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Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia


This chapter examines how contested plans and imaginings, even utopian dreams, regarding the Wimmera River have fundamentally affected its use and the development of the area and towns around it. Of the visions of the Wimmera that have influenced its transformation, most have intensified the decline that the river now faces.

In a Dimboola tourist brochure published in 2001, the Wimmera River graces the front cover as the important local attraction.1 Tranquil waters reflect tall eucalypt edged banks – an echo of Major Thomas Mitchell’s lyrical, romantic description in 1836, which praised its ‘natural beauty (Mitchell 1838 p.170).2 Outwardly, little seems changed, but the photograph is deceptive, for the ‘natural’ Wimmera River (sketched as a continuously flowing watercourse) is now a managed creation of European settlement. Except in successive years of above average rainfall, the brimming water in the Little Desert National Park and town weirs is only there because of calculated decisions to divert it back from the supply channels that criss-cross the Wimmera and Mallee, to mimic the natural flow of the original watercourse.

White settlement has fundamentally transformed the way water flows through the Murray Darling Basin, including the Wimmera sub-basin. Even before engineers imposed their vision on the river, the earliest settlers changed the riparian landscape, both deliberately and unwittingly. And cyles in which drought and flood were constants maintained biodiversity and environmental health, but may not have sustained indigenous populations without want, as archaeological research into the skeletal remains of past Murray River indigenous populations has revealed (Webb 1984 pp. 154–172).3

When European settlers introduced hard-hoofed sheep and cattle and cleared the inland plains, the fragile banks of seasonal watercourses began to erode. Increasingly, water which had tended to flow along multiple channels favoured one channel. These changes, combined with later purposeful human intervention such as dams, led to the construction of continuously flowing river systems managed for human consumption, while continuing a long tradition of transformative river management common in the northern hemisphere. In inland Australia this has secured the continued occupation of the dry, marginal interior.4

In Victoria, after it descended to flow through the northern plains, the Wimmera River followed this pattern. With each successive drought, artificial channels and storages multiplied along its course. These were attempts to alleviate the struggle and heartbreak of those later settlers who had selected land in a region devoid of natural catchments – one described by some European observers as wilderness in its most negative sense, a landscape devoid of any quality that delights the senses – ‘dismal’, parched – a ‘terrible desolation’ and one of the most ‘barren regions of the world’.5

Such images of the Victorian Mallee reflect the human needs, values and aspirations that directed responses to the environment. Similarly, verbal and visual images employed in the discourse about the Wimmera River and water use have served to justify the ongoing economic exploitation of water and land, while also revealing complex cultural attitudes to rivers. The riverless Mallee is therefore part of this story. Even as its landscape was denigrated, its occupation strengthened the irrigation movement. Settlement in the northwest led ultimately to the legal framework of state ownership (radical for its time) within which Victorian water resources were developed and its landscape shaped the goals that people hoped to attain there.

Figure 5.1 Sketch map of the Wimmera River (not to scale).

Enduring images evolved from the very first reports, when Europeans struggled to describe the river and imagine a future for the region. Apart from the early swift rejection of the Mallee, ambivalence underlines many earlier descriptions, despite Mitchell’s glowing reports, as Europeans compared drier Australian river landscapes with their cooler, northern hemisphere counterparts. Some images hint at contradictory goals for river and water management. For example, words, paintings and photographs express both a continuing affection for wild, untouched riparian landscapes and a desire for a reliable, clean water supply which will support urban lifestyles as well as agricultural and industrial expansion. Officially, the judgment has prevailed that Australian inland rivers were deficient, because they flowed intermittently. As Sir Ronald East, Chairman of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SRWSC) from 1937 to 1964, explained in an overview of water conservation:

With the exception of coastal streams from good mountain catchments, practically all Australian rivers have been known to cease flowing in times of drought, and many cease to flow in the dry months of the year.6

In emphasising this fact, East was part of a consensus stretching back to the first English explorers. An alternative view, that this feature was part of a finely balanced ecosystem, worthy of study and preservation and possessing a ‘logic’ intrinsic to its healthy maintenance was hardly entertained in the rush to develop the land. By 1900 the kernel of this latter view can be detected in local comment; however as Donald Worster argues in his critique of the development of the American West, an arena that has strongly influenced past policies of Australian water managers, ‘conservation’ really meant remaking the rivers (Worster 1993 p.131). For the Wimmera River, this meant devising new connections between the natural watercourses, excavating new channels and deepening existing ones. Inevitably, once all storages and diversions were built to conserve the maximum volume of water, natural flow was largely replaced by an artificial one controlled by engineers.

Figure 5.2 ‘Ordered naturalness’: the Wimmera River at Horsham.

Photograph by Jill Tacon.

The first English explorers struggled at times to find the best words to describe the ‘singular’ inland watercourses they followed, crossed and recrossed as they sought to unravel the mystery of where waters flowed and joined other ‘rivers’ (Goodall 2002 p. 37).7 Features now believed to be characteristic and essential for the ecology of dryland watercourses, but not brisk European rivers, evoked puzzlement, frustration and disappointment. Captives of past experiences formed in another hemisphere, they were unaware of how reed- fringed billabongs and waterholes functioned as dams which purified water and trapped silt. Instead they saw obstacles that forced them to navigate between the lagoons with horse and dray.8 The distinctive exit points also disappointed. To the early explorers it was profoundly disappointing that the Wimmera failed to join the Murray-Darling or flow directly to the sea, but instead dissipated into shallow lakes and desert.

The words of Mitchell and Eyre, the first Europeans to enter the Wimmera, betray dissatisfaction – notwithstanding their praise of the romantic and picturesque. The river is ‘elusive’. Meandering, seemingly unconnected waterholes and reaches shook their earlier recognition of continuous rivers like those of home. Frustration and disappointment replaced hope, as each tried to comprehend the Wimmera River’s ‘very singular’ features (Eyre 1984 p. 138; Mitchell 1838 p. 184). The ‘peculiarities’ that Mitchell observed in a wet mid-winter July 1836, were multiple branches, unlike any other river he had seen. In reality he was close to the confluence of at least one major tributary (Mt William Creek), in an area where converging tributaries and anabranches had carved different channels in floods over many thousands of years. Worse, the river vanished. ‘What had become of the river I could scarcely imagine’ (Mitchell 1838 p. 187). After searching fruitlessly over several days, Mitchell’s party abandoned their ‘pursuit of that river’, but he speculated confidently that the Wimmera would follow a predictable course to the distant southern coast (p. 191). For Eyre, some two years later during late summer in a dry season, the river was also puzzling and unpredictable. He commented on its ‘unconnected reaches’ and unexpected twists and turns when he and his men found themselves ‘unexpectedly’ on the opposite side from where they expected to be (Eyre 1984 pp. 137–139).

Both men praised the familiar features of an archetypal ‘noble river’: depth, breadth and a clear, directional flow. Yet only in the mid-Wimmera, at the foot of the Grampians, did Mitchell find his deep, flowing river edged with steep banks, like the Arcadian rivers of the English imagination (Mitchell 1838 p. 173).9 Unknown to him, these characteristics were probably untypical of the Wimmera over its entire length. Nevertheless, the mountain-framed panoramas Mitchell found between the Grampians and present day Horsham, persuaded him that he had found an earthly ‘Eden’ in which he was ‘only the Adam’ and indigenous people were largely invisible; for this was a land ‘untouched’ as it ‘fell from the hand of the Creator’ (p. 170). As such it awaited the imperial project of nation building: ‘fit to become one of the greatest nations on earth’ (p. 170). Assumptions of mastery over nature and a sense of Christian entitlement fuse in Mitchell’s rhetoric as he sketched his vision of future colonial transformation. His river imagery of ‘flowing stream’ and water as ‘deep and nearly as high as [its] banks’ is nearly identical to the ideal river of Sir Phillip Sidney’s poem Arcadia (1504), albeit without Sidney’s personification of the river as a ‘wanton nymph’ (Watt 1955 p. 124). Ironically, they share a further parallel, in that Sidney’s idyll was based on an actual village which had recently been enclosed and its inhabitants evicted to create a gentleman’s park – the European epitome of idealised, though contrived nature (Williams 1973 p. 23). Mitchell’s report shows a similar indifference to the indigenous inhabitants of his ‘paradise’, soon to be driven out and dispossessed by invaders intent on building for themselves the country seats that English gentlemen had secured from the seizure of common land.

These three images of the Wimmera River: of Arcadia, akin to Eden; of a deficient river; and as a setting in which dreams of ‘improvement’ could be realised, have endured throughout European colonisation. They have provided the rationale for transformation and are still evoked in conflicts over the priorities for river management. Arcadia evolved into different forms, according to the values of the settlers. As in other nineteenth century settler societies, a mechanical juggernaut ensured the rapid destruction of the pre-European setting so that the dream of progress could be realised.10 The consequences of this are perceptions of loss of a former ideal state of nature which have added new layers to river and landscape imagery. River pollution and diminished flow also awakened a nostalgic sense of loss and depletion and led to calls to preserve the river and restore it to an unspoiled state. In this, the quest for Eden, first evoked by Mitchell, continues.

The ideal of a benign, ‘wild’ Arcadia was challenged in turn by the promise that ordered, fertile gardens (for some another version of Eden) could replace the wilderness, once reliable water was secured. Next, the building of dams to remedy irregular, deficient flow generated further archetypal images of human health and hygiene, when downstream users observed the depleted river. This was countered by calls for greater control and efficiency when great floods covered the land. The vast cleared plains are still settings for ongoing transformation, where science and new technology can be continually tested to lift productivity.11

Figure 5.3 Annie’s Crossing near Duchembegarra.

Photograph by Allan Tacon.

The ‘wild’ image of Arcadia evoked by early painters such as Duncan Cooper, who sketched the river as a romantic, mysterious place, between 1842 and 1850, has endured. Many photographs taken during the last century show a deep affection for such a river. This was most recently shown in a photographic competition held by the Wimmera Mail Times in 2002. They depict River Red Gums, dreamy sunsets and tranquil stretches of water, but stark images of dead trees, emblematic of a dying river were also submitted and show awareness of loss of an ideal.12 Similarly, when Dimboola and Horsham fought the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) in the early 1980s over downstream pollution from Horsham, many witnesses recalled nostalgically childhood memories of the beauty of the Wimmera and the purity of its water.13

As Denis Cosgrove observed in his reflections on landscape, how one reacts to a landscape depends on whether one is an active insider or passive spectator. European settlers in America saw ‘forests, swamps, unexpected climatic extremes [and]... savage natives’ rather than primeval perfection viewed from a distance (conferred by both time and space) and quickly learnt the most efficient ways to tame and transform the wilderness (Cosgrove 1984 pp. 169–170). Generally, insiders within the landscape evolving in the Wimmera and Mallee believed they were improving nature, rather than destroying it. Local people and the engineers who built the Wimmera Mallee Domestic and Stock Supply (WMDSS) praised the transformed landscape for its order and amenity. Sir Ronald East described the supply channels as ‘artificial brooks’ and extolled improvements such as settlements with green sporting grounds and gardens equal to those in better watered parts of the state.14 The changed landscape represented what Tom Griffiths called ‘progressive frontiering’ (Griffiths and Robin 1997 p. 9). In this case, reliable water would further Australian cultural goals of social and economic progress, in which the need to lessen rural inequality had become a common theme.15

The nineteenth-century Land Acts gave renewed impetus to nation building in the move to establish a rural class peopled by small, independent landholders. This challenged the earlier pastoral ideal and forced the opening up of the Mallee, far from the river. The unsuitability of the land and climate noted by earlier visitors there, like Captain HE Pulteney Dana in 1845,16 was ignored as an increasingly aggressive utilitarianism took hold, in which Mitchell’s themes of mastery of nature and religious entitlement continued. In 1914, AS Kenyon, a future Commissioner of the SRWSC, described the settlement of the Mallee as a heroic battle to subjugate nature and a labour of ‘redemption’ in which the doomsayers were to be proved wrong. For Kenyon, a believer in the potential of the Mallee to become the cereal basket for ‘Great Britain or even Europe’ the peopling of these lands also represented the triumph of modernity as machinery, electricity, transport and water converged to buttress the viability of new Mallee towns.17

While Kenyon rejected the possibility of irrigating the whole Mallee, faith in technology had spawned earlier dreams of grand irrigation schemes, such as those rumoured to exist elsewhere in the Empire, in India, as well as the USA. Dreams to furnish country towns with the advantages of affluent suburbia provided a social rationale for a bigger WMDSS. This view failed to consider possible effects of diminished flow on the river, but it dominated the dogged, ongoing, but piecemeal development of the supply system and it provided the future rationale for the creation of the SRWSC in 1907.

Under the American engineer, Elwood Mead, a proponent of closer settlement, the SRWSC took over a chaotic situation of uncoordinated public works undertaken by a plethora of technically bankrupt, local water trusts. Hundreds of miles of channels, many already silted up with drifting sands, had been excavated over the vast, scantily watered Mallee. Only the water trains to small towns like Tempy, Walpeup and Piangil during drought years, ensured survival. Even so, farmers had to haul water over many miles, greatly increasing their hardship.18 The first task, therefore, was to replace chaos with order. Despite rural resistance to ‘socialism’ and loss of control, the radical solution of a public utility offered the best hope for a secure water supply.

As they built the water supply infrastructure, the SRWSC also spearheaded rapid expansion of settlement into the northern Mallee by clearing and establishing over 6,000 miles of roads within the next two decades.19 In this ambitious role it resembled the United States Federal Bureau of Reclamation; its goals were based on a similar confident, expansionist, human-oriented view of the possibilities created by controlling nature. In this vision, water was initially perceived as an unlimited resource, which would allow people to challenge climatic limitations imposed by nature.20

Operating under such an imprimatur from its inception, engineers planned for ambitious expansion, confident that this contributed to the public good. The political background to the establishment of the SRWSC has already been described by JM Powell (1989) in Watering the Garden State, but it is the engineers’ philosophy that interests in this context. They were entrusted with wide-ranging responsibilities, outlined in the Water Act (1905), which set up the SRWSC: effectively they were directed to capture and develop all Victorian water resources.21 The dream of development and ‘improvement’ outlined by East, whose long tenure as Chairman influenced the culture of the Commission was to be realised by a rational, integrated economic system based on sound principles of scientific research. This would produce a modern Utopia. The ‘wide open spaces’ would become intensively irrigated lands, attract population and set the stage for ‘small villages’ to become ‘thriving towns and cities’ working together.22 Capital costs should be borne by all, not just the irrigators and small rural communities, because all would benefit; in this East believed that the development of the American West had shown the way.23

East was a tee-total, active protestant, engineering ‘missionary’. His memoirs reveal a self-deprecating sense of humour, exhibited in his description of the idiosyncrasies of the various unreliable cars he owned, which he often had to repair in awkward situations (East 1972 pp. 299–300). He proved a tough, skilful advocate for his fiefdom in the succession of governments he served – as were his fellow Commissioners, with whom he deliberately traded insults in order to ‘thicken [their] skins’ against criticism from parliament or the press (p. 269).

East sought to live by ‘simple truths’, such as faith in the engineer’s moral duty to use science to ‘benefit... mankind’ and the need for a Henry George type uniform land tax, to pay for what the engineer designed. The misery he saw during the Great Depression persuaded him that welfare of the many as opposed to the few should be a constant goal, best achieved through productive employment. An engineer’s delight in flow and the integration of forces shaped his vision of the economy as a machine which could produce higher living standards for all, when full employment and production flowed from the construction of costly capital works (East 1943 p. 16; East 1972 pp. 251–258). This vision proved irresistible to the predominantly conservative Victorian governments of the time. Accordingly, £120 million was provided to triple the capacity of water storages, more than double land irrigation and greatly expand and improve water and sewerage services in country towns.24

The size of this program fulfilled another part of the engineering ethos: aversion to system failure. In response to the ad-hoc situation it inherited, this became the goal to ‘drought-proof’ the state, most urgently the Wimmera-Mallee. East and his fellow engineers embraced for Victoria the goal enunciated by American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938, to control ‘every drop of water that falls... for the benefit of mankind’.25 Hence, East argued in 1967, when defending the size of Rocklands and Lake Bellfield reservoirs, they were ‘by no means more than is required to safeguard the whole system against a breakdown in water supplies in a very severe and prolonged drought’.26

Engineers espoused the triumphalism of transformation, guided by faith in reason and science. In the provision of water for the Mallee, East judged the work of the SRWSC as heroic, visionary, economically valuable and part of the continuing necessary battle against nature. This view also dominates the narrative of Pipe Dreams, a history of the WMDSS, based on the research of Horsham farmer and former SRWSC and Rural Water Commission (RWC) operations supervisor, Bob McIlvena. Here, engineers bend ‘nature to their will’ and make rivers ‘flow inland’ (van Veldhuisen 2001 p. 3). The engineers of the SRWSC may have regarded themselves as heroes, when they managed to ‘save the situation’ for desperate Mallee farmers between 1927 to 1929 by rushing water westward from the Waranga-Goulburn system, through 130 miles of channel of 100cusec (1MG per day) capacity built in just eight months.27 By 1990, ‘river managers’ still cast themselves in heroic terms, but as watchful guardians, rather than dam-builders.28

Figure 5.4 The Wimmera River beyond Huddleston’s Weir.

Photograph by Jill Tacon.

Since the 1970s, the growing influence of environmentalism recast the engineers of the SRWSC as ‘myopic’ and ‘insensitive bureaucrats’ who had destroyed a river (Moore 1988 p. 6). Instead of praise for technical efficiency, critics accused them of over-reach. In the revised values attached to wilderness, human welfare became linked not so much to employment as East had believed, but to preservation of the few, undeveloped remnants of the pre-European landscape for the benefit of future generations.

The relative success of nearly achieving a statewide, eternally reliable water supply sowed the seeds of a perception of failure. The residual flow of the Wimmera, Glenelg and other dammed inland rivers was insufficient to check rising salt and dilute harmful nutrients, the product of over-clearing and farming practices. Powerful images of death, evoked by metaphors like ‘the spectre of salinity’, contributed to a rejection of the vision of East and his peers. Engineers were blamed for not foreseeing the environmental consequences of what they built.29 Yet, this was a failure of a collective vision which pursued economic growth, including the economic and social benefits of intensive farming using irrigation and viewed water flowing down rivers to the sea or in flood as wasted water. To this end, the community put its faith in construction and transformation, rather than stewardship of the rivers, wetlands or swamps.

In the context of their times, East and his engineers were concerned about conservation and sustainable use, but their focus was soil and water. East recognised the threat posed by soil erosion to the viability of the Wimmera-Mallee supply system and pushed for the creation of a Soil Conservation Authority. He realised the problem of excessive water loss due to evaporation, but believed that larger dams would compensate for this. Post-war nation building policies, backed by a generally held uncritical belief in the beneficence of science, allowed the engineers full rein to achieve their ends. The sacrifice turned out to be the rivers, but like the common man, the engineers were unable to transcend their time.

While the engineers trusted in science, downstream users started to worry about the effects of water loss, even from the building of the first large dams – Wartook and Lake Lonsdale. In 1901, during construction of Lake Lonsdale, the Dimboola Banner drew threatening images, associated with death and disease – ‘some fell destroyer like diphtheria’ – to portray the consequences of breaking a ‘natural law’ and ‘interfer[ing] with the flow of the Wimmera.30 This early uncertainty suggests that the river was perceived as a vulnerable entity, as soon as settlers understood its cycles. The description of the river as ‘a weeping sore’ by researchers some eighty years later still echoed this theme (Moore 1988).

In common with rural towns elsewhere, the towns that depend on the Wimmera River share a strong sense of community, evident in the involvement of local residents in interest groups and community projects. Volunteering is a collective responsibility that maintains the viability of rural settlement. In spite of this, most towns have experienced a common trajectory, outlined by Tony Dingle in Settling. An early time of hope and optimism, based on the shared dream of growth gradually faltered and was replaced by a struggle to hold their own against stagnation and decline (Dingle 1984 pp. 128–129). This was also confirmed in the estimates of decreased demand for water for aging settlements, predicted by the then RWC in a 1991 Wimmera- Mallee System Study. The exceptions were Horsham, Stawell and Warracknabeal.31 It seems that the dream of colonising the interior may end in retreat for the more remote settlements that pushed up into the drier Mallee.

Horsham alone, on the Western Highway, the main road to Adelaide, has fulfilled its self-confident, nineteenth century vision of future sophistication and wealth, to be attained by natural advantage, business acumen and godliness. In 1883, Robert Arnold, a local grain merchant, declared in a prize-winning poem, ‘Sonnet on Horsham’, that the fledgling town was headed for ‘Austral greatness’:


Beseeming best thy wide extended plains,

Gladdened with sunshine as the heart with wine;

So shall thy feature be as commerce reigns,

The fleece bedewed of Heaven and gain combine.

(Brooke and Finch 1982 pp. 269).32

Significantly, Arnold failed to mention the local river as one of Horsham’s natural advantages. Even then, the Wimmera with its winding course, small islands, many snags, braided channels and unreliable flow, was difficult to cast in mythic terms, or indeed consider as a generator of wealth. Just the previous year, a number of editorials had lamented the ‘water famine’, which prevented the district from reaching its full potential.33 On the other hand, advantages bestowed by the flat, easily cleared and cultivated ‘extended plains’ carried disadvantages for urban development, when combined with the course of the river.

The earliest surviving survey map of the future town of Horsham (c. 1850) shows these natural obstacles. Surrounding the settlement on two sides, shadowy, tentative lines sketch a meandering pre-European main watercourse, lined with an anabranch and creek. This occupied an area which now contains the city oval, show grounds, commercial and residential development. When the river flooded, this area filled and overflowed onto the Police Paddock and the future Botanical Gardens.34 Marshy ground to the west, a sponge for floodwaters, also hemmed in the tiny settlement, then known as the Nine Mile Reserve. Notes describe these low-lying areas as subject to inundation during ‘very high’ and ‘extraordinary’ floods. Silt islands and snags aided the spread of floodwaters and further constrained the direction of growth. The local confluence of Burnt Creek, 600 metres upstream of the present Western Highway Bridges also contributed to the severity of floods.35

For Horsham to realise its dream of growth and strengthen its hold on the land, it had to tame and control the river and recreate it as a quiescent ‘natural’ advantage. When heavy rain fell in its upper catchment, augmented by rising waters from Burnt Creek in Horsham’s early years, warning of impending flood came too late to prevent damage to livestock and properties (Brooke and Finch 1982 p. 67). Later, when residents had learned to read the signs, they could only wait, knowing ‘something terrible was going to happen’. Flood and drought threatened life, health and property, but also the town’s perceptions of its preferred public image and identity. Drought increased pollution and made it an acute and uncomfortable sensory and dangerous experience. While its deep pools in summer beckoned the locals to swim and cool off, the presence of E.Coli bacteria or blue-green algae made these activities potentially harmful to health.36

The effects of stagnant water, rubbish and neglect were portrayed as objects of shame. As Frank C. Simpson lamented in the Wimmera Mail Times in 1968, ‘I’m proud of our city but feel ashamed to look either to right or left as I cross the bridge over the river’.37 Since the view to the south encompassed the unavoidable sight and stench of the city rubbish tip, then sited in what was to become Sawyer Park after beautification in the 1970s, ‘shame’ seemed appropriate. For a city that prided itself on being modern and progressive, there at the entrance to the town was a representation of the historic harm and neglect that Europeans had accorded the river since settlement. Yet the letter also shows changing attitudes: the idea of the riverbank as a suitable tip site was becoming increasingly objectionable. As a consequence of these problems, successive changes to the river at Horsham have aimed to protect the town from flood, minimise the pollution caused by poor drainage associated with its historical siting and restore civic pride.

Today, the City of Horsham has become the official, regional capital and commercial centre of the northwest and counts the ‘scenic river’ as one of its principal assets.38 Since the 1880s, if not earlier, the economic growth of Horsham has been mediated by the river, despite its absence in Arnold’s prophetic poem. The purposes of work on the river have varied. External forces, such as economic recession and the hint of environmentalism in Mr Simpson’s letter have played their part in influencing the timing of river works. However, the main spurs to change and transformation have been local. It was local experience of recurring devastating floods that continually underpinned attempts to divert inundation away from the developed areas of the floodplain. More specifically, work on the river has helped assuage a sense of underlying economic insecurity and reinforce a desired collective identity for Horsham as a progressive, vibrant and safe place, with a standard of living equal to any capital city.

Since the mid 1970s, popular perception in Horsham that the risk of major flooding no longer exists has changed the relationship between town and river. The taming of the Wimmera River through flood mitigation works and the ambitious ‘beautification’ project carried out through 1967 to 1976 have quelled ‘unease’ about its landscape and allowed townspeople to reclaim this key part of the riverbank. In Horsham people have turned back to the river and this has raised the value of the river frontage as prime real estate and signifier of social and economic status. The river now adorns an affluent suburbia. This is most prominently shown in the residential development of Langlands Paddock, along what is now Barnes Boulevard, part of the area ‘subject to partial inundation’ shown on the first survey map. Work on a lagoon near the new weir in 1979 provided the fill that elevated this land above a contentious flood level (the 1909 measure). The contemporary press described this land as ‘prime residential land’ which could fetch $30,000 a block in 1982, a price that placed it in the top price bracket.39

When AJ and JJ McIntyre declared in Country Towns in Victoria that ‘business and sport are the two corner-stones of country life’, they were assessing the contribution of organised sport to town life during the Second World War (McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 p. 210). Then, it may be argued, sport was even more important as a diversion from the anxieties of the time, even though games requiring large teams of young men diminished during the war years. Yet as the authors describe the organisation and wide community participation, it is clear that sporting clubs were also crucial in maintaining the viability of towns. Sport strengthened social cohesion and forged inter-town links. Tournaments brought visitors and money into the local economy and social functions raised money for local infrastructure, such as hospitals (McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 pp. 213–216). For Horsham, one of the towns the McIntyres surveyed, this trend existed from the 1880s. The dominance of sport and economic pragmatism ensured that the riverside Gardens Reserve was continually plundered for tennis courts, croquet and bowls clubs, camping grounds and carparks.40 The local press and Council found plans for swimming places, rowing regattas, pleasure boating and angling more inspiring than garden design.

In these plans for the river, the ‘improvement’ of urban life is a constant theme and was often associated with dissatisfaction with the existing river. So, during the summer of 1882, the Horsham Times called for a swimming baths, ‘indispensable... in a warm climate... especially where there is a stream of water... a natural blessing’ nearby. Simultaneously, the editor commented that to establish the baths, the ‘winding’ Wimmera would need to be improved – deepened, ‘freed from snags and other objectionable matter’. A potent additional argument was that the cost would be ‘trifling’.41 These twin concerns – improvement and containment of cost – proved to be enduring objectives in the next century.

Again in 1899, an apostle for the irrigation movement wrote to the Horsham Times and imagined a future Horsham. By 1930, with a population of 150,000, its potential as the ‘great inland city’ of the south would be fulfilled. A vision that threads through his futuristic landscape is the transformation of the Wimmera from ‘little more than a series of waterholes’ into a ‘noble river’ and main thoroughfare for ‘palatial steamers’ and commercial barges to ply their trade between Glenorchy and the port of Horsham. Riparian landscapes of fruitful vineyards and orchards also featured in this dream, made possible by the ‘mastery of man’ in finishing ‘what nature began’. A ‘network of water channels and canals’ would bring this irrigated paradise into being.42 While the dream of extensive irrigation and a large population has proved illusory and unsustainable, the vision of a river as a European ‘fluvial boulevard’ such as Simon Schama described in his sweeping history of European landscapes, Landscape and Memory still held for local residents over sixty years later (Schama 1995 p. 261).

Of all the official stories recounted to describe the ascendancy of Horsham, the transformation of its river frontage from a ‘stagnant and unattractive natural state’ to principal tourist attraction is given repeated prominence.43 This story elevates the collective action of local people into a heroic tale of man combating nature, but several other themes also appear. The taming of future flooding by creating a deep, straight channel through which water would move quickly downstream was linked to work on the river for unemployed men during the drought of 1967-68. Hence, although the river was a latent source of anxiety, it was also instrumental in lessening that periodic sense of insecurity suffered by country towns when unemployment, a symptom of economic malaise, was perceived to threaten future growth (McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 p. 268).

A third important theme was the elimination of the natural wild state of the river with its sandbanks, reed-fringed little islands and riverbanks clothed in River Red Gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), melaleuca, acacias and leptospermum. Again, the natural state was perceived as really needing a ‘clean-up’. The shallow, winding, ‘choked’ course exacerbated flooding, but also looked untidy and uncontrolled. The plan prepared by consulting engineers simplified the river and replaced it with the European ideal of a single, bounded channel. This would culminate in large, artificial lake, buffered by a new weir, ‘to give us a tremendous expanse of water’.44 The new landscape would be surrounded by manicured, grassed areas watered by automatic sprinkler systems and so offer uninterrupted views of the water for all.45

Contemporary newspaper reports extolled the ambitious scale of the work, the number of men employed (eighty-three at the start) and the machines – drilling rigs, bulldozers (three) and chainsaws. The Horsham plan typified an orthodox approach to river management in which the result was a lessening of biodiversity.46 At the same time it was another episode in the heroic pioneering struggle against the perceived natural limitations of the land, where man and machine worked together, the machines ‘opening a way for the men’, who wielded chainsaws while trees ‘tumbled’ in a noble cause.47 Not too far away, urban ‘Arcadians’ (many from Melbourne) were engaged in a battle to save the wilderness in the Little Desert (Robin 1998 p. 83), but in Horsham traditional rural attitudes to nature prevailed. Instead, the concentration was on jobs and the ‘dignity’ they gave, a variation on the need for continued rural development to ensure retention of population.48 The concern was well founded. During the 1960s, Horsham grew slowly, from 9,240 in 1961 to 10,900 by 1970 and the Wimmera and Mallee Shires experienced a net loss of population of 2,702 and 4,445 respectively. This was a trend that contrasted sharply with rapid growth in the capital cities.49

Figure 5.5 Work begins on the River Project, July 1968.

From the Wimmera Mail Times archive. Photograph courtesy of the Horsham Historical Society.

The river had generated work for the unemployed during past economic downturns50 and the 1967–8 drought led to another. Undeniably, the timing for the start of the beautification scheme was linked to the provision of federal drought relief. Another intriguing possibility is that the river scheme, the start of which was invested with a sense of urgency, countered perceptions of outside threat, such as had been noted by the McIntyres during the Second World War (McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 p. 269).51 This was the time of the Vietnam War. On-going debates about the legitimacy of communism had appeared in the press and young local men had been conscripted and were being wounded in the conflict.52 What better way to combat external uncertainty and restore confidence than to mobilise the community to ‘get cracking’ on the river scheme.53

The ambitious scale of the river scheme stretched the city’s finances and after drought relief money ran out the Bolte government was called upon to assist, so that work could continue in 1970.54 By the completion of the main stages of river transformation, both the commonwealth and state governments had in fact financed most of Horsham’s ‘Quarter million dollar Project’, which was most satisfactory.55 Meanwhile, another aim of the project was being successfully fulfilled. Volunteers engendered a sense of collective involvement, which strengthened local ownership of the newborn river, taking shape from their own labour.56 The Wimmera River Beautification Committee under its chairman, local businessman, Lawrie Rudolph, sought everyone’s ideas through a public meeting as it coordinated the stages of the project.57 Local people like retired insurance broker, Lindsay Smith, who is still active in riverbank rehabilitation, nostalgically recalls the times. Each service club had a section of river. The tasks included clearing vegetation, removing silt to carve out the lakebed, straightening and reinforcing the banks and creating an artificial island. He remembers the massive Sunday working bees, when you could see ‘200 people working on the river’ and ‘the pubs used to bring 3 or 4 eighteens after [the game]’.58

At the first public meeting in May 1970, the suggestions advanced again illustrate the enduring influence of colonial ideas of utilitarian improvement. Apart from pioneering themes, the most popular idea, according to the press, was a floating fountain with jets of water and flame. More modest suggestions included a lily pond, playgrounds, boat ramps, sheds and a miniature fish hatchery.59 Most ideas showed a parochial focus to use the river to express Horsham’s preferred identity: to celebrate its settler history, family life, sport and also the creation of an ideal river. The Council’s ambitious vision also encompassed commercial opportunities arising from a 2,000 metre Olympic standard rowing course.60 No suggestions recognised the original inhabitants, an omission since rectified to a small degree by a canoe tree placed near the new weir and the name bestowed on the river festival, Kamarooka, which started in 1980.

Horsham’s bold, unilateral transformation had other consequences. It may have intensified anxiety and envy downstream, for the SRWSC was forced to announce that Horsham could not fill its lake until Dimboola and Jeparit had received their entitlements.61 The success of Horsham in encouraging its river to flow in one channel and work like a drain encouraged Dimboola Shire to propose to clear sixteen kilometres of river from Dimboola to Antwerp, so that the river would not seek a new course because of vegetation growth. This was abandoned because of cost.62

As the McIntyres perceived in the 1940s: ‘For fear it might go back, as it has seen others do, each town wants to go forward’ (McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 p. 268). And so it continues to be in Horsham. The drive to reclaim the river was a crucial strategy to avert economic stagnation in the 1960s and strengthen social cohesion. However, the ‘stagnant’ and ‘unattractive’ state of the river was not a flaw in nature’s design. Since 1840, clearing, grazing, erosion, run-off from agriculture and other polluting industries, combined with dams built through the Grampians section of its upper catchment and rising water use had all contributed to the decline of the Wimmera River. Drought worsened its plight. Nevertheless, the ‘natural’ river seemed incompatible with the vision of a confident, growing city, traditionally European as it was. This needed ordered spaces for communal pleasure and profit, without those unpredictable characteristics that had thwarted past growth. The economic activity generated by housing would also ensure that the city could offer a secure future, equal to anywhere in the state, where families could raise children and so ensure the continuing viability of Horsham. In the words of one of its leading citizens, ‘The river is Horsham’.63


AQUA: Official Journal of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (Victoria).

Dimboola Banner.

Dimboola: Gateway to the Little Desert, Hindmarsh Shire; 2001.

Grampians and Wimmera Tourist News.

Horsham Times.

Interview with Ian Nettlebeck, July 2003. Transcript held by the author.

Interview with Kevin Dellar, 13 February 2004. Transcript held by the author.

Interview with Lindsay Smith, 11 July 2003. Transcript held by the author.

Interview with Lyndon Fraser, January 2004. Transcript held by the author.

River Board’s Association Year Book, 1964.

Rural Water Commission of Victoria, Wimmera-Mallee System Study Draft Main Report, December 1991.

State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. Notes on Water Conservation and Irrigation. Melbourne: Government Printer; 1934.

State Rivers and Water Supply Commission; Lang TA and East LR. Water Conservation and Rural Development in Victoria: Problems and Opportunities. Vol. 4. Melbourne: SRWSC; 1943.

State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. Horsham Flood Plain Management Study: Final Report. Vol. 1. Melbourne: SRWSC; March 1982.

Sun (Melbourne).

Transcript of Proceedings before the Environment Protection Appeal Board held at Melbourne on Tuesday 6 July 1982, In: Longmire, Anne. Nine Creeks to Albacutya: A History of the Shire of Dimboola. North Melbourne: Shire of Dimboola in conjuction with Hargreen; 1986. pp. 204–206.

Victorian Historical Magazine.

Victorian Year Books, nos 79–84, 1965–1970.

Wimmera Mail Times.


1     Dimboola: Gateway to the Little Desert, Hindmarsh Shire; 2001.

2     Mitchell writes: ‘banks in some places open grassy and shaded by lofty yarra trees [while] in others mimosa bushes nodded over the eddying stream’ (Mitchell 1838 p. 170).

3     From a study of the Harris lines of Aboriginal skeletons, Webb infers that Murray River communities experienced feast and famine, probably because of inadequate food supply.

4     An annual rainfall of less than 300mm defines land as marginal in terms of cultivable potential.

5     AS Kenyon. ‘The story of the Mallee’. Victorian Historical Magazine 1914–15; 4: 26–27.

6     Sir Ronald East. ‘Water Conservation in Australia’. Reprint from River Board’s Association Year Book. 1964, p. 3.

7     Goodall cites examples of changes to meanings of words from Heathcote (1965) to describe the riverine landscapes first seen.

8     Charles Sturt related his failure to proceed up the Great Anabranch of the Darling River owing to a blockage in its channel. He describes high reeds obscuring his view of the Murray, before Rufus River, in Sturt 1984 p. 33.

9     Mitchell described ‘broad, deep reaches of very clear water... flowing towards the north-west’ (p. 173).

10    See Meinig 1962 pp. 209–210 in relation to the transfer of mechanical techniques from South Australia to north-west Victoria. See also Griffiths and Robin 1997 p. 4.

11    Interview with Ian Nettlebeck, July 2003. Transcript held by the author. Ian, a retired river-side farmer marvels at the potential of satellite technology to improve ploughing and sowing of crops.

12    Wimmera Mail Times, 13 February 2002.

13    Transcript of Proceedings before the Environment Protection Appeal Board held at Melbourne on Tuesday 6 July 1982, cited in Longmire 1985, pp. 204–206; Interview with Lyndon Fraser, January 2004. Transcript held by the author. Fraser was a witness for Dimboola at the EPA.

14    LR East. ‘Water Conservation’ (p. 12) and ‘Water in the Mallee, The Victorian Historical Magazine 1967; 38 (4): 171.

15    For instance, Dingle 1984 Ch. 10; Powell 1989 Ch. 5 & 6 describe the objectives of settling urban poor on the land and the role of the SRWSC in building rural infrastructure funded through cross-subsidisation of taxes.

16    AS Kenyon in ‘The Story of the Mallee’. The Victorian Historical Magazine 1914; 4(2): 23–202 gathered together the accounts of early observers such as Sturt, Mitchell and Dana.

17    Kenyon. ‘The Story of the Mallee’, pp. 2, 23–24, 183–202.

18    For instance, Longmire 1985 p. 79 and East, ‘Water in the Mallee’, p. 184.

19    East, ‘Water in the Mallee’, p. 193.

20    Worster 1993 Ch. 11 covers the fortunes of the Bureau of Reclamation, from its pinnacle to its fall, when the limits of water resources and economic and environmental costs of ‘engineering ecstasy’ were realised.

21    ‘Carrying out... surveys to ascertain the nature and extent of the water supply and water storage resources of the State and the determination of the means and cost of improving such resources, and of improving and extending works for the conveyance and distribution of water throughout the State... [which] areas [can be] profitably supplied with water from such works and also the extent, character and quality of lagoon, swamp and marshlands... the cost of... works for their drainage and improvement...’, cited in East, ‘Water in Australia’, address to the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, 29 November 1960, reprinted AQUA 1961 Feb; 12 (6): 9–10.

22    East, ‘Water in Australia’, p. 11.

23    East, ‘Water in Australia’, pp. 15–16.

24    ‘Sir Ronald East – Visionary Leader of Irrigation’, AQUA 1994 Autumn; 1(9): 11.

25    State Rivers and Water Supply Commission; Lang TA and East LR. Water Conservation and Rural Development in Victoria: Problems and Opportunities, vol. 4. Melbourne: The Commission; 1943. p. 20.

26    East, ‘Water in the Mallee’, p. 215.

27    East, ‘Water in the Mallee’, p. 215.

28    ‘The River Managers’. AQUA 1991 Summer; 1(1): 12-13.

29    It is interesting that a 1934 report, Notes on Water Conservation and Irrigation, SRWSC, had obviously considered the effect on the Glenelg of the Moora diversion to Taylor’s Lake to supply the Wimmera-Mallee system, but concluded that in a ‘normal season’ 30 000 to 40 000acre feet (megalitres) from the Glenelg would not ‘adversely’ affect the flow in the lower Glenelg. The report is silent on the impact of a dry season and bases its conclusions on a normal season being a wet season, an assumption now under challenge.

30    ‘A danger threatening’. The Dimboola Banner, 1 August 1901.

31    Rural Water Commission of Victoria, Wimmera-Mallee System Study Draft Main Report, December 1991, p. 35, reported a one per cent decrease per annum in urban usage for smaller towns and settlements, where population was in decline.

32    The whole sonnet and the poet’s accompanying religious commentary forms the conclusion in Brooke and Finch 1982.

33    For instance (to list only a few): ‘The Water Question’, The’Water Famine’, ‘Land, Railways and Water’, Horsham Times, 17 March 1882, 21 March 1882, 18 April 1882, respectively.

34    State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Horsham Flood Plain Management Study, vol. 1, March 1982, p. 9.

35    State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Horsham Flood Plain Management Study, vol. 1, March 1982, map fig 3.1, facing p. 10.

36    ‘Council censures Windsor over health statement’, Wimmera Mail Times, 20 March 1968 describes local anger faced by Cr Windsor after he was quoted in the Melbourne Sun as claiming that ‘stinking’ drains and river in Horsham made the city ‘potentially one of the most hazardous cit[ies] in all Australia from a health viewpoint’.

37    ‘What about the river?’ Wimmera Mail Times, 26 January 1968.

38    Grampians and Wimmera Tourist News, Summer 2002-03, pp. 3 and 5.

39    ‘Estate planned for prime land’, Wimmera Mail Times, 19 February 1982; Interviews with Kevin Dellar, 13 February 2004, and Lindsay Smith, 11 July 2003. Transcripts held by the author. Privacy legislation prevented me from accessing current rate books.

40    Tennis courts were present by June 1883. Swimming places occupied the river frontage adjacent to the Gardens from at least the 1890s. The curatorship of Ernest Lord (1938 -1946) saw further expansion of sporting and recreational facilities within the original Gardens Reserve.

41    Horsham Times, 24 January 1882.

42    Horsham Times, 19 November 1899, cited in Thomson 1999.

43    A sign beside the walking path on the Wimmera River at Horsham relates the story of transformation from which this quote is drawn.

44    ‘Get cracking on river scheme – Dixon’, Wimmera Mail Times, 23 February 1968. See also ‘Council to consider river plan’, Wimmera Mail Times, 17 May 1967.

45    The Wimmera Mail Times ran a series of articles accompanied by photographs during July 1968 describing the work in progress, for instance, ‘Work starts for city’s big lake’, 1 July 1968 and ‘The lake starts to take shape’, 5 July 1968. The installation of the sprinkler system was reported on 6 February 1970.

46    Purseglove 1988 pp. 17, 68–82 discusses the environmental effects of similar river management schemes in Great Britain during the 1970s and 1980s.

47    Wimmera Mail Times, 3 July 1968 and 10 July 1968.

48    Wimmera Mail Times, 2 February 1979. In an obituary of ‘Johnno’ Dixon, a leading councilor who supported the river scheme, he is praised for devising employment projects to allow drought victims to retain their ‘dignity’.

49    See Victorian Year Books, nos 7984, 19651970, Melbourne, for demographic changes, for instance, p. 114, pp. 132-133 in 1970.

50    Brooke and Finch 1982 pp. 126–127 detail drainage and sewerage schemes involving the river during the Great Depression.

51    ’This is a wonderful country... If we don’t use it, the Japs will.’ McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 p. 269.

52    ‘Wimmera boy wounded’, Wimmera Mail Times, 12 July 1968. The paper also reported on local public debate calling for the banning of communism during 1968.

53    ‘Get cracking on the river scheme – Dixon’, Wimmera Mail Times, 23 February 1968.

54    ‘River scheme: deputation will seek more money’, Wimmera Mail Times, 6 February 1970.

55    Drainage work nears end’, Wimmera Mail Times, 9 January 1976, refers to this amount.

56    ‘You need to remember that the Wimmera River in the sixties (from the old weir) was just little islands and cumbungi everywhere... there was no ownership and people didn’t like it’. Lindsay Smith, member of the Wimmera River Improvement Committee, Interview, 11 July 2003. Transcript held by the author. The Wimmera Mail Times described the ‘birth’ of Horsham’s new lake, 15 April 1970.

57    ‘River chairman calls for ideas’, Wimmera Mail Times, 3 April 1970.

58    Interview with Lindsay Smith, 11 July 2003. Transcript held by the author.

59    ‘A fountain flame on river’, Wimmera Mail Times, 8 May 1970. A model of the original Langlands store had already been canvassed. Horse riding paths and the planting of native trees were also mentioned.

60    ‘A fountain flame on river’, Wimmera Mail Times, 8 May 1970.

61    ‘Horsham must wait turn to fill new lake’, Wimmera Mail Times, 16 February 1970.

62    ‘$40,000 river scheme shelved’, Wimmera Mail Times, 13 February 1976.

63    Interview with Kevin Dellar, 13 February 2004. Transcript held by the author.


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Cite this article as: Tacon, Jill. ‘The river and the town’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. 05.1-05.19.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie