with respect to the history of the region. You find me here at the start of the book project, rather than at the end. I do not know now what I’ll know when I’ve finished my research.

But what did he mean, you are wondering, by ‘semi-newb’ and ‘half novice’? I mean that to a modest extent, I already know my way around. I’ve written previously about the Murray and the Darling; and about some of the turning points in Mildura irrigation and fruit growing, such as the famous advent of cold dip. I’ve researched early contacts between First Nations people and Europeans, with a focus on the documentation of First Nations languages and traditions.

I’m not entirely alien to relevant areas of study, and nor am I fully alien to the region. I’ve been a regular visitor here, as well as passing through here on the way variously to the Menindee Lakes, Broken Hill and Alice Springs. For me, Mildura has always been a gateway.

Some years ago, I worked with the leaders of the local TAFE, as well as organisations that manage environmental assets in this region, and I’ve had exposure to the commercial and parliamentary machinations that are periodically important in the region’s story.

Some years before that, I grew up on the Murray River, upstream from here, and for a time in the 1980s my family even operated a paddle-steamer, the Cumberoona. I’ve also lived on the Murrumbidgee and, more recently, between the Loddon and the Campaspe. I remember family holidays in Mildura, including an extended one in the early 80s when we stayed in a caravan, which was parked behind a vacant house in the centre of town, because one of my uncles was helping to build a supermarket. I remember fishing down at the rowing club lawns, and pulling dozens of carp from the river. Years earlier, other relatives spent holidays at Red Cliffs; and many years before that, a distant Kells ancestor, a carpenter, helped create the fine cabinet work at Rio Vista, the Chaffey homestead.


I’m grateful to the Mildura Rural City Council, Mallee Family Care and Melbourne University Publishing for the chance to work on the Mildura region history project.  The people behind the project have rightly recognised the need for a substantial new history of this region.

Earlier accounts left out important episodes and key characters and groups. Most importantly, they left out or downplayed the roles of First Nations people, as well as women, and non-British migrants.

The earliest published histories of Mildura are fascinating documents, but they are not as reliable as they could be. Books such as Ernestine Hill’s Water into Gold; J. A. Alexander’s biography of George Chaffey; and Clement John De Garis’s pseudo-autobiography, The Victories of Failure – all contain apocryphal and fanciful content. They also reflect outdated ideas about women, Indigenous people, the social classes, and the continent’s geography.

De Garis was especially unreliable – a problem that David Nichols has helped address with his excellent new book, The Alert Grey Twinkling Eyes of C. J. DeGaris, published by the University of Western Australia Press. Nichols’ book paints an authoritative and engaging portrait by deftly separating facts from myth.

During other reading I’ve done in the early stages of the history book project, I’ve noticed that some of the most respected books about Victoria and Australia give Mildura short shrift. For example, the Chaffeys are not mentioned at all in Geoffrey Blainey’s otherwise excellent History of Victoria, or in the earlier version of that book, Our Side of the Country. Mildura itself is only briefly touched on in Blainey’s short history of Australia; and the Mallee region is seldom mentioned in his Triumph of the Nomads or his later The Story of Australia’s People: The rise and fall of ancient Australia.

In the landmark History of Australia, Manning Clark used Mildura and the Chaffeys to support a short vignette on tensions between free marketeers and government interventionists – but otherwise he is largely silent on the Chaffeys and their scheme.

A recent and important picture of Mildura was painted in the autobiography of Don Carrazza, who bought and developed the Grand Hotel here. As Carrazza notes, Stefano’s Restaurant at the Grand had an impact on Mildura that was not unlike the impact of MONA on Hobart, albeit on a smaller scale.

Several other important recent biographies and works of local history have similarly focused on particular aspects of this region, such as specific institutions, businesses and people. When it comes to the documentation of the region’s recent history, therefore, we have tasty slices, but there is no loaf.

In his 2014 essay ‘Strange Bedfellows’, Ross Lake identified several major voids in the existing Mildura narrative, including the deep time history; the development of places such as Merbein and Red Cliffs; the so-called ‘remittance men’ in the 1880s; soldier settlement; the dried vine-fruits co-operatives; migrant waves from Italy, Greece, Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey, Vietnam, the South Pacific and Africa; Mildura as a tourist destination; the LGBTIQ+ community; and the period from 2006 involving the creation of the Greater Mildura Rural City Council and the inclusion of dry-land farming areas to the south of here. Filling these voids will be a core part of the history book project.

As with other books I’ve written, I’m approaching the project in a collaborative way. My role as author is to hear your stories, and the stories from the past, and to help capture them into a reliable and readable book.

The research for the book will include working in key archives, and with the historical societies and other groups such as the Stories in the Mallee project and the local digital heritage project. It will also include interviews and other engagement with local people who’d like to participate. If you’d like to be involved in this way, please contact me or Mallee Family Care.

Apart from producing a reliable historical text, the project will deliver a handsome illustrated book, published as a Melbourne University Press or Miegunyah volume, and my hope is that the finished book will be something the people of the region embrace.

The structure of the book will be partly chronological and partly thematic. It will describe life here before the arrival of Europeans; then the era of exploration and early contact; then the squatting and pastoral era, and the advent of paddle steamers and the river trade. It will engage with the economics, the politics and the hydrology of the Chaffey scheme and its impact; and it will describe the emergence of organised fruit marketing arrangements, and other key turning points. It will engage with themes such as culture, education, migration, architecture, economic development, religion and politics. It will be a history of Mildura, but also a history of the idea of Mildura.

Over past centuries, the Mildura region has been conceived of as many different things. It has been viewed, for example, as a garden, a market, a resort, a social utopia, an artist’s canvas, and a playpen for scientists and engineers.

In the 1850s, Gerard Krefft described an area near Merbein as like ‘Regent’s Park in miniature’. In 1961, the Mildura District members of the Anthropological Society of Victoria noted that Indigenous land-management practices near Lake Gol Gol had given that particular area ‘a pleasant, park-like appearance’. An 1853 visitor described Jamieson’s station at Mildura as ‘a delightful place’ with superior buildings plus a good garden.

In 1884, the famous Victorian chronicler ‘Vagabond’ visited Grant’s Mildura homestead and described it as being greener than any place beyond Echuca; and more home-like than any other place on the river. Grant’s son escorted Vagabond through the garden, and plucked him a bouquet of flowers.

Later that decade there was the famous encounter, now part of the Mildura apocrypha, between George Chaffey and W.M. Paterson, resident manager of Mildura Station. Chaffey conspicuously ignored the farm’s sheep and fences, but paid close attention to the windmill-watered garden of the homestead, and especially its orange trees and lemons and vines.

Still later, in the illustrious Red Book that spruiked the Chaffeys’ irrigation development to potential investors in London, the quoted early press notices said Mildura had all the ‘natural advantages of a garden’; and that it promised to become the ‘fruit garden of the universe’.

In 1890, ‘Telemachus’ of the Argus visited Mildura. Next to the grand coffee palace, there was a flower garden, a perfect lawn and a splashing fountain. The garden of innumerable flowers featured stock, phlox, rose, lily, poppy, oleander, and varieties of fuchsias and geraniums, all in ‘blazing beds of mingled colours beside the dark green grass, and within the forming cypress walls’.

This picture of the region as a place of parks and gardens was repeated in twentieth century advertisements, which promoted Mildura as a resort and a sunny destination, long before southern tourists went to the Gold Coast or Bali.


The region’s early history is remarkable for the big stories that have been told and retold, and that have changed and grown in the telling. I’ve already mentioned the illustrious story of cold dip. There was also the story of ‘Wheelbarrow Jamie’, who was well known in the mallee country. An 1876 description in Mount Gambier’s Border Watch newspaper reads as follows:
he invariably carries his swag in a wheelbarrow, and perambulates the scrub from Mildura to Hindmarsh… Wheelbarrow Jamie will not travel on any road, track or path; but when he starts on a journey strikes at once into the untrodden wilderness, and makes a straight line to his destination, lifting his wheelbarrow over fences and floating it over billabongs… The mallee squatters are not proverbial for hospitality, but Wheelbarrow Jamie, although he does not work beyond the Ixion-like labor of rolling his barrow, is nevertheless always welcome at every station. It is lamentable to think that this silly creature with his wheelbarrow can go in safety and return from that ill-omened spot where the Victorian travellers, camels, horses and all, perished.’

One of the most colourful early figures in the story of this region is Grant Hervey, also know as George Cochrane and Madison Hervey, and variously described as a swindler, a conman, a blackmailer, a hypocrite and a murderer.

In 1919, he gave a presentation here to 2000 people in which he maintained a fake American accent, and in which he laid out a vision for ‘Greater Mildura’. Hervey claimed to represent the Butterick Co., of New York, which he said owned ‘Everybody’s Magazine’, ‘The Delineator’ and ‘Adventure’. He proposed that Britain’s unemployed masses could easily be relocated to the Murray’s banks, and that he could join a deputation to the Prime Minister demanding the creation of the new, self-governing State of Mildura. The state would have authority over locks on the Darling and the Murray, and it would steer the construction of railways up the Darling valley towards Broken Hill. The new state, he said, would irrigate one million acres.

Towards that goal, Hervey said an Australian Dried Fruits Association publicity campaign would have to be carried out in England, to raise the necessary capital. And, he proposed, he himself rather than C.J. de Garis would be best placed to lead the campaign. As historian Geoffrey Serle noted in his ADB entry on Hervey, the crowd watched in quiet fascination – until De Garis revealed the speaker’s true identity and criminal record.

The gathering was drawn to a close, but Hervey became editor of the Mildura and Merbein Sun, which he used to attack De Garis and to impugn his financial standing. In response, de Garis’s supporters seized Hervey, bound and gagged him, placed him in a car, and drove him to the aerodrome where he was stripped (almost) naked, tarred from head to foot, and covered with feathers.

Twelve Mildura residents were charged with unlawful assault. Put on trial in Ballarat, all twelve pleaded guilty, and each was fined £25 and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. Everyone agreed, however, including the judge, that to a large extent Hervey had it coming. So the sentences were suspended on promises of good behaviour for 12 months. The people of Mildura put in money to pay the fines and the legal costs of the offenders. The press reported that during their time in Ballarat, the men ‘were lionised, and made much of during the hearing of the case’. They enjoyed daily motor rides, lunches, entertainments, and had ‘the time of their lives’.


Like Grant Hervey, Stephen Cureton was accused of being a rogue. Like Hervey, he was accused of committing a murderous act. And like Hervey, he was an amateur poet. Cureton is the man who encouraged George Chaffey to come to Australia in 1886; and he became for the Chaffeys a promoter, negotiator, business partner, company director, agronomist, fixer and ‘bagman’.

In subsequent years, Cureton’s character and contribution have been appraised and reappraised. In the 1928 Life of George Chaffey, J. A. Alexander calls Cureton ‘a man destined to play a conspicuous, if not notable or worthy part, in the establishment of Mildura… Adventurer, gentleman-ne’er-do-well, he was a rolling stone, a rover who [met with] strange successes, and more accountable reversals of fortune’.

Cureton is probably not the scoundrel of this and other portraits; he was an opportunist, to be sure, but an opportunist working among opportunists. Certainly his story deserves more attention. George Chaffey, too, has been appraised and reappraised, as a hero and a villain. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between.

I note also that most earlier histories focus on George and W. B. Chaffey – but their  brother Charles also came to Australia. He, along with all the Chaffey women, is seldom mentioned in the early histories and biographies. (Also largely left out is a fourth brother, Dr Elswood Chaffey, who wrote to the Queensland premier about establishing irrigation colonies there.)

Crucially for the Mildura region history book project, the Chaffeys are not the only foundation story of Mildura. There are First Nations foundation stories; there are the stories of the first overland explorers; then there are squatters and pastoralists and graziers;  and the pioneers of the riverboat trade; and the soldier settlers; and other key figures and events before and after the Chaffeys.

The Mildura region history project will capture these respective foundations, along with the major historical trends and turning points, the key figures and groups – and the characters like Cureton and Hervey. My hope is that the book will be of interest to people here; and to people a long way from here.

Of the many wider implications of the Mildura region’s story, just one example is that it has implications for how we define ideas such as ‘colonialism’ and ‘settlerism’.

Another wider connection can be found in the region’s social utopianism. Long before Grant Hervey made plans for a new Australian state, some of the Mildura Utopians ended up in the ‘New Australia’ settlement in Paraguay.

Yet another implication: The story of this region is an important case study of cultural blending, social innovation and economic development.

The story is Australia’s story in microcosm, but it is also unique. As applied here, for example, the Chaffey model of irrigation-based land development was world news. When fruit production was fully underway, the region became a crucial source of fruit for the British Empire, and it continued in that role up until the era of the European common market.

Australia has a business cycle, and Mildura has one, too. This region has been the focus of more than one financial mania; and it has had its share of slumps. More than once, the place and its economic potential have been written off. But the region today is proof of the vision of what can be achieved through irrigated agriculture and other well placed investments.

Even more important nationally and internationally is the story of cultural collision and the resilience of First Nations people here.
For these reasons and a multitude of others, the Mildura region has an important place in Australia’s story and the world’s story, and it deserves a major new history.

Thank you.