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George Chaffey (1848–1932)

by Peter Westcott

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with William Benjamin Chaffey

George Chaffey (1848-1932), by unknown photographer

George Chaffey (1848-1932), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, RWP/31907

George Chaffey (1848-1932), irrigation pioneer, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, and William Benjamin Chaffey (1856-1926), agriculturist and irrigation planner, were born on 28 January 1848 and 21 October 1856 at Brockville, Ontario, Canada, sons of George Chaffey, a Canadian born at Zanesville, Ohio, United States of America, and his wife Anne, née Legoe, of Quebec. In 1859 the family moved to Kingston on Lake Ontario. George attended Kingston Grammar School. He seems to have been in poor health, and was certainly uninterested in classroom instruction. But even at that early age he keenly sought out engineering books at the local library. He left school at 13, and soon became fascinated by the machinery in his father's shipbuilding yard and in the Lakes steamers. In May 1862 he was apprenticed as a marine engineer on Lake Ontario. Although entirely self-instructed, he obtained a United States certificate at 18, but in 1867 went to work in his uncle Benjamin's bank in Toronto. On 21 May 1869 he married Annette, only child of Thomas McCord, city chamberlain. In 1870-80 George was a partner in his father's shipyard, achieving a deserved reputation as designer and builder of shallow-draught steamers for the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Frazer rivers in British Columbia. During this period his three sons, Andrew, Benjamin and John, were born.

In 1878 George Chaffey senior moved to Riverside, near Los Angeles, California, to join other Canadian families in the Santa Ana River irrigation settlement. William Benjamin, who had been in his employment at Kingston, accompanied him. Their reports induced George junior to join them, since he had grown into a restless entrepreneur. The large profits that flowed from the Riverside venture encouraged George and William to become partners in the new irrigation colonies, named by them Etiwanda and Ontario, on the Cucamonga Plain. These settlements were based upon the purchase of land and water-rights by the Chaffeys at a low price, and resale to settlers in 10-acre (4 ha) blocks, with a mutual irrigation company to distribute water on a non-profit basis. Much of the success of irrigation at Etiwanda and Ontario was due to the use of cement pipes in the main water channels. Planned towns, social institutes and prohibition were features of both colonies, which were regarded as model settlements throughout western America. In addition to his vigorous and innovatory irrigation schemes, George became interested in electric lighting. He was president and joint engineer of the Los Angeles Electric Co., which gave to that city the most extensive lighting by electricity in the United States at the time. He also set up the first trunk line telephones in California.

In 1877-84 northern Victoria suffered from drought, and Alfred Deakin, a minister in the Service-Berry government and chairman of a royal commission on water supply, visited the irrigation areas of California in 1885. He met George and William Chaffey, admired their skill and energy and discussed the possibilities of irrigation in Victoria. Deakin's progress report, the dispatches of two journalists, (Sir) Edward Cunningham and J. L. Dow, who travelled with him, and the exaggerated tales of Stephen Cureton, a new-comer in Los Angeles, who had travelled in Australia, combined to tempt George to Melbourne, where he arrived in February 1886. Despite the later allegations of his political enemies, Deakin certainly never invited him to Victoria. At this juncture George's strong entrepreneurial instincts gravely affected his business judgment. He was plainly warned by Deakin and officials of the Water Supply Department that he would have little chance of obtaining a land grant on terms similar to those in California, but failed to understand the extent to which the Australian national outlook had diverged from the Anglo-American pattern of economic individualism. He was persuaded to look at the Murray Valley and returned to Melbourne excited about its potential for irrigation. Without fully realizing the import of his offer, Deakin assured George that the government would make available 250,000 acres (101,172 ha) of crown land on favourable terms. In April George somewhat rashly cabled his brother William to sell their Californian interests, which he did at a fraction of their real worth and then hurried to Victoria.

George returned to the Murray and selected a derelict sheep station at Mildura as the site for his first irrigation settlement. It was in the Mallee, described in a famous phrase as 'hissing desert', and 163 miles (262 km) from the nearest railhead at Swan Hill. But the Chaffey brothers signed an agreement with the Victorian government on 21 October, committing themselves to spend at least £300,000 on permanent improvements at Mildura in the next twenty years. A bill to validate this agreement, introduced into the Legislative Assembly by Deakin on 30 November, was violently opposed, the Chaffeys being termed 'cute Yankee land grabbers'. The disposal of crown lands was a sensitive issue, and some of the Chaffeys' associates and salesmen were indeed deficient in truth and honesty. An amendment inviting tenders for the 250,000 acres at Mildura was passed. Meanwhile (Sir) John Downer, premier of South Australia, journeyed to Melbourne and offered a suitable block of 250,000 acres in his colony. The two brothers acted with their usual alacrity and selected river frontages in the Renmark area.

Since no tenders were received, the Chaffeys decided to go ahead at Mildura also. On 31 May 1887 they signed an indenture with the colony of Victoria, but in September transferred all their rights under it to the firm of Chaffey Brothers Ltd; twelve months later J. F. Levien replaced Cureton as a director, taking responsibility for the company's finances. With 500,000 acres (202,345 ha) of desert to develop, George showed astonishing energy and initiative in the next four years. William remained at Mildura, and a younger brother Charles came from California to manage the Renmark area. An expensive sales promotion campaign was initiated in Australia and Britain and, despite extreme difficulties of transport, 3300 people were at Mildura by December 1890 as well as 1100 at Renmark — about half of them new British migrants. The towns were well laid out and street trees planted lavishly in the style of Chaffey's American settlements. Difficulties and disputes abounded, but while revenue from land sales flowed in the Chaffeys remained confident. However, dissatisfaction among the settlers because of the loss of water from seepage was accentuated when B. C. Harriman, who had served in the Crown Law Department, told them that the operations of the Mildura Irrigation Co. were illegal and that the subdivisions were entitled to free water. Attacks on the Chaffeys' practices were carried to the Victorian parliament. A storm broke over their heads, intensified by the collapse of the land boom in Melbourne and a drift away from Mildura. City newspapers magnified the troubles at Mildura into a public scandal. Ministerial reports and a select committee failed to offer a solution. The radical elements among the settlers were determined to get rid of the Chaffeys and substitute government control.

In August 1893 Stuart Murray was instructed to report on the complaints against Chaffey Brothers Ltd. He found that some were justified, and, largely on his recommendation, the Mildura Irrigation Trust was set up in September 1895 to take over the functions of the Mildura Irrigation Co. George had visited London in 1894 in a desperate effort to save his firm by selling the ailing Renmark concession, but failed to raise any money. On 10 December Chaffey Brothers Ltd went into liquidation, owing £22,000 in wages to its employees and with assets of some 438,000 acres (177,254 ha) of unsold land at Mildura and Renmark. The Bank of Victoria foreclosed on the mortgages of hundreds of settlers, but eventually the irrigation colonies at Mildura and Renmark grew to prosperity with assistance from the relevant governments.

In 1896 (Sir) George Turner's administration appointed a royal commission to inquire into the Mildura settlement and make recommendations for its future. The Chaffey brothers and Deakin were subjected to long questioning, and the commission's report, tabled on 2 August 1897, largely blamed the Chaffeys for the troubles at Mildura, claiming that they had operated on insufficient capital and committed serious errors in planning.

In August 1897 George sailed to the United States where he plunged into subdivision ventures before returning to irrigation projects. He tapped underground water to revive the Ontario settlement, diverted the waters of the Colorado River to irrigate the desert which he renamed Imperial Valley, and developed new colonies near Los Angeles. Finally he formed a banking partnership with his son Andrew, involving much travel in the United States and Canada. He died at Ontario, California on 1 March 1932. Extremely vigorous in both body and mind, George was a figure of Pacific importance, described by a friend as 'limited only by his excesses'. No responsible person doubted his complete integrity, despite his astonishing variety of enterprises and the fact that some of the men closely associated with him later acquired reputations for very doubtful financial practices. In particular Deakin spoke of him frequently as a great pioneer in Australian agriculture and a valued personal friend. Chaffey's son Ben (1876-1937) had stayed in Australia, building up business interests in Mildura before becoming a prominent Riverina pastoralist and well-known racehorse owner.

William Benjamin Chaffey also remained in Mildura to 'see it through'. He worked long hours to bring his orchard of some 200 acres (81 ha) into production and established the Mildura (later Mildara) Winery Pty Ltd which in 1914 moved its headquarters to Merbein. Active from 1895 in the development of marketing procedures for local fruit, he became a leading member of both the Mildura and the Australian Dried Fruits associations and was president of the latter for many years. In 1903 he was elected president of the Mildura Shire Council and in 1920 first mayor of Mildura Borough. Known affectionately as 'The Boss' or W.B., he was president of the Old Pioneers' Association and of the local horticultural and agricultural society, and was an active Freemason. In December 1911 the residents of Mildura presented him with a Ford motor car, in appreciation of the 'ability and determination' shown by him in 'aiding the development of the area and in proving conclusively the value of irrigated horticulture'. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1924.

Chaffey's first wife Hattie, née Schell, whom he had married in Canada aged 23, died in Mildura in 1889 leaving a young family. On a return visit to the States in 1891 he married Heather Sexton Schell at Hamilton, Ohio. Chaffey died at Mildura on 4 June 1926 survived by his second wife, two sons and a daughter of the first marriage and two daughters and a son of the second; a son had been killed in World War I. His estate was valued for probate at £11,199; his home Rio Vista became a cultural centre. A statue of him by Paul Montford was unveiled in Mildura in 1929; he was commemorated by another in Renmark in 1930.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. M. Vincent, The Australian Irrigation Colonies on the River Murray in Victoria and South Australia (Lond, 1887)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 3 (Melb, 1905)
  • J. A. Alexander, The Life of George Chaffey (Melb, 1928)
  • M. Cannon, Land Boom and Bust (Melb, 1972)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1896, 3 (19)
  • F. D. Kershner, ‘George Chaffey and the irrigation frontier’, Agricultural History (Baltimore), Oct 1953
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 27 June, 11, 25 July, 8, 22 Aug 1889
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 16 May 1896
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Dec 1911, 4 Mar 1932, 4 Mar 1937
  • Sunraysia Daily, 5 June 1926
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Apr 1932
  • Herald (Melbourne), 8 Oct 1936
  • Chaffey Bros records (State Records of South Australia), and papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Elder Smith & Co. Ltd records (Australian National University Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Westcott, 'Chaffey, George (1848–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Chaffey (1848-1932), by unknown photographer

George Chaffey (1848-1932), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, RWP/31907

Life Summary [details]


28 January, 1848
Brockville, Ontario, Canada


1 March, 1932 (aged 84)
Ontario, California, United States of America

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.