STEPPING BACK IN TIME: Ian McMahon and Cheryl Webb got into the spirit of things ahead of yesterday’s Mildura Day celebrations. Mildura Day marks our City’s official birthday, with part of the celebrations including a cocktail party at the Quality Hotel Mildura Grand last night, where guests were encouraged to come in period dress. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

IT’S not every day that it’s your birthday, and for our City, May 31 has become a day of celebration, marking the most significant day in our early history.

It was on May 31, 1897, that the Chaffey Brothers, the Victorian Government (and in absentia the Queen), signed an Indenture formalising Mildura as Australia’s first irrigation colony.

A number of events were held yesterday to mark the event, culminating in a cocktail party at the Mildura Grand Hotel Ballroom, attended by a host of locals dressed in period costume who enjoyed a light supper and sherry, while being entertained with historically re-enacted stories and music from the by-gone era.

A highlight of the afternoon’s activities included a tour of the historic Mildura Club, and of particular interest was the official opening of the new Carnegie Centre display, with special guest speaker, former Mildura Art Gallery director, Tom McCullough officiating.

This year’s celebrations also focused on our city’s rich cultural heritage history, with displays illuminating the establishment of our churches, newspapers, clubs and schools.

 

MILDURA Historical Society’s president, Glenn Miller, said Mildura is an incredible story because of what the Chaffeys did, but importantly, because of Alfred Deakin’s contribution.

“Alfred Deakin was a barrister and member of the Victorian Parliament, who later became Prime Minister of Australia,” Mr Miller said. “He was, amongst other things, the Minister for Water Supply, and in this role he wanted the Mallee to be opened up and that meant irrigation.

“He said, ‘Let’s go and have a look at what they do in the United States of America’. So he and a delegation, including some journalists, went to America to see how irrigation was being used in a number of locations, one of which was Ontario in California, which just happened to be established by the Chaffey Brothers in 1881.”

Mr Miller said the brothers purchased the ‘San Antonio lands’ – 6218 acres with water rights.

“They did wonderful things there – irrigation was easier there than it would be in Mildura because the water flowed down from the mountains, and so virtually no pumping required – God and gravity did all the hard work,” he said. “Deakin was an incredible visionary, and when he spoke to George Chaffey, who was an engineer, and he knew what pumps were capable of, Deakin was impressed and thought him ideal to bring to Australia.”

George Chaffey would go on to design a pump unlike any other pump at the time, and sent his plans to Tangyes in Birmingham, England, only to have them say, ‘We’ll make it, but it won’t work’, to which George replied, ‘Just make it.’

That pump was of course one of the pumps commissioned for the Psyche Bend Pumping Station.

Mr Miller said the Chaffeys were an ideal combination.

“George was inventive and that was his specialty,” he said. “But we were very fortunate that the two brothers had different skills, and ‘WB’ (William Benjamin Chaffey) was a proficient town planner, and very skilled at fruit growing too.”

 

ALTHOUGH Deakin left the USA without a commitment, the Chaffeys eventually came to Victoria in 1886 and demonstrated their methods at Mildura, and the story progressed from that point on, albeit with some ups and downs.

Mr Miller said that this year the Historical Society had made the decision to look at the cultural life of Mildura, of which clubs were an important part.

“I don’t know whether it was intentional or accidental, but we have always traditionally divided society into three levels, Aristocracy, Bourgeoise (middle class) and Proletariat (working class) and we have three clubs in Mildura that reflect this,” he said. “The Mildura Club, The Settlers Club and The Working Man’s Club, which were a true reflection of our society – there was something for everybody.”

Mr Miller said the establishment of churches in Mildura was a pivotal element of our cultural development as well.

“The churches were there from the beginning – actually even before the Chaffeys we had church services from visiting people who travelled to the region – they tended to be Anglicans and of course we had the Yelta Mission through the 1850s and ‘60s,” he said. “The first church service in Mildura, post the Chaffey’s arrival, was actually held in the Chaffey engineering workshop down by the river (near where The Nowingi Place is today).

“It was an Anglican service conducted by the Bishop of Ballarat, J.J. Thornton, and he penned an article, which people remember, because he wrote that he had seen these strange animals crawling across the rafters, and he described them as ‘rats of cat-like proportions’ – of course they were possums, and he’d never seen a possum.”

 

THE first church building in Mildura was the Methodist Church – the original being in Ninth Street – eventually it was replaced by the one built on the corner of Tenth Street and Deakin Avenue, which is today occupied by MADEC.

“History never stops,” Mr Miller said. “It’s always on the move. St Margaret’s Anglican Church was originally on the corner of Seventh Street and Lime Avenue – near where the Kmart car park is today, and then it moved in 1902 to its present location on the corner of Eleventh Street and Deakin Avenue. Opposite that, St Andrews was built in 1915, and celebrated its centenary a few years ago.”

Mr Miller said Mildura soon had a wealth of churches.

“The Seventh Day Adventists were also here, the Lutherans and the Church of Christ had prominence in the town as well – started by a man named Ruben Mansell,” he said. “So the churches got themselves well established and today we even have a Mosque.

‘Schooling is the other thing we are looking at, and that of course is a gigantic subject.”

Mr Miller said that Mildura actually had what could be called private schools before there were officially any public schools.

“There were private schools, which were mostly run by women, and so they were always known as Dame schools (an early form of a private elementary school in English-speaking countries),” he said. “A woman would say, ‘Anyone who wants to learn English, French or Mathematics can come to my house and pay three pounds a year’, (or whatever it may have been).

“The first public school – I’ll call it Mildura Primary School because that’s its correct name, but everyone knew it as the Central School and still call it as such – was established in 1890, and at that stage it was called Mildura State School.”

Within a year or two, Nichols Point was established, the Lake School came about in 1908, Irymple South followed in 1912, as did the Mildura High School, and the West School was established just after the First World War.