Carrum Irrigation Trust

Pelican on Carrum Swamp with stump of red gum tree. Photographer John Madge. Courtesy John Madge, Kingston Collection.

Early surveys of the Carrum Swamp identified its potential for cultivation provided attention was given to drainage. The land was described as swamp with permanent water, almost six thousand acres of marsh land as well as two and a half thousand acres consisting of loose vegetable deposits and another two and a half thousand acres of sandy hillocks and flats. In 1871 the land was made available for selection and those ‘successful’ individuals immediately faced the problem of excess water. [1] Since that time various attempts were made to correct the problem through the construction of drains, including a cutting to Port Phillip Bay. Selectors in 1872 after discussing the need for good drainage proposed a system of drains linking the Dandenong Creek to the Mordialloc Creek and the Eumemmuring Creek to the Kananook Creek to run the water to the sea. To achieve this goal the selectors agreed to finance the scheme by paying a rate of one shilling per acre for three years. Between 1881 and 1882 the Dandenong Shire Council spent £5,408 on constructing channels. [2] [3] However, success was fleeting.

In 1887 officers of the Lyndhurst Land Company, one of Matthew Davies’ numerous land development companies, requested the Shire of Dandenong to take action to reclaim swamp land for the purpose of market gardening. [4] The company indicated they were prepared to contribute towards the cost. [5] Following earlier public gatherings a meeting was called of residents and property owners on the Carrum Swamp in December 1888. At this meeting, held at Mordialloc, the participants explored the best way of draining the swamp. Eventually, after much discussion, Hugh Brown, of Mordialloc, moved a motion seconded by Alfred Bradshaw, of Richfield, that steps be taken to form an irrigation trust, because with such an arrangement loans were available from the government. [6] A committee of five was appointed to define the area the proposed trust should cover and the meeting directed the committee to report back to a subsequent public meeting on proposed action. [7] This they did at the Bridge Hotel in Mordialloc at the beginning of 1889.

Mouth of the Mordialloc Creek with the Bridge Hotel in the distance, C1900. Courtesy Ira Reynolds, Kingston Collection.

The meeting was chaired by E Nicholls of the Lyndhurst Land Company, with John Keys MLA acting as secretary. After listening to the report of the committee and engaging in lengthy discussion it was resolved to petition the government for permission for the residents to form an irrigation trust. A committee of Keys, Bradshaw, Brown, Cornell and Nichols was elected to see that the wishes of the meeting were carried out and to manage the affairs of the trust once formed until commissioners could be elected. [8] John Keys tabled a paper indicating the cost of reclaiming the 9773 acres to be covered by the trust would be about £9000. To meet this cost the participants at the meeting agreed ‘to levy themselves 1s 3d for 30 years’. Given this commitment the belief was that the swamp would become a magnificent agricultural area.[9]

Following the receipt of a petition from 36 out of 64 selectors, the government gave approval for the establishment of the Carrum Irrigation and Drainage Trust. The petitioners held 7091 acres out of the 10,000 acres included in the scheme. [10] In December 1889, elections were conducted for the appointment of commissioners. The poll was held at the Mechanics’ Institute in Mordialloc with the results being published in the Argus. John Keys and Hugh Brown were appointed for a term of three years, Thomas Keys and Edward Nicholls for two years, and George Cornell and Alfred Bradshaw for one year. [11]

With £27,000 borrowed from the government, the commissioners set about their program of clearing out existing drains and constructing new ones. Earlier, when consideration was being given to the formation of the Trust, Michael Elliot had suggested in his report to the Department of Water Supply, in April 1889, that before any proper system of cultivation over the Trust area could be carried out, its immunity from floods had to be insured. [12] To do this he recommended that the channels of the Dandenong and Eumemmerring creeks be enlarged and improved, with properly constructed banks on each side. These channels, which were to be used for drainage during floods, were also to provide the means of distributing water during dry weather. [13] By 1890 Commissioner Bradshaw in a letter to the Argus pointed out that the Trust had been employing about a hundred men on piece work at 9d per yard in opening up the channels of the Mordialloc Creek but they were having labour problems because the men were leaving in large numbers to work on the duplication of the Box Hill and Dandenong railway lines. [14] The following year a deputation from the shire councils of Moorabbin and Dandenong, together with Trust commissioners, applied to Mr Wheeler, the Commissioner of Public Works, for a grant to straighten the Mordialloc Creek between its mouth and the Trust boundary. Wheeler indicated nothing could be done at that time but on receiving a written application he would recommend to Cabinet that £1000 be placed on the work estimates for 1892. [15]

Aerial view of Patterson River and a portion of Carrum Swamp 1980. Courtesy Leader Collection.

Not all were satisfied with the way the Trust was managed. In 1897 a deputation of three met with the Secretary of Water Supply complaining about its administration. The deputation stated that the Trust had been of no use to them, and the channels were silting up and would cost £2000 to clean out. Moreover, one member of the deputation, a ratepayer, claimed the Commissioners were favouring themselves with the supply of water during the dry season. [16] The secretary and engineer of the Carrum Irrigation Trust, Michael Elliot, disputed these claims stating they were of the wildest description and without any foundation of truth. It had been the object of the Commissioners to treat all alike, he said. While admitting parts of the channels were silted up he indicated they could be cleaned out for £250 and acknowledged in summer time the equal distribution of water when it was scarce was a very difficult matter. Nevertheless, land that had been worthless was now let at £1 to £1.50 per acre. The achievements of the Trust in his view had exceeded expectations. In addition, he challenged the bona fides of the members of the deputation. The complaining ratepayer was always in trouble with the Trust with late payments and the others in the deputation were a political aspirant and a political agent in the district. Elliot summed up the situation as being ‘a very mean political move upon the part of a political aspirant.’ [17]

By 1899, John Keys, speaking in parliament, drew the attention of the sitting members to the financial burden carried by residents on the swamp as well as coping with the difficult physical conditions under which they lived and worked. Yet, he pointed out, it was the proposal of the government to increase the irrigation tax to 7s 6d in the £ on their annual valuation to enable the return of the government loan as well as paying interest charges. This payment was in addition to the rate of 1s 6d in the £ levied by the shire. Fifty to sixty families had settled on the 2000 acres of the swamp that had been drained, where they produced cabbages, potatoes, onions and other vegetables for the Melbourne market. Keys warned that if the proposed rate was adopted they might as well drive the people off the land immediately telling them that they cannot remain there.[18] In 1896 evidence was presented to a Royal Commission showing the indebtedness of the Trust to the government was £27,142 and that accumulated interest amounted to between £4000 and £5000. This debt was serviced by a population within the irrigation area of 109, and that out of this number 98 paid rates to the extent of £449. The Royal Commission Report recommended that the sum owing as interest to the Government be placed in a suspense account, that the cost of management be reduced to £200 per annum, and that four per cent interest be paid on monies previously advanced by the Government. [19]

John Keys, politician, Secretary and Engineer to the Shire of Moorabbin. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

A deputation consisting of Trust commissioners and residents of Carrum met with the Secretary of the Department of Water Supply in June 1900 pleading for immediate aid to ease their financial burden. Without it, they argued, many settlers on the swamp would be completely ruined and would have to go elsewhere, leaving the swamp to return to its natural condition. Most families, it was suggested, had lost their year’s crop and had nothing to send to Melbourne and other markets. They asked that the government suspend the interest payment due for one year and that a special grant be made to the Trust. The secretary responded to the suggestion of a grant with the questions ‘Where is the money to come from?’ and ‘What is the money required for? John Keys MLA, a member of the deputation, reminded the secretary that the government had spent money in other parts of Victoria to provide relief to settlers, but the Carrum settlers had not gained what they deserved given that the State had benefited from the sale of the land to the selectors by £10,000.

Another solution canvassed to ease the financial burden was to expand the area of the Trust thus enlarging the pool of land owners required to pay rates to the Trust. After all, it was claimed, the water that was flooding the selectors’ properties was coming from a wide area beyond the swamp. This large tract of country drained by the Trust channels did not contribute one penny towards their maintenance. This should change. [20] Carrumite expressed his views in his letter to the South Bourke and Mornington Journal, ‘the settlers who took up land on the swamp, innocent of the knowledge of its liability to floods, and now realise what a burden they have incurred, want others who have paid for land not so situated to share their disabilities as well ask landowners of Cranbourne and Berwick to do so too.’ He saw this as unreasonable. [21] Other individuals complained that the water rate was set on the valuation of the property and not on an acreage basis so house and other improvements are included in the assessment letting large land owners off lightly through having no improvement to be rated. [22]

A public meeting held in the Rigby’s Recreation Hall was called by Commissioner William Black in January 1901 to discuss the heavy burden inflicted on land owners by the water rate. Figures were presented which showed it would take 60 years before the liability of the Trust to the Government could be discharged if repayments remained at the current rate. Black said the Trust could not continue, as after paying interest and placing money in the sinking fund, there was only £300 available for maintenance works and this was insufficient. He advocated that the rate be fixed as so much per acre instead of being based on municipal valuations, a stance that was well received by his audience. Mr Keast, a local member of parliament, was asked if it was possible to get the area of the Trust enlarged. He responded by saying he did not think there was the slightest chance as the area was fixed by Act of Parliament. The meeting then moved that Water Supply Department be approached to reduce the tax by at least £8000 and Mr Keast agreed to support this. [23]

Further meetings took place over subsequent years where the issues of rates and actions of the Trust were challenged, but underlying them all was the problem of excess water in winter and a scarcity in summer. A variety of solutions were advanced to solve these problems including a new weir of concrete and red gum, the cutting of new channels, and removing the bends at the mouth of the Mordialloc Creek, as well as bringing salt water up the channel to kill the weeds and rushes, [24] At a meeting of members of the Trust in July 1901 it was moved that the Waterworks Trusts Association be asked to have the Act altered so that the valuation could be made on the land and not on the improvements. [25] Commissioner Black moved a motion for the Trust to petition the Governor-in-council to increase their present area but he failed to get a seconder so the matter lapsed. John Keys replying to Black’s motion, said a number of people had purchased land outside the area long before the Trust was thought of, and had paid from £4 10s to £6 per acre for some of it and he considered it would be now a monstrous injustice to bring them within the Trust boundaries. Commissioner Brown pointed out that originally they had great difficulty in forming the Trust, and that it would never have been formed if certain ratepayers had to be brought into it. He said he would not be party ‘to taking 2s 6d out of another person’s pocket and put it into his own.’ [26]

By 1901 evidence of tensions within the Trust were emerging. John Keys as chairman of the Trust indicated his displeasure at the Trust’s engineer forwarding to the Department of Water Supply plans for improving the main and subsidiary channels before he had seen them. Moreover he said he would not consent to the work being commenced until the situation had been corrected. [27] At the next monthly meeting of the Trust concern was expressed about the Shire of Dandenong cutting drains which emptied their contents into the Trust’s channel for which the Trust paid large sums of money to maintain. It was noted that this work could not have been done unless it was sanctioned by the Shire Council Engineer who was John Keys, the chairman of the Trust, thus in this dual role involving him in a conflict of interest. [28] At a meeting of the Trust in February 1902 the chairman moved that the services of the secretary be dispensed with. Commissioner Black seconded the proposal which was carried and a decision was made to advertise for a new secretary at a salary of £40 per year. During the progress of this meeting the Secretary and Commissioner Black almost exchanged blows when Commissioner Black objected to a remark made by the Secretary. According to the newspaper report the chairman had difficulty in restoring order. [29]

Early in 1904 residents on the swamp again experience flooding and a small public fund of £400 was created to provide some relief. There was still inaction on the part of the government in relation to the multiple pleas for assistance made over several years. [30] The fear was that more flooding could occur at any time because the rainy season had set in and the Trust, due to lack of funds, was unable to clear the drains of silt or repair broken banks. While there were several schemes suggested to resolve the situation they were all extremely expensive, thus militating against government taking responsibility. [31]

At a meeting with the Minister of Water Supply, Mr Swinburne, in July 1904, the Minister indicated that the drains had to be cleaned out and put in good order, a task that would require the expenditure of £17,000. This money he expected to be provided by the benefactors of the project and not financed through a government loan to the Trust. He also indicated his support for increasing the area under the jurisdiction of the Trust to 13,500 acres. Neither proposal was welcomed by the deputation. The farmers had previously agreed to find £10,000 but £17,000 was too much. Also they were dissatisfied with the 13,500 acre proposal as it fell short of their desire for 20,000 acres. [32]

On 26 July, 1904 members of the Trust had an interview with the Auditor General when the announcement was made that the Trust would be wound up and its work in managing a system of drainage on the swamp would now become the responsibility of the Auditor General. To assist him in this role he proposed to retain members of the Trust as an advisory board and to retain the services of Mr Keys. [33] In the preamble of an Act presented to Parliament in December 1905 it was acknowledged that the properties on the Swamp were seriously damaged by water in 1904 and the drainage works constructed by the Trust with government loans were inadequate to handle the situation. In addition, it noted the Trust was in default in payment of the interest and other moneys owed by it to the State. As a result, and in order to save any loss to the State of the loans and monies, while preserving the property, it authorized the Auditor- General to take control. [34] Provision was made in the Act to increase the size of the Trust’s district to not greater than four thousand acres. The Board of Land and Works was to prepare plans and specifications for the necessary work. Money to finance the works was to be from a temporary advance from Consolidated Revenue not exceeding £15,147 to be repaid from rates.

This was not the end of the problem of excess water on the swamp. The district saw flooding in 1911, 1917, 1923, 1924, 1934 and 1952. Over this time the authority responsible for managing the swamp changed. It was in 1910, through an Order in Council, that the control and management of the Trust’s property was passed to the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. [35] In 1963 the Dandenong Valley Authority Act was passed in the Victorian Parliament and came into operation on 19 March 1964 commencing a new era of water management. [36] Since the 1960s no serious flooding has occurred in the area formerly under the management of the Carrum Irrigation and Drainage Trust. This result suggests that the work of the Dandenong Valley Authority, in building upon the work of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, has been successful in curbing the disasters that destroyed early settlers on the swamp. Moreover, this work has permitted extensive residential development on the former swamp, building new communities at Richfield, Waterways, and Aspendale Gardens.

Flood Gate on Patterson River Development. c1974. Courtesy Barry Arnold, Kingston Collection.

16 October 2011
  1. See, Whitehead, G., Tough Conditions on the Carrum Swamp, Kingston Historical Website.
  2. Hibbin, G M., A History of the City of Springvale: Constellation of Communities, 1984, p97.
  3. Lupson, E J., The Carrum Swamp Lands: History of the Carrum Waterworks Trust, 1940. page 1.
  4. Matthew Davies, a solicitor, politician, land developer and founder of Mentone formed numerous companies. See, Willingham, A., Matthew Davies: Solicitor, Speculator, Politician and Philanthropist, Kingston Historical Website.
  5. Bourke & Mornington Journal, 23 February 1887.
  6. Parliamentary Acts.
  7. South Bourke and Mornington Journal, 19 December 1888.
  8. South Bourke and Mornington Journal, 16 January 1889.
  9. South Bourke and Mornington Journal, 16 January 1889
  10. South Bourke and Mornington Journal 17 July 1901.
  11. The Argus 18 December 1889.
  12. South Bourke and Mornington Journal 17 July 1901.
  13. The Bourke and Mornington Journal 17 July 1901
  14. Argus 29 July 1890.
  15. The Argus 20 November 1891.
  16. Brighton Southern Cross, 3 July 1897.
  17. Brighton Southern Cross, 10 July 1897.
  18. Cheltenham Leader, 7 October 1899.
  19. The Moorabbin News, 28 April 1900.
  20. Moorabbin News, 6 April, 1901.
  21. South Bourke and Mornington Journal, 24 July 1901.
  22. Moorabbin News, 28 April 1900.
  23. Moorabbin News, 12 January 1901.
  24. Moorabbin News, 19 January 1901.
  25. Dandenong Journal, July 1901.
  26. Moorabbin News, 13 July 1901.
  27. Moorabbin News, 1 June 1901.
  28. Moorabbin News, 13 July 1901.
  29. Dandenong Journal, 5 February 1902.
  30. Moorabbin News, 21 May 1904.
  31. Moorabbin News, June 1904.
  32. Moorabbin News, 30 July 1904.
  33. Moorabbin News, 4 August 1904.
  34. An Act relating to the Carrum Irrigation and Water Supply Trust District, No 1994, Page 177.
  35. Victorian Government Gazette, No 41, 23 March 1910.
  36. Victoria Government Gazette No18, 18 March 1964.
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