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McColl, Hugh (1819–1885)

by Valerie Yule

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Hugh McColl (1819-1885), irrigation promoter, was born on 22 January 1819 in Glasgow, Scotland, eldest son of James McColl and his wife Agnes, née Cowan. Reared in the highlands, he was apprenticed to a stationer in Glasgow and worked for fifteen years as a Tyneside bookseller. In 1843 he married Jane Hiers of South Shields, Durham. In 1852 they decided to migrate to Victoria and sailed in the Emigrant with five of their six children, but Jane died on 2 January 1853 as they entered Hobson's Bay. In 1856 he married Mary, sister of George Guthrie of the Bendigo pottery; they had one son and three daughters.

After working as printer, publisher of the short-lived Banner and Diggers Advocate, commercial traveller, mining manager, promoter of Bendigo district industries and legal manager for a Sandhurst gold-mining company, McColl became secretary in 1874 of the Grand Victorian North West Canal, Irrigation, Traffic and Motive Power Co. Ltd. This visionary project, evolved by Benjamin Hawkins Dods in 1871, was to supply water and provide transport for six million acres (2,428,180 ha) of Victoria's northern plains through a canal running westerly from the Goulburn River near Murchison to the Wimmera; in their enthusiasm the promoters saw it linking the Wimmera with the Murray and even the Gulf of Carpentaria.

McColl's 'water-on-the-brain' was apparent first in England while secretary of the Tyne Conservancy Committee which advocated navigation improvements and then in the goldfields of northern Victoria where he sought the building of dams for miners and farmers. From 1865 he was honorary secretary of the Sandhurst and Castlemaine Water Supply Committee which supported development of the Coliban River. His fame grew as he stumped the country seeking support for his canal company, preaching the need for water conservation and publicizing overseas projects. Public notice was mostly critical, often derisory. Support came mainly from only five country towns but the government rejected his plea for a grant of three million acres (1,214,070 ha); protection of survey-pegs along the proposed canal-course was granted only in 1877. The promoters were over-optimistic in estimates of rainfall, river-flow and costs, and the canal project gradually fizzled out except for McColl's continued pressure for a canal across the northern plains, later the main feature of the Goulburn irrigation system.

Short, enthusiastic, irresistible and 'perpetually jolly', McColl was a Presbyterian of liberal-radical sentiments to whom 'nothing came amiss in the way of enterprise'. He was secretary of a Protectionists' Association, proposed a land lease league in 1875 which stopped the granting of large freeholds in the Mallee and had a vision of a temperance township that got only as far as its name, Longmore. Nevertheless his persistence and energy as an 'amiable but very visionary' hydraulic projector gave much impetus to public opinion.

At his fourth try in nine years McColl was elected in 1880 for Mandurang. He used parliament and, with Rev. E. C. De Garis, the Central Irrigation League to advance water conservation. Whatever the subject of debate, he spoke on 'watter' for the northern farmer, becoming a stock joke to many, but finally impressed Alfred Deakin and the Service and Berry ministry. When a royal commission on water supply was granted in 1884, it investigated his arguments for government ownership of all watercourses and the development of water resources based on a hydrographic contour survey with canals on high ground irrigating by gravity. He was less of a prophet in dismissing the problem of drainage with irrigation. Although critical of rural waterworks trusts using diversions along effluent watercourses from unregulated rivers, he declared himself satisfied by Deakin's 1883 Water Act. The commission met first only a few days before he died at his home in St Kilda on 2 April 1885. The outcome was the Act of 1886 which laid the foundation for Victorian irrigation development a generation earlier than any other large-scale irrigation in Australia. Appropriately his son James Hiers (1844-1929) was minister of water supply in 1893-94 and later a Federal politician.

Select Bibliography

  • C. S. Martin, Irrigation and Closer Settlement in the Shepparton District 1836-1906, J. L. F. Woodburn ed (Melb, 1955)
  • J. H. McColl, ‘Hugh McColl and the water question in Northern Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 5 (1916-17)
  • J. N. Churchyard, ‘Pioneers of irrigation in Victoria’, Aqua, 7 (1956) no 12
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Apr 1885
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 4 Apr 1885
  • N. W. Canal Co. press cuttings (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Valerie Yule, 'McColl, Hugh (1819–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccoll-hugh-4067/text6487, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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