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River Murray : Charles Sturt 1829 to artist Alexander Sutherland Murray 1898

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Twelve Hundred Miles of the River Murray 1898

In 1898 artist A.S.Murray published a folio "Twelve Hundred Miles of the River Murray" in London. From 1895 to 1902 Australia had endured "The Federation Drought" that dried up the rivers and lead to mass agriculture labor unemployment. I first came across this folio during the 2002-07 Millenium Drought and was amazed how healthy, in comparison, the river looked before the lock & weir scheme of the early 1900s was completed. Murray's artist observations as he travelled by riverboat are a tantalizing vision of a River that was to be changed for ever with the completion of the lock & weir system of the that began In Blanchetown in 1922 and ended in Euston in 1937.  Armed with Explorer Charles Sturt's 1829 account he observes the ravages of feral animals and humans. The latter came in the form of wood cutters, river boats and 19th century farming practises.

 Charles Sturt Expeditions 1828-1831

"Cliff Scenery" after A.S. Murray 1898

In 1828 Captain Charles Sturt endeavoured to uncover the truth to a theory  other earlier explorers (Oxley, Cunningham and Mitchell) had previously thought ; that ”Australia was originally composed of an archipelago of islands, and that the immense plains had been the original sea-beds which separated these islands". Sturt underwent great deprivation, one of his group died of scurvy. The expedition set off in drought conditions when temperatures reached 128 Celsius in the shade! The whale boat they took with them was ultimately a symbol of their brave folly and reinforced the fact that- “everything was new to us; we were strangers in a strange land”.

The initial theory was born out of “Oxley, Surveyor General of N.S.W., followed down the Castlereagh and Macquarie rivers in and exceptionally wet season." He, in each case, reached marshes which appeared almost impenetrable  and assumed that they were portions of a vast inland sea". This assumption not being deemed satisfactory, Captain Sturt in the dry season of 1828-9, proved conclusively Oxley’s error. No inland sea existed ; the two rivers were tributaries of a larger stream, which Sturt reached, and named the Darling, after Lieutenant-Governor Darling (of N.S.W.) Many circumstances suggested the existence of an inland sea...the blacks described a vast lake, which was probably Lake Alexandrina, near the mouth of the river Murray…” 

Origin of the River Murray's Name

As Alexander Murray recounts Sturt’s River Murray journey he tells us of the origins of its name: “Sturt named the river Murray, after Sir George Murray, of the Colonial Office at that time.”  That was in 1829 while he was the Secretary for the Colonies.

Alexander Murray set out to rediscover the wonders described by Sturt in his account of the exploration. Sturt had favourable impressions of “its fine reaches with cliffs of fossiliferous limestone, of great extent and frequency, usually orange in colour”. He also reported a “perfect wealth of bird life” that, even in the savage drought of Sturt’s journey, and subsequently in the 1890’s, was evident to A.S. Murray as we see in his pictorial records.

Importance of the River Townships

 He speaks of the townships of Swan Hill, Mildura, and Echuca, the latter as “an important shipping port” with streets lined with pepper trees for a population of 300. He mentions the army of wood cutters that supply the timber for the paddle steamers and notes that this is taking its toll on the once vast wooded areas. They are kept in supply of fresh cod. One is recorded as some 55 pounds, although they preferred to smaller cod.

Rabbit Plaques 1890's Style

Rabbit Plagues

There was also plentiful supplies of rabbits. Indeed during the Federation Drought the engineering of irrigation schemes along the Murray-Darling River had increased salinity problems compounded by a rabbit plague: “No one in England can imagine what a frightful pest rabbits are”. A.S. Murray  stated that one station killed 2,700,000 rabbits in one round up. Murray mentions the hope that Mildura would have been “successors to the Californian Fruit growers”. At this point in history the Colonial Victorian Government was encouraging settlers of small landholdings so “in the future, when our population has increased tenfold, when the Murray waters are conserved as a series of locks,affording practically an unlimited supply, irrigation will be carried out to a large extent”

Banrock Station Wetland Complex

Banrock Winery

Back in 2000 I enjoyed my first and only Riverboat on the Murray experience. It was the Millennium "Source to Sea" celebrating  150 years of Riverboat history. I noted giant River Red Gums were struggling as they are evolved to a dry/wet life cycle. Banrock station had been exhausted farmland in the heartland of the delicate Riverland. The Department of Environment set about restoring the natural  floodplain wetland in 1992. It is now one of only 20 sites in the lower River Murray that has been returned to a near-natural water cycle. The Banrock winery has thrived with this rehabilitation and donates proceeds of its successful product to international environmental projects. I commented that a label on their BALL ISLAND CABINET stated the island could be seen from the tasting room window...well I couldn't see it. Then I was shown why: the success of the project over 8 years had introduced layers of new saplings along the river bank that had blocked this view! I have no problem promoting this wine as Banrock Winery has re-invested profit into environmental projects around the world. BRAVO!

© Sandra Ker Antiquarian Print Gallery 2015


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